Heating system water quality – part of the future low carbon energy solution

Heating systems account for a third of the UK’s greenhouse emissions, according to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). As a result, there are several options under consideration to see how sustainable energy provision and low carbon technologies for future heating needs can assist the country in meeting its 2050 net zero emissions target. However, there are also practical, proven, and immediate ways to improve the operational efficiency of the boilers that currently heat our homes and workplaces, such as tackling the issue of poor water quality. Dr Neil Watson, chief technical officer at Adey, explains.

2019 was a pivotal year for the UK in the ongoing battle to tackle climate change. It became the first major economy in the world to enshrine in law the target to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, and to end its contribution to global warming within the next thirty years.

And the importance of such a step has been further emphasised as we progress through the current global health crisis.  In recent communications to political leaders, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has set out six key principles to help rebuild the nation following the COVID-19 pandemic whilst delivering a stronger, cleaner, and more resilient economy.2 Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change are integral to the UK’s recovery package, the Committee says. How we plan to sustainably provide heat to meet society’s needs is going to be critical in how the net zero target is finally achieved. The heating of homes, businesses and industry is responsible for a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and decarbonisation of heat is one of the biggest challenges we collectively face in meeting the climate challenge.

There is now much discussion about the implementation of practical solutions that can help deliver on the target that has been set.

Among them are efforts to transform the current gas supply with ‘green gases’ such as hydrogen and biomethane. Likewise, heat pump technology is also being viewed as a key low carbon energy enabler, helping to deliver more environmentally friendly heating and hot waters, particularly for new builds, given sufficient supplies of low carbon electricity.

Figures from Renewable Energy Hub UK say that heat pumps currently account for 1% of renewable heating solutions3and continue to be dwarfed by traditional gas fired boilers in terms of yearly take up. Running with lower temperatures than conventional gas boilers, heat pumps are, however, viewed as being particularly efficient when powering underfloor heating systems or Low Surface Temperature (LST) radiators when installed in new builds or on retrofit construction projects.

BEIS is currently consulting on a set of new proposals to drive the decarbonisation agenda and examine future support for low carbon heat.4

Among the proposals within the ‘Future Support for Low Carbon Heat’ open consultation is a Clean Heat Grant that would support the uptake of heat pumps and in certain circumstances biomass, through an upfront capital grant.  This would help address a key adoption barrier for many because of the significant upfront costs heat pump installation entails. A Green Gas Support Scheme is also being proposed to increase the proportion of green gas in the grid through support for biomethane injection.

Such Government-backed initiatives coincide with a coming period of significant change for the heating industry; one that will be fully apparent in just five years’ time.

The Future Homes Standard means the end of fossil-fuel systems being specified in all new homes from the middle of this decade, sharpening even more intensely our collective focus on finding the new low energy answers society requires.5

Getting boilers to perform better – now
While such longer-term strategies are laudable, there are also immediate inroads that can be made to help unlock the decarbonisation puzzle as we scrutinise the heating efficiency status of existing UK housing and workplace stock.

A further push to better insulate homes would be welcome to make them work more efficiently from a heating perspective.  But the need to improve the operation and energy performance of current gas fired boilers is also imperative.

With over 21 million boilers6 currently in use across the nation, increased efforts to enhance their individual operational efficiency could have a positive impact on the overall direction of travel towards the 2050 net zero emission objective.

Research from Adey shows that 15%7 of all boilers breakdown in their first year following installation. Some 60%8 of such incidents occur directly because of poor water quality in the system.  Inferior water quality and the presence of system sludge also accounts for 80%9 of all boiler failures in their first five years of operation, significantly contributing to inconvenience, poor energy performance and unwanted extra expense for homeowners.

Sludge in the water system also reduces the ability of heating systems to generate optimised heat output, meaning consumers often try to overcome poor home heating performance by adjusting thermostat controls, or by including a secondary heating source to provide the comfort they want. Estimates from Adey conclude that tackling system water quality can improve the energy efficiency of systems by 6%.10 and reduce home heating bills by 7% .

System sludge can also have a detrimental impact upon the long-term effectiveness and health of important boiler components. Battling to operate as efficiently as possible, components under strain will eventually fail before they need to, resulting in system failure and installer call backs.

The cumulative result of substandard water quality in the boiler system and the curse of sludge is often an inefficient and high energy consuming boiler and an excessive energy bill.

For installers providing best practice water quality treatments at installation or via ongoing service and maintenance stages to improve boiler efficiencies, it is also important to remember that systems such as underfloor heating require specialist solutions to tackle specific water quality issues.

In central heating systems that have underfloor heating or renewable heating systems using heat pumps, magnetite is one issue, but there are other types of debris to deal with too. Adey’s MagnaClean® TwinTech has a high-performance magnet to take care of magnetite, while its fine wire gauze traps non-magnetic and biological films that can build up in these lower temperature systems.

Furthermore, Adey’s extra concentrated dual biocide formulation MC10+ addresses prevailing algae and biological contamination.  This ensures effectiveness over single biocide products when it comes to preventing the distinctive water-related problems that arise in underfloor heating.

With a growing focus on trying to be more energy efficient in many aspects of our lives to help meet the national carbon reduction targets, the current need to use excessive energy to drive underperforming heating systems is not a positive or sustainable environmental position.

However, installer-led attention on system water quality within the UK’s existing boiler landscape can help optimise heating system performance, lower energy consumption levels, and help pave the way towards the low carbon heating future that we are all striving for.


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