As social housing providers tackle the challenge of decarbonising heat in their housing stock, understanding the opportunities and potential pathways will make the process simpler. Lee Caulfield discusses the advantages of taking a phased approach to net zero
The social housing sector is facing a huge challenge due to the continuing cost-of-living crisis and rising fuel costs. Social housing providers must strike a delicate balance between combating fuel poverty and moving forward with decarbonisation.
There are approximately 5.5 million social housing residences and the vast majority of these still need to be modified with improved systems. These systems must provide top performance and user-friendliness for tenants and property managers in addition to operating at optimal efficiency.
There is no silver bullet solution as each project will have different needs, thereby compounding the difficulty of the task. Budget constraints might also make some improvements impractical, particularly in the case of older buildings which are often difficult to heat efficiently.
It is advisable to employ a comprehensive, systematic approach that considers end-users as well as budgets. Evolving legislation, such as Part L of Building Regulations, and tighter government targets, mean that inaction is simply not an option.
With that in mind, let’s look at what the journey to decarbonisation could look like for social housing.
Approach one: fabric first
Ensuring that existing systems operate more effectively and the properties themselves are as efficient as possible through a fabric-first approach is critical to reducing emissions and energy costs.
Making sure the windows are modern, well-insulated, and draft-free is one such example. Are the loft and walls sufficiently insulated? Is water quality in the current heating system being kept up to par? Do end users understand how to operate the thermostatic radiator valves and other heat controls?
Approach two: prepare now for low-temperature heating
Begin planning ahead for renovations that comply with Part L once the properties have achieved their maximum building envelope performance. Making minor improvements now can prevent the need for larger improvements in the future.
Spend some time educating end users about the straightforward steps they can take to lower energy use and costs. For instance, the Energy Saving Trust estimates that a 1°C rise in thermostat temperature might result in a 10% increase in heating expenditures.
Approach three: energy-saving accessories
Consider enhancing the performance of current systems with straightforward add-on accessories that are maintenance-free, simple to operate, and guaranteed to lower emissions and operating expenses.
In a 3-bed semi-detached house, for example, adding a Flue Gas Heat Recovery to a Baxi Assure 500 Combi 2 can cut annual carbon emissions by as much as 268 kg. In doing so, it saves between 37 and 50% of the gas used to generate hot water annually by capturing heat that would otherwise be lost. This heat is redirected for preheating cold water.
Similarly, installing an in-flue outdoor sensor which satisfies the weather adjustment requirements for Boiler Plus, could reduce annual carbon emissions by 213 kg, according to the same modelling.
Approach four: thinking further ahead
When the time is right, larger upgrades to heating and hot water systems will hasten the decarbonisation process. This could include installing an air source heat pump – either as a standalone solution or in a hybrid system – or, with multi-occupancy buildings, installing a heat network to heat the individual dwellings. Again, it’s crucial to weigh up all available options.
For this reason, it can be beneficial to consult with a manufacturer whose product range includes energy-efficient and low-carbon renewable heating solutions to ensure that the appropriate course of action is adopted for each project.
As the climate crisis worsens and net zero ambitions draw closer, there is a clear urgency for social housing providers to improve the efficiency of their stock and make progress towards their sustainability goals. Whatever stage of the decarbonisation process they are at, social housing managers can rely on specialised technical and legal assistance by cooperating with heating industry leaders.
Together, we can chart a course that will make housing more environmentally and economically sustainable.
Lee Caulfield is head of residential specification at Baxi