With both the climate crisis and soaring energy costs becoming a growing concern by the day, many UK homeowners are looking into heat pumps to heat their homes.

Tens of thousands of heat pumps have already been installed across the country, and the government is keen to keep the trend going over the next decade in order to cut down the UK’s carbon emissions, offering grants of up to £6,000 to those installing heat pump systems to help with the costs.

If you’re not quite sure what heat pumps are or how they work, don’t worry. This guide will take you through all the basics of heat pumps, the advantages of getting one installed, and explain how much it could cost you.

What does a heat pump do?

A heat pump is a device that extracts heat from a natural source near your home and uses it to heat your home or your water. They use a small amount of electricity to achieve this, but typically transfer so much heat comparatively that they are considered much more energy efficient than a conventional gas boiler.

The three main different kinds of heat pumps are air source, ground source and water source heat pumps. These names indicate where the pump extracts the heat from, though which one you can get will depend on your budget and your home. Around 87% of heat pumps installed in the UK are air source pumps, as these are usually the cheapest and easiest to install.

The two types of air source heat pumps are ‘air to air’ and ‘air to water’ pumps. Air to air pumps tend to be the cheaper of the two, and can be used as both space heaters and air conditioners – in warmer months, they will move heat outside, while in colder months, they will move it inside.

However, despite the extra cost and lack of air conditioning, air to water pumps are still the more popular option in UK homes, due to their ability to heat water and much greater overall efficiency. Air to water pumps can provide heat via your radiators, while air to air pumps effectively act as space heaters, which are less powerful overall and may not provide your home with as much heat as you would like in the winter.

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Do I need permission to install a heat pump?

You should check with your local authority before installing a ground source or water source heat pump, as these may require planning permission.

You may not need planning permission in order to get an air source heat pump installed, but exceptions could apply if you live in a listed building or conservation area, so contact your local authority if you’re not sure. Additional rules vary between different countries in the UK:

England: air source heat pumps must be more than one metre from the property boundary and cannot be installed on a pitched roof or the edge of a flat roof. Additional pumps after the first one will require planning permission.

Scotland: only one air source heat pump is allowed per piece of land, and it must be at least 100 metres away from other dwellings.

Wales: all air source heat pumps require planning permission.

Do I have enough space for a heat pump?

The space requirements for a heat pump will depend on the type of pump you wish to install.

Air source heat pumps tend to be no larger than a washing machine, and can be situated anywhere outside with a decent amount of airflow. Installation for these tends to be fairly quick and easy.

Ground source heat pumps tend to be less convenient – not only will you need a lot of garden space but you will need to be prepared to have this dug up. This is because ground source systems require pipework to be laid, either in vertical holes or horizontal trenches. Horizontal groundwork is typically cheaper, but tends to only be a viable option for rural properties with lots of outdoor space, around 700 square meters on average. Some opt to lay horizontal pipes in a looped “slinky” formation, though this will be less efficient for gathering heat. Vertical boreholes are a more costly alternative if you do not have enough horizontal area to lay the pipes horizontally. The process of groundwork, laying pipes and installation usually takes a couple of days.

The tradeoff is that ground source heat pumps tend to be much more powerful and efficient, meaning higher long-term savings. However, installing one will only really be possible if you have a very large garden and the funds for all the necessary work.

Water source heat pumps require that your home be near a large water source such as a river or lake, with enough space to lay pipes between the source and the building. You will also need indoor space for the compressor.

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How much does it cost to get a heat pump installed?

The cost of getting a heat pump installed depends on which type you opt for, the size of your home and how well-insulated it is, and the size and efficiency of the pump. Installation costs may also go up a few extra thousand pounds if you need extra work done, such as new radiators or underfloor heating.

The government’s Boiler Upgrade Scheme, introduced on 22 May 2022, has been designed to shoulder some of the cost of installing an air source or ground source heat pump. The scheme, which runs until 2025, currently offers a £5,000 grant towards the cost and installation of an air source heat pump, or £6,000 towards the cost of a ground source heat pump. However, the grant will increase to £7,500 on 23 October for both kinds of pump.

You can find out more about the grant at GOV.uk.Your installer will apply for the grant on your behalf when you purchase a pump from them. Bear in mind that the scheme is only available to those in England and Wales.

Not including the grant provided by the scheme, the typical costs are as followed:

Air to water heat pumps will tend to cost between £8,000 and £18,000, while air to air heat pumps tends to cost between £1,500 and £3,500.

Ground source heat pumps vary quite dramatically in cost. The cost of the pump and installation itself can be anywhere between £16,000 and £42,000 depending on how large your home is, but the necessary groundwork on your property will also set you back. Horizontal groundwork can cost between £3,000 and £12,000, whereas vertical groundwork can range from £6,000 to £30,000.

Water source heat pumps tend to cost around £10,000.

You can search for a contractor to install air source heat pumps using the Microgeneration Certification Scheme’s search tool. All contractors listed on their site are MCS-certified, meaning they have to abide by the Scheme’s quality and safety standards and meet Office of Fair Trading (OFT) requirements.

What are the benefits of having a heat pump?

Heat pumps are considered very energy efficient. This is due to the amount of electricity needed to run them being fairly small relative to the amount of heat they can bring in.

Expressed in numbers, they can achieve an energy efficiency rating between 200% and 600% – in other words, the amount of heat provided to your home by the pump can be between two and six times the amount of energy spent powering it.

This means not only will you be cutting down on your carbon footprint by getting a heat pump installed, but you should also make savings on your energy bills. As with solar panels, however, you may not see these savings cover the initial cost of installing the pump for quite a few years, so they are only really suitable as a very long-term investment.

The good news is that heat pumps are very long-lasting, with a normal lifespan of between 20 and 50 years, depending on how well-maintained they are. Your installer will explain how maintenance for your system works, but it tends to be occasional and relatively easy. 

The government has also announced that homes with renewable energy sources such as heat pumps or solar panels will benefit from zero VAT from April 2022 until April 2027.

Noise is a common concern when it comes to heat pumps, but should not be a problem if your pump is properly installed. All heating products make some degree of noise, but heat pumps tend to be quieter than fossil fuel boilers, and are only usually audible within one metre of the unit.

Where to find out more

For more information on heat pumps, you can visit the Microgeneration Certification Scheme website and the Energy Saving Trust website.

You can read more about ways to make your home more energy efficient and how to ensure your money supports green causes in our articles How much do solar panels for your home cost?, What is a green mortgage? and How green is your pension?