In the face of mounting pressure to specify sustainable technologies, local authority stakeholders — especially in off-grid areas — are increasingly forced to choose between the specification of high cost renewable systems and the number of homes they can afford to build per site. Ian Digby explains how taking a long-term view can solve sustainability concerns without diverting budget from much needed additional rural homes.
When it comes to heating provision for new-build properties off the gas grid, there are a number of technologies available for consideration. However, each of these has their own pros and cons, both in terms of benefits to the tenant and the local authority.
Traditionally, the core off-grid options were electric, oil or LPG, but in recent years, ground and air source heat pumps have risen in prominence due to a growing governmental emphasis on renewables. However, whilst these systems can provide an answer to sustainability pressures, the associated initial capital investment can mean a drain on budget that results in fewer homes per site — a serious concern for rural local authorities.
Analysis conducted by CPRE earlier this year found that there are 173,584 families on council waiting lists for social housing in rural authorities. Given the current rate of building in these areas, it would take an estimated 130 years to meet the current backlog alone. What’s more, the past year has seen rural homelessness increase by a staggering 85%, further increasing the pressure on local authorities to create the maximum housing possible within already stretched budgets.
Balancing the costs
Against this tough economic backdrop, it can be difficult to justify the cost of technologies such as air source heat pumps (ASHPs), even in light of the growing focus on renewables. To put the scale of this outlay into context, a recent report found that ASHPs can cost up to £8,000 more per plot in capital set up than an LPG system, whilst offering a comparative reduction of as little as £6 per month in tenant bills. Furthermore, given that the typical manufacturer warranty on an ASHP is less than five years, a stark drop from the 10 years offered by many gas boiler manufacturers, any possible savings in running costs could easily be lost in increased service, repair and maintenance requirements.
Taking these factors into account, the efficiency benefits offered by heat pumps must be balanced with how the size of capital expenditure can impact on site viability when compared to options such as LPG. By choosing a system with much lower capital costs, there is greater possibility of maximising a site, releasing budget to support the building of additional plots to help reduce the chronic lack of affordable housing in rural areas.
However, though the core objective of any social housing provider is to offer maximum access to quality housing for people on low incomes, the pressure to account for sustainability and environmental impact cannot be ignored.
But, by taking a longer-term view, local authorities can satisfy the demand for greater efficiency, without compromising on the number of homes built per site. BioLPG is a fully renewable, non-fossil fuel option made from a blend of waste, residues and sustainably sourced materials, which operates in exactly the same way as standard LPG and works perfectly with the same appliances.
Calor plans to offer BioLPG to the new-build housing market in 2020 and to offer only BioLPG to all markets by 2030. As BioLPG is chemically identical to standard LPG there is no requirement to change any equipment such as boilers and meters. This means any local authority that chooses to install LPG on its current new-build developments is laying the foundations of infrastructure that will work just as well with BioLPG as it does with LPG.
Alongside these long-term efficiency gains, LPG offers a number of immediate benefits. For example, in operation and design, LPG boilers have no difference from mains gas and as such are straightforward and easy to operate, presenting no challenges to future tenants who may not be familiar with the different operating controls involved with electric and heat pump systems.
What’s more, LPG is discreet and low maintenance. For the vast majority of new homes, LPG will be supplied via a network of communal underground tanks with each individual property being separately metered. The appointed LPG supplier on the site will take care of all maintenance of the tanks and pipework and maintain a constant supply of gas to all residents, topping the tank up with fresh supplies when required, ensuring the experience of tenants is essentially no different from those on mains gas.
Rural local authorities need to take a variety of factors into consideration when choosing which fuel option to select for off-grid new build homes. Whilst modern renewable technologies can satisfy sustainability demands in the short term, these gains come at a high price — both in terms of capital outlay, and the knock-on effect this has on the budget available to maximise the number of homes built on site. By taking a long-term view, local authorities can balance budget, efficiency and tenant needs, whilst keeping maintenance to a minimum.
Ian Digby is Specifier Sales Manager at Calor