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Why buyers should take care when investing in renewable heat

Let me set my stall out: I'm a fan of renewable heat technologies if they are installed well in suitable buildings. I'm also delighted that details of the domestic renewable heat incentive scheme has finally been announced, and that the rates are higher than expected. 

But, and given the headline there had to be a but, I'm also glad that it's a boiler replacement scheme, not one that is designed to give an attractive return on investment, because an investment in renewable heat shouldn't be taken on a whim.

It's vital that people realise that installing a biomass boiler or a heat pump isn't as simple as replacing a condensing boiler, and that there are risks associated with being an early adopter. It's an investment decision that needs to be made based on a clear vision of what you want to achieve, and knowledge of the potential pitfalls as well as the benefits. 

Here are eight points that are worth considering before you go ahead:

1. Renewable heat is not suitable for all properties. For example, solar water heating requires a roof that faces between south east and south west, heat pumps work best in well insulated buildings, and biomass boilers need plenty of space.

2. Unlike the better known feed-in tariff for solar pv and wind, the renewable heat incentive is NOT designed to give a return on investment. It is designed as a boiler replacement scheme, with rates that put renewable heat on a level playing field with replacing a condensing boiler.

3. The scheme is aimed at rural, off-gas properties. The tariffs have been set based on the costs of heating with oil and LPG, so renewable heat is unlikely to make financial sense for people with access to the gas network. (There may, of course, be other motivations for installing). 

4. With the exception of solar thermal, the domestic market for these products is young. There is a shortage of expertise, and plenty of horror stories. Ask to talk to previous customers before choosing an installer, preferably those who have had their system at least a year. Ask how often they install the product you want, and whether they have been trained by, and are supported by, the manufacturer.

5. There's a danger of being mis-sold. There are some sharks and charlatans who actively mislead, and others who just get the figures wrong. Do your research and look for a recommended installer local to you. Avoid any company that cold calls you. 

6. Make sure your installer is MCS accredited and a signed up to the Renewable Energy Consumer Code. No MCS means no RHI. But note that MCS is a standard that all installers must achieve, and not a mark of their expertise in installation or advice. Quality varies considerably.

7. You must have a green deal assessment before you claim your renewable heat incentive, but it makes most sense to have it before you make the decision about what to install, as it will give you useful information that will help inform your decision.

8. Look for installers that cover a range of renewable heat technologies so that they can look at your property and recommend the technology most suitable. Otherwise there's a danger of being sold something that isn't the most appropriate for your circumstances.

Click the following links for information that will help you get the right heating technology – renewable or not – and find a good company to install it:

YouGen guide to the domestic renewable heat incentive with FAQs

YouGen guide to heat pumps

YouGen guide to biomass boilers

YouGen guide to solar hot water

Which is the best heat pump?

What the domestic RHI means for heat pumps

How to choose your biomass boiler installer

The house is warm for the first time: biomass boiler case study

Installing a biomass boiler: what it's really like

Photo: Alternative heat

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