July 23, 2024
The rise of Heat Geek — a startup bringing heat pumps to the Brits

Missing the chance to install a heat pump in his London home had always bothered tech industry whizz Aadil Qureshi. While builders were in the middle of renovating and extending his terraced house during the depths of the pandemic, he had stumbled on a YouTube channel called Heat Geek. 

The videos explained — in extreme detail — how heat pumps, when installed correctly, are the most efficient option for heating the vast majority of homes. Qureshi devoured tutorial after tutorial and thought to himself, “Wow, OK, I get it. This is obviously the answer.”

But there was a problem. The builders didn’t have a clue about heat pumps and a frantic quest to find a local installer who could come up with a quote in time ended in failure. “I said, ‘Forget it, put a gas boiler in’,” Qureshi recalls.

The boiler later turned out to be oversized, too powerful for the home he had, and therefore inefficient. He was incredulous. How had it come to this? 

Nowhere near heat pump installation targets

Many homeowners have faced similar challenges in recent years. As Europe moves to decarbonise heating, a difficult task by all accounts, there is now a rush to find competent heat pump installers.

European Commission targets mean that 7 million heat pumps will need to be connected every year by 2030 across the EU — and the bloc will need nearly 500,000 more installers, minimum, to achieve this. 

The UK, now outside the EU, is facing a similar challenge with heat pump installations there currently falling far short of government targets. Plus, there is an added difficulty in the UK because, unlike in much of Europe, some British plumbers have traditionally viewed heat pumps as novel or risky. 

Companies such as Heat Geek, which revealed in January that it had raised £3.7 million in a seed funding round, are among those desperate to change this by training more installers in a bid to supercharge the home heating energy transition. Other startups, such as Sweden’s Aira, are also operating in the same space — in May, Aira opened a new training centre in the north of England.

When faced with his less than satisfactory heating system installation, Qureshi decided he would not be defeated for long. He became fixated on rectifying things — as well as the industry that had let him down. 

In 2022, he sought out Adam Chapman, the creator of Heat Geek, at a trade show. Qureshi found him manning a stall set up by an energy company. Chapman was busy explaining to members of the public, one by one, how a heat pump might work for them. People were queuing up in their dozens to hear what he had to say. 

‘I was floored by it’

At lunchtime, Chapman grabbed a bite to eat and Qureshi took the opportunity to introduce himself. Right off the bat, he explained his vision for scaling Heat Geek as a startup company.

“I was floored by it, basically,” recalls Chapman. It was a Friday. The following Monday, the pair met to talk things over in detail and now, two years later, Qureshi has become CEO of Heat Geek. He is finally getting his heat pump.

Chapman’s title is Chief Geek. The firm has raised £5 million to date, including £600,000 in the form of grants, and there are 23 employees.

Besides producing online content to inform the public about heat pumps, Heat Geek’s mission is to assist a network of independent heating engineers across the UK. Heat Geek does not employ these people. Rather, they simply purchase online, fully digital training from Heat Geek that teaches them how to install heat pumps. 

A total of 2,000 people have completed a Heat Geek course to date. Plans to scale the company involve increasing the accessibility of these training materials, bringing on board as many as 10,000 more installers in the next few years. The firm also intends to roll out various digital tools to help engineers explain to homeowners how a heat pump might work in their property. 

Predicting heat pump efficiency using data

Heat Geek is also beginning to monitor data from previously installed heat pumps, so that Chapman and his colleagues can track how efficiently the devices are running over time. This information can then be used to make more accurate predictions about what kind of installation will suit, say, a Victorian semi-detached home versus a newly built apartment. 

Heat Geek says the data is gathered via an API provided by Vaillant, a heat pump manufacturer, and that users must consent to share their data in this way. The information is also depersonalised by Heat Geek prior to analysis.

This high-tech approach was obvious from the outset to Qureshi, who has worked for companies including Apple and IBM. Chapman remembers that, even at their first meeting, Qureshi also had ideas for how to make things work financially. 

Heat pumps can save people money over time. If banks can be convinced of this, they may be more willing to lend money to homeowners for heat pump installations. Plus, this helps to “greenify” the banks’ portfolios — which could mean even lower costs to homeowners in the long run.

Highly efficient heating

Qureshi says that an initiative to offer Heat Geek-branded finance options to customers for heat pumps is now firmly on the company’s roadmap: “That loan would enable us to squish the cost but also to drag out the benefits over the lifetime of the system.” 

There are competitors in this space already, however — such as Octopus Energy, which last year launched a facility for UK homeowners to spread the cost of installing a heat pump over many months.

Qureshi argues that what sets Heat Geek apart is the super-efficient installations the company helps its network of installers to achieve. Heat pumps work by using a refrigerant to absorb heat from, for example, the outdoor air. When compressed, the refrigerant gets significantly warmer, stepping up that small amount of absorbed heat to a level where it is useful for warming radiators. 

Crucially, a heat pump can push out, for example, four kilowatt hours (kWh) of heat to a property for every 1 kWh of electricity the appliance consumes. The measurement of this is called a coefficient of performance, or COP.

In this case, the COP would be 4, which is highly efficient. In comparison, a really good gas boiler might give you just 0.9 kilowatt hours of heat output for every kilowatt hour of gas that it burns.

The average COP across a year for a sample of Heat Geek certified heat pump installations is 4.44, says Chapman: “Our installations are now being monitored, recorded for their performance.” The company currently has access to live data from 41 heat pumps and are planning to add another 76 to that list. 

Money in your pocket

Heat pump technology has been around for more than a century, in various forms, and is still improving — with the rise of new, more environmentally friendly refrigerants enabling the units to run more efficiently, for example. However, Chapman stresses his view that, with innovations like this now available, the technology is mature enough to mean that waiting for further developments will likely not be worth it. “Don’t wait on that. You can still save money as of today,” he says.

Better technology can help on the installer side, though. Heat Geek continues to roll out its digital tool to technicians, which allows them to use a LIDAR system to scan a customer’s home, make estimates about the heat loss from the property, and automatically reveal how well a heat pump will work in it. This information can be presented clearly on an iPad screen.

Prospective heat pump purchasers are able to plug in their postcode to Heat Geek’s website and find out, based on predictive analytics about their property type, what sort of installation would suit them best.

Work smarter, not harder 

Convincing homeowners that heat pumps can work for them, and achieving a high level of heating system efficiency, is what motivates Chapman the most. He was originally inspired to launch Heat Geek as a side project back in 2016 after becoming increasingly frustrated with the heating industry, in which he himself worked. “No one was talking about efficiency,” he recalls. “I wanted to be able to offer more.”

Among those impressed by his understanding of heating system technology is Damon Hart-Davis, a PhD candidate at the University of Surrey. He recently wrote a research paper on something occasionally discussed by Chapman in some of his videos — briefly, that turning off the heating in one room in a house can, in some scenarios, be less efficient overall than if you just heat every room. 

“I thought, ‘Oh, this can’t be right, I shall prove him wrong’,” recalls Hart-Davis. But the modelling instead validated Heat Geek’s analysis, given certain conditions. “That is really surprising,” says Hart-Davis. His study is yet to be published but has been peer-reviewed and is available online as a preprint.

Heat pumps take the heat of the culture war

There has long been a debate in the UK over whether heat pumps are really suitable for British homes, which are notorious for being the leakiest in Europe, in terms of their thermal efficiency.

Chapman acknowledges that this is a challenge for heat pump installers as the devices tend to rely on lower temperatures than older gas boilers to warm up properties. Get the system design wrong and you could end up with a very unhappy homeowner who is unable to heat their house cost-effectively. 

The fascinating details of how heat pumps work are increasingly getting lost in emotionally charged debates about them. Heat pumps have become divisive. They have been targeted by the far right in election campaigns in Germany, for example.

“Heat pumps have become woke, which is quite funny,” says Richard Lowes, who works with the Scottish government on heating decarbonisation policy. Previously, Lowes also served for six months on an advisory board for Heat Geek, in an unpaid role. “I’ve been told by newspapers anything they publish about heat pumps get loads and loads of clicks,” he adds.

Video niceties

The sceptics have had plenty of airtime. In 2021, a popular British YouTuber called Roger Bisby, who is a plumber, put out a video in which he decried various limitations of heat pumps, as he saw them. The video racked up thousands of views and Chapman quickly put out a response tearing apart Bisby’s criticisms

But then something unusual happened. Chapman convinced Bisby to join him on multiple follow-up videos to debate the potential of heat pumps in the UK. Bisby has since featured Heat Geek in his own content. In a recent example, Bisby calls the industry “a mess” but then points charitably towards Chapman and adds, “I know you’re trying to sort it out.”

For Chapman, the interaction has opened up access to a bigger audience. “We needed a Roger Bisby to argue against,” he says. “I’m very, very thankful to him.”

Must go faster

The question now is whether Heat Geek can make a big enough difference to the struggling British heat pump rollout. Qureshi says the company’s internal motto has become “must go faster” or “MGF” — a reference to the famous T-rex chase scene in Jurassic Park

There are nearly 30 million homes in the UK and the vast majority still have fossil fuel-based heating systems, notes Qureshi. “It’s such a monumental task,” he says. “I don’t think we can ever go fast enough.”

Neil Simcock at Liverpool John Moores University has watched Heat Geek’s development with interest. “Innovators like Heat Geek are absolutely essential,” he says, though he adds that in order to resolve regional disparities — for example in terms of installer availability — government support for the heating industry is also a must.

Chapman has spent nearly a decade trying to get his ideas about heat pumps in front of British installers and members of the public. Now, with the new funding from Heat Geek’s investors, an even bigger chance to reach thousands more people is looming. Qureshi and Chapman can’t wait to push on. As Chapman says, “It feels like now, finally, people are listening.”

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