Smart heating controls explained

UK consumers were hit hard last winter, with the price of gas more than doubling between 2021 and 2022. The fact that heating systems use more energy than anything else in the home means consumers will be looking to plumbing and heating installers to help lower their bills this winter.

According to BEAMA, heating controls hold the answer. Choosing the right settings to reduce heat waste and focusing on only providing heating when and where it is needed could save many homes hundreds of pounds over the coming months.

The test results covered on the Control Your Home website, produced by BEAMA, reveal that small adjustments to time and temperature settings on a programmable room thermostat could deliver a saving in energy bills of £192 this winter. Not only that, using thermostatic radiator valves (TRVs) to keep rooms other than the living room at 18oC rather than 20oC can reduce gas consumption by 16%.

As first line responders, plumbing and heating engineers are perfectly placed to inform and educate their customers about the best ways to improve their homes’ energy efficiency.

Time to move on

When it comes to modern heating controls, consumers needn’t necessarily wait until their boilers are replaced as many are compatible with different types of boilers and other low-carbon heating sources, such as heat pumps. What’s more, until March 2027, a 0% rate of VAT applies to both the installation of heating controls and the cost of the controls when installed separately from a boiler replacement.

However, consumers and installers need to do their homework before purchasing new controls. “It’s worth noting that not all smart controls will work with all systems,” points out Andy Speake, product manager at Baxi. “Some manufacturers have their own controls which work specifically with their own products. Others use OpenTherm, a protocol that allows compatible thermostats and heating systems to communicate, enabling the thermostat to control the heating and hot water systems. OpenTherm certified controls therefore offer the ultimate handshake of guaranteed compatibility and functionality for installer and consumer peace of mind.”

Smart controls connect a consumer’s heating system to the internet and the heating app then works as a programmer to control the heating more efficiently. Users can use the app to set up a schedule for when the heating comes on and goes off, and the desired temperature. Baxi’s uSense 2 Smart Room Thermostat, for example, can be used with its combi boilers and air source heat pumps to comply with building regulations and schedule the heating to come on and off as required. Smart room thermostats like this tend to be much easier to use than traditional thermostats and allow a more varied programme.

Around half of room thermostats are programmable and combine both the timer and the room thermostat. In addition to being convenient, this also enables users to set different room temperatures at different times, which can help save energy.

Additional functionality

Modern room thermostats offer far more functionality and therefore potential energy savings than their older counterparts. For optimum performance installers should recommend programmable room thermostats, with load or weather compensation, and smart functionality.

Load and weather compensation improve the efficiency of boilers, meaning homeowners get more heat per kWh of energy. Conventional room thermostats send a simple on/off signal to the boiler, which switches it on when the temperature falls below the one set and off when it rises above this. However, load compensated thermostats adjust the output of the boiler to the predicted heating needs. Weather compensation works in a similar way, but also taking outside temperature data into consideration. This results in more efficient control of the boiler operation, and lower fuel consumption.

Heat pumps by design respond extremely well in terms of efficiency to optimisation of start/stop, set back and lowering of flow temperature.

“The learning capabilities of smart controls that adapt, predict and schedule heat generation are a must to maximising performance of any heat pump serving a building,” says Ryan Kirkwood, Engineering Solutions Manager at Baxi. “A well designed fully integrated advanced control system is able to optimise all of the necessary parameters of a heat pump in real time, learning and adjusting using forecasted weather data, room data and user preferences to name a few.”

According to BEAMA there are incremental benefits to Class 5 load compensation, but it will only work when in compensation mode if the thermostat can communicate with the boiler. “Some consumers may have controls with this ability, but they aren’t communicating with the boiler properly, while others may have boilers that do not support communication,” explains out Kelly Butler, lead H and V consultant for BEAMA “Therefore, it’s vital that installers ensure that the products they recommend are compatible.”

Manufacturers must indicate a Temperature Control Class number on their packaging to help installers identify a suitable device. Most thermostats will be Class 1, but if installed within the last two years may be higher.

For controls that communicate directly with the boiler; either a Class V (load compensation) or Class VI (weather compensation) is suitable. If the existing boiler cannot be set up to communicate with a control, or is just of an older type, then a Class IV control (on/off load compensation) can offer a similar benefit. Research carried out at the University of Salford in 2020 demonstrated that the amount of gas used by a boiler for heating can be reduced by 12% by replacing a standard Class I room thermostat with a Class V or VI room thermostat. They also show that this saving would be 10% with a Class IV thermostat.

Smart room thermostats, such as TRVs, also enable consumers to adjust their settings remotely. Room thermostats may also adjust the heating settings automatically depending on whether the occupants are in or out.

Multiple benefits

The role of enhanced controls in improving the energy efficiency of heating systems is well documented and a key requirement of building regulations since the introduction of Boiler Plus in 2015.

“Smart controls and heating apps provide end users with a more convenient means of controlling their heating to make their heating systems both more efficient and reliable,” says Speake. “In practical terms, they make it easier for consumers to schedule their heating to come on each day to suit their household’s requirements. In so doing, they can save money, help avoid needlessly high bills and reduce emissions.”

The flexibility that smart controls offer is a huge benefit for consumers who can adjust their homes’ temperature from anywhere, using the heating app on their smartphone or computer.

“Compliance aside, the benefit for installers from smart controls is the value-added element they deliver their customers,” adds Speake. “By ensuring a more energy-efficient, cost-saving solution for their customers, installers can≈provide the best possible service.

Consumer engagement

The key to successfully improving homes’ energy efficiency is making sure that consumers understand how to use their controls and engage with them. Therefore, when professionals install or perform checks on a system with smart controls, they should ensure the customer is really familiar with them.

“In order to maximise efficiency, it’s essential that installers show customers exactly how to use their smart controls,” says Butler. “Most customers know they can set the temperature and if they have smart TRVs they can control these room by room. However, if the systems are not set up correctly, they won’t reach peak efficiency.

“This is the time of the year that installers should be encouraging customers to have a system health check, including balancing radiators, cleaning heating systems, as well as installing inhibitors and TRVs. It’s all about timing!”

Expert advice

The Control Your Home website sets out simple, practical advice on how best to use heating controls for gas central heating. It encourages householders to think more about where and when they want to be warm and how changing the way they use their heating system can save them money.

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