Why heat pumps need smarter control – simpler controls

June, 2024

Welcome back to our series of Insights exploring why heat pumps need smarter control. So far, we’ve covered how the latest generation of controls can make heat pumps cheaper to run, easier to use and better for the environment. In part five, we’ll look at how they can make heat pumps simpler to operate and as a result, more accessible to everyone in society. To catch up on the earlier entries in the series, head to Insights.

Most of us find thermostats complicated. In a recent Dragon’s Den episode, three out of the five Dragons made it clear they didn’t know how to use theirs. In fact, Sara Davies said she had no idea how to use a thermostat and has to ‘lie there shivering until my husband feels sorry for me and he’ll get up and put it on’. Now hopefully that’s an exaggeration, but as an utterly unscientific poll, it suggests that about 60% of the population don’t know how to use their heating controls. And that broadly aligns with data from other surveys. In 2014, Ipsos MORI found that two thirds of those who claimed to understand how to use their heating controls, were actually operating them in completely the wrong way.

These statistics mainly relate to controls for gas boilers, because that’s what most of us have in our homes. As we found out in part two of the series (Why heat pumps need smarter control – better comfort) gas boilers are quite forgiving because they operate at a higher flow temperature. That means you can probably get away with (as Deborah Meaden says she does) ‘jabbing away at a thermostat until it does something’. For heat pumps, things get a lot more complicated. Operating at a lower flow temperature means they take longer to heat up a home and so having controls that are easy to use is really important.

Current heat pump controls are not easy to use. One study found that when presented with a typical heat pump thermostat, just 23% of people are able to set a heating schedule – one of the most basic and vital functions of any heating controller. Why is this? Partly, it’s because most heat pump controls haven’t been designed for controlling heat pumps. Heat pump manufacturers generally fall into two categories – they are either air conditioning manufacturers or boiler manufacturers who now make heat pumps. And unfortunately, they tend to use the same controls for their heat pumps that they use for their air conditioners or boilers. There’s a reason the average heat pump controller looks like the air conditioning control panel you find in a hotel room and if you’ve ever tried to use one of those, you’ll understand why current controls are so poor!

So manufacturer controls aren’t great, but what about smart thermostats? They must be easier to use? Yes, they are. But only if you have an internet connection all the time and want to use a smartphone app to manage your comfort. That could be fine if you and everyone in your house is tech savvy, but what if you have visitors who aren’t? And what about new-build homes? Or social housing? Here, you can’t guarantee that people will have an internet connection or smartphone, or that they will want to use these things to manage their heating and hot water. This series of Insights has shown that smarter heat pump controls can deliver great benefits, but is it OK for a whole segment of society to be excluded from them?

Smart heat pump controls shouldn’t only be for the tech-savvy. They need to be accessible, easy to use and suitable for anyone who has a heat pump.

The Passiv Smart Thermostat is designed specifically to work with heat pumps. It has been created with simplicity and accessibility at the core of its design. The wall Thermostat is deliberately very basic. It tells you the current temperature and what the heat pump is doing. It has three buttons (up, down and select), a rich colour screen and the only thing you can do on it is change the current setpoint temperature. It’s boring, but also really easy for anyone to use.

The Passiv Programmer contains the full functionality required to manage your heating and hot water including the ability to create, edit and delete schedules, boost hot water or turn on Away mode. That means you have complete control of your heat pump from within the home without a smartphone or internet connection. This functionality doesn’t come at the expense of usability. The Programmer has four buttons and a simple menu item structure, all presented on a high-resolution, 5 inch colour screen. If someone does want to use the Passiv app, they just scan a QR code displayed on the Programmer’s screen to get set up.

The Passiv Smart Thermostat has also been designed to be simple to install and commission for an installer, but more on that in the next Insight in the series.

If heat pumps are going to be the main solution for decarbonising the UK’s heating, they need to work for everyone and that means having simpler controls. We think we’ve designed a smart thermostat that delivers great benefits for heat pump owners but that anyone could use. I suppose we’ll have to send one to Sara Davies and see if she agrees.

We are coming to the end of our series exploring why heat pumps need smarter control, with just one more Insight to go. By now, we hope you are thoroughly convinced that the latest generation of heating controls offer some fantastic benefits to heat pump owners, but what about installers? Stay tuned for the final Insight in our series of ‘why heat pumps need smarter control’ where we’ll look at the role better controls can have in making heat pumps easier to install, commission and handover to new heat pump owners!