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Heat Networks: The Code in Practice - Will it make a difference?

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By Gareth Jones, Managing Director of FairHeatb2ap3_thumbnail_ATP_3469-Edit1.jpg

The Heat Networks: Code of Practice, developed by the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE) and Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), was launched to much fanfare last year. The timing couldn’t have been better. Largely prompted by the new Heat Networks (Metering & Billing) Regulations, there had been much discussion, then angst, over what ‘normal’ levels of network losses were. As those discussions continued there seemed to be a dawning realisation that we haven’t been particularly good at doing heat networks in the UK, with network losses of over 50 per cent being fairly common place.

As such, it was taken as very welcome news that there was a better way of doing things and the Heat Networks Code of Practice was widely seized on as being the solution.

Now some of the party euphoria has dissipated and people are starting to grapple with the issue of how to make it all work in practice, the question needs to be asked: Is the Heat Networks Code of Practice actually going to make a difference?

Having just worked on several projects in which the Code of Practice has featured heavily, I am pleased to report that the answer appears to be “yes”.

The PI problem and the Code

One of the key reasons that the Code of Practice is having an impact, is that it provides a counter balance to the pressure from professional indemnity (PI) insurance to be conservative.

Historically there have been a number of factors that have prompted M&E designers to take a conservative approach when designing heat networks (read: “designing systems that are grossly oversized”). However, the single most significant factor in oversizing has been concerns over PI insurance.

As one person put it “no one ever got sued for delivering too much heat to the furthest flat in the network”.

That might be about to change.

In the introduction to the Code of Practice, there is some welcome wording about how the Code of Practice’s Minimum Requirements have been set to achieve minimum acceptable standards. This effectively flips the whole PI issue on its head.

If I, hypothetical chartered engineer, design a heat network that does not meet the minimum requirements of the Code of Practice, then I am effectively failing to meet “minimum acceptable standards”, as set out in black and white by the authority on building services engineering.

Given that much of the Heat Networks Code of Practice is focused on ensuring that systems are efficient, engineers who design systems that deliver “abundant heat” to the furthest flat of a heat network without taking into consideration overall efficiency may well find their PI insurance getting a work-out, as disgruntled clients sue them for the cost of elevated losses over the lifetime of that heat network.

While this has not yet been put to the test in the courtroom (to my knowledge), it is already influencing behaviour.

The Code as substitute for missing Employer’s Requirements

As an example, earlier this year FairHeat (the specialist heat network consultancy I co-founded) was engaged by a private developer in London to assist them on a project where they felt that the design was oversized. Apparently the process had reached an impasse, with the client demanding change on one side, but with the consultant holding their ground on the other side and simply pointing to their PI insurance.

The starting point was to review the client’s Employer’s Requirements. Unfortunately these were substantially absent from a heat networks perspective and as a consequence there was no real contractual lever in place.

There was, however, the draft version of the Heat Networks Code of Practice in circulation (this was in February). So we produced a report that set out the implications of the “minimum industry standards” wording in the introduction (as it was in the draft), then produced a table showing all of the Minimum Design Requirements (Part 3) from the Code of Practice, along with an assessment of whether the consultant’s design met those requirements.

Which it didn’t.

To the consultant’s credit, they assessed the situation, took the points on board and entered into constructive dialogue, with the result being that the final system will be significantly more efficient, have lower operating costs and cost less to build (smaller pipes cost less).

The most interesting feature of this whole process was the fact that, from a contractual perspective, the Code of Practice effectively stepped into the breach for the missing Employer’s Requirements and provided a lever for ensuring compliance to “minimum industry standards”.

Specifying the Code

However, while acknowledging that the Code of Practice stepped into the breach in the case above, it is no substitute for a tight set of Employer’s Requirements. While the Code of Practice provides an excellent framework for guiding behaviour, it requires further structure for it to be useful within a contractual framework.

Recently FairHeat has been assisting a number of private developers and social housing organisations in ‘specifying’ the Heat Networks Code of Practice.

Rather than trying to replicate existing documents, we have worked with each client to produce a ‘Design Supplement’ for heat networks on their developments. This Design Supplement acts as a bridge between clients’ existing Employer’s Requirements and the Heat Networks Code of Practice.

The great thing about having the Code of Practice as a framework is that it has allowed our clients to focus on the key questions and determine what approach they want to take in relation to those specific issues, with the remaining bulk of issues being covered by the Code of Practice minimum requirements.

It has also helped to focus attention on the fact that it is not just the design approach that needs to change, but rather the whole end-to-end process. Indeed, we have found that getting the design right has proved to be the easier part of the equation. The real challenge is in assisting clients to put in place the requisite processes and organisational structures in order to ensure that designs are implemented correctly. This is as much about organisational change management as it is about engineering.

Achieving this change is vital if we are to deliver efficient heat networks.

In work that Guru Systems (FairHeat’s sister company) is carrying out as part of a Government-funded project to improve the efficiency of heat networks, we have identified that approximately 50 per cent of the ‘efficiency gap’ on schemes we have reviewed has been due to poor design (mainly oversizing), with the other 50 per cent due to issues with implementation – e.g. failure to properly insulate, poor HIU commissioning, etc.

As such, we (as an industry) need to work on getting both the design and the process right.

Which is why the Heat Networks Code of Practice encompasses the whole end-to-end process.

Pleasingly, I can report that the Code of Practice is providing a good framework for implementing change. Indeed, several developers and social housing organisations we are working with are making fairly radical adjustments to the way they are tackling new developments thanks to the Code of Practice.

Thinking back only two years, this represents such a seismic shift in attitude that I can’t help but feel confident that the Code of Practice will end up providing the enabling framework that we have needed for delivering highly efficient heat networks in the UK.

So, unlike a number of other initiatives that have faded away into the ether, it looks like the Heat Networks Code of Practice is living up to its star billing.

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  • Guest
    Marko @ COHEAT Friday, 29 January 2016

    this is fantastic news Gareth - no more room in the M&E services design marketplace for the lazy and/or incompetent firms. :-)

    What do you think 'the stick' looks like for the installation and commissioning contract?

    Another code of practice?
    Asset or insurance backed performance guarantee?

    From our own experimental scheme I'd go a little further to say that 'another 50%' comes from user behaviour. Some designs are significantly more tolerant of hydronic imbalance/immune to counter productive user behaviour than others...

  • Guest
    Phil Jones Friday, 29 January 2016

    Glad to hear the Code of practice is having an effect. Having come up with the idea and sat in the chair through all the debate and discussion it is really pleasing to know that it is providing a useful framework to improve heat networks. Also good that is becoming a live practical reality DOC rather than another dust gathering guide. It should influence technical issues but also clients can use it to brief in the first place.

    Like you I've been asking what next and how do we check CP1 has been met. CIBSE and I have been working on a client checklist so the client (or their appointed assessor) can check if their scheme meets the code requirements. There is a draft circulating for comment if anyone is interested. The checklist also aims to build an evidence pack throughout the feasibility, design, build, operate process so the client has real hard audit trail evidence of meeting the Code, hopefully with real data included.

    This should take us to the next level and really make the code a working tool across the sector to ultimately improve heat networks.

    BTW - the 50% losses often quoted include 25% INSIDE the building due to lack of pipework insulation. So a little unfair to the heat network - bad schemes are probably in the 25-30% range when you just look at the heat network itself. There's a great IEA report showing some down near 5% in Sweden.

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