Earth Notes: PhD Research Plan Sketch (2024)

Updated 2024-06-18 16:45 GMT.
By Damon Hart-Davis ORCID logo.
An outline plan for research into optimising UK domestic wet heating system retrofit. #PhD #heating #research
DORM1 wall scene



A sketch research plan in early 2024, with the aim of supporting my confirmation viva and the next seven years' work on making UK (wet) home heat retrofit work as well as possible.

My colleague Uche a structure:

Current Topics of Interest

This includes possible 'further work' arising from research already done.

What are the topics with real-world impact that should be researched and disseminated over the next few years to get the best climate outcomes from UK home heating?

Out of scope are, partly because they seem well covered by other researchers:

In scope:

    • Extend domestic TRV / heat-pump / temperature-regulation interaction investigation [hart-davis2024zone] to high-fidelity models (eg HEM) and/or physical housing stock such as Salford Energy House(s). Possible BEAMA project.
    • Investigate and catalogue domestic heat-pump temperature regulation schemes in use and as recommended/regulated across northern Europe, possibly with a view to optimising regulation/advice for installers and occupiers.
    • Investigate possible changes to TRV behaviours with heat pumps to improve overall system efficiency, eg 'all open' command to reduce need for a buffer tank.
    • Improving agency and understanding for users of heat pumps to end up with cheaper more comfortable homes — controls that work and a mandated uniform common subset? This may involve DSR (Demand Side Response) with heat-pumps as ESA (Energy Smart Appliances), and novel UI/UX including visualisation and sonification and psychoacoustically-driven audio salience encoding [johnston1988transform] [zong2024umwelt] [stevens2013sensory]. Almost certainly requires collaboration across fields.
    • Heat-pump retrofits — must fabric improvements happen first or at all (eg [govUK2024historic]), and if not, how should outcomes be optimised (eg [eyre2023fabric])? What are barriers to increasing wider modulation range to reduce cycling in shoulder months and is insulation is upgraded post hoc? A recent DESNZ policy document [govUK2023investment] (2023-04) states that 90% of British homes have sufficient insulation and electrical capacity for a heat pump.
    • Thermochromic radiator stickers to help tune condensing boilers and de-risk a move to a heat-pump. Other methods to reduce FUD, eg Smart Meter Enabled Thermal Efficiency Ratings (SMETER).
    • Describe and explore current heat battery cross-vector control algorithm and future with heat-pump version and grid interaction.
    • Allowing for adaption: systems with some cooling capability for the very hottest days, not necessarily comfort cooling.
    • 'Just transition' [ambrose2023JUSTHEAT], learning from previous domestic energy transitions, eg some in UK are only now switching away from coal heating, fairness across groups, persuading people who are rich or retired to make a contribution though it may be expensive for them also and not existential. Transition to ICE cars took ~10Y, and buildings have become more fossil-fuel centric over last ~100Y: how long to unwind?
    • Messaging and information for the general public, green groups, local government, education from primary to PhD.
    • How and when will the long tail of fossil home heat switch away?
    • Maximising co-benefit health improvements eg [donkin2024health].
    • Collaborations around slightly wider topics related to the above, eg domestic hot water, non-domestic space heating/zoning/sizing/modelling.
    • Keeping an open brief for new barriers and opportunities that arise in domestic heat decarbonisation.

There are other energy and efficiency topics of interest beyond home heating ultimately driven by reducing emission reductions, such as tuning and optimisation of RSS podcast and other feeds.

Plan Sketch


The central topic to be researched is how to decarbonise UK (wet) home heating well.

UK residential heating, responsible for 10 to 20% of the UK's carbon footprint [CCC2019technical], must decarbonise as part of Net Zero goals to tackle climate change. Gas-fired radiator systems in circa 20 million UK dwellings standing now that will still be in use in 2050 are likely to be replaced with heat pump systems [UKNIC2023assessment] [ESC2022EoH] [EHS2022energy] [govUK2022boiler] [reguis2021challenges] [piddington2020housing] [CCC2019technical] [hart-davis2023retrofits]. Some current heating systems, especially in dense urban areas, will be replaced with district heating [henretty2020efficiency] [sorensen2023excess] [makasis2023pavements]. Some low demand properties may have simple electric resistive heating with or without storage [govUK2021CODE].

Retrofit done well is not simply a technical exercise: swapping out one ignored white metal box for another. The swap from gas to heat pump also requires resolving challenges in finance, space for water storage and external units, disruption for possible radiator and pipework replacement, disruption and costs of removal of the gas supply in due course, getting used to old noises and quirks going and new ones in their place, learning to provide demand flexibility such as grid responsiveness, understanding new controls and ways of working with the heating. Retrofit on the required scale is a human, social [ambrose2023JUSTHEAT] and political undertaking too.

This research programme aims to find out where parts of the decarbonisation journey can be improved, from regulation through tradesperson upskilling [cretu2022scale] [CSE2023retrofit] [LCP2023installer] [toleikyte2023deployment] to improved user agency and comfort and health [donkin2024health], and then help make the necessary impact.

This work will focus on two main top areas: controls and transition.

Literature review

Domestic heat-pump / zoning / thermal regulation

Current Europe-wide thermal regulation schemes for domestic heat-pumps

Heat-pump retrofits - must fabric improvements happen first or at all?

Research design/plan

Research objectives

Find for robust reasonable maximum carbon emission savings at a reasonable price. Not necessarily a 'perfect' engineering solution.

Objectives include "impact" and "extension": disseminating findings to and beyond academia, eg to practitioners and end-users to gain real-world reduction in climate change and its effects (mitigation and adaptation).


Data gathering

Data analysis




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