Radiators and heat pumps

Radiators and heat pumps

Heat pump energy delivery can be calculated using just 3 parameters. The flow of water passing through the machine and the inlet and output temperatures – that’s all.  Heat pumps deliver energy at lower temperatures than gas or oil boilers so they need to flow more water to contain and transport that energy. That’s why the pipes coming out of a heat pump are fairly large.  When that high flow is confronted by the slightly smaller pipes of a system designed for radiators it can get bogged down, even more so when the house has zoned heating areas and many parts are shut down. For these reasons the heat pump must be able to modulate the output flow – not all can.

The same 3 parameter calculation – flow and temperature drop – applies to radiators and for that matter, to heated floors. In typical 15mm OD pipes, leading directly off a radiator, flow will be around 7 litres/minute  and, when supplied from a gas or oil boiler, at least 65C on the inlet, dropping to say 55C on the outlet (Dt of 10). The power extracted and delivered to the room in this case would be 4.9kW.

As flow is constrained by pipe size it is the design and size of the radiator that decides how much energy it can transmit and what the resulting Dt is. Heat transmission is restricted by any sludge on the inside and also the insulating boundary layer of air on the outside, like the slower flow near the banks of a river. The rate of loss of heat is proportional to the excess temperature of the surroundings, so clearly hotter radiators work best and also benefit from a stronger updraught stripping heat off for the benefit of the room.

If we lower the temperature range to say 45 in, 35 out (typical heat pump) the calculation for power delivery would remain the same (Dt of 10 again) but the temperature drop is harder to achieve as the lower differential to the room cuts the updraught and also the heat transfer. The result can be a disastrous drop in performance – more than half. Your shiny new heat pump might have the nominal power output but the rads just can’t shift it to the rooms.

Assuming you are not able to dig up your floors for under-floor heating the solution is to blow air over the radiator surface to shift that boundary layer and replace it with cool air at room temperature, just like blowing on a hot cup of tea. That’s what fan-coil units do – they are fan assisted radiators.

Reverting back to our power calculation the other parameter is flow, so turning up the heating circulation pump speed is worth a try although pipe size imposes limits on this. Of course increasing pipe size is an often suggested solution and the right one if micro-bore pipes are in use. However my model suggests that the normal 15mm pipes will do as long as the delta T can be reached. Quite often the main feed will be in 22mm pipe with 15mm take offs to the radiators.

Ultimately just one pipe feeds all the radiators from your main heat source and it might well be typical 22mm copper tube with an I.D. of 20mm. This can easily flow about 14 litres/minute which with a 10 degrees Dt produces 9.8kW. The choice of power output of the heat pump is limited by the pipes it serves.

Of course if two or more pipes can be fed in parallel from the source then all these flow issues disappear.

Theoretically some heat pumps can deliver 60 degree temperatures but it is a struggle, particularly in very cold weather, and will result in a COP near to 2.5.  Fitting fan-coils will lift the COP to about 3 and give much better performance all round. The order of play should be to get the heat pump installed and the RHI grant established then start fitting fan-coil units and turning down the set point as you go. Check out here for an inexpensive DIY fan-coil unit  (pictured)

DIY fan-coil unit

At this point you might be dismayed to realise that your house needs more energy than your pipes and radiators can transmit. Don’t despair though. Have a think about installing a mini-split as well. These are independent, air to air heat pump units, quite cheap and they can do air conditioning as well as make heat. They make excellent partners with PV panels which apart from running your heat pump in the winter will have masses of surplus power in the summer to run air conditioning.

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