All you can heat
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All you can heat

Heating engineers can be more productive, and that’s a good thing

I won’t make myself popular saying this, but it needs to be said: heating engineers can be more productive. Actually, not just heating engineers. The whole construction industry — plumbers, carpenters, electricians and so on — needs to be more productive. But I’m going to focus on installing heat pumps here.

That might sound like a criticism, but it isn’t meant to be. It isn’t just down to heating engineers to get more productive; it is about the technologies and support systems they have available, the rules and market structures they work within. Productivity is not about how hard you work, or necessarily about how skilled you are. It is about the help you have to do the job — what technologies and tools you have available, how you match with customers, how you cut down on time-wasting tasks and so on. It’s about trying to make the job more productive, not necessarily the person.

When I say “be more productive”, I really mean “save time”. The best way to measure the productivity of a heating engineer is by how long it takes to do a job, like fitting a heat pump (economists call this “labour productivity”). Increasing productivity is all about making the time consuming tasks — filling forms, doing heat loss surveys, buying equipment, maybe even fitting pipes and pumps itself — quicker and less painful.

To be clear, I am not advocating raising productivity at the expense of quality or efficiency. Highly skilled heating engineers fitting high quality heating systems is essential, non-negotiable even. Doing installations more quickly by cutting corners is not increasing productivity — it’s just lowering the quality of the output. Any race to the bottom that compromises on quality would be a bad thing. I am talking about helping a good quality installation take less time.

The benefits of increasing productivity are huge. Productivity growth is the main way we get richer. Our journey from medieval peasants to modern consumers living in warm homes was built on producing more with our time; the tractors, factories, cars and trains, boilers and fridges all made us rich by making us more productive. And within industries, productivity is the main thing that determines wages and profits. The more value you can produce per hour, the more you’re likely to get paid.

We’re also in a place where there might be costs to not increasing productivity. There are new companies and people entering the industry, trying to make heat pumps cheaper and quicker to install. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it could increase competition in the industry. The best way to keep up with competition is to become more productive.

How could we help heating engineers be more productive?

So how can heating engineers get more productive? Let’s start by looking at the manufacturing industry for a bit of inspiration. After all, the part of the manufacturing industry that includes boilers has increased productivity by 70% since 1997 — while the home installation sector has managed 0% in that time.

Source: ONS Labour productivity statistics for division-level industries. This chart shows productivity in the whole economy, and in the sectors of the economy that includes boiler manufacturers and heating engineers

What has made manufacturers more productive? Well, most obviously they’ve deployed new, labour-saving technologies. Machines and robots do more jobs that humans used to do, saving time. But they’ve also optimised their supply chains, through just-in-time logistics, to make sure inputs are available when they need them. And they’ve improved their processes to be as lean and efficient as possible, to save time and reduce waste.

Of course, it’s unfair to compare installing a heat pump to manufacturing a boiler. Installers mostly work in small companies, in homes rather than factories, and offer a bespoke service, not a mass produced good. But the broad principles — using better technology, optimising supplies, improving processes and so on — can also apply to installing a heat pump.

What kind of things might that involve? Well, the heat loss calculation software that many engineers use is a good example, something that can save time. But what scope is there for it to get better? What if you could do it remotely, without having to visit a property? What if the customer could gather some of the data for you? What if the software also automated your MCS and other paperwork, saving you filling forms? There are plenty of companies involved in this type of software — both long-standing heating companies and new start ups — and the onus will be on them to keep improving their products to (hopefully) make engineers’ lives easier.

How about supply chains? What if you could order equipment in advance of doing the work, perhaps after designing a heating system remotely? What if you could bulk buy with other installers to reduce costs? What if there were tools to help you cut down on travel time by finding installations closest to you? I’m not sure of the extent to which these tools exist, but again these ought to be big opportunities for companies to help heating engineers out.

On processes, are there any steps that heating engineers could take to save time in the process? Octopus have talked about having tools ready in the same order, learning from pit crews — will that really help save time? Are there guides or tools that would make process improvements easier?

On skills, is there scope for heating engineers to specialise, so that the highest skilled designers focus on system design while newer trainees do more of the installation work? Could you have someone dedicated to customer service and planning jobs? Does this mean companies growing, or heating engineers grouping together into partnerships? And if so, how easy and desirable is it to move from a sole trader to a smaller company? Is the support there to do it?

These are all open questions. I don’t have any firm answers, but it seems there are plenty of things that might help heating engineers. One of the things we hope to do in the coming months at Nesta is to map out the heat pump installation process from end to end, and look for opportunities that might help engineers save time and increase productivity.

What barriers are there to increasing productivity?

Of course, there are barriers too. One barrier to raising productivity is the challenge of rolling out new technologies to all installers. As a busy sole trader or small business, it’s not easy to find time to adopt a new technology, or change processes. The reward for it may not seem especially worthwhile either, especially if it just drives down the cost of heat pumps.

One solution to this is to develop technologies that are just easy to use and adopt. The onus there is on the companies and start-ups who develop new solutions to make them as accessible and seamless to use as possible.

Another might be for installers to band together more, to invest in technologies together or share the burden of making improvements. Some companies may also benefit from expanding — the market for heat pumps is expanding after all — which may enable them to specialise and make room for productivity enhancements. It’s worth asking how easy and desirable it is to do this, and whether the support is there to make it possible.

Tell us what you think

Productivity is an issue we at Nesta want to help with, in the spirit of making the job better for installers. We’re planning to publish a paper on skills and capacity in the heating industry in the coming months, and productivity will be one theme in that.

If you’re a heating engineer or someone with an interest in the heating industry, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think could make the biggest difference to increase your productivity? What are the biggest barriers? What are we getting wrong here? Get in touch!

Note: I edited this piece on 17th May 2022 following some very helpful feedback from Mike Sammon on Twitter.

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Andrew Sissons

Andrew Sissons

I write for Nesta’s All You Can Heat by day, and am writing the What Would Make Life Better? series by night. With occasional economic history thrown in too!