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Can heat pumps ever be “sexy like a Tesla”?

In discussions about decarbonising heat, we often hear people lament that heating just isn’t “sexy” enough. A few months ago I was at an event where one of the UK environmental NGOs complained to a room of heating industry professionals that heat pumps are “bl**dy ugly”, and don’t really offer anything over gas boilers in terms of delivering comfort. Why can’t we learn from the likes of Tesla or Apple, they asked, and make a product that offers a superior user experience and looks alright outside our homes?

This got me thinking about how comparable heat pumps are to electric vehicles, and to Teslas in particular. So I looked into the stats, asked the HVAC manufacturers what they thought, and debated the topic with my colleagues. There are certainly some lessons I think we can take from EVs, but there are also fundamental differences between heating and vehicles that we shouldn’t forget. In my view, all this talk of “making heat sexy” is a generally unhelpful distraction from the challenges we really need to address. Here’s why.

Electric vehicles and heat pumps are both still niche market products in the UK. The difference is that there is clearer political ambition for uptake of EVs.

The heating industry tends to overstate the pace of the UK’s eMobility transition. Tesla is often cited as this model example of how to make “green” mainstream, yet it sold only 13,100 cars in Britain in 2019 – 10,600 of which were the cheaper Model 3. In fact, if you look at total battery EV sales as a proportion of new cars sold in 2019 (~1.6%), the numbers aren’t all that different to heat pumps as a proportion of heating system sales in the UK (~1.4%). That’s excluding the ~8 million vehicles sold on the used car market.

graph showing UK heat pump and electric vehicle sales as a % of total 

What’s different for EVs though is the clarity of political ambition. The UK government has said it wants ultra-low emission vehicles to account for over 50% of new car sales by 2030. This long-term policy steer is giving the supply chain confidence to invest and driving economies of scale, which leads me to my next point:

Neither electric vehicles nor heat pumps will become mass market products if they cost customers far more than fossil-fuelled alternatives. The right policies and regulations are needed to achieve cost parity.

What people imply when they say heat isn’t “sexy like a Tesla” is that some customers will buy a £90,000 Tesla, but balk at the idea of spending £9,000 to have a heat pump installed. However, based on UK sales figures, I’d argue that heat pumps are already “sexy like a Tesla” to a small segment of climate conscious customers.

For EVs to cross the chasm and become a mass market product, the costs will have to be competitive with ICE alternatives. At over £80,000 the Tesla Models X and S are currently more than five times the price of a Ford Fiesta, Britain’s best-selling car in 2019. Even the new Tesla Model 3 costs over £40,000. But EVs like the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe are available for under £30,000 – and with reduced vehicle registration and ownership taxes, avoided penalty fees in low emissions zones and lower fuel costs, some EVs can now offer lower lifetime costs than their petrol or diesel counterparts.

Capital costs of vehicles vs. heating appliances in the UK

Just as market interventions have been necessary to accelerate growth of the EV industry, so we need the right targets, policies and regulations to promote the development and uptake of heat pumps, disincentivise fossil fuel heating, and support vulnerable customers. For example, France saw a huge increase in heat pump sales last year following the introduction of income-based grants that meant some households could have a heat pump installed for as little as €1. Another good example is how the Netherlands is tackling the issue of running costs by progressively increasing taxes on gas each year and using the proceeds to reduce taxes on electricity. This is encouraging the development of innovative business models for heat pumps such as asset leasing (see the FCTR E) and comfort as a service (see Eneco), which overcome the upfront cost barrier.

Looks and features will not matter as much to customers for heating as they do for vehicles. For heating, the focus must be on delivering outcomes, rather than increasing customer engagement.

Usually, calls to “make heat sexy” come with objections about the appearance of outdoor units, or some suggestion that nifty smart controls will get customers more excited about their heating. People point to sleek looking Teslas that have integrated touchscreen dashboards and can offer a faster, smoother and quieter driving experience – seemingly forgetting that eMobility comes with its own functionality challenges around charging.

Of course it helps if heat pumps can be made to look as familiar (or at least as discreet) as possible. However, I don’t think it is realistic to hope that customers will ever care as much about the aesthetics and features of their heating system as they do about their car’s. A car is something you have to physically engage with, look at, and be seen in each time you use it. It’s a much more emotional purchase. Heating is something you want working away, out of sight, with as little engagement as possible – “invisibly brilliant” is how one manufacturer put it to me. That’s not to say that features like user-friendly controls, learning algorithms and time-of-use optimisation are unimportant, but we should see them as a means to an end (the end being easy, reliable and affordable comfort) rather than an end in themselves.

A crucial difference between cars and heating is the role of heating installers. Education and training of low carbon heating installers should be the priority.

Finally, if we’re going to compare EVs and heat pumps, there’s one very big difference between buying a new car and buying a new heating appliance we have to acknowledge, and that’s the role of the heating installer. As a consumer, I personally would feel fairly comfortable deciding what EV to buy based on some online research and perhaps a discussion with one of my EV-savvy colleagues. But I wouldn’t feel confident replacing my gas boiler with a heat pump until I’d had a heating engineer check it would work with my radiators and meet my heating requirements at reasonable cost – and I say that as someone who researches heat all day.

Most people are only vaguely aware of exactly what kind of heating system they have and what the alternatives are, and I don’t think that necessarily needs to change before we see mass uptake of low carbon heating appliances. What we do need is enough heating installers with the necessary skills to assess and compare the different options for households, and who can give end-users confidence in switching to an unfamiliar new technology.

That said, it would be easier if more customers understood that the way we heat our homes needs to change. Recent evidence (see Policy Connect and the ESC) has highlighted that while most people are aware that vehicles, air travel and waste contribute to climate change, few associate their home heating with greenhouse gas emissions. There are some small signs this is changing, like the recent increase in mainstream media headlines about emissions from gas boilers. However, far more can still be done by both government and the heating industry itself to raise consumer awareness. Taking an example here from the automotive industry, I remember thinking this ad from an old Nissan Leaf campaign was excellent.

I’d love to know what others think about “making heat sexy”. Please leave your thoughts in the comments, or feel free to reach out directly.

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