How apps can bridge the skills gap for commissioning Heat Networks

The UK must increase the proportion of heat delivered over heat networks from about 2.5% today to at least 20% by 2050 if it is to cost-effectively meet its legally binding carbon targets. However, even where heat networks are well-designed, they are often not properly commissioned. This results in high heat loss, increased fuel use, increased costs for both the network operator and the consumer, and poor customer experience. Real-world results from a project delivered by Guru Systems in collaboration with the UK Government showed that proper commissioning alone can reduce heat losses on networks by nearly 70%.

To address this inefficiency risk, rather than rely on commissioning certificates, it is increasingly common for developers of new UK heat networks to require Acceptance Testing, a process of using measured data and photographic evidence to verify commissioning outcomes. Unfortunately the expertise to carry out such tests is very limited, thereby driving up cost and creating a significant skills gap.

Guru Verify is a mobile app and web app designed to make Acceptance Testing quicker and more cost effective by making it more transparent to all stakeholders and enabling less skilled technicians to reliably follow the process. The web app allows the developer or their advisors to define the test criteria and check dwelling status remotely, track progress across the entire site online and access results and photographic evidence for as long as is needed.

Guru Verify has already been used to verify commissioning on more than 1000 homes connected to UK heat networks. The mobile app has proven to make the Acceptance Testing process much clearer so that it’s now possible to be undertaken by non-expert engineers. The web app has proven to save significant time both across the pre-processing and postprocessing stages. Heat networks where all homes have undergone Acceptance Testing using the Guru Verify app outperform their design parameters, including routinely achieving return temperatures of 30 degrees. 

* This presentation was shown on the 13 September 2022 at the 8th International Conference on Smart Energy Systems, in Aalborg

Transcription of webinar 

I’m Casey Cole, the CEO at London-based technology scale-up Guru Systems. Today I’m going to talk to you about our experience of building a mobile and web app to digitalise the process of commissioning a heat network.

Before we start, I’d like to introduce you to Guru Systems. We’ve got ten years experience of developing intelligent technology to make energy systems more transparent, lower cost and lower carbon. There are around fifty of us in the team, and so far we’ve delivered more than 45,000 devices across residential heat networks in the United Kingdom. We capture data from these heat networks, and we have a number of software solutions that help heat network developers and operators meet regulatory requirements, and manage the performance of their networks. We process more than one billion different measurements from our deployed hardware every month, but it’s what we do with that data where the story gets interesting.

You can see the names of our technology solutions across the bottom here, but today I’m here to talk about Guru Verify – our mobile and web app for quicker and more cost effective heat network commissioning.

Correct commissioning can significantly reduce heat losses. When I talk about heat network commissioning, I’m referring to the process of ensuring that the heat network is operating as detailed in the design, before any residents move into the building and the heat network enters the ‘operation’ stage. Our experience at Guru Systems is that getting it right at commissioning stage can make all the difference when it comes to efficiency of a heat network.

Real-world results from a project delivered by Guru Systems in collaboration with the UK Government showed that proper commissioning alone can reduce heat losses on networks by nearly 70%.

That’s actually what we’re looking at here, with these two charts. This shows you a before and after on a project we ran with a heat networks consultancy called FairHeat. We worked with several heat networks in the UK that had not been properly commissioned, and were not performing well – often at efficiencies around 30% or 40% relative to design efficiencies of well over 80%. The projects saw a number of interventions made, and using the data captured and then analysed by Guru Systems technology, we showed that significant heat loss reductions could be made if only commissioning was done properly.

In an effort to drive better heat network performance, two years ago the industry in the UK came together to publish an updated version of our heat networks code of practice, or CP1 2020 for short. CP1 isn’t regulation yet, instead it’s a best practice guide for building good heat networks. CP1 2020 is comprehensive, with hundreds of recommended minimum standards and best practice points. However, one area of the Code that has seen significant change is around heat network commissioning.

CP1 2020 introduces ‘Acceptance Testing’. Heat networks consultancy FairHeat describe Acceptance Testing as ‘rigorous testing to verify dwelling performance by ensuring the installation, commissioning and operation are as per the design and performance specification’. In CP1, minimum standards now require independent testing on a sample of dwellings in a building – although best practice is to test every dwelling.

At Guru Systems we advocate Acceptance Testing 100% of dwellings. Why? Well, in our experience it only takes one poorly performing heat interface unit (abbreviated to HIU) to throw off a heat network. When performing well, in standby mode an HIU might see four litres of water pass through every hour, however when settings are wrong, this could be as high as 400 or 500 litres per hour. So if, for example, you had 100 HIUs on a network, and 99 HIUs were performing well, but one was performing very badly, the amount of high temperature water running through that one HIU could be more than the rest of the other HIUs combined. This would flood the energy centre with lots of hot water, with knock on effects of higher heat loss, higher cost of delivered heat, higher carbon emissions, maybe your boiler stops condensing or your heat pump COP drops.

The challenge we have is that there is limited experience to deliver Acceptance Testing in the UK, which makes it expensive. There is also a significant skills gap which we need to overcome if Acceptance Testing is to be carried out on all UK heat networks.

Historically to do heat network commissioning well, you needed very well trained engineers, and the process was manual. These are just some of the photos the Guru Systems design team took when researching the problem. While this process was supposed to deliver a well commissioned heat network, in reality we heard it was more common for an engineer on site to sit with their coffee and sign certificates without even visiting the dwelling. We’ve heard of commissioning certificates being handed to clients with the rings from coffee mugs visible alongside the signature of the contractor.

What this means in practice is that mistakes are missed. We’ve been to poorly commissioned networks where we’ve found incorrect HIU set points, we’ve found missing insulation, unbalanced heating systems and even radiators installed back to front.

Now that acceptance testing is required under CP1 2020, we needed to find a way to ensure that the scenes from these images aren’t repeated as our industry grows.

Our solution was to develop Guru Verify. Guru Verify is a mobile and web app to deliver quicker and more cost effective Acceptance Testing. We developed it in partnership with FairHeat, the consultancy we did that 2016 study with, and as well as complying with CP1 2020, it allows heat network developers to benchmark for future maintenance and efficiency improvements and hold their supply chain to account. Crucially, it’s been designed for all levels of expertise so it makes it possible for anyone to test a network – even brand new apprentices.

You can see photos here of the engineers using the app to go through the process step by step, and enter results as they go, one of the real values of the product is the web platform.

The web platform allows you to define testing criteria and check dwelling status remotely. It’s possible to track progress across the entire site online, and you can access results and photographic evidence for as long as you need.

Here you can see what a site dashboard looks like. This can be used by a team lead to check how far through the team is.

From there you can look at an overview of each dwelling, seeing at a glance whether each dwelling has passed or failed each stage of the test, and whether any re-tests are required.

If you click on a dwelling, an overview of the results for each section of the test are shown.

These can be expanded to check individual values.

And evidence relating to any visual inspection can be accessed.

These results are stored on the cloud and can be accessed by different stakeholders at different points, for example within a warranty period, or to check back against when recommissioning a network years down the line.

Before we finish up, I want to take you through three case studies of sites where Guru Verify has been used – and show the real impact it’s having on heat network performance.

The first case study is from a site with 337 homes in London. We’ve taken a snapshot of the data we see on our performance management software Guru Pinpoint now that residents have moved in.

The graph here from Guru Pinpoint shows a well performing dwelling. Flow rate (light blue) is low when the HIU is in standby mode, but when heat is required (when the heating is turned on in the morning) then flow rate rises, the flow temperature (dark blue) hits around 65°C, but return temperatures (green) are low (around 30°C) showing that heat energy is being extracted from the network as it should be. When the heating is turned off, flow rate drops right back down again.

Another site, this time we’re looking at data from the energy centre of another network in London.

Data from the energy centre shows that despite varying load across the week (yellow line), flow temperatures (blue line) and return temperatures (green line) sit steadily at around 60°C and 30°C.

The graph here shows a day in the life of one dwelling on the Stone Studios network. Although it might look chaotic, this is what a well performing dwelling looks like. When heat is demanded, flow rate (in light blue) increases, and the delta T – the difference between flow temperature (in dark blue) and the return temperature (in green) – is very large. At a given flow rate, the larger the delta T, the more heat energy is being extracted from the heat network, and the cooler the water returning to the energy centre is.

In conclusion, when heat networks are commissioned correctly, they can perform really well, helping to keep costs for operators and customers low.

To deliver successful commissioning, digital tools like Guru Verify are a must if we’re to support our growing industry and address the skills gap in a sustainable way.

Before I finish, I want to reinforce the point I make about digital tools.

Guru Verify is just one of the products we make to accelerate the decarbonisation of heat. The graphs showing heat network performance come from our software platform Guru Pinpoint. Pinpoint uses machine learning algorithms to help operators identify and resolve heat network performance issues.

I also mentioned that we developed Guru Verify in partnership with FairHeat. We think that collaboration is going to be key if we’re to solve our decarbonisation challenges as quickly as possible. As well as working with FairHeat, we’ve collaborated with Caleffi Group (branded as Altecnic in the UK) to create a hardware and software solution that allows you to read and control HIUs remotely. We’re really excited for the potential of this solution used in conjunction with Guru Verify to make the commissioning process even faster – and to ensure networks stay performing well over time.

On that note, I’d like to end my presentation here. Thank you for listening, and thank you to the Smart Energy Systems International Conference for organising this event. Please do get in touch if you have any questions, or if you’d like to collaborate.