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Breffni Eco Group: Expertise in deep retrofitting
22nd February 2023

Changing attitudes: Retrofitting and fuel switching

Health psychologist Fiona Fylan says that while public acceptance of the need to retrofit their homes is increasing, barriers still exist, including a lack of public confidence in policies, and installer reluctance to recommend retrofitting.

Fylan outlines a range of behavioural change research in sustainability, carried out in the context of a growing acknowledgment that not only is the transition to net zero going to bring about fundamental changes to energy use in the home, but also that retrofit will play a key role in all envisaged alternative fuel futures.

Fylan, a professor at the Leeds Sustainability Institute at Leeds Beckett University, explains that research with the public and installers around alternative heating solutions, including hydrogen, heat pumps, and retrofitting, have led her to three key research findings:

1. There is an increased awareness of the need for change in the context of the energy trilemma;

2. Trust is a critical component of changing behaviours; and

3. A significant challenge exists in the upselling of efficiency and comfort.

Focusing on the privately owned and private rental markets, Fylan says that the energy trilemma – the need for energy to be sustainable, secure, and affordable – plays an important role in attitudes towards retrofitting. However, she stresses that the historical view that the public is resistant to change is outdated. Instead, research indicates a broad acceptance of the need to change and for change to happen in the near term.

“The reality is that often installers are reluctant to upsell retrofit for fear it will make their quote non-competitive.”

“People are increasingly aware of how heating their homes is affecting the environment and that they have a responsibility to make changes. To use less energy and to reduce carbon emissions both for themselves and for future generations.

“A big plus in relation to alternative heating systems is that people think that a shift in their energy use to zero carbon heating is a relatively easy step to take. So, in terms of the sustainability element of the trilemma, we are largely there, people are onside.”

Fylan pinpoints a noticeable recent change in relation to the cost element of the trilemma. Where previously concerns centred on support for the most vulnerable members of society, recent price increases have seen that concern broadened to include their own situation. Stressing therefore, the importance of keeping costs controllable, the professor says that a particular concern raised about taking part in trials of alternative energies is the potential rising costs beyond any trial or support period.”

On energy security, research finds that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the public’s awareness of the source of their fuel, and their interest in locally produced fuels. “People are very interested in the fact that both hydrogen and heat pumps are going to increase energy resilience.”


Fylan’s research suggests that historical assumptions that people would be concerned about the safety of hydrogen are somewhat unfounded, with the public trusting that adequate testing had been carried out.

However, where trust was found to be lacking was in relation to contracts with energy companies. “People expressed a lack of trust in being tied into a relationship they cannot get out of or have no control over. So, district heating, for example, or standing charges for retrofits. They want confirmation that if costs do rise substantially or become less favourable, they have the option to switch to a different supplier or change their heating source.”

Some remedy for this concern, which bore out in the research, is personal recommendations from friends or family, and reassurance from trusted suppliers.

Interestingly, Fylan highlights the role installers have in the uptake of alternative heating technology and how they can act as a potential barrier. On upselling the efficiencies of retrofitting when installing new appliances, the professor points to the challenges of perceptions that customers are very price sensitive. “Our research suggests that the most cost-effective approach is a whole-house approach to retrofit and so it would make sense that, when quoting for a job, installers offer the option of increased energy efficiency. However, the reality is that often installers are reluctant to upsell retrofit for fear it will make their quote non-competitive,” she explains.

“This is despite evidence which suggests that customers are more willing to spend money on energy efficiency improvements because of the large increase in energy prices.”

Further challenges in relation to installers flagged by the research is a wariness around new technology and new techniques, as installers need to guarantee their work, but lack experience of, and so confidence in, the new technology or techniques. Similarly, installers dislike retrofitting old buildings due to the increased complexity.

She adds: “Now more than ever people are willing to pay for energy efficiency improvements, but they want to know how much it is going to cost and how much they are going to save. Some of the biggest barriers to upgrading insulation and installing heat pumps are that people do not feel like they are getting a personalised service. They are not getting to see figures for their specific home or their potential savings.”

A final barrier identified by Fylan is around retrofit standards. She explains: “Some installers have a perception that retrofit is an unskilled job. There is very low awareness and credibility of retrofit standards and scepticism around potential negative consequences of on-site adaptations. There appears to be a real lack of awareness of the importance of how what they are doing onsite can affect the building’s performance substantially.”

Summarising the research findings, Fylan concludes: “The energy trilemma is having a marked effect on people’s acceptance of alternative fuels and retrofitting. Additionally, trusted installers have a major role in increasing energy efficiency, but there is a noticeable reluctance to retrofit older buildings. Low awareness and understanding of retrofit standards could compromise thermal efficiency and comfort.”