Anyone that has worked on improving the performance of existing heat networks knows what the biggest barrier is – getting access into resident properties. From personal experience and speaking with Housing Associations and project managers over the years, I would estimate that most of the time on a project is not spent on the practical works (regular servicing, fixing, recommissioning, replacing, etc) but the resident communications and gaining access into dwellings.

This is a big problem!

Heat Interface Units (HIU) and tertiary systems (the heating and hot water within each dwelling) are the lynchpins of heat network performance and all you need is one or two misbehaving dwellings to destroy the performance of your heat network. Complaints that there isn’t enough hot water or heating across the site? Overheating in communal areas? Plant room pumps running at maximum? It’s probably the HIUs and tertiary systems that are your problem. The impact of a single individual can have a huge impact on everyone that uses the system, which means that heat networks can suffer from individuals acting in their own self-interest and contrary to the common good of all others. This is sometimes known in economic theory as the “tragedy of the commons”.

Before we get to the fun, I would highlight that you could take away a lot of this pain by installing your HIUs outside of the dwellings. But where would the fun be in that?!

So, assuming you need to get access into the dwellings, the key question is then how do we improve customer engagement on these projects? How do incentivize residents to provide access? These are questions that come up frequently on our projects and one that doesn’t have a clear answer. You may have a legal right to get access through the heat supply agreement, but do you really want to start threatening your residents with court action? No, you probably don’t. Wouldn’t it be much better to have residents that allow you access or, even better, actually welcome the engineers into their home?

Well, there’s a field of research known as behavioural science that has some great insight into how we can solve this which includes Nudge theory. In summary, the concept behind the theory is that people’s decision making can be influenced through positive reinforcement, thereby making them think about what their normally unconscious behaviours are. I won’t go into too much further detail here, but I would highly recommend “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics” by Richard Thaler, on the main proponents of Nudge theory and a Nobel Prize winner, as a great book on the history and application of the subject. It’s a theory that’s been put to use by many governments across the world including the UK’s very own Behavioural Insights Team. One great example of its application is the 5p tax on plastic bags which saw a 95% reduction in their use in just one year of introduction.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that there are already some great applications of Nudge theory in heat networks and the energy sector in general. For example, in Scandinavia volume-based tariffs on heat networks are used to incentivize low return temperatures. Usually, the financial penalties are not large enough to cause financial distress to residents but are sufficient to “nudge” customers into acting and getting their system optimised. It’s an approach that we’ve tried on a few systems, but it is still pretty unheard of in the UK.


A few months ago, we decided to have an internal workshop at FairHeat involving all of our staff to see if we could apply Nudge theory to increasing resident engagement. None of it is rocket science but it was a really interesting exercise to look at these problems from a different perspective and to apply different concepts to try to solve them. Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of our ideas.

Winner Takes It All

This idea is based on a concept in Nudge theory called loss aversion. The basis of the concept is that people tend to value the pain of loss much greater than the pleasure of gaining something.

One approach we’ve seen applied by operators is to provide an incentive to get access – for example, a £5 top-up on their heat pay as you go meter. However, applying this concept would suggest that a much more effective approach would be to provide everyone with the £5 top up on day one but only on the agreement that the resident provides access within a certain time period. If they don’t provide access in, for example, one month, then remove that £5 from their account.

An even more interesting (and fun!) approach would be to host a monthly lottery event. Each month, a resident would be picked at random and if their system was running efficiently, they would get a reward. However, if the resident that was picked had a poorly performing system, they wouldn’t get the prize. Again, the theory tells us that people will value the potential loss of that reward more than actually getting the reward itself!

One of Us

Another powerful concept in behavioural economics is normative social behaviour. This is a fancier way of saying that people tend to want to fit in and not stick out from the crowd. If all your neighbours and peers are doing something, then it is much more likely that you will follow suit.

This can be a powerful technique when communicating to residents. Instead of “we would like to get access to your dwelling to carry out HIU servicing”, it can be framed as “nine out ten residents provide access to their dwellings within one week to help us carry out servicing to your HIU”. A small difference, but one that makes the resident think about taking positive action instead of sub-consciously ignoring the message.

People also react much better to messages that come from their peer groups. So, a photo and a short positive testimony from one of the other residents on the scheme will be much more persuasive than a standard request. Even more powerful if the resident is someone who is influential and well-known at the scheme.

Money, Money, Money

Of course, financial penalties are still an option in getting access to dwellings. However, understandably, a lot of heat network operators have vulnerable or low-income customers and so large financial penalties aren’t a realistic option. This is a particular concern for public sector heat network operators such as Housing Associations or Local Authorities.

However, as I mentioned earlier, even relatively trivial amounts of money, such as those used in the plastic bag tax, can be enough to get residents thinking about their actions. An additional 5 pence per day on the standing charge may be enough to motivate them to give access, particularly if it’s highlighted on their smart meter as an ongoing penalty acting as a constant reminder.

Knowing Me, Knowing You

I think that there is great potential in some of these concepts and I would love to hear ideas from others that work on existing heat networks. If you would like to have a chat about potentially using one of these approaches or if you have any interesting insights yourself that are a bit different from the way these things have always done things before, then please do contact me.