A Guide to Sustainable Heating in Australia

Using sustainable heating solutions to achieve carbon-neutral buildings.

In June 2022, the Australian government formally committed to a higher greenhouse gas reduction target of 43% below 2005 levels by 2030 and pledged to support a 30% global reduction in methane by 2030. This is in line with the global target of Net Zero Emissions by 2050.

As an industry that contributes almost a quarter of the country’s total emissions, the built environment plays a major role in helping the government achieve this target. This means that, in the future, sustainable buildings will not only have to be energy-efficient but also carbon-neutral. For more on this subject, see The Importance of Electrification in the Sustainable Built Environment.

Carbon neutrality means that the building’s carbon emissions are balanced by an equivalent amount of carbon being removed, usually through climate-positive initiatives. Achieving this involves choosing construction materials with the lowest climate impact, identifying the building systems and components that contribute to its total carbon footprint, adopting green technologies and optimising operations to eliminate or minimise this footprint, and investing in carbon sinks, such as forests and oceans, to offset any carbon emissions that remain.

Just as buildings largely contribute to the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, heating systems play a significant role in the energy usage and carbon footprint of a building. In this article, we’ll explore how sustainable heating solutions can help your property achieve net zero emissions, and how Automatic Heating can guide you, property owners, facility managers, specifiers and developers, in your journey towards carbon neutrality.

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Key factors to consider

There’s no doubt going green has now become the gold standard in the built environment. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. When designing and implementing sustainable heating solutions, several factors need to be considered as follows.
In the following article, we will unpack these points and explain how to take advantage of carbon neutral heating solutions to meet your Net Zero objectives and achieve substantial energy savings. To learn more about carbon-neutral heating, visit Carbon-neutral Heating Solutions.
126 Bathurst Street Hobart

Is it a new system or an upgrade of an existing one?

There is a vast difference in the approach between new construction and retrofit projects. With a new system, you can build everything right the first time and install the newest, most energy-efficient heating technology suitable to your project requirements. Especially in large projects, the best practice is to involve heating engineers from the start of conceptualization in order to maximise potential savings and optimise performance in coordination with other building systems and components.

On the other hand, in retrofit projects, there is often a need to work with existing systems, field conditions, and system parameters, which can limit your options during equipment selection. For instance, the capacity of the existing electrical system may limit the size of the heating equipment that you can install on the property. So if you want to install a large heating system, there may be an additional need to reconfigure the electrical system as well.

1. 10 Lilydale Grove, Hawthorn
3. 10 Lilydale Grove, Hawthorn

Therefore, before starting any retrofitting project, you will have to identify and consider all systems that may be affected by the change — which components should be replaced, reused, repurposed, or scrapped — and weigh the benefits and costs of each option. When changing technologies, it is important to design a system that optimises the new technology based on the current property conditions instead of just replacing the old equipment with a comparable product.

Retrofitting can be tricky, especially if the building is old or not conforming to building standards. However, a well-engineered retrofit can save so much energy that it can pay for itself in just a few years.

Performance and sustainability goals

Before starting any construction or retrofitting project, you need to define your project goals clearly. What do you want your heating system to achieve? These may include objectives such as compliance with building codes and standards, attaining your desired comfort and performance levels, and achieving the required sustainability benchmarks set by independent accreditation bodies.

By law, any building project should adhere to the National Construction Code which sets the required minimum standards for the safety, health, amenity, accessibility, and sustainability of all buildings in Australia. When designing your heating system, provisions in this code must be considered in addition to the comfort and performance requirements of your property. These comfort and performance requirements may include temperature, humidity, response time, and efficiency requirements, as well as the functionalities that you want your heating system to have. Identifying these requirements requires involvement and coordination with all stakeholders— tenants, engineers, management, and all concerned government authorities.

Breese St_3_opt
Breese St_4_opt

However, just complying with these mandatory and performance requirements wouldn’t necessarily make your project sustainable and carbon-neutral. To ensure that your project meets both the national and global standards for sustainability, you can voluntarily apply to have it certified by independent sustainability accreditation bodies. In Australia, we currently have two sustainability rating systems: Green Star and NABERS.

Green Star is a sustainability rating system being administered by the Green Building Council of Australia. It is composed of four rating tools: Green Star – Design and As Built for the design and construction of a building, Green Star – Communities for the planning and delivery of projects at the neighbourhood, precinct, or community scale, Green Star – Interiors for new interior fit-outs in a building, and Green Star – Performance for the operational performance of an existing building. These tools assess projects against various environmental impact categories including indoor environment quality, energy, emissions, water, transport, land use and ecology, materials, innovation, and management. In this scale, projects with the best sustainability practices are given the maximum 6-star rating.

On the other hand, NABERS, which stands for the National Australian Built Environment Rating System, is focused on assessing a building’s operational efficiency across four key aspects: energy, water, waste, and indoor environments. Just like Green Star, the NABERS rating scale ranges from 1 to 6. They have also partnered with Climate Active to provide a Carbon Neutral certification.

These targeted plans should be defined as early as possible in order to maximise resources and avoid unexpected changes along the way.

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CO2 Heat pumps installed at Breese St apartments

Heating Applications

After defining your project goals, another important factor to consider is the purpose of your heating system. What will it be used for? Typically, heating applications in commercial buildings include domestic hot water systems, space heating, and pool heating, among others. Identifying the size, location, and type of heating applications is important to accurately determine the total heating demand and select the appropriate model and capacity of the heating equipment that you need to install on the property.

When sizing the heating system, look at the building as a whole. How is the heating demand affected by the different building components? Do not just size the system based on the current peak demand. Explore the different ways to lessen it.

For example, insulating and sealing the building envelope, integrating heating and cooling, and using passive thermal systems can all greatly reduce the demand for active space heating and contribute to a flatter grid demand profile. By lessening the peak demand and temperature lift, you are not only reducing the space requirements and size of equipment to be used but also helping the heating system perform more effectively and efficiently.

1. Monash Uni Building 48
Some situations benefit from the use of prefabricated skid frame packages, such as those displayed on our Prefab Photo Gallery.

Examples of sustainable heating projects

Available technology

Once you have a clear picture of your project requirements and heating demand, the next thing to do is research and find out which technology suits your application best. There are a lot of available heating technologies in the market. However, not all technologies are created equal. When looking into the different options, it is important to evaluate and consider factors like cost, available fuel, equipment efficiency, warranty, the complexity of installation, supplier reputation, and environmental impact, among others.

Traditionally, boilers (or water heaters) have been the most popular technology used in commercial heating. The concept of its operation is simple— by burning gas, diesel, or some sort of biomass, a flame is produced which is then used to heat water via heat exchangers. However, as a technology that involves burning fossil fuels, boilers produce exhaust that contains greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide. Modern boilers use condensing technology to minimise these gases and increase efficiency, however, they still do not completely get rid of on-site emissions.

Ramsden Street Reserve
A successful transition from instantaneous gas heating to a fully electrified high efficiency CO2 Heat Pump delivers a carbon neutral solution for this sports facility at Ramsden Street Reserve, Clifton Hill.
1. Revere CO2 Heat Pump

In hopes of solving this problem, the use of renewable hydrogen gas as an alternative fuel for boilers is being explored. Unlike fossil fuels, burning hydrogen gas emits no carbon dioxide; instead, it yields water— making it the most environmentally-friendly combustion fuel available emissions-wise.

In Australia, the Future Fuels Cooperative Research Centre is studying the feasibility of using hydrogen gas or hydrogen blends with existing gas appliances and industrial equipment. Some states have also started to blend at least 5% hydrogen with natural gas into their gas distribution networks, and the country is poised to blend more in the coming years. However, the production of hydrogen gas through electrolysis is expensive and requires a huge amount of electrical energy. Even though we can use renewable energy to keep the process carbon-neutral, a technological breakthrough is needed to make it cheaper. At its present state, it is more cost-effective and practical to use alternative heating technologies like heat pumps.

The future of the sustainable built environment is electrification. In the heating sector, this means shifting to electric-powered green heating technologies like heat pumps. A heat pump is an appliance that manipulates a confined refrigerant to extract thermal energy from the environment and produce heat.

Although ambient air is the most common thermal source for a heat pump, there are also other renewable options including the ground, water bodies, and wastewater, among others. (See: Types of Electric Heat Pumps) Two or more thermal sources can even be integrated to allow redundancy and improve system efficiency.

Since a heat pump essentially only uses electricity to facilitate heat transfer between the thermal source and the circulating water, it can reach net efficiencies of up to 450% with respect to the electrical power input. This is much higher than typical boiler efficiencies which can reach around 95%. In addition, since it runs on electricity, it eliminates on-site carbon emissions.

There are several heat pump models available on the market. The most common ones use HFC refrigerants. However, an emerging technology that is becoming popular among sustainable developments is the CO2 heat pump. As the name suggests, a CO2 heat pump uses supercritical carbon dioxide as a refrigerant operating under a transcritical cycle. This means that carbon dioxide is compressed beyond its critical pressure, allowing a much higher heat rejection through sensible cooling and increasing the overall heat pump efficiency. Carbon dioxide is also known to have the lowest global warming potential (GWP) and ozone depletion potential (ODP) among all common refrigerants today. With a 1.0 GWP and zero ODP, CO2 heat pumps are undoubtedly the best option for sustainable and carbon-neutral buildings.

2. Revere CO2 Heat Pump

Suitability with building conditions

Not all types of heating systems will be suitable for your project. Aside from limitations on heating capacity, you also have to consider if your property conditions can handle the heating equipment. Generally, power supply and space are the two most common challenges, especially if you’re upgrading from a boiler to a heat pump system. Can your existing electrical system handle the additional load from the heat pump? Will it fit the space available on your property?

A heat pump system uses a significant amount of power that likely was not considered in the original electrical system design. Revere CO2 heat pump’s power consumption, for example, ranges from 2.3 kW to 24 kW. This can be a huge load especially if you will be using multiple units. It is important to know if the existing provision for the incoming power supply can handle this load or if there is a need to upgrade. Fortunately, in most cases, an electrical upgrade can be avoided with proper engineering and optimisation of peak load.

Another limitation that needs to be considered is space. In general, heat pumps have a larger footprint per kW than boilers, especially in larger capacities. In most applications, they also require additional thermal storage in order to increase the efficiency and reliability of the system. When selecting a heating system, make sure that your property has ample space to accommodate the equipment and the necessary clearance. Especially for retrofitting projects, all of these limitations must be considered to avoid costly variation orders.

Nightingale Village

An example of energy efficient electrified heating, this prefabricated packaged DHW system now completed at Nightingale Village, is servicing the hot water needs of four buildings in this remarkable development.

Comprising Revere CHE Series heat pumps and Thermex insulated stainless steel tanks, this system avoids the use of fossil fuels and offers a cost effective, energy efficient solution for domestic hot water heating. The Revere CHE Series uses R290 a highly efficient natural refrigerant with low environmental impact, making it suitable for projects delivering sustainable outcomes.

Budget and payback period

Ultimately, your budget and required payback period will dictate which sustainable heating technology to use. In general, heat pumps have a higher upfront cost than boilers. However, because heat pumps have much higher efficiency, their potential energy savings could prove to be more beneficial in the long run. It is important to get quotations, conduct a benefit-cost analysis, and compare ROIs in order to select the best heating option and configuration for your property.

It is also important to note that the government provides incentives for sustainable businesses that choose to go green. An example of this is the Emissions Reductions Fund which gives businesses that adopt green practices and technologies from select sectors the opportunity to earn Australian carbon credit units for every tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent they store or avoid emitting.

Revere CO2 Heat Pumps at Menarock Aged Care

How Automatic Heating can help you

The pathway to carbon neutrality can be quite confusing. It involves embracing change and new technologies that may be different from your standard business point of view. These solutions must make sense financially as much as they do environmentally. Fortunately, most of these carbon-neutral technologies can be engineered and configured to suit a wide range of applications across all industries. All you need is a specialised engineering team you can trust to handle the job for you. That is where Automatic Heating can help you!

Automatic Heating is the leading provider of water-based heating and hot water systems to the commercial HVAC market across Australia. We have designed, engineered, and built sustainable heating solutions for a diverse portfolio of projects including multi-residential apartments, sporting pavilions, universities, health and aged-care facilities, aquatic centres, and schools, among others.

126 Bathurst Street-9_opt
126 Bathurst Street-9

For examples of these projects and to learn more about carbon-neutral heating, visit our Carbon-neutral Heating Solutions page.

Our aim is to deliver the most efficient and environmentally sustainable heating system for your project. Contact our technical engineering team to know more about how we can help you!

Sustainable Heating Solutions FAQ

What is sustainability in the built environment?

Sustainability in the built environment refers to the use of design, construction, and planning techniques that minimise the environmental impact of buildings and other structures. This can include using energy-efficient materials and technologies, incorporating renewable energy sources, and designing buildings to be adaptable and flexible over time.

One of the key challenges in achieving sustainability in the built environment is the need to balance the conflicting priorities of economic development, social well-being, and environmental protection. For example, building materials and technologies that are more sustainable may be more expensive upfront, but they can save money in the long run by reducing energy and water use.

One way to promote sustainability in the built environment is through the use of green building standards and certification programs, such as the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. These programs establish guidelines for the design and construction of buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable, and healthy for occupants.

Another important aspect of sustainability in the built environment is the integration of natural systems into the design of buildings and urban areas. This can include green roofs, rain gardens, and other features that help manage stormwater runoff, reduce air pollution, and provide habitat for wildlife.

Ultimately, achieving sustainability in the built environment will require a coordinated effort by designers, builders, planners, and policymakers. By working together, we can create buildings and urban environments that are not only sustainable, but also enhance the quality of life for all people.

What heating systems are considered sustainable?

There are several types of heating systems that are considered sustainable, including geothermal heating, solar heating, and heat pump systems. Geothermal heating systems use the earth’s natural heat to warm a building, while solar heating systems use the sun’s energy to provide heat. Heat pump systems use electricity to move heat from one place to another, making them a more efficient alternative to traditional heating systems. These systems are all considered sustainable because they use renewable energy sources and can help reduce a building’s carbon footprint.

What is meant by electrification?

Electrification refers to the process of replacing traditional fossil fuel-based energy sources with electricity. This can involve the use of electric vehicles, electric heating and cooling systems, and the widespread adoption of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. Electrification is a key strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change, as it can help to decarbonize the energy system and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

What are the pros and cons of electrification?

The main advantage of electrification is that it can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change by replacing fossil fuel-based energy sources with electricity from renewable sources. This can also improve air quality by reducing pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. Additionally, electrification can lead to the development of new technologies and industries, creating jobs and economic growth.

On the other hand, electrification can also have some disadvantages. The transition to an electrified energy system can be expensive, and may require significant investment in infrastructure such as power plants and transmission lines. It can also lead to higher energy costs for consumers, at least in the short term. Additionally, the increased demand for electricity can put strain on the power grid, and may require upgrades to ensure reliability.

An approach which can assist in mitigating the increased capital expenditure and power load is to implement a hybrid heating solution. This involves the installation of electrified heating systems such as heat pumps to manage the base load heating demands, in conjunction with high efficiency gas fueled condensing water heaters to handle areas or seasons of peak demand.

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