Meet the manager of a heat pump company who feels like starting a revolution

In South Yorkshire, Emma Bohan is working to save the planet one pump at a time.

Meet the manager of a heat pump company who feels like starting a revolution

In a former life, Emma Bohan, the general manager of IMS Heat Pumps, worked at a business consultancy in Sheffield. She used to survey manufacturers in South Yorkshire annually, and one year, energy efficiency stood out as the main concern.

“This was in the day when Doncaster had a nappy recycling plant, which was about the height of climate awareness at that point,” she recalls.

The consultancy where Emma was working used European funding to put together a project for large-scale innovation in energy with the aim of creating an energy “cluster” in the post-industrial heartlands of the area. One of the people they brought on board was a pioneering heat pumps installer to set up shop in the region. “he’s still my friend to this day”, says Bohan.

Nearly 20 years later and Bohan has her own heat pumps business employing thirty people. IMS Heat Pumps installs 100 to 200 heat pumps each year in self-build homes. “We have always championed the self-builder, and that’s the core part of our business,” she explains. Self-build homes are designed and built specifically to the needs and vision of the people who will be living in them. A lot of these buildings are constructed in areas that are not easy or cheap to connect to the gas grid and would otherwise be dependent on gas canisters or oil being regularly delivered.

“My husband gets up earlier than me – he’s at work for seven, so he’s generally up at half five. He makes me a cup of tea every morning,” Bohan says. Her engineers start early, around half past six or seven and they use WhatsApp groups to check in and make sure everyone is where they’re meant to be and with the right equipment. Bohan describes her role as “steering the ship”. IMS Heat Pumps has been going for three years, but she has been working in heat pumps for nine years in different companies. Her day revolves around sales meetings, ensuring compliance with health and safety, and monitoring cash flow.

The company’s recent move to new, larger offices reflects its healthy growth. “We’ve doubled every year for the last three years. I’m really proud of the team and what we’ve managed to achieve,” she says. However, Bohan does admit she can be a bit of a “control freak”. The business is still at a size where she knows everyone, but if they were to double again that would be much less possible. It’s a challenge across the sector. “It gets to a point where you have to grow and installer companies are having these growing pains and teething pains. So I’m sure I’m not alone.”

Heat pump installers have traditionally been quite disperse and fragmented. They are mostly still small companies covering small areas, marketing in their own limited way and educating limited pockets of the country, she explains. Employing 30 people already puts IMS Heat Pumps in the top tier of installers in the UK. The MCS, who certify renewables installers, lists around 1300 contractors that can install heat pumps.

The company is bringing in apprentices and trainees to expand. “You’re showing them a view of the future,” Bohan says. These are young people out of school or college, with perhaps some experience of plumbing. “I always refer to it as like the Barcelona training camp, getting them young and then keep them all the way because they’re creating a team, a creative squad where everybody knows their place,” she adds. After a four-year apprenticeship they’ll be a senior engineer with the keys to their van, money in their pocket and training in doing it the right way, she says.

Bohan sees the company as part of the net zero transition, and progress on climate legislation and energy is a constant source of frustration. “My daughter turned around to me during the day, she’s eleven, and she just said, ‘Mummy, is it true that we’ve only got 1,000 days to save the planet?’”, she says. Bohan is sceptical of claims that heat pumps can be developed in the next few years for consumers to buy when what is needed is a large-scale program to install them now with insulation as part of a government-funded scheme. “We are quite happy to bail out banks to the tune of £250bn or £500bn or whatever it was, and yet we won’t give Mr. And Mrs. Smith the ten grand that they actually need to install a heat pump,” she says.

“On the one hand, you know, I feel like starting a revolution from my bed as Oasis would say,” she explains. “But on the other hand, I’m here running a heat pump company, and I can just do that one pump at a time.”

This article is part of a series exploring the front line of the net zero transition. Read more here

[See also: Net zero strategy: industry is key]