Look carefully and you will notice there is something slightly different about Kris Bilski’s house in Hull.
It has no radiators.
Yet even on a -2C winter’s day, it’s nice and warm inside.
This is because Kris is an early adopter of electric infrared wallpaper.
Thin, metallic sheets are hidden behind the plaster of his walls, which are connected to the mains electricity of his house.
These sheets emit heat by infrared waves.
Radiators in a central heating system heat rooms by what is known as convection heating, warming up the air in rooms, which then circulates.
This infrared technique warms up solid objects in the room directly, including us humans.
It also means you can easily choose to heat only one room at a time, using an app. Why also heat the bedroom, for example, when you are going to be watching Happy Valley in the sitting room for the next few hours?
Kris, 31, runs a video production company and lives at the property with his wife. He heard about the technology through a colleague, and as a tech enthusiast he decided to become an early adopter.
He ripped out his gas-powered radiators before fitting the wallpaper. At the moment the new method of heating his home isn’t any cheaper, but he plans to install solar panels on his roof to power the wallpaper, which he thinks will make his home greener, and save him money, in the long term.
“It makes me happy that I don’t rely on gas,” says Kris. “It’s a new technology that should help us as a country.”
The wallpaper system that he is using was made by a local firm called iHelios. As well as being available for private installation, the company is currently trialling the technology with landlords that provide social housing in Hull, and also housing groups in Wales. These organisations want to save money and meet green targets.
Around 23 million homes are currently connected to the gas grid in the UK. But the government wants all homes in the UK to have phased out gas-fired boilers by 2035. Homes currently account for about 17% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and this fossil fuel-based way of heating our homes is responsible for much of it.
As well as not requiring gas, electric wallpaper is also thought to produce better air quality in properties. It doesn’t dry out the air so much and generates less mould, for instance around windows. Poor air quality has been linked to health problems in some social housing properties.
Philip Steele is future technologies evangelist at Octopus Energy. Part of his job is to test out new gadgets, and he has been looking at another version of the wallpaper, made by British company Nexgen Heating .
“Electric wallpaper is a really good way of heating your home,” he says.
“It has two copper strips down each side of it and then a graphene layer, and when it’s powered [with electricity] the graphene emits infrared, which is like the heat you get from the sun.”
The graphene material he refers to is a thin layer of carbon atoms that can conduct electricity, first discovered by researchers at Manchester University. The version in Hull, which has also been used in other parts of Europe, like Scandinavia, uses a carbon paste layer to similar effect.
With the aid of a thermal-imaging camera you can see the hidden wallpaper, warming up and in turn heating up other objects in the room. It can heat objects within a range of about 2 to 3 metres.
Of course homes also need hot water for washing up and showers. In homes that use exclusively electric wallpaper, this can be provided by an electric immersion heater.
So is this potentially a greener and cheaper way to heat our homes?
Dr Tina Fawcett of the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute is not so sure.
“It could certainly be greener, especially as we use more renewables [like solar and wind power] to generate electricity,” she says. Currently gas is used to generate a significant proportion of our electricity supply.
“But I think the running costs could be quite high, as electricity costs three to four times as much as gas,” she says.
She points out that air source heat pumps are a more efficient way to use electricity to heat the home.
However, these pumps come with higher upfront costs than electric wallpaper and are not always straightforward to install – there can be issues with planning permission, for instance.
Some versions of the electric wallpaper, on the other hand, can be fitted while a tenant is still living in the property, making refurbishment easier.
The cost: Electric wallpaper or air source heat pump?
An electric wallpaper system would cost around £4,000 to install in a typical three-bedroom home, according to Nexgen Heating, a British manufacturer of the paper. However, you also need to factor in the costs of removing the existing central heating system and investing in an electric immersion heater for hot water.
In comparison, an air source heat pump would cost on average around £8,000 to install in a typical three-bedroom home, according to Octopus Energy, though depending on your type of property and the area where you live, it could be significantly more. However, you may be entitled to a £5,000 grant towards that from the government. In some cases you may also need to invest in bigger radiators to make the system work.
New-builds, of course, can be purpose-built for these systems. The housebuilder Redrow recently announced it will switch to air source heat pumps in its new developments, while Barratt has trialled electric wallpaper in its show homes.
Individual homeowners as well as councils, providers of social housing and developers will have to take all these factors into account.
This infrared, electric wallpaper technology may not be particularly glamorous or visible – but it could potentially have a big impact on the UK’s carbon footprint and ability to meet climate targets.