(Bloomberg) -- When England’s Chester Zoo replaced the oil boiler at its rhinoceros habitat with six air-source heat pumps last autumn, Emma Evison is the first to admit she was wary. Rhinos, despite their tough exterior, are sensitive creatures. 

“I was probably one of the most skeptical people,” says Evison, who manages the rhino team at the 93-year-old visitor attraction and charity in Cheshire. She was concerned that her charges — nine critically endangered eastern black rhinos — would be disturbed by the switch. Heat pumps aren’t loud, but they do make a soft whirring sound. New heaters smell different. And temperature in the rhino house, whose residents are far from their native east Africa habitat, has to be maintained with the door open at all times to allow the animals free movement to the outside.

Seven months later, Evison is a convert. Temperatures this winter dropped as low as -5C (23F), she says; the rhino house is usually heated to between 18C and 24C. The biggest test for the new system arrived in November: The birth of a precious calf, Lumi, made maintaining a warm enclosure even more critical. After seeing how the heat pumps performed, Evison says she has “no problem with putting them in any of the other rhino houses.”

Heat pumps, a highly efficient form of electric heating, have struggled to take off in Britain, where electricity prices are high and three-quarters of homes are heated with gas. But rising energy prices and increasing scrutiny of greenhouse gas emissions have a growing number of businesses thinking about reducing the carbon intensity of their heating systems. Zoos included.

Zoos in Edinburgh and London use heat pumps in a handful of places. But Chester Zoo, which also has them in its sun bear enclosure, butterfly house and event venues, aims to deploy the technology at scale. A forthcoming exhibit, “Heart of Africa,” will use electric heating, including air-source heat pumps, in buildings housing zebras, reptiles and invertebrates. 

The initiative is part of Chester Zoo’s efforts to zero out its Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2030. Jennifer Kelly, the zoo’s head of sustainability, says there’s also a strong business case: The rhino enclosure, for example, was reliant on disruptive and costly kerosene boilers that had to be replenished via tankers once a month in winter. 

“We’re incredibly high energy users,” she says. “You’re typically keeping or housing animals from much warmer climates in a UK climate and trying to provide them with the temperatures that they would typically have in their native environments.” The steady, consistent heat is also a good fit for the animals, who unlike most humans are always at home. 

Chester Zoo’s next step is installing solar panels to help power its heat pumps, which will bring the zoo a step closer to having self-sustaining buildings. This fall, the zoo plans to release its first full year of data on efficiency and cost savings from all of its heat pump systems. Kelly says early signs are promising, and she hopes Chester can serve as an example for other UK zoos.

“It’s such a close community,” Kelly says. “It’s about inviting others to come see how it works, share it with them, and then provide them with that signposting and that guidance to the documentation we’ve put together to take it over the line.”

There could also be knock-on effects for people who come to the zoo. Heat pumps cause “a little bit of nervousness” among the public, Kelly says, thanks in part to an abundance of negative stories about them. The zoo can serve as a case study that answers questions people have about the technology: Can heat pumps save money? How do they perform in the coldest weather? 

That might mean heat pump information becomes part of a visitor display, says Chris Newman, who is overseeing the project as the zero carbon design manager for Mitsubishi Electric. The inner workings of a heat pump could also be shown off behind plastic. 

“A big part of it is about confidence, trust, belief and exposure,” Newman says. “If the zoo trusts that heat pump technology can look after endangered species, then it will be OK to look after you in your house.”

(Corrects details on “Heart of Africa’ exhibit in fifth paragraph and on use of kerosene boilers in sixth paragraph.)

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