For decades central heating has been the key way to heat our homes, with about 95% of UK homes currently being heated by gas or oil boilers. However, to reach carbon emission deadlines the government has announced that by 2025 new homes will be fitted with a low-carbon alternatives such as heat pumps instead. There are currently no plans to ban older homes from using gas boilers, but you may well be wondering what your options are.
Gas central heating is a popular option for those who are connected to the national network. Be aware that an old boiler will cost you more to run than a newer, safer, condensing model. Newer boilers are around 90 per cent efficient whereas older ones can offer as little as 55 per cent efficiency.
With the latest models costing around £4,000 (including installation), it may be prohibitive to buy a new boiler, but using heating controls can help you save money on gas bills:
• A room thermostat will switch the heating on only when a certain temperature is reached; these can be placed in any room, which is useful if you want part of your home heated. Turning down the heating in rooms by just 1°C can save a typical home around £85 to £90 a year, according to the Energy Saving Trust
• Valves on radiators can be adjusted to allow heat into a room and to regulate it
• You can set a timer to switch the boiler on and off regularly during certain hours
• Programmers can be set to come on at various times and temperatures throughout the day, with each day having its own settings
• Apps, such as Hive, allow you to control your heating and hot water tank (if applicable) remotely. These usually attract a monthly charge but could save you money if you are only using your heat when needed.
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Wood burning stoves are a popular option. They look good, are environmentally friendly and will likely save you money, too. They are usually situated in one room, but can be attached to a central heating system. These heaters can be either continuous or intermittent, depending on whether you want a top up or a more constant source of warmth.
Stoves will provide different amounts of heat, depending on the size of the room, and the type of property will dictate the output needed: a well built, insulated home will require less fuel to be burned.
You’ll need to buy a stove that is approved by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to burn wood, as certain regions of the UK are smoke control areas. If you have a non-approved stove, you can burn authorised smokeless fuels, such as anthracite, to minimise the environmental and health impact of chimney smoke.
If you plan to install a wood fuel stove, you’ll need to buy seasoned logs from a reputable supplier, or season them yourself for around two years. Firewood should be kept in an environment with plenty of air circulating to help it to dry out. If you don’t have outside space, this could be difficult.
Multi-fuel stoves are also known as mineral-fuel stoves. They can burn wood, smokeless fuel and coal but are not able to burn all fuels equally well. If you are planning to buy a multi-fuel stove with the intention of running it primarily on one fuel, find out how to run it most efficiently. If you’re only going to burn wood, consider getting a dedicated log burner, but keep in mind that wood may not always be easy for you to obtain and you may wish to keep coal as a back up.
The government body that approves biomass and solid fuel heating appliances, fuels and services, including the registration of competent installers and servicing businesses, HETAS (hetas.co.uk) is a useful resource for supplies and fitters.
Ground source heat pumps
A ground source heat pump system harnesses energy stored in the ground and compress it to heat your property and/or provide hot water.
The heat pump systems comprise a ground loop (a network of water pipes buried underground) and a pump at ground level. This will involve disruptive work (and possibly require planning permission).
Such systems cost around £12,000 to install plus the price of putting in underfloor heating – and you may still need an additional electric heater to supplement your supply.
That said, the method can deliver fuel savings and significant carbon emissions reductions and you will receive payments via the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a government scheme set up to encourage uptake of renewable heat technologies among householders. Although the pump runs on electricity (which should be on an Economy 7 or 10 tariff), it uses less of this energy than the heat produced.
Find out about using solar power to heat water
Air source heat pumps
Air source heat pumps are relatively new in the UK but they're popular in Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland. Their popularity is growing in the UK and they're set to get more and more popular as newbuilds start coming with them as standard. From the outside they look a little like air conditioning units - a box with a fan. The size can vary, and the bigger the unit the more heat it can produce. Some are small enough to be mounted on the outside wall while others will take up garden space.
There are two kinds of air heat pumps available. Air-to-air spreads warm air around the house using fans, while air-to-water can be connected to existing central heating. Air-to-air pumps have the downside of not being able to heat up water so are less suitable for many households.
Air source heat pumps work a little like refrigerators in reverse. They suck warm air from the outside and uses a compressor to make it even warmer. It then uses this heat throughout your house and can be used to heat radiators, water and underfloor heating. Surprisingly the pump does not need it to be hot outside to work (as evidenced by their popularity in Scandinavia) and can even work in sub zero temperatures.
The pumps need electricity to work but generate more heat than an electric heater would for the same wattage, making them very energy efficient.
Electric is suitable for those who are not connected to the national gas grid. While it is not especially energy efficient, homes that don’t have the option to use alternatives, can ensure they are paying for the most cost-effective types of electricity.
Night storage heaters use electricity supplied at a cheaper rate via Economy 7 and Economy 10 to warm heat-retaining bricks at night. While they aren’t cheap to run, these heaters are less expensive to install than gas systems and don’t need as much maintenance.
However, the tariff of Economy 7 and 10, when used during the day, is far costlier than alternatives. Also, these heaters don’t provide instant heat, so if the heating has been off and it suddenly gets cold, you’ll have to wait a day for warmth.
Modern oil-free electric heaters can be bought off the shelf. They are around one-third more energy efficient than their oil-filled equivalents. Many can be programmed and have thermostatic controls so you can set them up to warm a room in advance of you being in it.
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