In recent weeks, you’ve probably seen your home energy bills rise sharply. With more increases to come, and as the UK moves towards net zero, you may start to think about whether there are cheaper and more environmentally conscious ways to heat your home.
So what alternatives are there to your traditional central heating, and what are their benefits and drawbacks? Here are three to consider, and the pros and cons of each.
1. Log-burning stove
Traditional fireplaces have gone out of fashion in recent years, with most new-build houses lacking the space to fit even an electric one. But, when you live on a cold, wet island like the UK you find that there are few things in life better than cuddling up to a warm fire of an evening.
That’s where log-burning stoves come in. Log-burning stoves are the modern alternative to a fireplace, and may even be better for the environment, cheaper to run, and more effective than their predecessors.
Log burners are more eco-friendly than traditional fireplaces as they produce less smoke and are not strictly limited to wood, meaning you can choose a more environmentally friendly fuel to use instead.
They also emit less carbon dioxide than if you were heating your home via gas or electric central heating systems. According to Resi, an architectural services firm, a log burner releases 0.008kg of carbon dioxide per kWh, compared to 0.198kg and 0.517kg of gas and electric heating respectively.
Can be cheaper if used properly
If your home or the rooms you use most are fairly small, a log burner could save you on your heating bills in the long run. This is because they are more efficient at heating the room than central heating systems.
A survey by Which? found that 43% of those who have a wood burning stove said it saved them money on their energy bills. That survey was conducted in 2017, and with the energy price cap rise just around the corner in April 2022, it is likely that a log-burning stove could save you a significant amount more now.
Unfortunately, you can’t just buy a wood-burning stove and throw it in your living room. You need to have it professionally installed so that the smoke and fumes can be safely transported out of your home.
If you have a fireplace already, then it is easier and cheaper to install using a pre-existing chimney, but it could be quite pricey if you don’t already have a suitable place for it to go. Ignoring the purchase price of the wood burner itself, you may be looking at £1,000 worth of installation fees alone.
The other downside is that you need to buy or source your own wood or other fuel. It is recommended that you use dry, shop-bought wood for maximum efficiency, which can be expensive to buy.
2. Heat pump
According to the Committee on Climate Change, more than 60% of the abatement in the UK’s net zero scenarios to 2050 involve some degree of change from consumers. This might be driving an electric car or installing a heat pump instead of a gas boiler at home.
Heat pumps are systems that pump heat from one place to another by using a compressor and circulating a structure of liquid or gas refrigerant. The heat is extracted from outside sources and then pumped indoors – a technology that uses a lot less electrical energy than the traditional methods of turning electricity into heat.
Heat pumps are an efficient alternative to fuel, oil, and electrical systems, when it comes to the process of heating and cooling. Indeed, they supply a larger capacity of heating and cooling than the amount of electrical energy that is used to run them.
Low carbon alternative
The heat pump itself burns no fossil fuels and uses only electricity. So, assuming the electricity needed to power the pump comes from renewable sources, it is a green way to heat your home.
Provides cooling and heating
A heat pump can work in reverse, meaning that it can remove heat from your home when it’s hot, much like an air-conditioning unit.
Safer and lower maintenance
A heat pump typically requires less maintenance, servicing, and repair than a traditional gas boiler.
Additionally, because they don’t burn gas, there have fewer safety concerns and there are fewer risks associated.
Higher set-up cost
Heat pumps can be more expensive to install. Costs vary depending on the specific type of heat pump you choose, but the usual price range for a complete installation is between £9,000 and £17,000.
The unit itself can be an issue
If you choose a heat pump you will need enough space in your garden for the external condenser unit. These units can be noisy, and can blow colder air into the area immediately around them.
Often requires other upgrades
Heat pumps often need to be installed alongside a compatible hot-water storage tank. In some cases they may require other upgrades such as new, larger radiators and home insulation. These additions can drive up the costs even further.
3. Underfloor heating
Underfloor heating normally comes in two forms: electric and water.
Electric underfloor heating is usually placed on top of a layer of floor insulation, to ensure the heat travels upwards. It is laid on a layer of sand and cement or suspended timber to ensure the surface is completely flat before the heating wires are connected to your mains supply.
The system will also include a sensor to help regulate the temperature. You can then use a thermostat to control the temperature and pre-set the system to turn on or off.
With a water-based underfloor heating system, a series of pipes circulate warm water under the floor to heat the space. These pipes are typically connected to your boiler, but you can also connect them to a solar water-heating system or an air-source or ground-source heat pump.
Water underfloor heating tends to be less popular than electric underfloor heating, as it’s more complicated to install and the upfront costs can be much higher. However, running costs to heat the same sized room are typically lower for a water than an electric system.
Electric underfloor heating provides a warmth that radiates upwards from the floor, rather than the warmth being circulated around the room like with a conventional radiator. So, with an effectively installed electric system, you shouldn’t get cold spots.
Additionally, you can integrate timers and motion sensors into your electric underfloor heating setup to maximise its efficiency and to make sure that your system is not emitting heat when it’s not required.
Fitting mat-based electric underfloor heating can be done by a competent DIYer. Adam Chard from experts Victoria Plum told Ideal Home: “As the wires can be laid directly on top of the subfloor, instead of pipes being fitted into the subfloor, this costs significantly less than a water-based system.”
After installation, an electric underfloor heating system is basically maintenance-free. Even a water system is relatively low maintenance, although you may occasionally need to flush the pipes to get rid of any debris that has gathered.
You can use it in specific rooms
Electric underfloor heating doesn’t need to be connected back to a central manifold, so it’s straightforward to install in one room without any disruption in other areas of your home.
An upheaval to install
The main problem with underfloor heating is that it can be expensive and difficult to install. This is especially true in older buildings, where adding underfloor heating can take time and cause major upheaval.
Can be expensive to run (but water systems are cheaper)
Electric systems come with higher running costs than a warm-water system. This is because one unit of electricity costs more than one unit of the natural gas that’s used to power your boiler under a “wet” system.
It means electric underfloor heating can potentially be expensive to run if you’re not controlling the system effectively. This can be particularly true if you’re looking to warm a room with a high level of heat loss, such as a conservatory. It can also take a while for the system to heat up.
Can be tricky to repair
If your electric system breaks down due to a wiring issue, it can be tricky to identify exactly where the fault is so you can repair it. This is easier with a water system as you can pinpoint the location of the problem by identifying a leak.
Can be a fire hazard
If you have electric underfloor heating, you should be careful where you place flat-bottomed furniture.
Putting sofas or bookcases over areas where heating mats or cables have been laid can limit airflow to the floor. This can cause hot spots that could damage your flooring or, in extreme cases, present a fire hazard.