What is Central Heating?

Central heating is the term used to describe the system that provides your home with warmth. This might incorporate a boiler, radiators, or even underfloor heating, and can also include the provision of hot water.

Most houses that we live in now will have some form of central heating system – a far cry from the houses of the recent past where heating came from the Aga in the kitchen or fireplaces downstairs.

While there are people looking to move away from fossil fuels and a reliance on the National Grid by harnessing renewable energy sources, the majority of people still heat their homes using natural gas. In fact, according to the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, 78% of homes in England, Wales, and Scotland have mains gas central heating.

If you are trying to decide which type of central heating system best suits you, there are a few things to consider. Before we get into that, let’s check out the different types of central heating systems that are already available.

Types of Central Heating

Gas

Recognised as one of the cheapest and most straightforward ways to heat a home, a gas central heating system requires connection to the national gas grid system. Of course, natural gas is considered to be a fossil fuel, so it is not the most sustainable option, and may even be completely phased out in the next decade or so.

It might not be future proof, but it is still the most popular way to heat your home.

a Vaillant gas boiler
a Vaillant gas boiler

Gas central heating is known as a ‘wet’ system, which means that the heat produced is used to heat water, which is then passed through the radiators to heat them up. This is caused by combustion. Hot water created by this process may also be stored in a cylinder to provide heat to water used in the bath or shower, or when filling the sink to wash the dishes.

Gas is piped into the home from the grid as it is needed, and most people pay both a standing charge for this as well as a charge for the gas that they need. This can be paid monthly or quarterly, or even on a pay-as-you-go basis.

In some cases, the gas boiler system heats up the water on demand, while in others it is stored until it is needed.

Oil

Less than 5% of homes in Scotland, England, and Wales are heated using oil, but it remains one of the most popular heating sources in Ireland.

Oil central heating is another ‘wet’ system, so the oil combusts to heat water which is pushed through radiators. These systems incorporate floor standing boilers, and can be used as a heating system only, or to provide hot water. Unlike most gas systems, hot water is stored in cylinder rather than delivered on demand.

An oil boiler requires an external tank (usually in the garden of the property), and oil is bought in bulk to fill it – usually on a yearly basis. An oil tanker will usually deliver this by road.

Oil Tank
Oil Tank, situated in the garden

Again, oil is a fossil fuel, and one of the high-carbon systems that the government is looking to phase out – new homes that are not on the gas grid will not be able to be heated using oil when built after 2025.

Electric

Nearly every single home in the UK is on the electric grid, which means that electric heating is relatively cheap and simple to install and produces a much smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuel systems.

However, it can be expensive to run unless you have solar panels or the like to create your own green energy.

Electric Radiators

Also known as direct electric heating, this is a system where every room has separate heaters that are controlled individually. While this can be expensive, it does mean that you can adjust which rooms are heated depending on their use.

These systems usually have a separate hot water system, usually heated via an electric boiler or an immersion heater.

Electric Central Heating

This is essentially an electric version of gas central heating, featuring an electric boiler that is connected to water-filled radiators via pipes. Instead of combustion, the electric boiler uses something similar to the element of a kettle to heat the water.

Electric boilers are small and relatively quiet, and they do not require a gas pipe or a flue.

Storage Heaters

Storage heaters are quite an old-fashioned way of heating your home. Storage heaters, as the name suggests, store heat inside and release it gradually through the day. They usually heat up at night when electricity prices are lower (off peak).

Many users of an older storage heating system will know that these can end up being quite cold in the evening, but newer models have much better heat retention and are generally more dependable.

Infrared Heating

This is a thoroughly modern form of direct electric heating, which radiates infrared heat into a room and warming people and objects rather than the air.

This works as the panel emits light, which vibrates when it comes into contact with an object, creating warmth. The heat produced at this contact can then spread into the room. Infrared systems are thin panels, and they can be installed into walls, ceilings, and floors – some people disguise them as artworks or using photographs.

Some of the more modern options can also be used like wallpaper – they are as thin and flexible as fabric, which means a much more streamlined and stylish finish to your room.

Secondary Electric Heating

Whether you have renewable heat sources, an oil or gas heater, or you are using an electrical system, you might need to add some sort of secondary electric heating to stay cosy. These can include the obvious things like heaters, but also things like plinth heaters and towel rails.

Small bathroom with shower, sink, and heated towel rail
Bathrooms often rely on heated towel rails to provide warmth

LPG

In the UK, around 200,000 homes that are not on the gas grid use Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG). This is still a fossil fuel and has been the installation of choice for many new build properties in rural areas.

Similarly to oil, LPG is delivered by road – some properties will have it delivered into a communal tank where it is piped into the properties (much like natural gas), but other people will have it delivered in canisters that resemble the gas you might get for your barbecue.

LPG Cylinder
An LPG Cylinder

Some people use LPG as the sole source of heat and hot water for their home, whereas others will use it as a back up for their solar powered heating system.

Renewables

With such a focus on removing fossil fuels and reducing our reliance on things like gas and oil that can cause such harm to the environment, it is important to consider what ‘greener,’ more renewable energy sources might be available for your heating system.

You might choose to refurbish your heating system using renewable energy if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, remove yourself from mains energy systems, or merely want to avoid dealing with the volatile prices associated with fossil fuels.

Air Source Heat Pumps

Air source heat pumps can replace your gas or oil systems by converting ambient air into heat through compression. This heat can be transferred into water if you have a wet system, and then pumped through the radiators. It can also be used to create warm air, which can be pumped into your home.

Air Source Heat Pump
An air source heat pump is a central heating system that is energy efficient and ecologically aware

These systems have an external unit which collects ambient air, then compresses it. A heat exchanger changes the hot air into water, which then travels through the radiators.

Ground Source Heat Pumps

Similarly to an air source heat pump, ground source heat pumps do not rely on fossil fuels. Instead, they absorb the natural heat of the ground, compress it, and then transfer that heat into the central heating system.

Ground source heat pumps require a lot of room; to heat a typical 3–4-bedroom house, you would need to dig two trenches, each about 30 metres long to lay pipes. This means that not only will you need an extensive amount of outdoor space, but you will also need to ensure there is easy access for digging machinery.

Ground source heat pumps are definitely more expensive and cause more upheaval, but they do have the added benefit of cheaper running costs than almost all other options.

Biomass Boilers

Biomass boilers are usually a good option for smaller homes that are not on the gas grid. This, as the name suggests, uses organic items to create energy. This is usually things like wood and plants in the form of chips, logs, pellets, or blocks.

Biomass boilers operate through combustion in a similar way to fossil fuel systems, but they have much less of a carbon footprint – releasing the same amount of carbon dioxide as the plants used.

What is the Right Type of Heating System for You?

To choose what type of heating system will work best for you and your property is a very personal decision, but there are some things that you should consider.

Installation Cost

Whether you are installing a completely new system or you are upgrading your current central heating, there will be installation costs (and related upheaval) to consider.

Installation costs can vary widely, depending on a number of factors, from the size of the property through to the type of system you are looking to install.

Electric heating systems are usually the cheapest to install, and you will probably find that ground source heat pump systems are the most expensive.

Remember that if you are upgrading your inefficient fossil fuel system to a greener, more efficient type of renewable energy system, then you might qualify for a grant from the Government of up to £7,500 as part of the Boiler Upgrade Scheme.

Size of property

It might seem obvious, but the bigger the property, the more expensive the installation is likely to be.

Size of property can also affect ongoing costs as well as effectiveness in most systems.

If you want to install a ground source heat pump system, then you will need a big garden or land attached to place the trenches.

Underfloor heating might not work effectively enough in a big property to negate the need for additional heat sources like towel heaters or radiators.

Age of Property

Older properties come with their share of charms, but they also come with difficulties – especially when it comes to modernization options.

To improve the efficiency of your home in any case, you should consider insulation – in the roof at least, and in the walls too if you can manage it. This will make the new system work more effectively and reduce the amount of wasted energy, so that is a bonus for your bank balance.

Availability

While pretty much every house in the UK is on the electric grid, and most houses are on the natural gas grid, not all homes have access to these services.

Your choices may be limited to what your house is attached to, so this needs to be considered. Things like renewable energy sources (solar, biomass, air source and ground source heat pumps) are usually more widely available, but there may be limits depending on your location.

Ongoing Costs

This is the main reason why people decide to upgrade in the first place – to save money in the long run.

Measuring the cost savings is not simple, but if you are upgrading any system, you should be confident that it will run more efficiently which means it should be more cost effective.

Electric systems are known to have the most expenses ongoing, and ground source heat pumps tend to be the cheapest – but there is a lot of middle ground there that is not covered.

The best thing you can do is get the advice of an expert. They will be able to give you accurate costings, help you plan for the unavoidable upheaval that a new central heating system will cause, and talk you through the pros and cons of each type of system, so you know you are choosing the best one to suit you. Our central heating team is made up of experts in all areas of heating, from gas and oil through to renewables, so you know you will be in safe hands. Call us today to find out more.