Heating fuel comparison
29 December 2016 | OVO Energy
This guide is intended to provide general guidance only. It is not intended to give you advice on your personal financial circumstances. You should seek independent professional advice if you’re unsure about anything mentioned in this guide or what choices to make.
- How do I choose between heating fuels?
- Why should I choose mains gas?
- What are the advantages of electric night storage heaters?
- Are heat pumps a better way to use electricity?
- What about solar panels?
- Why should I choose oil-fired central heating?
- Why should I choose liquid petroleum gas (LPG)?
- Why should I choose coal?
- Why should I choose wood or biomass?
If you’re thinking of changing to a new heating system, and need to compare heating fuel, or moving into a new-build where you can choose how your home is heated, there’s plenty for you to consider. There’s never been so much choice – from different heating fuels and systems, to energy providers.
Here we look at the pros and cons of different kinds of heating fuel, to help you decide which is most suitable for your home.
Which heating fuels can I choose from?
The most popular heating fuels are:
- Mains gas
- Liquid petroleum gas (LPG)
- Coal and coal-based solid fuels
- Wood (biomass)
To choose which heating fuel is right for your home, you first need to consider which of these is most important to you:
- Installation costs
- Ongoing running costs
- Ease and convenience
Greenness For most people, cost will be a major motivator. So once you’ve read all the pros and cons in this article, make sure you get all the quotes you need – to compare home heating fuel prices accurately, and make an informed decision.
Mains gas is the most popular heating fuel in the UK, for the following reasons:
- It’s competitively priced, so it’s usually the cheapest option
- It’s the cleanest of the fossil fuels – for each unit or energy of heat, its CO2 emissions are half those of oil-fired central heating and a third of those from coal
- It’s very efficient, so you get a good return on every unit of energy – particularly if you use a modern condensing boiler
- It’s easy to control, as you can switch it on and off instantly
- It delivers heat fast
- It’s easy to compare prices if you’re thinking of switching suppliers
- Gas boilers and hobs are relatively cheap
- It’s piped direct to your home, so you don’t need to find space for storing wood, coal or a gas tank
- If anything goes wrong, it’s easy to find a heating engineer or plumber to put it right – make sure they’re on the Gas Safe Register by visiting http://www.gassaferegister.co.uk/ or calling 0800 408 5500
However, gas does have a few disadvantages:
- If you’re not on the mains gas network, it would be extremely expensive – if not impossible – to connect your property
- Even if you are on the mains gas network, installation can be difficult and expensive
- Gas does produce carbon dioxide when it’s burned, so although it’s better than coal and oil, it’s still not a ‘green’ heating fuel
If your home isn’t on the gas network – because you live in the countryside, for example – you may decide to use electricity to heat your home, as nearly every home in the UK is on the electricity grid.
The main disadvantage of electricity is that it produces a high level of carbon emissions, mainly because of the heat that is wasted at power stations during the process of generating electricity.
However, as electricity is generated more and more from renewable sources like wind farms or hydroelectricity, this will become less of a problem.
You can use electricity to power either night storage heaters or heat pumps.
Electric heating usually means night storage heaters and an Economy 7 or Economy 10 tariff. These are tariffs that offer cheaper electricity during the night, or at other set, off-peak hours. They work well with storage heaters, which draw power during the night and release heat gradually during the day.
The main problem with storage heaters is that you can’t control how much or when the heat is released. They’re great if you work at home during the day, but if you only get home in the evening, they’re starting to cool down just when you most need them.
However, they are relatively cheap to install as there’s no need for any pipework or a flue. They’re also low maintenance as they don’t have to be serviced annually, and only need attention if they stop working efficiently.
Recent technological advances have led to the growth of heat pumps as a semi-renewable heat source and greener way of using electricity to heat your home.
Heat pumps can be ground source, air source [link to air heat pumps article] or water source. Ground source heat pumps are the most popular, and currently the most efficient, although technology may soon find a way to improve the efficiency of air or water source pumps.
Ground source heat pumps work with underground pipes containing refrigerant liquid. The liquid absorbs heat from the ground and a heat exchanger then transfers the heat to a water-based liquid which heats radiators in your home.
The advantages of ground source heat pumps are their greenness, low running costs and easy maintenance.
The disadvantages are the difficulty and high cost of installing them. You also need plenty of land around your house to bury the extensive network of pipes.
Solar panels can reduce your carbon footprint, generate cheap electricity, and also possibly earn you an income through the Feed-In Tariff. However, they are expensive to install and may take a long time to recoup your investment. Find out more about solar panels
Another option if you can’t get mains gas is to use an oil tank to heat your home.
The two main kinds of domestic heating oil are kerosene and gas oil. Kerosene is usually better value as it’s more efficient, but it’s still more expensive than natural gas – so if your home is on the gas network, that’s normally a better option.
Oil has to be delivered by lorry and pumped into the tank, so you’ll need to make sure the tank is accessible.
The main reasons people choose oil central heating systems are:
- It’s often the cheapest option in rural or outlying areas where there is no mains gas
- It’s most suitable for boilers, but can be used for cookers, such as Agas and other traditional ranges
- It’s easy to control and provides heat when you need it
- It’s a highly efficient heating fuel, so you get a good return for each unit of energy
- As long as you keep an eye on the amount of oil in your tank and order a redelivery in good time, you’ll have a constant supply of fuel – in fact some systems will automatically notify your supplier that you need a delivery
- If you find a flexible supplier, they may let you spread your payments over a few months to make it easier for you to budget
- If you’re not happy with your supplier or their prices, you can simply choose a different company for your next delivery
- It has lower carbon emissions than coal
On the other hand:
- You’ll have a large and not particularly attractive oil tank in your garden or outbuildings (although you can now get hidden underground tanks)
- It’s not as convenient as electricity or gas, because you need to watch the level in the tank (there’s usually a gauge on the outside) and remember to order a refill in good time before it runs out
- You also have to be in when the delivery comes, which will probably be during working hours
- It may cause budgeting problems, if your supplier insists on being paid for the whole delivery on the day
- Prices can go up steeply if there’s a lot of demand – for example if there’s a long, cold winter – so suppliers can set their own price and hold you to ransom
- Installation from scratch is tricky and expensive
- Your boiler and tank will need servicing each year
- It has higher carbon emissions than gas
For a complete guide to using Heating Oil in your home, read our comprehensive post.
LPG is most commonly used for camping and caravanning, but it can also be an option if you can’t get mains gas. In fact, some boilers designed for mains gas can be converted to use LPG.
The liquid gas is delivered into a tank or in refillable bottles.
It can be better than oil-fired central heating because:
- It can be used for central heating, gas fires and cookers
- It creates lower carbon emissions than heating oil
However, it usually costs slightly more than oil, so you need to check your figures carefully before deciding to choose LPG.
Thanks to our modern preference for efficient, low-maintenance central heating systems, coal is no longer as popular as it was in our parents’ day.
However, many people like a real fire in their sitting rooms. Smokeless coal-based solid fuels in an open fire or solid fuel stove still give off that cosy glow that makes a room feel homely and welcoming.
Some homes also have coal-fired boilers. However, the disadvantage of coal is the need to find room to store it and then move it piecemeal to the fire or boiler. This may have to be done daily, making it quite a heavy and onerous chore.
Biomass is a heating fuel made mainly of wood. You need a great deal of wood to generate the amount of heat you need, so you will need plenty of storage space if you choose this option.
A biomass boiler may be a sensible option if you’re not on mains gas and you live in a woodland area where local farmers and landowners sell and deliver logs. Some domestic boilers will work on wood chip, using an auto-feed facility.
This can be a green way of heating your home if you’re able to collect and burn waste wood, but if you have it delivered, the further your wood has to travel the higher its carbon cost (and its actual cost). If the provider has used electric saws to chop it up, this also raises its carbon rating.
Wood is probably best used, like coal, to provide extra heating and a cosy atmosphere when used in an open fire or solid fuel stove in a living room.
So which heating fuel is best for me?
Mains gas is the most popular for many good reasons. If your home already has a gas system, it’s probably best to keep it and update it if necessary.
If you’re not on mains gas:
- If you’re at home during the day, electric storage heaters and an Economy 7 or Economy 10 tariff could suit you
- If not, oil or LPG delivered to a tank might be the best option
- If you’re building your home and installing a system from scratch, a heat pump could provide greener heat
- Coal and wood are probably best as secondary heat sources – to provide a warm focus in a living-room fire or wood-burning stove
Whichever you decide, be sure to shop around and compare home heating fuel prices before you commit to installing a new system.