Answer: There are various alternative heating systems which are great renewable energy-based solutions, and can be especially attractive if you live in an off-grid home. Installing a heating and hot water system that utilises an Air Source Heat Pump, Ground Source Heat Pump, Biomass Boiler or Solar Thermal Panel system will reduce carbon emissions for your home, increase energy efficiency and vastly reduce utility bills.
Read on for our guide to alternative heating systems in the home.
Thanks to Britain’s climate being relatively cool for the majority of the year, having a reliable source of heating for our homes is essential. Traditionally, gas and electric systems are the most common sources of heating and hot water in British on-grid homes, with oil and LPG being used predominantly in off-grid homes.
However, with a growing desire among many to improve our energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions, alternative heating systems are the best source of long term renewable energy. During prolonged cold periods, the National Grid has even warned of gas shortages, so mains gas can no longer be relied on as a long term sustainable energy source for today’s growing population.
Widely speaking, you can heat your home one of two ways; a radiator based system, or an underfloor heating system. Radiators are the more traditional method of heating your home, but underfloor heating has become a more modern, popular choice. Underfloor heating makes a great pairing with an alternative heat source where the temperature requirements are lower, due to a larger area being heated, which means the boiler or pump can be run most efficiently.
As a quick overview, traditional heating systems are run off mains gas, electricity, oil or LPG. Pros and cons:
It is the cheapest way to heat your home if you are able to have a central heating system, so mains gas is the go-to heating source for most of Britain’s on-grid homes.
However, being a fossil fuel, gas produces carbon dioxide when burned, so it’s not a clean source of energy and prices can vary greatly due to demand from around the world – seeing as Britain is not self sufficient in gas production. Gas boilers can also be run very inefficiently and service and up-keep costs can be high, especially with older models.
There’s not many plus points with an electric heating system that uses storage heaters or electric radiators, as electricity is much more expensive than gas – current price comparison sits at 14.37p/kWh for electricity versus 3.8p/kWh for gas.
Due to electricity being produced by gas-fired power stations, these systems are still dependant on global gas prices and have the same environmental impact. About the best bit is that an electric central heating system is pretty easy to install and upkeep costs are low.
Oil or LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) have long been the go-to options for off-grid homes’ heating and hot water systems. Stored in tanks or canisters outside your home, these fuels are burnt to produce heat.
LPG is said to be slightly less damaging to the environment than burning natural gas, however, they are both fossil fuels. The downsides also include the ongoing cost to rent or swap tanks of fuel and the higher price of these fuels compared to natural gas.
With that in mind, let’s have a look at alternative heating systems that could be the right choice for you, whether you’re modernising an existing property, or starting a new build project. Making the right decision now for the sustainable future of your home should be a priority.
Heat Pumps are the most efficient alternative way to heat your home; supplying you with hot water, running at over 300% efficiency. This means that they produce around 3 times more heat than the energy they use. Heat Pumps require a small amount of electricity to run, which can be produced by solar power, further reducing your environmental impact and increasing the sustainability of your home.
The two types of heat pumps available as alternative heating systems are:
Ground Source Heat Pumps can either use a deeper vertical borehole or shallow, yet long, trenches to extract heat from the surrounding earth and transfer it into usable heat energy for your home. Either design requires a certain amount of outside space – which is the main downside of these systems, along with a relatively high initial install cost.
Ground Source Heat Pumps also need a small amount of internal space, by way of plant room. Depending on the system you choose, this can be minimal to create little to no impact on your existing interior or if you’re starting a new build project, this is something that can be planned for.
Ground Source Heat Pumps require little maintenance and running costs – although this will depend on your exact system – and are said to be the quietest heating system, compared to other alternative heating systems and traditional fossil fuel powered systems. This can be a benefit when the system needs to be installed close to your living area or bedrooms, or close to neighbouring property.
GHSPs also have a life expectancy of 20-25 years – much longer than a traditional boiler which, according to GoCompare, could last up to 15 years, but depending on the model, can have an efficient lifespan of just half that time.
Air Source Heat Pumps, as you would expect, are a similar alternative heating technology to Ground Source Heat Pumps. But instead of extracting heat from the earth, these systems extract ambient heat from the surrounding air, and through compression, increase the temperature to a useable level to heat your home and hot water (up to 55 degrees).
ASHPs require less outdoor space than a GSHP system, but still need open space for the fan unit to sit and have a plentiful supply of air around it – so can’t be placed in a garage or outdoor building for example. They also require a plant room indoors which can be planned into your system design.
As a rule, ASHPs are cheaper to install than a GSHP and are likely to last 15-20 years. ASHPs have a reputation for being noisy, which isn’t completely true. Whilst being noisier than a GSHP, due to the above-ground fan used in the pump, well designed and properly installed ASHP systems are not noticeably louder than any other type of heating system.
Both types of heat pump qualify you for the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.
Biomass Boilers work in a similar way to conventional boilers, with a similar efficiency of about 90%. Instead of burning gas, they burn wood logs or pellets which are made from other wood waste. Thanks to the carbon absorbed by the tree throughout its lifespan, this alternative heating system is carbon neutral. It also helps the environment by giving a purpose to waste wood that might otherwise end up in landfill – according to waste giant, Veolia, approximately 9 million tonnes of wood waste goes to landfill each year in the UK.
Supplying your biomass boiler with logs and wood pellets is often cheaper than fossil fuels for boilers, and is far less variable in price thanks to the fact they can often be locally sourced. If you live in an off-grid rural area, you may even be able to use logs from your own land, for a free source of fuel, thus drastically reducing your running costs.
The main drawback to using a Biomass Boiler is the upfront cost, which can run from £5,000 for the smallest domestic system, to £15,000 – £20,000 for a fully automated installed system. You should expect the cost to pay itself back over time, however, thanks to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.
This alternative heating system is the least efficient, running at between 70% – 90% efficient. But it is still a popular option. The cost of a solar thermal panel system is also covered in the long-term by the RHI, so upfront costs of installation can be countered by the payback scheme over time.
Solar thermal panels are most suitable for hot water systems, rather than heating systems. Thanks to our temperate climate in the UK, it will often need topping up by another source – such as a biomass boiler during the winter months. Having said that, this alternative system will definitely save you money on your bills and reduce your carbon footprint.
Whichever alternative heating system you choose, shunning traditional methods of heating and supplying your home with hot water is the environmentally-friendly choice, and will secure the sustainability of your home’s heating system in the years to come.
Aiming to install an alternative heating system when planning a new-build home is a great way to add value and eco-credentials to the build. Although upfront costs can be higher than traditional systems, reducing your bills and running costs is a great benefit of choosing a renewable energy source for your heating system – whether you live in a town or city, or have acres of land to yourself.
The energy efficiency rating of heat pumps in particular is catching the attention of many builders and home renovators, for good reason. However, the efficiency and success of your renewable energy source is only as good as the design and installation of your system, so If you’re considering a new alternative heating system for your home, please get in touch.
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