Heat pump, gas boiler or solar panels? A guide to green home heating

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man installing heat pump

There’s no doubt about it, the cold weather has arrived arm in arm with the New Year. If your old boiler is struggling, or like a lot of us, you’re worried about climate change, rising energy costs, and keeping warm, it’s time to take a look at your heating and electricity needs

We’ve been busily gathering information for this guide to some of the most popular new and old heating systems, and weighing up their pros, cons and costs. There’s a lot of food for thought, so grab a mug of tea, and read on…

Heat Pumps

heat pump

What are they?

The heat pump is an ingenious invention considered by many experts to be the future of green heating. The pump is powered by electricity, so in the future, these can increasingly be linked to renewable sources like wind farms, hydro turbines, and wave and tidal power. 

The chances are that you already have one or two heat pumps in your home courtesy of your fridge or freezer. They work in the same way, except that when heating your home, the pumps remove heat from an outside source – either the air or the ground – and release it indoors. 

But what about when it’s cold outside?

We hear you! But don’t worry. Our usually mild British temperatures (compared to Canada!) don’t often plummet enough to stop the system working altogether. Even what we would consider as cold air, will produce heat via the system’s compressor. 

How effective are they? 

Air pumps operate most effectively at temperatures above 4℃, whereas the temperature of underground systems only varies between 8 and 11 degrees all year round in the UK, so don’t get affected by fluctuations in the weather. Efficiency drops as the outside temperature does, but the UK rarely experiences Arctic-like freezes that would bring the system to a halt. 

Pros 

They’re safe, cheaper to run than traditional oil and gas boilers, reduce your carbon emissions, give an efficient rate of conversion from energy to heat, and can provide air conditioning in the summer. They also have an exceptionally long lifespan of up to 50 years. You could also be eligible for a payment under Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). There’s also a lot less maintenance than combustion systems need. 

Cons

The start-up cost is quite high, and systems are difficult to install properly. Some heat transfer fluids have also raised environmental concerns, so ensure biodegradable fluids are used. You can also expect penetration to the walls of your home for installation. The efficiency drops in cold weather; however improvements are on the way. Also, be aware that planning permission is required in Wales and Northern Ireland. English and Scottish regulations vary according to your location and the size of your property.

Long- and short-term maintenance: 

Both types of pump should be serviced annually. However, air systems can be mostly maintained by the owner. Some common-sense, as ever, is recommended, so make sure the outside parts are clear of shrubbery and leaves, and clean or change the filters as needed. Check it over once a month, or after a storm to make sure everything is tickety-boo. 

Cost

Complete installation for air systems will set you back between £7,000 and £18,000. Ground systems will cost up to £45,000. Whilst savings vary according to what type of fuel you’ve switched from, especially electric heating, bills will be lower. Plus, as previously mentioned, if you own your own home, you may be eligible for the RHI grant which could save you even more on installation. 


Solar Panels

Solar panels on roof

Anyone belonging to Generation X will clearly remember the ‘grown-ups’ mocking solar panels as expensive and useless. But with plummeting prices and ever-increasing efficiency, who’s laughing now? 

What are they?

You’ve most probably spotted them on suburban roofs as well as row upon row in rural fields. These are solar panels, usually found facing south toward the sun. There are two types – solar thermal panels are used for hot water production, and solar PV (photovoltaic) panels are used to produce electricity. 

How do they work?

Both thermal and PV panels use the sun’s energy to produce heat and electricity, respectively. Solar thermal panels can be used with a heat pump to produce hot water.

How effective are they?

A solar panel system should generate enough electricity to reduce your power bill if you install a 4kW system. They will still work on a cloudy day, but their efficiency is reduced. A lot of owners report that they run appliances like washing machines during the day when the panels are producing at optimum rate. If you link the system to a battery storage unit, you should get 24-hour power.

Pros

Panels save you money on electricity bills and the energy is renewable. They also reduce your carbon emissions and run silently. As a bonus, there’s virtually no maintenance. 

Cons

There’s a relatively high upfront cost, some people don’t like the look of them, and you may find the lower output on cloudy days frustrating. 

Long- and short-term maintenance

Maintenance is usually very easy. Solar panels have no moving parts. The only major replacement you’ll require every 10 years or so is the inverter, which readies collected energy for home usage. This will cost between £500 and £1,000. 

If you have the hot water system, you’ll be able to do your own routine checks of the pressure gauge for leaks, and the control panel for warnings. The system will need a five-year service. 

Cost 

A domestic set-up of about 25m2 will cost about £5,500, but could save you up to £310 a year. You’ll also be saving on carbon dioxide emissions – approximately 1.2 tonnes compared to a gas-fired power station. 

Not only that, you could even make money – if you don’t use all of your electricity, you can export it to the grid for cash under the SEG scheme. 


Gas Boilers

gas boiler being turned on

What are they?

These are the slightly aging workhorses that we’ve used to heat our homes for decades. Gas boilers are due to be banned in new homes from 2025, and the sale of gas boilers was to cease in 2035, although this may well be pushed back to 2040 because of the cost of installing greener alternatives. So, if you’re not ready to make that move just yet, read on.

How do they work?

There are two types – the conventional boiler that heats up your hot water tank storing it for heating and hot taps, or the newer kid on the block, the combi, which heats water and heating on demand. 

How effective are they?

Both types are very effective. The conventional boiler will take between 30 and 60 minutes to heat up the tank, but if the system breaks down, you’ll still have hot water. A combi gives you instant hot water and heating, but if the system breaks down, you have nothing. 

Pros

Conventional boilers will work fine with old heating systems, and combis are great if you have limited space for a tank. 

Cons

Conventional boilers need a lot of space, and are inefficient compared to combis, as there is no hot water on demand and the tank must be heated up. The tanks also lose heat to the surrounding air. Combis rely on good mains pressure for incoming water, so this can be an issue in some areas. 

Long- and short-term maintenance

Both need servicing every year, but the lifespan is a good 10 to 15 years.

Cost

They are inexpensive to install compared to the greener systems. Boiler replacement typically costs between £500 and £2,500, but this does not include installation. If the location isn’t changing, then installing it will cost £550. If you’re moving it, then you’re looking at £1,500.

There are also other maintenance expenses such as mechanical and chemical flushes and replacing and moving old pipes. In all, you’ll need to put by between £1,100 and £4,300, depending on your needs. 


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