Knowing what type of heating system you have in your property is important because this will help you care and maintain it properly and ensure that you keep warm during the coldest months of the year. You don't need to have a deep understanding of all the intricacies of your heating, but being able to differentiate between the main types of systems is useful knowledge that will help you stay warm efficiently.
The two main types of heating systems in the UK's homes are gas and electric heating systems. If you aren't sure what you have in your home, it's pretty likely it will be one of the other. Once you know what to look for, it should be fairly easy for you to identify which type of heating system you have.
How to tell if you have a gas central heating system
Some common features that indicate you have a gas heating system are:
- A boiler
Somewhere in your home will be a gas-fired boiler. It might be in the kitchen or in another cupboard, but will normally be contained in a white metal casing. Viessman, Bosch, Worcester, Valliant, Alpha, Ideal are all common brands of boiler and will likely be displayed on the front. The most common type of boiler installed in the UK today are combination (combi) boilers, which provide instantaneous hot water to your radiator and hot water taps.
- Water storage tanks
Homes with gas central heating systems powered by a combi boiler usually do not have water tanks. However, there are many homes in the UK that have gas-fired conventional boiler installed that are accompanied by a hot water cylinder, often in an airing cupboard, and a cold water tank, often in the loft. These were once the most common type of boiler in the UK and are still used in very large homes. The brands mentioned above also make conventional boilers. (Some homes with electric heating can also have electric water tanks, often in the bathroom).
- Radiators with valves
These days it's possible to get electric heaters that look exactly like traditional radiatorsos the fact that you have radiators in you home is not necessarily a sign of a gas central heating system. However, if you look closely at your radiators, you should notice that there are valves at either end of the radiator. The valves help control the flow of water in and out of the rad. A further tell-tale sign is if one of your valves is a thermostatic valve. This will have a numbered dial on it that can be be turned to control the temperature level in the room.
Another thing unique to a gas central heating system is a network of pipes that transfers water around your home between the boiler and the radiators. While most pipes are hidden behind walls or under floorboards, you should notice pipes coming up from the floor or out of the walls and into the sides of your radiator. You radiator valves will be connected between the pipe and the radiator.
How to tell if you have an electric heating system
Identifying an electric system is pretty easy purely due to the absence of most of the components mentioned above. An electric heating system doesn't require a boiler or pipes to move hot water around. Instead, electric heaters and radiators are connected directly into your mains electricity supply and the electric element inbuilt into all electric heaters converts the electricity into heat. Some other things you might find with an electric system are:
- Wall-mounted panel heaters
These are very common electric heaters and can often be identified by being white, having a dial or digital display and a physical On/Off switch
Even though it is discreet, you'll usually see a wire coming from an electric radiator. It may be connected to the mans via a standard 3-pin plug, but will more likely go into a white, square-shaped electrical spur on the wall.
- Shower switch or pull cord
In your bathroom next to a shower, a giveaway that you have electric heating is if there is a pull cord or switch with a red light that comes on when activated. This a safe way of isolating the power to the electric shower and should be switched off when you've finished. Please note that electric showers are not only used in homes with electric heating. They are also common in homes with gas central heating where an additional bathroom or ensuite is installed. An electric shower can be used without taking away hot water from the main bathroom.
The pros and cons of gas central heating
- Quick to reach temperature - Assuming your gas central heating is modern and well-maintained, hot water-filled radiators will heat your room more quickly than their electric counterparts. You'll find your home speedily goes from cold to a comfortable temperature, which is a great relief in the coldest winter months.
- Easy to repair - Gas-fired boiler central heating systems are the most common method of heating homes in the UK. This means there are a huge amount of professionals familiar with how the systems work and how best to repair and maintain them. Switching out a boiler or a radiator is usually straightforward as all other components that make up a central heating system are already in place.
- Low ongoing costs - Gas is a cheaper energy source than electricity and, with modern boiler technology having come such a long way, modern combination boilers can operate at an efficiency of over 90%, significantly reducing the efficiency benefits electric heating systems may have enjoyed in the past.
- Massive choice - Most radiator and towel rail manufacturers treat gas-fired central heating systems as their number one priority. As a result, there are huge amounts of sizes, styles, finishes and colours to choose from, allowing you to install exactly what you want for your property.
- High initial costs - If you are putting in a full, brand new gas central heating system, then there's no getting away from the fact that this is a costly process. Boilers, multiple radiators, copper piping are all integral components and installation can cause considerable work and disruption, particularly in a property that has never had central heating before.
- Annual maintenance - Much like servicing or MOTing a car, a boiler and its components need to be checked and maintained by a Gas Safe Registered engineer every 12 months. This helps to ensure everything is working correctly, there are no Carbon Monoxide leaks and any potential for boiler breakdowns can be nipped in the bud. While this is for your safety, it is still an annual cost and something else for you to remember to schedule.
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The pros and cons of electric heating
- Easy to install - An electric radiator only needs to be connected up to the mains electricity supply in order to work. There's no need to pull up floorboards or take huge chunks out of the wall in order to lay pipes. This is particularly useful if you're not connected to the gas network.
- Low initial cost - You'll need to pay for the electric radiators (or towel rails) and the labour for a qualified electrician to connect them. However, there's no expensive boiler, heat pump or copper pipe network required, which makes your initial financial outlay relatively small.
- Easy to maintain - An electric heating system is very low maintenance after the installation has been completed. There are minimal components to go wrong and you don't need an annual system check , unlike with a gas powered system.
- Slower to reach temperature - While electric heating operates at near 100% efficiency - negligible energy goes to anything other than generating heat - you'll probably find that your room will take longer to feel warm than with a gas powered system. You can make the comparison with cooking and how long it takes to bring something to the boil on an electric hob vs a gas ring.
- Higher ongoing cost - A unit of electricity costs more than a unit of gas and, as electric radiators tend to take longer to heat up, you'll likely find having electric heating is more expensive than gas heating on a monthly basis, simply because you're using more of a energy source that is already higher in price.
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