Choosing your heating system

Should you opt for radiators, underfloor heating, a wood-burning stove, or an alternative solution? Decide which is best for your home with this essential guide

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Whether you’re upgrading your existing set-up or installing a new heating system as part of a renovation or extension, selecting the right type is key. Radiators and underfloor heating – or a combination of both – are popular choices, but alternatives include warm- air and skirting heating, and, for airtight homes, mechanical ventilation.

Here, find out how to choose which will suit your home best, and get an idea of the costs of installation.

If you choose radiators…

A central heating system that teams a boiler with radiators is the conventional option for a home, although positioning radiators in open-plan layouts with few walls can be tricky. Radiators are usually less energy efficient than underfloor heating, so consider improving insulation levels at the same time as the upgrade, to reduce heat loss.

Cost:

For an average three-bedroom home, budget around £12–18 per square metre (excluding boiler) for a radiator-based central heating system, installed.

Select the right heat output

To match a radiator to the room, you will need to calculate the heat output required. Measure the room’s dimensions in feet, then multiply its length x width x height, and finally multiply the result by four to get the power rating required in BTU (British Thermal Units).

  • For example: If the room measures 12ft (long) x 9ft (wide) x 7ft (high), you will need a radiator with a rating of 3,024BTU. Heat loss, the room’s orientation and insulation levels also affect the requirement.

The surface area of a radiator determines its maximum heat output; however, it’s not just the size that matters. Double or triple panels, as well as convectors and fins, will all boost the level of heat.

What the radiator is made from also affects the speed with which it heats up and cools down. Aluminium does both quickly, whereas cast iron is slower. Chrome acts as a reflective barrier, so a chrome radiator emits around 20 per cent less heat than a regular model.

Find a stylish radiator here

What about underfloor heating?

An underfloor heating (UFH) system consists of pipe or coils, carrying warm water or electric heating elements, laid within the floor to turn it into a large radiator. Most people find it creates a comfortable temperature, and it’s the perfect solution for open-plan living areas. As well as being installed on its own, it can also be combined with radiators, perhaps upstairs.

Electric UFH is available as loose-fit flexible wiring – ideal for small spaces – or heating mats, for larger areas. It’s generally cheaper and faster to install than warm-water models.

You’ll need to be aware that because UFH systems aren’t designed to go off and on as required, it can take a couple of hours to heat a room from cold, and a few hours to cool down, unlike a conventional radiator system.

Cost:

If you’re opting for an electric system, allow around £30 per square metre for roll-out mats, or around £50 per square metre for loose-fit kits. Be aware that these systems are more expensive to run than warm-water versions.

Expect to pay up to £100 per square metre for a warm-water kit. Typical installation costs are £18–28 per square metre for warm-water UFH laid in screed, and £14–28 per square metre for an electric system in screed.

How to design an effective system

For UFH to work effectively, it must be designed to take the heat requirement of each room into account and match this with the output. Good controls are also essential to get the best out of your system.

For warm-water UFH, and if you are using gas as a fuel, go for a condensing boiler as it will use around five per cent less energy than in a radiator system, saving you 712kWh, or £32 per year*, on your gas bill. UFH can also be used with renewable heat sources, such as solar panels and heat pumps.

A competent plumber or DIYer can design an UFH system, although specialists advise that experience is necessary to optimise it, and the type of boiler being used must also be taken into account. Many suppliers offer a free design service based on floorplans.

If you choose a wood-burning stove…

‘Wood-burning stoves are up to 60 per cent more efficient than open fires,’ says Phil Wood, Contura country manager for the UK and Ireland. ‘And 80 per cent of the heat generated is radiated into the room, compared to only 20 per cent with traditional open fireplaces as most of the heat escapes up the chimney.’

Installation

‘Stoves can be installed in homes with or without a chimney, however, a flue is needed to safely remove the smoke and other by-products created when wood burns,’ says Martyn Bridges, director of marketing and technical support at Worcester, Bosch Group. The flue can either be housed in an existing chimney, or a pre-fabricated flue can be installed. Fitting, altering or replacing an external flue or chimney is likely to need building regulation approval. Planning consent is not normally required as long as certain conditions are met, but it is best to check both of these with your installer before starting any work. Always use a HETAS-approved installer.

Heat output

Look for a stove that complements your home in terms of aesthetics, but also consider size and heat output in kilowatts. ‘A smaller, square-shaped or cassette-style wood-burning stove can be inserted within an existing fireplace or chimney breast and gives out up to 5kW of heat, which is ideal for smaller, contained rooms,’ adds Phil. ‘Larger or open-plan rooms will require stoves with larger heat chambers to sufficiently heat the space.’

 

Cost

Stoves cost from about £300 up to around £10,000. For installation, you should budget £400 to £1,500. You’ll also need to factor in a chimney sweep to check everything. Prices vary, but expect to pay around £40 per chimney.

Alternative heating solutions

Skirting heating

With the external appearance of regular skirting boards, but concealing pipework or electrical elements, skirting heating provides even heat at a low temperature with minimal air movement. It has the room layout benefits of UFH, but is cheaper, while its responsiveness is similar to radiators. Find out more at discreteheat.com.

Warm air

Warm-air heating pushes air around a duct network using low-power fans. Systems can also incorporate an air-source heat pump. Highly controllable, as well as providing warmth, it can be configured to cool homes in summer, too. It’s best fitted in a well-insulated, thermally efficient single- or two-storey house, where mechanical ventilation is being installed. Some people do find the air movement uncomfortable. Visit johnsonandstarley.co.uk for more details.

Mechanical ventilation

New homes that are built to be efficiently insulated and airtight can avoid the need for central heating with a mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery (MVHR) that distributes heat, which could be given off by a woodburning stove, or even general appliances.

Infrared heating panels

Infrared heating warms people and objects directly. The air becomes warm as a secondary effect and stays warm for longer because it is surrounded by a warmed thermal mass — this is a more energy efficient way of heating air. The electric panels are easy to install and provide a quick and attractive solution.