Solid fuel heating and boilers

Solid fuel heating in the form of coal, wood and other biomass warms huge numbers of UK homes. Try our money-saving tips for solid fuel customers.

Key points

  • Solid fuel is typically more expensive and inefficient than mains gas, but may be the right heating option for those off the gas network
  • Solid fuel customers can still shop around for electricity as a way of cutting energy bills
  • There are a number of ways to cut the cost of solid fuel heating, including shopping around, haggling, collective buying and sourcing your own fuel

While many may think of coal boilers and wood stoves as the home-heating sources of a bygone era, they remain prevalent throughout the UK, while modern biomass boilers can be one of the more forward-thinking heating solutions on offer.

When it comes to domestic energy, such options tend to be particularly important in rural areas where the mains gas supply isn't connected.

This would include places like Northern Ireland and parts of the Scottish Highlands and mid Wales.

In such areas the widespread availability of wood and other biomass material may even make such options the most sustainable and efficient way of heating a property and its hot water.

Key considerations before choosing solid fuel

If you're thinking of opting for solid fuel heating, one of the key things to consider is the space available.

Biomass and fossil fuels

    Fossil fuels such as oil, coal, gas and peat come from biological material that lived many millions of years ago, when that material would have absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere. The stored CO2 is released when the fuel is burnt.

    Biomass is derived from more recently living organisms. Although burning it releases CO2, it's only the same amount as that organism drew in when it was alive.

    By replanting trees and other biomass crops to replace what's burnt, the argument runs that this is a sustainable method of energy production.

Solid fuel boilers - especially biomass boilers - tend to be larger than a standard gas boiler but, above and beyond that, you'll need a large storage area for the fuel itself.

This storage area needs to be dry and should ideally be conveniently located for moving the fuel to the boiler.

Remember the maintenance involved in running a solid fuel boiler; this is both in terms of loading the boiler and cleaning up soot or ash.

The availability of the fuel is another key consideration.

It may be readily available from a variety of suppliers in one area, but elsewhere you may be tied to a single, expensive source, so try to suss out the local energy market before deciding on your type of boiler.

This may be a particular consideration with coal, which is becoming less and less common, meaning there are fewer suppliers in the market. You're also likely to be limited to smokeless varieties of coal.

Think also about the availability of engineers able to service and repair your boiler; as with the supply of fuel, this may be more problematic in areas where your chosen heating source isn't prevalent.

Money saving for solid fuel customers

Solid fuel customers need to ensure they keep their own fuel supply topped up so that they have a heating source, and shopping around for the right price isn't as easy for them as for householders whose heating comes from the gas network. However, there are ways for such people to save on energy bills.How to save money on energy

Perhaps the first and most obvious point to note is that solid fuel customers should still be able to shop around for electricity, comparing tariffs and suppliers to find the right deal.

Saving money on heating bills may require a bit more thought, but remember basic consumer principles such as shopping around for your fuel source and haggling with the supplier.

The more you order in one go, the stronger your bargaining position, and this could make it worth thinking about collective buying; if you purchase with family, friends and/or neighbours, you may be able to cut delivery costs and secure a discount.

If you use wood or another sort of biomass, it's possible that you can source your own fuel, perhaps from your own land, or even from a neighbour who needs to clear waste.

Fuel prices will fluctuate over time so choosing the right moment to purchase will be tricky, but it might be worth thinking of stocking up in the summer, as fuel prices often rise in winter. Try not to let your stocks run so low that you need an emergency delivery of fuel, as this is likely to be accompanied by a surcharge.

It's also worth trying to pay for your fuel in a way that works to your best advantage. If you have the discipline to pay off the balance in full every month, a cashback credit card can be a good option; as well as offering certain levels of consumer protection, this will allow you to claw back a proportion of your outlay when the cashback bonus is applied.

Can solid fuel customers change their heating source?

If a household heated by solid fuel is connected to the main gas network then switching to a gas boiler and heating system should be a relatively straightforward - if initially expensive - exercise.

Did you know...?

  • Heating oil is considered one of the more affordable options for those not connected to the gas network

Mains gas is often likely to be a cheaper heating source than solid fuel, although this is not necessarily the case with biomass when it may depend on things like the efficiency of your system and your access to wood and other biomass material.

If you do switch to gas it should make shopping around for energy more straightforward, and it's possible that such a change could even add to the value of a property.

If, on the other hand, the home isn't connected to mains gas, it may well be that the current heating solution is the cheapest option available, but there are other choices to consider…

Electrical heating may be worth thinking about; it's not necessarily a cheaper option, but it could be more convenient and easier to budget and shop around for. Electric may also prove to be a better long-term option with the rise of time-of-use tariffs, feed-in tariffs and smart meters.Log cabin

Feed-in tariffs are connected with the growth of renewable energy being created by domestic customers.

While initial set-up costs for such energy generation can be expensive, households that are off the gas network may potentially have the most to gain from things like their own hydro, wind and solar power.

If such options seem to point to the future, more traditional alternatives to solid fuel include heating oil and liquid petroleum gas (LPG - bottled gas).

LPG is likely to share many of the downsides of solid fuel options and can be an expensive way to heat a home, but oil is certainly an option to consider.

Heating oil is used by about 1.5 million UK households and, although it isn't not without its problems, it's considered one of the more affordable options for those not connected to the gas network.

By Sean Davies