Smart heating: Don't let costs go through the roof

It's time to warm up as nights get colder. A guide to what's hot in efficient new heating systems, the best utility deals and energy saving grants. Sinead Ryan

We are at the start of a new heating revolution that could overtake old style oil, electricity and natural gas. Ground and air-source heat pumps, solar panels and a revival of the old-fashioned stove with a modern twist, are all the rage when it comes to warming up the home.

The rural electrification scheme of the 1940s and 50s is still fondly remembered by those of that generation as the 'quiet revolution'. Its effects were probably not fully immediately realised by the recipients of the new-fangled instant power source, striking hope and fear in equal measure into homes all over the country.

Another energy revolution started with the discovery of Natural Gas off the Cork coast in the 1970s and the process of piping it to homes and businesses began. Twenty thousand houses in the Rebel county were the first to be connected in 1980 and by 1992, 27pc of Irish homes had this clean underground heating available to them. Today, more than 630,000 homes choose it as their primary power source, and only four counties remain outside of the network.

However, is 'gas' in danger of being overtaken eventually by eco-friendly newcomers such as the Ground and Air Source heat pumps, solar panels, or the surprising comeback of stoves?

Seamus Brennan, Heating & Energy Consultant is a fan of the latter. "Stoves are three times more efficient than an open fire as they are enclosed. They also comply with new building regulations with wood burning stoves particularly good."

A non-boiler stove which can be bought for less than €500 is enough to heat an open plan room, while a boiler stove will also heat radiators around the house. You can opt for one which sits on your hearth, or is inset prone with your wall, perched at eye level.

Like a refrigerator, heat pumps use electricity to move heat from a cool space to a warm space, making the cool space cooler and the warm space warmer. Simon Moynihan of energy comparison website Bonkers.ie says the heat pumps are all the rage.

"People are beginning to look at retro-fitting heat pumps and most new builds have them fitted as standard. They're much more efficient, using heat under the ground or in the air to convert to energy. If you have underfloor heating, it's a no brainer, as the high temperatures needed for say, heating water for radiators isn't required, as it's spread over a larger floor area."

There are two types - a ground source pump which uses ambient heat from the soil. "It's not great in cities, as you need space to store them," says Simon, but they can be bought for around €2,000.

The air source type costs up to €5,000 for a top-of-the-range model and uses a refrigerant and compressor from the outside air converting 1 kW of electricity into 3-4kW of heat.

"There's a bit of alchemy involved," admits Moynihan, "but it will save you around a third off traditional heating bills", meaning it will effectively pay for itself within a few years.

The pump, which is quite large (like a small oil tank) needs to sit outdoors though but they generally last around 20 years, longer than most gas boilers.

For most households though, they will still choose either oil or natural gas, depending on what's available in their area. In this regard, heating boilers have become much more efficient; indeed, it's mandatory now to install only those exceeding 90pc efficiency.

Seamus Brennan adds that whether oil or gas is cheaper at any given time largely depends on factors outside our control as we still import the vast majority of our needs.

Although there are a range of suppliers, the price differential really only comes down to operating costs within them - the price of the product itself is largely determined by others and therefore competition tends to be of the discount variety - sign up for a year, on direct debit and you'll get the best cut.

"The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) publishes quarterly figures showing the price per kilowatt, and oil has come down quite a bit, but that can be only temporary," says Brennan.

Renewables are attracting a lot of interest globally, of course, and with 24pc of Ireland's energy coming from wind, we are finally in a position to stabilise our cost base somewhat, says Moynihan, who calls it 'go-territory'.

"There is less dependence on oil and gas which is a good thing, and Eirgrid, which manages the national output, gives preferential treatment to renewables."

For those only worrying about heating their home, gas remains the preferred option with 69pc of Dubliners and 65pc of Corkonians having it piped in directly.

Choosing a provider isn't straight forward and just looking at the bills can give people a headache, with all the different elements to consider.

The important thing is to compare like with like, and be aware of special offers from different providers. Bord Gais for example, which has just announced a second price cut this year of 2.5pc, offers a free boiler service for switching to them. All suppliers offer discounts for paperless billing and paying by direct debit or for bundling gas and electricity together.

In terms of gadgets, there's even an app for that. Bord Gais is currently rolling out 'Hive' which allows you control and schedule your heating and hot water temperature and timings remotely on your smartphone - ideal if you're on your way home from work and feeling a bit chilly. You can 'switch' the heating on along the way. Hive costs €299 fully installed and you'll need Wifi at home. It can also be operated manually from within and comes with a preset 'frost protection' function, which won't allow the house temperature to drop below 7 degrees.

Electric Ireland's 'Climote' does a similar job — the cost is €399, although it's free with a two-year contract for dual fuel. Keeping your house well insulated and using an efficient boiler are crucial. Under the Better Energy Homes Scheme, which is available to all pre2006 homes, householders can receive set amounts towards carrying out boiler upgrades, attic insulation and other energy saving measures.

You'll get approval within 20 days of applying and you must use an approved contractor from SEAL There are also other means-tested energy grants for those on social welfare (but not in social housing). Contact 1850 927 000 or www.seai.ie.

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