Updating your home’s heating system can seem a daunting and possibly expensive prospect, but it presents a good opportunity to improve your home’s eco-friendly credentials and cut the cost of your future fuel bills. Having a properly heated and insulated home can also prevent issues like damp and rot, as well as making it a comfortable place to live. If you’re looking to renovate an old house, or are looking to update your current house, it is worth investing in a new heating system.
Period homes are notoriously hard to heat and make sustainable, but with modern technology, there is no way that your old, or even listed property, can’t be as eco-friendly as a modern new build.
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Heat options for period homes
Energy options for period homes
Traditional cast iron radiators give a nod to authenticity. Fortunately, there is a fabulous choice of styles on offer, and modern versions are far more effective and efficient than original 19th-century models, which were heated by steam. The main choices are between school-style pillar cast-iron designs, and more ornate decorative models, which may be polished or painted. Alternatively, modern stainless-steel designs can be chosen to make a contemporary statement.
Getting the right sized radiator
It is vital to get the size right – calculate the output you need in BTUs (British Thermal Units) using the online calculator at The Radiator Company. A heating engineer can also work this out for you.
For the most authentic look, invest in original radiators that have been restored and updated to work alongside modern heating systems. Buying non-reconditioned models from a salvage yard or at auction might seem budget-conscious, but do find out refurbishment costs before investing.
Princess H56cm radiator in Aged Gold, from £76.80 per section, Castrads
Click here to find out how to reduce heat loss from your radiators and improve energy-efficiency
The ultimate cosy centrepiece for a room, a wood-burning or multi-fuel stove is also
a highly efficient way of heating a space. While the majority of heat from an open fire disappears straight up the chimney, stoves are sealed and designed to burn fuel as efficiently as possible.
Ranging from freestanding appliances positioned in the corner of a room to those designed to sit within traditional fire surrounds, stoves are a flexible choice, too. They are mainly available in cast iron or steel, and can be enamelled with a coloured finish.
Fuel options for stoves
If you choose a multi-fuel stove, it can be used with wood or coal, and you will need a grate when burning coal/smokeless fuel. This grate is removed when using logs, as they burn better on a ‘hotbed’ of ash. Generally, solid-fuel stoves tend to produce large amounts of heat, but are less controllable than gas, oil and pellet models. If you live in a smoke control area, you’ll need a Defra-approved stove. Visit smokecontrol.defra.gov.uk for details.
The Arada Ecoburn plus 5 Stove is approved for smoke control areas, £928, Arada Stoves
How to choose the right sized stove
For a basic estimate of the size of stove you need, calculate the volume of your room in cubic metres by multiplying its length x width x height. You need 1kW heat output for every 14 cubic metres to give a consistent room temperature of 21°C when the temperature outside is zero. Before making your final choice, consult a HETAS-registered installer or retailer, who will make a more accurate assessment of your needs.
Where a room has a large fireplace or hearth, don’t be tempted to opt for a bigger stove that will be visually in proportion. Running a stove with too high a heat output for the space it occupies will make the room uncomfortably hot.
Click here to find out how to clean up and perform maintenance of your existing woodburning stove
While traditional open fires are not as efficient as stoves, they are an authentic option for many period homes, and if you have an original surround or grate in place, you should look to restore rather than replace and check that the structure of the chimney is still sound. Find a local chimney sweep at HETAS.
If you are specifying a new fire and concerned about efficiency, consider a hi-tech gas-fuelled fire that is highly controllable and offers a realistic effect. If you don’t have a chimney, you could opt for a flueless gas or electric fire, or one that burns bio ethanol, which doesn’t emit harmful gases.
Mid-18th-century-style fireplace with classical ornamentation, £6,480, Jamb
Click here to find out how to maintain your fireplace and your chimneys in your home
Choose the right surround for your home
- In Georgian homes, fireplaces were often open – inglenooks were introduced – with a fire basket or hob grate. Surrounds were of brick or stone. In later years, and in grander houses, marble, slate or wood were used.
- In the Victorian era, hob grates were popular, but from 1850 the cast-iron register grate appeared. Corbels were often used to support the mantel and from 1880 the smoke hood was introduced. Tiled cheeks were popular between 1880 and 1900.
- In Edwardian times cast-iron register grates were common, before Art Nouveau designs came into fashion. Simple, classical models were also popular, often using marble or enamelled slate. Glazed bricks were also often used, as were ornate oak surrounds with mirrors and shelves.
Bear in mind that all fires, solid or gas, require a hearth that meets the building regulations.
Both very comfortable and space-efficient, underfloor heating (UFH) is becoming an increasingly popular choice. The downside is that it is not very responsive, so you need good controls with timers, and a regular, predictable occupancy pattern, to maximise comfort and energy efficiency.
Underfloor heating types
Electricity is a relatively expensive fuel source and consequently the most commonly used form of electric UFH is for small areas such as bathrooms, where it is ideal for retrofit because the mats are very thin.
While warm-water UFH is well suited to many period properties, the maximum floor temperature is limited, so its output is not always enough to heat space effectively, unless the building is renovated to improve the thermal efficiency of the floor and roof, and, where possible, the walls and door and window openings. UFH is ideal for installing in extensions, though, and for conversions where there is no existing ground-floor structure.
Installing underfloor heating in an old house
Underfloor heating works well with hard flooring, such as stone, terracotta and quarry tiles, but is not recommended for use with solid timber flooring, and the heat output is reduced when it is fitted under carpet.
Where the existing floor structure is timber joists, typical of first storeys upwards and the ground floor of many period homes from the 18th century onwards, the usual solution is to lay coils of UFH pipe fitted over insulation cut to fit between the joists.
Continued ventilation of the joists needs to be considered at the design stage, and insulation should be breathable. Metal plates suspended over and between the joists, with channels into which the UFH pipe can be laid, can help to distribute heat evenly.
Heat Mat’s electric UFH heating mats are slimline for minimal build height and are easy to install. Electric UFH is better suited to smaller rooms, such as bathrooms. POA
Click here to read our ultimate guide to installing underfloor heating in an old property
Installing Underfloor heating directly onto the ground
The task of retrofitting underfloor heating where the existing floor is laid directly onto the ground, typically in the case of flagstones, clay pamments or quarry tiles, is usually harder.
- You will need to remove any skirting boards
- The flooring will need to be removed carefully
- The ground will need to be excavated to a depth suitable for a new ‘breathable’ limecrete oversite slab to be laid. (Usually 400–450mm plus the depth of the floor finish)
- Care must be taken not to undermine existing walls.
An alternative is to lay an independent UFH system over the existing floor structure with a thin layer of insulation bonded beneath it. This will increase the height of the floor, but only by 15–30mm, so minimising disruption.
UFH installation can be linked to an existing heating system by adding a separate circuit from the boiler outflow, with a mixer valve to regulate the flow temperature. Separate thermostatic controls in each zone will be required, ideally with night setback mode, as UFH is most efficient when it is run constantly and just turned down at night rather than turned off.
Installing underfloor heating in a listed building
Installing underfloor heating in a period property inevitably involves removing floor coverings, and consideration should be given to any potential loss or damage to these materials, including the removal of skirting boards and other decorative features. If the work involves an alteration to the character of a listed building or loss of historic building fabric you will need listed building consent.
Choosing a the right heating system for your home is the key to reducing running costs and making it a comfortable place to live, therefore it should be designed to suit your property, lifestyle and budget. It’s also important to consider heating in the context of your home’s overall energy efficiency — installing insulation and controlling ventilation could reduce running costs significantly. Below are the main options when it comes to providing energy to your property
Click here to read our essential guide to central heating
For most homes, a combination boiler will be suitable, providing heating to radiators and hot water on demand. For larger homes with higher hot water demand, a system boiler may be more suitable, providing heating to radiators, or underfloor heating, towel rails and hot water via a storage cylinder.
A gas-fired heating system will cost around £3,000–£5,500 for a typical 93m2 three-bedroom terraced house.
If you live in an area without mains gas, your options for a heating system are oil, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), electricity, solid fuel, or biomass fuel. With the exception of electricity, all these options require fuel storage on site.
The default option where no mains gas is available is usually oil-fired central heating. The capital cost for a 93m2 property is around £4,000–£6,500, which includes a boiler, oil storage tank, hot-water cylinder, radiators, parts and labour.
The installation cost for a bulk LPG heating system is slightly lower than for oil, as the tank is usually provided by the gas supplier on lease, but the running costs are slightly higher. An LPG tank can be buried, making it a good choice for those with limited space for an above-ground oil tank. LPG also offers options for a gas hob and real-flame-effect gas fires.
A renewable option, the most common and practical choice of biomass fuel is wood pellets, or wood chip. Systems are also available that burn logs and even straw bales.
The cost of installing a biomass system is relatively high and you also need lots of space for the boiler, thermal stores and for fuel storage — which is relatively bulky. This means it’s usually an option only for properties with larger gardens and space for a plant room and fuel store, or an outbuilding to convert.
As biomass heating is subsidised currently under the renewable heat incentive (RHI), it can be a very cost-effective option when well designed. Although the upfront investment is high compared to alternatives, the payback can be fast and the long-term running costs fairly low. To qualify for the RHI subsidy, your home must be energy efficient, so you will need to consider a major renovation upgrade insulation levels in the roof and floor and, where possible, the walls — not always practical in a period home.
A relatively expensive fuel option for home heating, electricity is typically only used where there is no mains gas available and no space to store other fuel options, or nowhere to install a flue for a heating appliance.
The most common electric option is storage heating powered by cheaper-rate off-peak electricity, such as Economy 7 and Economy 10. It’s worth exploring options for an alternative system that could reduce running costs.
Electricity is commonly used as a retrofit underfloor heating solution in small rooms, rather than a heating option for a whole home.
Using the cooling technology of conventional refrigeration, heat pumps extract renewable solar energy from the air, the ground or a body of water. A heat pump is only a cost-effective option when carefully designed to ensure the average performance (the ratio of usable energy extracted per kWh of electricity consumed) offsets the high fuel cost.
It is most economical if your home has a very low heat requirement because it has high levels of insulation and airtightness, and is combined with low-temperature heat emitters such as underfloor heating — none of these are easily achieved in a period property. When powered by green and or clean electricity, a heat pump is a sustainable heating option.
Active solar panels that produce hot water, and photovoltaic panels that generate electricity, are both subsidised at the moment. Therefore they both make financial sense over the medium to long term when designed, sized and positioned correctly, as long as you have spare funds available to invest in the relatively high upfront capital cost.
If they are not to compromise the building’s character, solar panels will need to be very carefully sited on a period home. Planning permission is not usually required to fit solar panels, although they must not face the highway if your home is within a Conservation Area. If your home is listed, you will need consent.