Choosing a home heating System

You have decided that you will go in for central heating; or that you will get rid of the old and worn out system you have, for a new one. On grounds of cost alone it is not a step to be taken lightly. But it is just at this point too that all the dreadful stories come to mind, of people beggared and bankrupted, made to wait two years for essential parts, driven to desperation — and all they started with was a simple wish to keep warm.

Well, no doubt about it, you must keep your wits about you, or else employ someone who can be fully trusted to do the caring on your behalf. For a start you can count those who will take a negative attitude to your job:

The local authority, who will want to increase your rates.

The local authority, who will want to see that their Building Regulations are not breached, by way of structure, or fire risks, or electrical details.

The water authority, watchful of their byelaws.

The Clean Air people if you burn coal or oil.

In certain circumstances you might even come up against Planning, e.g. if you want to put up an outhouse for a boiler.

But all on that list, and any we may have missed out, are really quite helpful if asked for help. What tends to upset them is having their rules broken without prior consultation which would have avoided it. So the first practical rule should be, to make a list of everyone who has a genuine need to know what you are doing, and to tell them.

No doubt you will then ask how do you know who these various authorities are? So we go one step back, to the chosen installer or to the fuel supplier who may be advising you about the new installation. He spends his working life in this area of activity and should know. He should know also any short cuts. This does not mean evasions. But suppose for instance that a national agreement has been made that a certain form of appliance detail is acceptable in spite of earlier precedent, then this need not be argued again. That kind of detail is for the fuel supplier or the appliance supplier to know.

The second practical rule is, therefore, to discuss the proposals in some detail with a representative of your local fuel supplier, Gas Region or Electricity Board, major oil company agent, or SFAS or NCB agent. The chosen one of these stands to make a continuing profit out of you, and this is your turn to get something besides fuel from him.

But, you may well say, we haven’t yet decided which of these we will use. True. So go back yet another step, and see what is going to influence the decision between the kinds of heating which are outlined in this post. Here are just a few points which might be applicable. (1) Age. Moving into retirement, do you seek simplicity and ease? Will you want to carry coal and ashes? Will you want to lie on the floor to light a blown out gas bypass flame? Or will you insist upon simple controls at reachable height all the time, and no humping? (2) Physical disability creates the same conditions as age, above. (3) Your premises, are they rented, owned, do you plan a long occupation or intend to sell and move in say five years? For a start you would not plough a lot of capital into a landlord’s property unless there was a beneficial arrangement with the landlord. No need to go without heating, though. This is a situation suiting storage radiators, of which you can remove all but the circuit; or the hearth mounted oil fired unit which gives bulk warm air distributed around the house by drift and perhaps an extract fan. It is not an occasion for running a pipe circuit or extensive ducts.

There may well be a different outlook towards the place in which you hope to spend the rest of your days, compared with one which you expect to move on from, as is common enough in these restless times. The case is however debatable. On the one hand it may be thought that to put in the best system available will bring its own reward in the price which the house will fetch eventually. On the other hand, pessimism or some other reason may dictate that you put in the cheapest form of system compatible with being able to describe it as central heating, and to enjoy it during occupation of the house. (4) Geographical location.Fuellimitationssometimesapply. In quite a few places, usually smallish and quite a way from anywhere, there is no gas main. Such places almost always have a Calor gas agent. Only rarely do we find a place with no electricity – a cottage on the moor, perhaps. This is extremely limiting, because of the great reliance of so many other appliances upon electricity for their instrumentation and control. Possibilities coming readily to mind are a solid fuel boiler ; an oil fired hearth fitted heater as described in, in which the extract fan is not an essential part and is replaced by plenty of open doors. Pity the cottage-on-the-moor dweller if he is inaccessible to a supplier of solid or oil fuel. He has little left but wood, or peat, or solar heat, none of which come into this post. The portable paraffin stove is not an exciting prospect, since it gives off a gallon of water for every gallon of paraffin burned, and is a chief contributor to internal condensation. (5) Household detail. This covers a good deal. It covers the flat which has no flue and no right of access to an upper floor, for which there is little choice beyond electric storage. It covers the new house built for the electric age, with no chimney, which does not prevent you from using gas fired balanced flue appliances; or from building a flue for yourself.

It covers the place which has no spare floor space, e.g. a ‘bijou’ kitchen, and the under stairs cannot possibly be connected to a flue. Electricity apart, there is the wall mounted gas boiler, and skirting heating to save the space taken by radiators. Or, given a hearth, there is the back boiler. Still under household detail we must think of places which have solid floors, and ask how will we run the pipes of a wet system. Perhaps tied to the same set of conditions will be a strong wish to keep all the ‘engine room’ details out of sight. The primaries of the hot water system can usually be accommodated in the core of the house, particularly if the hot water cylinder is vertically over the boiler position, as for good operation it should be. We have also drawn attention to the latest idea, in which the hot water cylinder is a part of the boiler and so primaries are done away with. But the heating system is different. It must run outwards to the heat emitters. This may be a case in which you use micro-bore, because the pipes are as inconspicuous as electric cable. It may also, remember, be the right place to make those economical runs, of back-to-back radiators or other heat emitters, which we have described.

By no means least and by no means last comes personal preference. Nobody has to give a reason for not liking gas, detesting oil or having no use for solid fuel — like the lady who refuses to have electricity in the place, except for lighting and the Hoover.

The likes and dislikes can be more penetrating than that. A typical case in heating, though not in central heating, concerns the gas fire. With unbelievable perversity many interior design conscious people seem to object to the modern designed exterior of most gas fires and to look longingly at the gas fired log effect unit, which is one of the worst things to happen to the gas industry in this decade.

Manufacturers of boilers for gas, oil and solid fuel went to endless trouble to dress their kitchen boilers in a manner which makes them almost indistinguishable from the washing machine, the fridge, the kitchen unit. While most people approved, there remained a market for the bizarre design, to the delight of the few who retained it.

Most people have by now grasped the point that modern manufacturing methods, upon which we depend for a product of competitive price, cannot leave any room for the one-off. A unit has only one height, or width, a choice of only three colours, a flue at the back only – and so on. If you want something else it is useless to look for a variant of that brand. The correct thing to do is to look at another brand, even another manufacturer, in the hope of finding what you want. The quicker thing to do may often be to accept and adapt to the item which is not too welcome.

A particular case in which shopping around might pay is in radiators. There is often very good reason for wanting a radiator of a particular height, one which will fit a space available. But a manufacturer whose radiators are, say, 14 and 19and 24 inches high has no possible chance of turning out one at 18 or 25 inches. So forget him, and look for the one in whose range 18 or 25 are standard. You may not care for the profile as much, but this becomes a matter of priorities.

Helping Hands

Almost everyone without any special knowledge of the subject seeks impartial advice. This is a natural reaction to the pressures exerted by advertising, and in particular by the advertising of fuels in contexts which are popularised from time to time. But we give it as a long considered opinion, that there is no such thing as impartial advice. Also that it is not such an ideal proposition as may at first appear. Let’s be honest and admit that whenever there is a choice partiality creeps in. When we vote at an election, for instance. What we usually do is to try to find out what the issues are, before making up our own minds. And in that may be summed up the purpose of this post. When choosing a central heating system we expect that you will make your own mind up. All we aim to do is to put the main facts before you, to let you see the issues on which your decision should be made.

While we are trying to destroy long held beliefs, let us add that there is hardly ever a best system, for you or for anyone else. There is a short list of systems which have the greater number of the features which suit you and suit your premises, and in the long run it will matter hardly at all which of that list you choose. Indeed, the more thoroughly you follow the advice to insulate, the less important does any form of heating become.

We have tried to give you pointers to strong and weak points in a number of systems, knowing that these are not usually available in the publicity material. Overall, we have aimed to put you on at least nodding terms with what is available, so that you may turn to the handouts with more confidence, ask significant questions and evaluate the answers. But that does not mean that you are now to be cast adrift entirely on your own resources. Below is a list of some of the organisations which exist for your good. If you should need the services which they represent, in most cases the first thing to do is to find and approach the local representative. But if that is not satisfactory do not hesitate to go to the headquarters.

Certifying Authorities

For all gas fired appliances: British Gas. The local showroom might not stock what you have in mind, but they have a current list of approvals. Never use a gas appliance which is without British Gas approval.

All oil fired appliances: DOBETA. Domestic Oil Burning Equipment Testing Association Ltd., 3 Savoy Place, Victoria Embankment, WC2R OBN. Do not buy an oil fired appliance without DOBETA approval.

All solid fuel appliances: The Solid Fuel Advisory Service and Solid Smokeless Fuels Federation issue jointly a list of Approved Domestic Solid Fuel Appliances. Avoid anything not on that list. Your SFAS agent should have a cony, or the SFAS region office, or at Hobart House, London, SW1X 7AE.

All electrical appliances: BEAM A or Electricity Council approval, usually the Kite Mark as well. If in doubt try the Electricity Council at 1 Charing Cross, London, SW1, but the local electricity showroom should be able to give the answers.

Radiators, convectors: MARC certify heat ratings, and membership of the Association will be clearly stated on makers’ literature, if it has been gained.

Water valves etc: are usually accepted by the National Water Council. But the basis of such approval is a British Standard, and it should therefore be quite satisfactory to establish that valves and fittings conform to the appropriate BS.

There are more specialist bodies, most of them of concern to the professional. Outside of that list most items are likely to be covered by customer protection legislation: Trades Description Act, and Sale of Goods Act, which give the customer much more power than formerly to demand an instant replacement for goods which do not do what is claimed. We have mentioned British Standard’s Kite Mark only briefly. This is no oversight. The organisations mentioned above are specialist and their function is particular to their calling. The Kite Mark must always be respected as an extra badge of merit, which takes in such features as continuing surveillance of manufacture and the maintaining of high standards. To contact BSI direct, the address is 2 Park Street, London, Wl A 2 BS.

Doing the Work

One of the most potent fears is of getting into the clutches of a ‘cowboy’ and finding out too late that he is incompetent, or insolvent, or both. At the height of the boom, and the worst excesses, the late Heating Centre tried to run an insurance scheme against such an eventuality, but being short of money they were obliged to get the customer to pay the premium, which put the trade in the worst possible light. Since then more appropriate safeguards have grown up, and any customer who feels in need of protection should be able to get it. The most likely deterrent is still ignorance of the availability of such schemes.

For gas fired appliances there is CORGI, the Confederation of Registered Gas Installers. Most gas showrooms carry a list of CORGI approved installers, and if themselves engaged in installation work no doubt also belong. It should be noted that the only tested competence of CORGI members is in relation to the gas burning appliances. They are not tested for wet or dry systems at present, though one may go some way in assuming a willingness to seek approval. It is desirable therefore to make sure that you choose a CORGI man who happens to be experienced in the type of system you intend to have.

For all types of system there is a service offered by HVCA, the Heating and Ventilating Contractors’ Association, with a double guarantee for customers. In this case the contractor pays the premium and HVCA underwrites the guarantee, and will arbitrate in case of dispute, and take over if the contractor goes bankrupt. The wide net cast by HVCA enables them to have servicing organisations on their lists too.

The way to activate HVCA is to tell them the type of system you are thinking of putting in, for example a wet system with oil fired boiler. They will then let you have a short list of members in the region who specialise in that kind of work, from which you will select two, perhaps three, and ask for a tender and specification. The latter is important if you are to choose between tenders, since you need to know exactly what each is offering for the money. The address to contact HVCA is Esca House, 34 Palace Court, Bayswater, London, W2 4JG.

You have a part to play in constructing the specification. It is your decision whether to have full heating, or partial, or any one of the choices listed in the Introduction. The choice of maintained temperatures too is yours. Then you can listen to any arguments in favour of, say, radiators versus skirting heaters; plain versus thermostatic radiator valves; small bore versus microbore; and so on. Remember that the installer or contractor is, in his own way, far from impartial. If he has reached your house because he is a specialist in one branch of domestic heating he is quite clearly partial to it. So do not be afraid to argue with him on any but strictly technical matters.

Getting a trustworthy and competent installer is the most important part of all decision making. If you do this you can practically forget about the need to conform to Building Regulations and all the rest of the list set out earlier. Your man will be fully aware of what he can and cannot do, who wants to know about what, and so on. He will almost certainly know which fuel tariff, in case of choice, is best suited to your new needs. For cavity wall insulation choose a manufacturer who belongs to the National Cavity Insulation Association, Bremar House, Sale Place, London W.2.


Although we have left this until last it is a very important factor in decision making, and the one which stays near the top of most people’s lists. The question ‘What will it cost?’ is no more answerable than the other nonsensical ‘How long isa piece of string?’. It depends upon almost everything. The proper objective for every householder is not to find out some fictitious datum cost but to make a determined effort to keep cost to a minimum compatible with the achievement of comfort. This is a two-part exercise. It entails first using the maximum of good insulation : then running the system in accordance with the rules set out in the Introduction about quantity, place and time of warming.

That is what the cost of running a system comprises, and it will clearly vary widely according to number in family; whether home loving or always out, particularly out all day at work; whether young and active, or elderly and chilly.

The real cost of an installation, ignoring the effects of inflation for a moment, must be the first cost, what it cost to buy and install, plus the cost of running over a standard period of time, which is taken by some to be five years, by others as ten years. We can illustrate our point by looking at both.

System A cost £500 to put in, and costs £150 a year to run, while system B cost £800 but runs for £100 a year. Which is the better proposition?

Over five years the cost of A is £


Running: 5 x £150

Total for 5 years

Cost per year £

The cost of B is


Running: 5 x 100


Cost per year

Now taking a ten year period, similar calculations show that the annual cost of A is £200, that of B is £180.

We can see, then, that the annual cost falls as the influence of the first cost diminishes; also that for the same reason the cheaper running cost wins out in the end. In certain circumstances no doubt people may wish to amortise, I.e. spread the capital, over only five years. But if as is more usual the period chosen is a notional life of the system, then ten years is by no means unrealistic, and certainly favours a system which may cost more to buy but promises less cost to run. Incidentally that is not to suggest that a system will have only a ten year life. Most systems keep going long after the technology they represent has become a bit old fashioned.