There are now around 17,000 district and communal heating networks (HNs) in the UK, delivering heat from a central source to public sector buildings, offices and homes. Together they provide around 2% of the heating demand of buildings in the UK.
The government continues to encourage consumers to sign up to these schemes as part of its Clean Growth Strategy. However, the option of ‘switching’ energy suppliers that most energy consumers have available to them is limited for those on a heating network, and customers lack confidence in this form of heating supply.
Selected consumers, including customers of 2,218 separate heat networks in England and Wales, have given feedback on their experiences of heating networks in response to an opinion poll commissioned by the government.
HN consumers’ perceptions of the service and billing information provided was compared to that of a control group with a similar demographic and characteristics.
Nearly 75% of both groups were content with their heating systems and were at least ‘satisfied’ with reliability, price fairness, information, level of heating and complaint handling.
Lack of control
Nearly half of the consumers were served by a communal HN (supplying only their own building) and a third by a district HN (also supplying other buildings). However, a fifth did not know which type of HN supplied their heating.
Only a quarter of HN consumers said they were billed on actual price with many paying based on the overall use of multiple homes in a building, or a set price that didn’t vary. This may explain the marked increase in wasteful behaviour among the HN consumers. Asked how they reduced over-heated homes, HN consumers were more likely to open a window or use an electric fan. 11% said they couldn’t turn off the heating.
Although they were no more likely to be dissatisfied with their level of heating control, HN consumers were twice as likely to report being uncomfortably warm and four times more likely to say that they were always too warm. Most HN consumers had systems controlled by thermostatic radiator valves, but only a quarter used a heat programmer or central thermostat to control their heating.
While HN systems were reported to break down more frequently than others, and were more likely to be fixed within 24 hours, they were also more likely to continue to experience problems for longer than one week.
Underheating for many HN consumers was most often a result of the system not working but a quarter cited prohibitive cost. Conversely, the control group was twice as likely to suffer an underheated home due to cost.
As discussed in our May 2017 article: Fuel poverty scheme extended to September 2018, most households committed to heating networks are in ‘fuel poverty’. People living in flats, maisonettes, smaller and newer homes, or local authority and housing association properties make up the vast majority of those on heating networks. They are also three times more likely than the wider population to be in retirement (44%).
HN consumers were found to pay less, on average, than other consumers – but there was significant variation in the prices paid. Some HN consumers were paying as much as £2000 per annum, but on average they paid £100 less for heating and hot water compared to the control group.
HN consumers were more likely to believe the price they paid was fair when they were paying a fixed fee than those on estimated or ‘actual use’ tariffs.
Cost transparency was an issue for a third of HN consumers, who said that they did not receive a detailed bill or account summary. However, a fifth of the control group also felt uninformed.
The Competition and Markets Authority is to carry out a study into the heat networks sector.
Consumer protection remains an issue. Heat Trust is a voluntary industry-led consumer protection scheme and consumers on registered schemes generally receive a good standard of service and protection. Consumers on Heat Trust registered schemes generally felt more informed and were happier about the service they received.
HN consumers were more likely to complain about their system than others and less likely to be satisfied with the resolution.