Coronavirus Travel Rights
23 April 2021
More than one million UK households that rely on a heating oil tank to warm their homes risk overpaying due to an under-regulated market that gets too little political attention. There's no slick solution, but there are things you can try to cut heating oil prices.
Deliveries of heating oil and other liquid fuels are continuing as normal during the coronavirus pandemic, though suppliers have introduced contactless delivery. This may mean you won't be able to pay by cash or cheque for the time being. See our Coronavirus Finance & Bills Help guide for the latest info.
Heating oil is a fuel for home heating and hot water. Unlike homes connected to the main gas grid, where the fuel is essentially piped in on demand, home heating oil is delivered in a lorry and stored in a tank near your home. You'll still be connected to the electricity grid for your electricity supply.
These are the key need-to-knows about heating oil, but if you just want tips on how to save when buying, see How to buy heating oil.
There are two main types of heating oil – gas heating oil and kerosene. Kerosene is more common in homes, while gas heating oil tends to be used more in commercial properties. If your boiler does take both, you'll likely be better off going for kerosene.
Kerosene comes in two grades – standard and premium. Premium kerosene contains additives which makes it last longer, though you'll pay more for it.
Shockingly, there's no regulator to look after heating oil users, leaving you high and dry on price transparency and fairness, and making it more difficult when it comes to resolving complaints and disputes.
There is, however, a voluntary industry-run code of practice some suppliers subscribe to via the UK and Ireland Fuel Distributors Association (UKIDFA) – the main trade association for the oil distribution industry.
The code asks members to clearly explain payment options and charges, not to change unit costs once agreed and to resolve incorrect deliveries, among other things.
All UKIDFA suppliers are also members of UtilitiesADR, an independent alternative dispute resolution scheme for non-regulated issues (such as heating oil) between consumers and utility providers.
Check your supplier is accredited with the UKIFDA, it should bear a logo on its website.
For more, see Your rights if things go wrong.
The average domestic heating oil tank can hold between 1,000 and 1,500 litres of home heating oil. On average, UK households get through around 2,500 litres of heating oil each year (according to one major supplier).
So depending on the size of your tank, you'll likely need three deliveries each year – at a minimum – to cover your usage.
Of course, this all depends on the size of your tank, how much heating oil you use, and how much you can or are willing to order at a time.
Stored correctly, in a tank in good condition, home heating oil should last for to 18 to 24 months.
To make sure your fuel last as long as possible, it's a good idea to get your tank checked regularly, to make sure there's no corrosion, and always make sure it's sealed properly or dirt, water and debris could get in an affect the condition of the fuel.
You can store a small amount of heating oil – up to 30 litres, provided you use a suitable container.
Any more than that and you'll need permission from what's known as a local Petroleum Enforcement Authority. You can find yours on the Health and Safety Executive website.
Most suppliers have a minimum order of 500 litres a pop, which will set you back about £100-£200. It's a big outlay, so it's important to manage your cash properly.
You may want to think about putting cash aside each month specifically for your oil, using a credit card or paying by direct debit.
How do direct debit payments for heating oil work?
Suppliers will usually ask you to pay for you first order upfront as normal, but will then agree to a set amount you can pay each month to cover future orders, so you don't need to pay everything upfront again.
You can order a delivery any time you like, and the money will be taken from the account to cover it.
While you can usually stop the direct debit at any time, the downside is you're far less likely to go out and haggle with other suppliers when you have the convenience of a direct debit. Don't let it drive you towards apathy.
Put cash aside each month
As bigger orders get bigger discounts, you're usually better off buying larger amounts less often. However, this means a big outlay for every order, so you may want to work out how much you spend each year on oil and put this aside each month in a savings account.
For example, if you make three orders of £500 per year, you should be saving £125 per month. Put this away in the top easy-access savings account to boost interest.
Pay by credit card to get cashback and extra protection
If the supplier doesn't charge extra for paying on credit cards, use a cashback card and you can get up to 5% back. But ONLY do this if you'll pay back the card in full each month. See Top Cashback Cards for the best buys.
What's more, on goods worth £100+, if you pay at least 1p on a credit card, then if something goes wrong, the card company is jointly liable for the whole cost of the item or service, along with the retailer. While it should work, it's not tested for heating oil purchases. See our Section 75 guide for more.
Direct debit schemes generally run over a 12-month period, with providers reviewing your account each year.
If you've not paid enough, you'll usually be asked to make up the difference. If you've overpaid, you can either request a refund, or keep it to use for future heating oil orders.
One supplier, Watson Fuels, even pays around 2% interest on any excess cash in your account. But don't go for it unless it's cheapest, which is far more important.
While not guaranteed, in general the more oil you buy the better discount you can get. Whether this is buying ahead for the year, pairing up with a neighbour or joining an oil-buying group – the bigger the buy, the bigger the savings, so joining a group will probably get you the best price.
What's more, bigger orders also means more power when haggling, see Haggle down prices for more.
Group together for purchase power
In the right kind of numbers, bulk-buying heating oil as a village can give you leeway to negotiate better deals with the oil suppliers.
Just make sure everyone involved lives in the same area – the supplier can give better discounts because it's saving on delivery costs by not having to make multiple trips to the same area..
Lots of heating oil clubs already exist, set up by individuals or companies. Some charge a small admin fee, but steer clear of any asking for large amounts.
Set up your own buying club
Setting up an oil club is fairly simple, but does require someone who's willing to chase quotes and organise members. About 20 people ordering around 10,000 litres of oil is the optimum for getting a really good deal while still being able to organise a group easily.
Simply ask people in your area to commit to an amount of oil and get quotes for the group (or take it in turns) every month or so.
Even teaming up with just one neighbour can save a decent amount. The heating oil company will strike a deal and bill each person individually. Most firms are happy to do this provided you live reasonably close to each other.
Both the oil you buy and the tank you store it in cost big, so if things go wrong you'll be seriously out of pocket.
The Oil Firing Technical Association (Oftec), the body which represents heating equipment suppliers, suggests you get an annual tank inspection for starters. But you can do simple checks for corrosion, cracks and discolouration yourself, and make sure no debris can get into the tank to affect the oil. See Oftec's guides for more.
Heating oil theft still happens. Here are a few things to try to limit the risks:
The location of oil tanks can be a critical factor. Ideally they should be situated within sight of your home, but not visible from the road. If tanks are visible, plant hostile (thorny) shrubs around your tank.
Thieves will think twice before forcing their way through a prickly hedge, and the smallest trace of blood or shred of ripped clothing could provide enough forensic evidence to identify the offender.
Don't think that just because you don't have a mains gas supply, you can't switch and save on your energy bills.
You'll still almost certainty be connected to the electricity grid, and that means you can compare and switch suppliers for your electricity supply – which can still save serious cash. Use our Cheap Energy Club to compare electricity prices.
If you have heating oil but want to switch to standard gas, most households can usually be connected to the mains gas network, but it can cost huge amounts, depending whether you're near existing pipework or not.
If your home is within 23 metres of a gas main, it's easier
If you're close to a gas main, you will be able to get a connection. First, you'll need to speak to your gas 'distribution network operator' (you can enter your postcode on Energy Networks Association website to find yours) to see if your home can be connected and to get a quote.
You can usually apply online or over the phone, and prices tend to range from around £500 to £1,500 to get your home connected to the mains.
You'll need a meter installed from an energy supplier (such as British Gas, E.on, etc). Some will do this for free but others charge, so make sure to ring around a few suppliers.
You'll also need to invest in a new boiler and pay for it to be installed, which could cost anywhere between £2,000 and £5,000. Finally, there will be costs associated with the decommissioning of your old oil tank.
If your home isn't near a gas main, it can be very expensive
This is where things can get really expensive. Gas network operators can extend their network to reach you, but it can cost huge sums.
You can band to together with the local community and share the cost via projects known as 'gas infills'. This is where the operator lays new gas mains and service pipes to connected homes and businesses to its network, and the cost is spread across properties within the project boundaries.
You'll need around 30%-40% of properties within the local areas to be interested initially for the network operator to consider extending their network to your community.
Heating oil prices in the UK tend to follow trends in global oil prices, and with lockdowns across the world over the last year or so due to coronavirus, global oil demand plummeted. As a result, UK heating oil prices also fell – though they are now starting to rise again as demand increases as we come out of lockdown.
As prices are linked to the global oil market, and the UK wholesale energy market (what energy supplier pay for gas and electricity) prices can fluctuate daily.
The mains gas and electricity suppliers can buy chunks of energy well ahead of time when prices are cheaper, but heating oil suppliers can't do this. That means short-term fluctuations have much a bigger impact on prices. That means timing is everything. As a general rule:
Summer's usually the best time to buy as low demand drives prices down. Higher demand in winter means December is often the priciest.
Yet it's also important not to leave buying oil to the last minute. Emergency deliveries can cost about 10% more. Get into a routine of checking your oil level and plan ahead and get quotes with a few weeks to spare, to give yourself the most flexibility and best prices.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), heating oil prices dropped to an average £379 for 1,000 litres in 2020, down massively from £529 in 2019, mainly due to the coronavirus pandemic. Prices have started to recover in 2021, reaching £465 for 1,000 litres in February 2021 – its highest level since last February.
Yet this is still relatively low and with the worst of the cold weather behind us, oil prices are likely to drop off slightly over the coming months.
|Year||Price for 1,000 litres|
|Correct as of April 2021. Source: Office for National Statistics|
Now you know when to buy, it's important to understand how to buy it the right way. Knowledge is power, so the first step is to ensure you know what prices are available to you.
The best way to do this is to use heating oil comparison sites and brokers, or go directly to supplier's websites and grab a quote. You do this to find the best prices for you, or use it as a benchmark to try haggle with providers.
You can use specialist heating oil sites to compare rival companies. There are two types of sites – brokers and simple comparisons. With the brokers, they secure a deal and you pay them if you're happy with the price. A comparison simply lists the cheapest prices it can find.
The more you try, the better, but make sure to check at least two. Start with these (we picked them as they're independent, but feedback is scant, so they're listed in no particular order):
Do you use a better comparison site? Please let us know.
It's important to note we're not suggesting you just buy from these sites – brokers often charge a bit more for doing the legwork. Some comparison sites aren't transparent about being linked to parent oil suppliers, but all the sites above are currently independent of any oil giants.
Once you've benchmarked prices, you can start to whittle costs down even more by haggling. Here's how...
Not all suppliers are physically able to send tankers to your area, so as well as noting down names from the comparisons above, use the UK and Ireland Fuel Distributors Association (UKIDFA) directory, Yellow Pages, Yell or Google Maps to find your local ones.
Pick a supplier, call it up and haggle. Don't be shy. This is a haggling business. If you've never haggled before, don't try and be overly clever. You're just calling to give it a quote and see if it can beat it. The more oil you order, the bigger the discount you're likely to get.
You're more likely to get a result if the staff member empathises with you. If you're polite, charming and treat the process with humour, you'll get further – never be aggressive.
As negotiations come to a close, a classic sales technique is staying silent. They want you to accept the price just to fill the silence. Make them fill it with a cheaper offer.
After your first haggle, whether it worked or not, call a few more suppliers, quoting the best price you've had and see who can beat it. To speed up the process, you could simply knock some off your existing price and say this is what you want them to beat. But don't go too far with this – if it's unrealistic, it may say no.
If you've got a regular or preferred supplier, or someone who has spent lots of time helping you, go back to it to see if it will match the best price you've found.
Sadly and bewilderingly, energy regulator Ofgem doesn't have any responsibility for heating oil and there are no immediate plans to change that. With no consumer body to protect heating oil users, it's not as easy to get redress as it is with other purchases.
Unfortunately, this means you will need to rely on the courts if things go badly wrong. However, the small claims court is relatively easy to use and not as scary as you may think. However, there's a few things you can try before heading to court.
When starting a complaint, it's best not to go militant unless you have to. The first easy step is to go back to the shop or phone the call centre. Explain the problem and your suggested resolution.
If you go in with polite gusto, saying you know what your rights are, chances are the store will sort your problem in a flash.
If the supplier won't help, pen a complaint letter and send it to the head office. If it needs to go to a local office, it'll be passed on.
Send all letters by recorded delivery, so you can prove they received it, and always save a copy.
Your letter should mention any statutory rights you think have been broken. Don't overwrite these letters, just pen one or, at most, two sides explaining the problem. Crucially, always include what you want them to do to put it right. If you have documentary evidence (or photos if it's damage), include it.
It is worth adding that you will consider court action if this is not satisfactorily resolved.
If you're not confident the supplier will help you if you run into troubled waters, there are two consumer rights which may help you:
Does your supplier belong to the trade body? The UKIFDA has a code of practice which it asks all members to adhere to. If the firm doesn't, it may be kicked out, which means it can no longer bear the UKIFDA logo. It's also a member of an independent alternative dispute resolution scheme for utility providers – UtilitiesADR.
If you've exhausted all routes via the supplier and the trade body, there are two consumer rights which may help you:
Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. On goods worth £100+ and you pay at least 1p on a credit card, then if something goes wrong, the card company is jointly liable for whole cost of the item or service, along with the retailer, under a special law called Section 75.
This is particularly valuable for heating oil consumers, as the next step is the small claims court. Section 75 gives you a robust option without having to go to that trouble, plus allows you to take up the issue with the Financial Ombudsman Service (for free). See the Section 75 guide for more. Though only do this if you can clear the card in full the next month to avoid interest.
Consumer contracts regulations. These regulations give a 14-day cooling-off period after you've had an order delivered (see Consumer Rights for more info). However, it may be difficult to enforce these regulations once the oil has been put in your tank.
If all else fails and the shop hasn't given you a satisfactory response, don't be disheartened. You can still go to court, but the only person who can force action is a county court judge (sheriff court in Scotland).
Yet before you get legal on their butts, you're expected to try to resolve things directly. Ideally, send a "letter before action" to say you are going to take them to court. If you don't try, the judge is likely to look unfavourably on your case, so always use the steps above first.
Legal action in what's usually known as the small claims court is limited to claims under £10,000.
See the Small Claims Court guide for full info.
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