What is a heat network?

Know your rights if your home is connected to a heat network

At least half a million households are connected to one of 14,000 heat networks across the UK. From 2025, new regulations will be in place to better protect those connected to a heat network. This guide explains how heating networks work and what you can do if things go wrong – now and in the future.

This is the first incarnation of this guide. If you've any feedback or tips you think we should add, please let us know in the Heat Networks forum thread.

Thanks to Stephen Knight of Heat Trust for fact-checking and feedback on our new guide.

What is a heat network?

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A heat network, also known as district heating or communal heating, is a system that provides heating and hot water to multiple properties from a single central source, rather than each individual property having its own heating system. 

How does a heat network work?

The properties are connected through a network of insulated pipes carrying hot water and are managed by a single supplier.

Heat networks are often found in highly populated built-up areas (in the UK over 50% of homes on heat networks are in London). They’re safer (compared to piping gas around blocks of flats) and easier to switch to renewable energy sources compared to individual heating systems, as the source of the heat can be taken from a range of renewable sources (including water, geothermal, solar, biomass and excess heat from industry).

There are two types of heat network

Communal heat network
This is a heat network that supplies heat and hot water to several consumers within one building, for example, a block of flats. This is the most common type found in the UK and many new build flats are opting to install heat networks.

District heat network
This is where a heat network is used for multiple buildings, connected by underground pipes. District heating systems can cover huge areas and take heat from multiple different sources.

In most modern heat networks, each property that’s connected to a heat network will have a Heat Interface Unit (HIU), similar in size to a conventional gas boiler. With the aid of a heat exchanger, it transfers heat from the heat network to the radiators and hot water systems inside your home. On a modern heat network, homes are equipped with a heat meter which measures the amount of heat energy you’re using, and is measured in kilowatts, just like electricity and gas. This can be mounted within the HIU (if there is one) or separately.

In many older heat networks, homes may not have heat meters - instead heating and hot water can be charged on a flat-rate basis. In some cases, devises called ‘heat cost allocators’ can be used to work out roughly how much heat is used by individual homes for billing purposes.

What is the difference between central heating and district heating?

District heating is a system that provides heating and hot water to multiple buildings from a single heat network. Whereas central heating - more commonly used in the UK – is where each individual property has its own boiler and heating system. You don't need a boiler in your home if it's connected to a heat network, but you will need a heat interface unit (HIU), which can look very similar to a boiler.

Is a heat network cheaper?

If you live in a property that’s connected to a heat network, you’ll have to pay for the heating and hot water you use (so it's worth seeing our energy saving tips for ways to cut back). It may be included within your rent or service charges, or it may be billed separately. Most modern systems will include a heat meter installed in your home, and (just like electricity and gas) some systems use credit billing (such as Direct Debit) and some use prepayment metering so you pay as you go for your heating.

Your bill is often based on energy use plus a fixed standing charge

If you are on a modern heat network, then like traditional gas central heating systems, your heating bill will be based on the amount of energy you use, plus a fixed standing charge:

  • Your energy use. This is measured in the same way as traditional gas and electricity use is measured - using a domestic heat meter attached to your property. It’s also possible to have smart meters installed to record how much energy you use.

  • The standing charge. This can cover a range of fixed costs of providing your building’s heating system, such as the purchase, upkeep and management of the district heating network, energy centre and your Heat Interface Unit.

It’s been proposed that, once heat networks become regulated in Great Britain, Ofgem’s and Citizens Advice’s ongoing costs of regulating the heat networks, gas, and electricity markets will be spread evenly across all consumer bills. we'll update this guide when we have more details.

For now, you can use Heat Trust's Heat Cost Calculator tool to give you an idea of what you might be paying if you had an individual gas boiler system instead.

You can't switch your heating supplier for a cheaper deal – but you can switch electricity 

If your home is part of a heat network, you don't have a choice of which company supplies your heating and hot water – it will usually be your building owner or a company appointed by them. As heat networks only supply heating and hot water, you should be able to switch your electricity supplier if you want to – you can do an electricity-only comparison via our Cheap Energy Club. But bear in mind, some blocks of flats have a communal electricity supply via the building owner.

Most properties connected to a heat network will have a clause in their lease preventing them from disconnecting their home from the district heating system without permission.

Who is responsible for repairs and maintenance of heat networks?

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It may be down to the energy supplier, housing association, property owner, landlord or leaseholder – it all depends on what’s written in your lease agreement – so make sure you check this when you move to a property with a heat network.

It’s usually the heat network operator who is responsible for the repairs and maintenance of the system, up to and including the Heat Interface Unit (HIU). Then any part of the heating system that’s in your property will down to you to look after.

Just like a traditional gas boiler, your heat interface unit should be serviced regularly. Your heat supplier should arrange for your HIU and heat meter to be regularly inspected and maintained. Most manufacturers recommend this is done every other year to ensure the your heating and hot water system are reaching the correct temperatures, and that your system is working efficiently. Making sure your heating system is in good working order can help to reduce heat loss, and so lower your energy bills.

Is district or communal heating cheaper than having a gas boiler?

This is a tricky one to give a definitive answer to. District or communal heating can be cheaper than conventional gas central heating, as the heat network operator can bulk buy energy through the commercial energy market to cut costs, which should then be passed onto the consumer. But the fact you have no say in what rates you're paying – heat networks are not covered by Ofgem's Energy Price Cap – and aren't free to switch suppliers, means you can't take advantage of competitive tariffs that traditional gas customers can.

This has meant that during the energy crisis, commercial prices have sometimes exceeded capped domestic prices, leaving heat network customers exposed to extremely high costs. Additionally, some heat is lost in the process of piping it from the central source to individual homes and this adds to the cost of heat for consumers.

  • How to read your meter

    Most Heat Interface Units (HIUs) have a display with a five digit number on it. However, some HIUs have internal meters which don't have a display so you’ll need to arrange for an engineer to come and visit to read your meter, or access the reading via an external display unit or online. Some heat meters are separate from the HIU and some systems don’t have HIUs at all (with separate meters for heating and for hot water usage).

    Many modern heat meters are ‘smart meters’, so you can see in real time how much energy you're using.

What are the issues with heat networks?

Campaigners such as Heat Trust, Citizens Advice, Fuel Poverty Action and Which? have highlighted concerns about how heat networks operate and the negative impacts on consumers. Heat network users aren't currently protected by Ofgem, like gas and electricity consumers, so users often experience high prices, inaccurate bills, mis-selling and poor customer service.

Heat Trust told us that due to a lack of regulatory standards and industry expertise, some heat networks built in the UK have been poorly designed, installed and/or operated and suffer from very high heat losses and poor reliability issues. These issues can translate into high heat prices, overheating corridors and/or frequent supply outages.

Most heat network customers have no right to redress for customer service failings and there's little information available to assess the value of what you’re paying compared to traditional gas and electricity supplies.

When you move into a new home, you should be told that your heating will be supplied by a heat network. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. Once you're in, bills can be confusing and important information, such as maintenance charges and price rises, might not be clear. Customers can see huge variations in the way they're billed, and don’t usually get offered alternative payment options. That's why Ofgem has been appointed to regulate the heat networks industry.

You're often locked into a long-term contract 

One concern is that you can't switch your heating supplier and are usually locked into a long-term contract. That means you can't access cheaper tariffs (although you should be able to for your electricity supply – see our Cheap Energy Club to compare tariffs). But, if you're on a metered heat network, you can try to reduce your energy consumption to save a few quid. Try out some of our Energy saving tips, or if you're really struggling, see how you can Heat the human, not the home.

You may have to pay high maintenance charges

Being locked into a contract means you're also at the mercy of suppliers' service and maintenance charges - similar to daily standing charges on a gas or electricity bill. Plus you may have to contribute substantial amounts towards replacements or improvements in the heating system.

Heat networks aren’t required to offer any help to vulnerable customers – but that's changing

Unlike in the gas and electricity market, heat networks aren’t required to offer any help to vulnerable customers (unless it's part of the Heat Trust scheme). However, this is set to change when regulation comes into force in 2025. The government wants all heat network suppliers to maintain a Priority Services Register (PSR) and offer vulnerable customers appropriate support, similar to that already offered by gas and electricity suppliers.

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How to complain if you have a problem with your heat network

While regulation may be on its way, it’s still at least another year off coming into force. So, if you're having problems now, there are some things you can try: 

  • Complain to your supplier. Your first move is to talk to your heat network supplier, or to your landlord if you rent. You can raise the issue and see if they'll sort it out for you, and if not, go through the supplier's complaints procedure to try to force it to act. 

  • Contact your residents' association. If your building or community has a residents' association, it may be worth reporting the issue to it. Such a group may have a contact with the supplier, and if a number of residents have the same issue, it may help spur the provider to help. 

  • Get help from the Heat Trust. Some heat network providers are part of the Heat Trust, a voluntary scheme that aims to set minimum standards in quality and customer service for heat networks. It also provides an independent dispute resolution service (via the Energy Ombudsman), which may be able to help if your supplier is part of the scheme and has been unable to resolve your complaint. You can check to see if your supplier is signed up on its site. Sadly there are currently only 120 heat network sites registered with Heat Trust, covering around 80,000 consumers. 

  • Go to the Energy Ombudsman. If your Heat Network is registered with the Heat Trust, the Energy Ombudsman can look into disputes, such as supply issues. You can complain to the Energy Ombudsman Service if it’s been eight weeks since you first contacted your supplier about this issue.

You can still dispute discounts not passed on from your supplier

If you have an unresolved dispute regarding the Government Support Scheme (as part of the Energy Bill Relief Scheme or Energy Bill Discount Scheme) the Energy Ombudsman may be able to help. Both schemes will be open until 31 March 2024, but you can still raise disputes after the schemes have closed. If you're unable to reach a satisfactory solution with your supplier, and your dispute is open for longer than eight weeks, you can escalate your dispute via the Energy Ombudsman website or you can raise a dispute by calling 0330 440 1624.

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Heat networks will be regulated by Ofgem from 2025

Currently, there are no sector specific protections for heat networks consumers. However, in December 2021, the Government announced that Ofgem will be the regulator of heat networks in Great Britain, ensuring heat network users receive a fair price and reliable supply of heat and hot water.

Heat network regulation under Ofgem is planned to start in 2025 and should be fully operational from 2026. The key principles of the new regulations will be to:

  • protect consumers if their heat supplier goes out of business or performs consistently poorly;
  • ensure fair prices and clear information for consumers;
  • provide compensation when customers lose access to heating;
  • make billing easier to understand; and
  • give greater protection for vulnerable customers

The new regulations will also ensure that new heat networks are built and operated to a high standard of efficiency and reliability, and that existing heat networks are retrofitted to a simailr standard.

Under the new regulation, the Government will be able to regulate prices, in a similar way to the gas and electricity market’s Energy Price Cap, which will better protect consumers – however they don’t plan to set a Price Cap for heat.

Ofgem will also be able to grant licences that give heat network developers rights and powers similar to those held by other utilities companies. Ofgem will be able to take enforcement action if a heat network isn’t meeting the required standards.

Once regulation takes effect, you’ll be able to get advice from Citizens Advice (for England and Wales) and Consumer Scotland (for Scotland). If your issue needs to be escalated, you’ll be able to take your complaint to the Energy Ombudsman.

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