Decarbonising our homes: Are heat networks the way forward?

Nigel Glen

By Nigel Glen

18 November 2022

The UK Government has vowed to reach net zero by 2050, but with over 17% of the country’s carbon emissions coming from homes and offices, it’s clear that significant changes to how we heat buildings will be necessary to reach this goal. 

Building more residential heat networks is a big part of the Government’s proposed decarbonisation strategy, but how costly are they to install? How can Block Managers implement changes? And what will it cost residents? 

Here’s what you need to know.

What are heat networks and how do they work?

Heat networks are communal heating systems that can more efficiently distribute heat around a block by supplying all its flats from one main source. There are two main types of heat networks. The first are district heating networks units run by energy supply companies. They are used to heat lots of different buildings across a certain region. 

The other type is a block-only heat network. These kinds of heat networks are fitted within the block they are supplying and provide a communal heating mechanism. As the most common form of heat network in residential management, these systems raise a number of issues, including legal limitations, questions around upgrading and billing complications. 

What are the legal issues surrounding heat networks?

As a Block Manager, the leases in your portfolio will nearly always state that you can only undertake repairs and maintenance works. The lease will restrict what, where and who can legally make changes, as well as what costs can be recouped through the service charge. Why is this important for heat networks? Radical changes to the heating system may be considered improvements, rather than maintenance, and therefore not possible under the terms of your lease. 

It remains unclear how the switch to heat networks should be implemented, because the systems operate both in the communal area and inside a resident’s flat. Block managers are currently limited to works in common spaces, but to get the most out of heat networks they would need the regulatory freedom to look at the building as a whole, including windows, building fabric, room temperature controls and timers. 

Allowing that change would allow managers and residents to benefit from reduced energy consumption. However, the legislation would need careful legal crafting, making any changes a serious and lengthy process for the Government to undertake. 

How much do heat networks cost residents?

If you live in a block with communal heating, the standard agreement is that flat owners will all pay a percentage of the total cost, usually based upon a definition in the lease. Even if you have your shower running and your heat on all-day every-day, you’d still end up paying that set percentage. Your total bill will increase, but so will everyone else's. 

Individual metering technology could help solve this issue. With individual meters, the block’s more energy-conscious residents will pay less, and any additional costs will be displaced onto those using more, meaning people will only end up paying for what they use. It’s a sensible way forward, where possible, and incentivises people to make the most out of their energy usage.

How can Block Managers make heat networks more efficient?

Well-implemented heat networks are more efficient than individual gas boilers. In the current system, managers can increase efficiencies by keeping the network boiler properly maintained. Making sure you are up to date with inspections and maintenance, checking if the insulation is up to scratch (for example, there should be no exposed valves), and ensuring that your boiler’s water return temperatures are correct so that you aren’t wasting energy simply moving hot water around the block are all great ways of improving efficiency. 

What does the future look like for heat networks in the UK?

The Government sees heat networks as a big way forward. When well maintained, they are more efficient and can help reduce carbon emissions as a result. When coupled to green technologies such as heat pumps, and even hydrogen, they offer reduced greenhouse gas emissions. We have a way to go, but it’s hard to see that we have any choice other than to invest in heat networks, both current and yet to be built, as one of the ways to move towards net zero.

For more expert insights and practical updates from industry leaders like Nigel, check out our Quarterly Legal & Compliance Updates for Block Managers Q4 Webinar


This article is intended for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. If you have any questions related to issues in this article, we strongly advise contacting a legal professional.
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Nigel Glen

By Nigel Glen

18 November 2022

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