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Night storage heaters

Night storage heaters have been a common installation, particularly in flats, for some decades past. Many are now reaching the end of their life and landlords and householders are faced with choosing whether to replace them with new storage heaters or panel heaters, as typically fitted in current new builds and conversions. There is also a good deal of advertising for newer forms of storage heaters. So what are the questions to ask?

Firstly it is of note that electricity is around three to four times more expensive as a heat source than mains gas. A single unit of gas costs about 4 pence per kWh (kilo watt hour). Conversely, one unit of electricity from the mains will cost you about 15p pence per kWh. Gas boilers are not as efficient as electrical heaters so some adjustment needs to be made to the straightforward comparison due to boiler efficiency calculations but it has little impact on the broad result.
In terms of fuel costs, the cheapest to most expensive are: mains gas, oil (which has fluctuated considerably in price), LPG gas, and then a large leap to electricity.
So why were storage heaters fitted and why are panel or radiant heaters fitted now? The answer, where there is a choice of fuel sources, is capital cost; for a builder or developer installing heating, electrical is a whole lot cheaper.
And why were storage heaters invented? The concept was introduced when it was desirable to encourage consumers to use more power overnight when ‘always on’ power stations were lightly loaded. We are moving away from this basic premise and as such overnight electricity rates have become less attractive and/or standing charges for economy 7 tariffs have been bumped up. A February 2017 comparison found:

  • Economy 7 - ST 34.6p/day, day rate 12.7p/kWh, night rate 9.07p/kWh
  • Single rate - ST 21.74p/day, day rate 12.62p/kWh, night rate n/a
  • ST = standing charge; p = pence

Night storage heaters heat up ‘bricks’ in the heater overnight and release it through mechanical or electrical vents during the day. Many users report that they run out of heat when it is needed in the late afternoon or early evening. Some modern storage heaters used improved storage material and release mechanisms but they cannot compete with the cheaper fuels in terms of running costs.
If you have storage heaters now should you change them for panel heaters? Let's note the difference. A panel heater is really what many people would think of as an electric fire in a wall panel. Most heat by convection only although some more modern units now radiate as well; but there’s nothing to retain the heat. They are cheap (those with timers and radiant heat cost more) and frankly for well insulated flats in blocks, are the simplest solution. Some companies are selling heaters which combine the panel heater elements with storage but are designed to run when heat is needed, not for overnight storage. They typically cost three to four times as much as a panel heater.
To answer the replacement question is to ask yourself when, as an end user do you need heat? If the answer is you (or your tenants) are working and have a flat in a block where the individual flat is relatively warm due to heat in the block then the chances are panel heaters will be the most cost effective form of heating. If background heating is needed during the day and remembering heating is also required to minimise condensation, then it may pay to install one or more storage heaters (be it night storage or one of the newer types) or some forced warm air heating that is used to minimise condensation.
If the EPC rating on the premises is an issue note that the most modern storage heaters do rate a little more highly than modern efficient panel heaters on EPCs. So if you need to improve the energy performance rating on the premises get advice on the best solution. One final point. The electricity supply to storage heaters only operates overnight. If fitting panel heaters by way of replacements, then an electrician will be needed to reconfigure the supply or wire the replacement heaters to a differing supply.
There is a technical guide to fault finding and repairing night storage heaters here.

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