What is district heating?

A growing number of UK households, in particular new-build flats, are currently connected to district heat networks with the government predicting this may rise. 

In a district heating network, heat - in the form of hot water or steam - is delivered by a network of pipes from a local generator to individual districts, housing estates or tower blocks.

District heating systems are considered to be a potential source of delivering low-carbon heating for the future.

Problems with district heating

Which? has uncovered major issues people experience on district-heating networks, which include:

  • Long-term contracts of 25 years or more, meaning customers can’t switch
  • Unclear billing which leads to doubts over how efficiently schemes are run
  • Poor customer service and complaints handling
  • Estate agents not being up-front about heating costs or provision, which may have misled you

Switching district heating supplier

Unlike the majority of UK homes connected to mains gas, district heating schemes are not regulated. As a result, customers have no opportunity to switch heat suppliers and have a very limited right to redress should the service they receive fail to meet expectations.

Check if you can switch your electricity supplier

The energy supplied by a district-heating network replaces energy which would normally be provided by a gas boiler. This means your electricity supply could be separate to your district-heating network.

As a result, you may be able to switch your electricity supplier, which means you can find the best deals for your electricity usage.

Often, you will be set up to have the same electricity supplier as your district heating when you move in. So our top tip would be to check if your long-term contract includes electricity too and if it doesn’t, you may want to consider switching your electricity provider.

Not yet received a bill?

If you haven’t yet received a bill for your district-heating usage and you don’t know who your supplier is, check with your management company, housing association or landlord.

If, after several attempts at contact, the management company is being unreceptive, you may wish to look at their complaints procedure. Be aware that escalating your issue in this way could affect your relationship with the management company, so try and resolve things amicably if you can.

If a payment plan is proposed after months of no billing and you think the amount and timelines are unreasonable, you should contact your management company or supplier to suggest a reasonable alternative payment plan.

Not sure who your district-heating supplier is?

If you rent your property and want to make a complaint about your supply or billing but you're unsure who your district-heating supplier is, your landlord, housing association, management company or local council (if you're in a council property) should have this information.

Change your tariff

You may be on a tariff which doesn’t best match your usual usage. If this is the case, it’s worth checking with your district heating supplier to find out what tariff you are on and if there is a lower tariff option you could change to.

On a lower tariff, you may be penalised for going over your usage allowance during winter months. But if you don’t use much during the rest of the year, you may find the overall cost to you with winter penalty charges is cheaper over the course of the year compared with paying the cost of higher tariff for the whole year.

If your district heating supplier tries to dissuade you from switching but you are confident you don’t need to be on the tariff you are on, it’s worth persisting until they make the change.

Complain to your supplier

If you already have a direct contract with your district-heating supplier your first step should be to complain to them if you encounter either or both of these two issues:

  • having problems with provision of heating to your property
  • incorrect billing from your district-heating supplier

If you are renting a property and the bills are not in your name, then you can approach your landlord or housing association to complain to them instead.

Been without heating for a day or more?

If you’ve been without heating provision for a day or more, make this clear to your district-heating supplier when you make your complaint.

They may be able to offer you compensation, so it’s worth mentioning any inconvenience caused and asking if they would be able to do this.

Escalate your complaint

If you have a direct contract with your district-heating supplier and the initial complaint to them is unsuccessful, you should request to see their complaints procedure and follow this to escalate your complaint.

If that does not work, check if your district-heating network supplier is a member of voluntary scheme, Heat Trust.

Check if your district-heating supplier is a Heat Trust member

If your supplier is signed up to the Heat Trust scheme there is a clearer complaints procedure available to follow.

Heat Trust's free independent disputes-resolution service is operated by the Energy Ombudsman and may be able to help if you have been unsuccessful in resolving an issue with your district-heating supplier.

You can check if your supplier is a Heat Trust member here.

If your supplier is a member of the Heat Trust scheme, take a look at the complaints procedure for Heat Trust customers which is outlined below in our section entitled 'Heat Trust customers'.

If you find your network is not a member of Heat Trust, you may be able to take your complaint to an ombudsman. You can look at ombudsman options in the section below entitled 'Ombudsman options'.

If you don’t have a direct contract with your district heating supplier, you may wish to speak to your landlord or Housing Association and ask if they have control over the relationship. If they are unreceptive after several attempts, you may wish to ask them about their complaints-handling process. Be aware that escalating your issue in this way could affect your relationship with them, so try and resolve things amicably if you can.

Unfortunately a district-heating supplier does not need to be licensed to operate and the energy regulator Ofgem has no role in guaranteeing standards in district heating.

So, if you are unable to resolve things amicably and have gone through the complaints-handling process, you may wish to consider contacting an ombudsman for further guidance.

And while the extent to which an ombudsman may be able to help might be limited, we think it would still be worthwhile contacting them for further support as they may be able to support you.

Ombudsman options

Depending on who has responsibility for the network, you may be able to seek redress through specific ombudsman schemes. Your district-heating supplier should be able to tell you who has responsibility for the network.

You may be able to complain to the Housing Ombudsman if your Housing Association has control over the relationship with the district-heating supplier or if you live in council accommodation and have district heating.

If you are a private tenant, the Housing Ombudsman may also hear your case after you have exhausted the formal complaints procedure, so it would be worth asking them for advice.

Unfortunately, this still leaves many customers without access to any independent adjudication.

All mains gas or electric heating customers can escalate complaints to the Energy Ombudsman, but the Energy Ombudsman doesn't cover district heating networks for customers not part of voluntary scheme Heat Trust.

You can read our how to complain to an ombudsman guide for further explanation of how an ombudsman could help you and how to make a successful complaint.

Heat Trust members

Voluntary scheme Heat Trust launched in November 2015 following pressure from Which? and others calling for more to be done to protect consumers.

Customers whose supplier is signed up to the scheme have a slightly better complaints procedure available to follow.

Any disputes between you and your heat suppliers will not be dealt with directly by Heat Trust.

You should first contact your district heating supplier and give them the opportunity to resolve the problem.

Heat Trust's independent disputes resolution service operated by the Energy Ombudsman may be able to help, if you have been unsuccessful in resolving the issue with your district heating supplier. This service is free to customers of companies who have signed up to Heat Trust.

The Energy Ombudsman recommends that you allow your district-heating supplier eight weeks to resolve your complaint before approaching them.

Complaints can be made to the ombudsman from eight weeks up to 12 months after a formal complaint was made to the heat supplier.

The ombudsman will ask for some details about you, the date that you first complained, actions taken by you and the heat supplier, and how you would like the complaint resolved.

The Energy Ombudsman will look into any complaints about unfair, discourteous, or unprofessional treatment or untimely management of a problem, misleading information and failure of the supplier to comply with their obligations under Heat Trust's requirements.

You should fill in this online complaint form, which will submit your complaint to the Energy Ombudsman.

It can take between six and eight weeks for the ombudsman to make a decision.

The Energy Ombudsman can ask your supplier to apologise, provide an explanation, take action to correct the problem or present you with a financial award up to £10,000.

Were you misled?

If you believe a property seller, landlord or estate agent has misled you into taking a property on a district-heating network on the basis of cheaper heating bills, and you can show that your bills aren't in fact cheaper, they may have breached the law.

If the district-heating property has been misrepresented to you, and you can evidence this, then you may be able to claim redress for misrepresentation.

If you think you may have been misled, we recommend you start collecting evidence which could support your complaint and take legal advice on the specific remedies open to you. It may help you if you’re able to prove what was said and when you were informed.

Evidence which may help you includes:

  • Any written documentation detailing the savings you were supposed to make
  • Keeping a written record of what was verbally communicated to you about district heating.

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