Electric vs. gas heating: which is best?

When the weather’s miserable outside, nothing beats a warm and cosy home. But a toasty home comes at a cost – especially as the bulk of most people’s energy bills goes on heating and hot water.

Heating’s also one of the areas where you can make the biggest savings on your home’s carbon footprint. So, it’s important to make sure your heating system isn’t just cheap to run, but energy-efficient too.

But does that mean you should go with gas or electricity? Is electric or gas heat cheaper? In this blog, we’ll explain the differences between heating with gas vs. electric. And weigh up the pros and cons of electric vs. gas heating, to help you decide which is best for your home.

Electric vs. gas heating: what’s the difference?

It may seem obvious, but it’s worth explaining the main differences between using gas, liquid petroleum gas (LPG), oil and electricity to heat your home.

Gas-based systems (and LPG or oil-based systems) usually rely on a boiler to burn the fuel and heat water. This water is then circulated through radiators or in pipes under the floor to heat the home. As the floors or radiators warm-up, they heat up the air in your rooms through what’s known as convection.

There’s more variety in electric heating systems. While modern gas systems use a central boiler (hence the phrase ‘central heating’); electric systems traditionally rely on separate heating appliances in each room. This might be a simple plug-in fan or bar heater. Or a more sophisticated network of storage heaters that run on cheap off-peak electricity.

Pros and cons of electric heating

Advantages of electric heating

  • a large variety of products are available. From storage heaters to air-source heat pumps to small electric heaters
  • no carbon dioxide output
  • low maintenance costs, unlike boilers
  • modern electric systems have smart heating controls. Helping you manage your heating efficiently
  • if you've added a room or converted your loft. Air conditioning electric systems can heat a single room effectively
  • better home air quality
  • Energy tariffs like Economy 7 and Economy 10 could help you pay less for your electricity – it will depend on when you use it
     

Disadvantages of electric heating

  • electricity unit prices are more expensive than gas
  • can be expensive to install like air-source heat pumps
  • older storage heaters manufactured before Jan 2018 are not as efficient
  • basic storage heater models can lead to overheated rooms and wasted energy
  • some older storage heater models contain asbestos. If you're concerned about this, you can visit AIC (Asbestos Information Centre). They have a list of storage heaters that contain asbestos


Pros and cons of gas heating

Advantages of gas heating

  • cheaper cost to run your heating
  • modern boilers are more energy efficient
  • easy to control your heating needs across your home, made even easier with a smart thermostat


Disadvantages of gas heating

  • gas boilers use fossil fuel, burning it for heat contributes to global warming and climate change
  • under the government’s current plans, there's a gas and oil boiler ban in newbuild homes only from 2025 
  • boilers need regular maintenance. Generally on an annual basis from a Gas Safety engineer
  • upgrading your boiler to a newer model can be expensive
  • old and badly maintained systems can be dangerous and leak carbon monoxide

Which is better for the environment - electric or gas heating?

Cost isn’t the only deciding factor when considering your heating needs. There’s also the very important issue of the environmental impact.

Gas is a fossil fuel. So, burning it to generate heat releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. This is why heating is the biggest source of CO2from most homes. This outweighs any other CO2-emitting activities, like driving or flying.

 

Reducing the impact of home heating on the environment

In fact, heating our homes is responsible for around 15% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions[2]. It’s why from 2025 new properties won’t be allowed to have gas boilers. And if we’re to help the UK reach its Net Zero carbon emissions target by 2050, older properties will need to eventually switch to alternative ways of heating too.

Using electricity to heat your home can contribute to CO2 emissions too. Since we still use gas to generate about 40% of electricity. But the good news is that renewables – like solar and wind power – generated almost as much electricity as gas in 2019 - a record 37%. So, if you combine electric home heating with a zero carbon electricity tariff, you know that your heating will be carbon-free.

What about heat pumps and hybrid systems?

These newer home heating technologies work differently and can be very efficient too. 

 

Air-source heat pumps

Air-source heat pumps (ASHP) and ground-source heat pumps (GSHP) get heat from the outside air or directly from the ground and transfer it into your home. Much like a fridge working in reverse. And because heat is being moved – not generated – this way, much less power is needed.

A heat pump system can also provide hot water. But because heat pump technology works best at lower temperatures, you often need a bigger hot water tank to get hot water from this type of system too. 

Hybrid heat pump system - combining outside air and boiler to heat your home and water - EDF

 

Hybrid heating systems 

Another option is a hybrid system. These combine the best of old and new technologies by pairing a heat pump with a conventional gas, LPG or oil boiler.

So the heat pump provides most of the heating and hot water.  But when the temperature drops outside the boiler kicks in. 

What about the installation and running costs of heat pumps?

The running costs of gas and electric heating are much closer when you look at a ground-source heat pump (GSHP) or air-source heat pump (ASHP) system.

A well-designed heat pump installation may have a coefficient of performance (CoP) of 3.5 or better. This sounds complicated, but what it simply means, is that for every unit of energy it uses, it produces 3.5 units of heat.

This makes it about four times more efficient than gas central heating! And, based on standard tariffs, potentially slightly cheaper on price. So a heat pump system could prove considerably less expensive to run if it’s mostly using cheaper, off-peak electricity.

Heat pumps are comparatively expensive to install. But the good news is that some of this cost can be recouped through the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). This government-funded scheme pays you for the renewable heat produced by a heat pump system during its first seven years. Find out more about the RHI scheme.

new boiler in a kitchen

Gas vs. electric boilers?

Did you know that if you’re replacing your old gas boiler, electric boilers are now an option? They work much like a kettle with the heating element inside warming up the water. And they’re also quick and easy to install – like electric heaters, there isn’t any pipework or gas work required to connect up the system.

 

Other electric heating systems that are low carbon and cheaper to run

  • Solar water heating systems These are also known as solar thermal systems and they use the sun’s (free) energy to heat up your water.
  • Heat pumps. These use heat from the outdoor air to provide hot water. Read more about air source heat pumps.

Radiators, storage heaters or underfloor heating?

It's not just a case of considering the different ways to heat your home: from oil to gas and electricity. You also need to consider how you spread the heat around your home – whether you use radiators, storage heaters or underfloor heating.

 

Radiators

These come in all shapes and sizes. But what they all have in common is that they’re usually water-filled, metal panels connected to a central heating system. And you typically have one in each room you want to heat.

 

Storage heaters

These are a type of electric radiator. Storage heaters contain special types of bricks (made from materials, like clay) that store a lot of heat. They generate heat overnight when electricity is cheapest. And then gradually release this throughout the next day.

 

Gas or electric underfloor heating

Underfloor heating relies on a series of pipes, or electric heating elements (like that found in a kettle), placed under the entire floor of a room. In water-based systems, the heat comes from a range of sources – like a boiler or heat pump. In electric systems, the elements simply heat up when switched on.

Underfloor heating has the advantage of covering a huge surface area. So, it doesn’t need to get as hot but gives out an even, warm temperature. This makes underfloor heating a great match for heat pumps as these are better at providing low, consistent heat, rather than very hot temperatures.

Which heating type is cheaper - gas or electric?

Gas or electric heating system costs break down into two types of cost: the installation and running costs. So, let’s look at both, to compare electric heating vs. gas cost. Whether you live in a 2-bed flat or five-bedroom house.
 

Gas heating installation costs 

The typical cost of installing a gas-fired central heating system – including a boiler, radiators, controls and pipes – can be anything from £3,000 to £4,500.
 

Electric heating installation costs 

Low-cost electric heating is much cheaper, with basic electric heaters starting at less than £20 each. the cost of an electric heating system increases if you’re looking at putting modern-day storage heaters in. These cost around £400 each – and you’ll usually need one in each room.

How much does electric heating cost to run?

On the face of it, the gas vs. electric heating cost is much cheaper. A single kilowatt-hour (kWh) unit of gas costs around 4p, whereas the average price for a kWh of electricity is more than 16p. This doesn’t mean that electric heating running costs are four times those of gas, however!

 

So, is electric or gas heat cheaper?

Using off-peak electricity, conventional electric heating may cost about twice as much[1] as gas heating to run.

And here’s why: electric heaters are essentially 100% efficient. In other words, all the electricity they use is turned into heat. The same isn’t true of a gas or oil-fired central heating system. Even an A-rated boiler wastes about 10% of the energy in its fuel. Some additional heat may be lost from the pipework. While a small amount of electricity is needed to run the boiler and its pumps.

 

How can you make your electric heating system more cost-effective?

Low-cost electric heating systems can often be timed to take advantage of off-peak tariffs too. An off-peak period is when the average cost for 1kWh of electricity is less than 10p. And you can buy smart controls to manage your home’s heating from your phone. So, you don’t even need to be in to turn it on or off or set up a schedule to heat your home for when you return.

Electric heater on a wall

Making the switch from gas to electric heating

Whatever your current set-up – whether you’re using a combi, conventional or back boiler – you’ll need to remove the existing central heating system (boiler, pipes and radiators). But the good news is electric heaters are quick and easy to install. There aren’t any pipes or flues to connect, for a start. So, your system will be up and running in no time at all. And it has the additional benefit of being low carbon!

What’s best for you: electric or gas heating?

They each have their strengths. While simple electric heating is cheaper to install, it can be more expensive to run. Heat pump systems are much more efficient and can cost less to use – particularly on off-peak electricity – but they have higher installation costs.

The environmental impact of your home heating is a big factor now too. It’s quite plausible that fossil fuel heating systems might be banned altogether to help the government meet its Net Zero targets by 2050. And this could pave the way for a new generation of efficient heat pump systems – powered by electricity from renewable and low-carbon sources – ultimately becoming the way we heat our homes in the future.

Sources:

[1] Gas price of 4.17p per kWh vs off-peak electricity at 9.76p (via Energy Saving Trust). Assuming gas efficiency of 90%, multiply unit cost by 1.11 to get 4.63p for a gas kWh – roughly half the price.

[2] It’s surprisingly hard to find a single authoritative figure. This 2012 report says that heat accounts for 32% of all greenhouse gases (table 1), and that domestic heating represents 48% of this (table 2), giving 15.4%. This is in the same ballpark, saying that (in 2014) households were responsible for 40% of UK emissions, of which heating represented 29%. This works out at 11.6% of the total, but electricity is rapidly getting far greener, which is inflating the heating figure over time (their prediction is that it will be 42% of domestic emissions by 2030).