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Building and buying

District heating: functioning, requirements and costs

Thomas Bott

With most heating systems, the heat is generated in your own home. This involves the combustion of raw materials such as wood, oil or gas. Even for heating powered by solar energy, the necessary devices are located directly in and around the house. But there is one major exception: district heating, where heat is obtained from a large plant. This has some interesting benefits, but is subject to certain requirements. In Switzerland, these are still far from being met in all municipalities.

District heating: how it works

The core elements of district heating are large generation plants. They generate the required energy in various different ways and numerous heat sources are possible. For example, they may recover heat from waste incineration, the burning of wood chips, geothermal energy, waste heat from industrial plants, or in many other ways. The aim is to increase the use of renewable energies. In the case of cogeneration, the plants generate not only heat, but also electricity. They feed this into the network as well.

Insulated underground pipes are the preferred method for transporting the heat. Heated water then flows through these district heating pipes to a connected building where there is a heat transfer station that conducts the warm water into the radiators. Water that has already been cooled down is returned to the generator via a second district heating pipe. The district heating network is therefore a closed circuit between the plant and the consumer.

Requirements: what you need for district heating

In order to use district heating, a suitable cogeneration plant must be located nearby. Of course, a local district heating network is also necessary to connect the building. The pipes can’t lay themselves. The provider must therefore first create the district heating network. You then need a district heating connection in your own home, as well as a heat transfer station as described above. You can find out whether district heating is available where you live by using the search function on erneuerbarheizen.ch.

District heating: the advantages and disadvantages

District heating initially sounds like a reasonable alternative to many conventional heating systems. This can be true if there is an appropriate district heating network available. Here are the advantages and disadvantages at a glance:

  • Advantages
  • Disadvantages
  • Little space required in the consumer’s home because the only things needed are a connection and a heat transfer station.
  • District heating is mainly suitable for densely built-up areas. A district heating network is usually not worthwhile in more rural areas.
  • If you decide to switch to district heating, you don’t usually need to replace existing radiators.
  • In Switzerland, only around three percent of properties are connected to a district heating network.
  • District heating can be combined with other heating systems such as solar thermal energy. This ensures high flexibility for consumers.
  • Consumers are dependent on a particular provider. It’s difficult or sometimes impossible to change.
  • The method of heat generation is constantly evolving. Connected properties automatically benefit from the provider’s innovations.
  • If there are any problems with the pipe system, this immediately affects an entire residential area and therefore numerous households.
  • The ecological assessment of individual households is usually improved since collective energy production is more advantageous than individual energy production. In some cases, CO2-neutral energy is even available.
  • If overhead distribution is used, heat may be lost along the way. This has a negative impact on efficiency.
  • Delivery by district heating pipeline offers consumers security and peace of mind. They don’t have to factor in high costs for the maintenance of the system.
  • Unlike those for many other types of heating, subscription rates for district heating are not subject to major fluctuations.
Two radiators in small niches under two windows overlooking the garden.

If you switch from another heating system to district heating, in most cases you won’t need to replace the radiators.

Costs: what to expect for district heating

The costs you as a consumer end up paying are greatly dependent on the provider and the actual energy production method. However, in most cases the breakdown is quite similar: district heating companies charge a basic price for system maintenance, administrative costs and other fixed expenses. This is calculated on the basis of the contractually agreed energy requirements. In addition, there is the actual commodity price, i.e. the cost per kilowatt hour (kWh) of energy. This price will be specified by each individual provider.

You will also be charged a one-time fee for connection to the district heating pipelines and the heat transfer station. Again, it is virtually impossible to generalize about prices. The radiators and pipes actually in the building are of course your own responsibility.

Conclusion: district heating is worthwhile, provided it is available

A heat supply from a distance offers customers many advantages. As a consumer, you benefit from price stability, low space requirements and a heating system that requires very little effort on your part. District heating is also good for the environment because it mostly uses renewable energies, biomass and waste heat as a by-product. On the other hand, the main problem with district heating is that there is still very low coverage in Switzerland. Three percent of the country’s households is not much. There is still a lot to be done in this area in the future if district heating is to become a real alternative for households.

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