I’ve got problems with my tower block’s heating or hot water
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Blocks of flats usually have one of two types of system for heating and hot water. Each can bring their own types of problem for the tenant:
In this set-up, every flat has its own gas or electric powered boiler or immersion heater, or sometimes a heat pump which provides heating and hot water to one individual flat
It’s controlled by the resident
Fuel bills are likely to be separate from rent costs
Communal or district heating system, also called a ‘heat network’
With this system, an external boiler or common heat source supplies a number of dwellings or buildings, providing heating and hot water to all the flats in a building
It’s controlled by the landlord or their engineers, or sometimes by a managing agent or a heat provider.
Fuel costs may be included in rent or service charges, or they may be billed separately.
It’s not working You have the right to water and heat, so you should be able to ask your landlord to fix it as a matter of urgency. If your system is prone to frequent break-downs it may take a prolonged battle to get this fixed: see below/
It is turned on and off at set times which I don’t control, so it’s too hot / too cold in my flat. This is not illegal unless it is causing temperatures to fall below legal limits (see more about this below), though it may be inconvenient or uncomfortable. The best solution here is communication.
Both heat pumps and heat networks can be badly installed, commissioned or maintained, often by people who are not trained in this technology. With heat networks, sometimes the energy centre is at fault, or sometimes the network is out of balance. Controls can also be inadequate. All of these faults can lead to sky high bills. With heat pumps, bad installation, commissioning or maintenance can lead to high costs and/or the heat pump may be very noisy or ineffective. Sometimes such problems can be fixed when the landlord or managing agent realises that they will be held to account. With both heat pumps and heat networks, outside experts can be brought in to optimise performance.
Sometimes the kind of heat pump or heat network chosen is simply not suitable for your home. In some cases, heat pumps have had to be removed. In others, better insulation can solve the problem.
Sometimes costs are high because the heat provider is a monopoly and no one is controlling what they charge. Challenging the costs can win — tenants on some estates have cut their bills in half!
It is also worth checking that you are really being billed for the energy you use yourself. Confusion and errors are not uncommon. But even for heat networks, metering and billing are subject to regulation. Unless you are in a building where there is a flat fee for heat for everyone, the heat used should be shown on your bill and should correspond to your meter.
If you are a leaseholder you may be subject to massive levies for repairs or improvements to a heat network. Sometimes these levies are legal, sometimes they are not. One Southwark resident recently went to first-tier tribunal and had nearly £4,000 returned to him. You can read about that here. In that case, the new boiler he had paid towards did not work. In many cases people are charged for work or equipment that does not work, is not what is needed, or should have been covered by guarantees. These charges can be legally challenged. Record keeping is essential.
What does the law say?
Your landlord is responsible for keeping heating and hot water systems in proper working order.
Potentially, leaseholders could refer to contract and consumer law, or guarantees.
If there is a boiler in the property, the landlord is responsible for ensuring that it is serviced on an annual basis. A new safety certificate should be issued each year.
If heat is piped into the building as hot water, from an outside boiler room or from another heat source (eg waste heat from an incinerator or other source), the landlord is responsible for ensuring that it is supplied.
Either way, the landlord may have delegated responsibility for your supply to a commercial company, and they may claim that there’s nothing they can do themselves.
What bodies are there to protect my rights?
Ofgem can impose regulations on the supply of gas and electricity, but heat pumps and heat networks (or “District Heating”) are outside of Ofgem’s control. Some heat networks are covered by the Heat Trust. You can see here whether or not yours is covered. If it is, then you can go to the Energy Ombudsman with a complaint. However, they will not deal with issues relating to costs. Tenants and leaseholders of blocks owned by a local authority or housing association can take their complaints about all sorts of heating or provision of hot water to the Housing Ombudsman, who in 2021 produced this useful report about failings that they have adjudicated. In Scotland, you should contact the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.
If your landlord is a local authority,contact your councillor. Or, your tenants and residents association should be able to take the issues up with the council housing department, social services, and the council as a whole, making clear that your health is at risk.
Citizens Advice has been chosen by the government to support people in relation to energy supplies and energy bills, and this does include heat networks. Alternatively, a lawyer or Law Centre may be able to help. Fuel Poverty Action is a grassroots organisation with very limited resources, but they have been helping a number of estates with issues like these.
What action can I take?
Total loss of heating, hot water or both should be classed as an urgent or emergency repair by the landlord. Phone them for an immediate response.
If there is no immediate action from your landlord, keep a record of the problem and any correspondence, so you can prove how long the issue has been going on. If you use more electricity while your heat or hot water are down, try to keep a record of this too. Eventually, you may want to make a formal complaint.
Are your neighbours experiencing the same problem? If you share a communal or district heating system you could write to the landlord as a groupabout breakdowns, costs, or, for instance, to request a change to the timings of the heating system.
If your heat network is covered by the Heat Trust you are entitled to compensation if your heating or hot water breaks down for more than 24 hours (or for more than 12 hours if it happens 4 or more times in a 12 month period). It’s around £30 for every 24 hours after the first 24.
If your heat network is not in the Heat Trust, you may still be able to get compensation to help cover the additional costs of heating your home or your water by electric power (an electric immersion heater may switch on automatically, and this can be very expensive). You can make the case that you cannot “switch”, and you should not be out of pocket for the failings of the system. The government energy department (BEIS) has issued new guidance that states ‘the over-riding imperative is to minimise risk to customers’ health as a result of a heat network failing. Where a heat network failure makes it necessary for customers to use alternative expensive forms of space or water heating, they should be assured that the cost of this will be covered promptly and by direct payments so that they are able to keep warm.’
If your heat network is not working, you should be able to get safe electric heaters supplied, especially if you are classed as “vulnerable” for reasons of health or age. You can ask your landlord for compensation and appliances, and if they are refused you can press for them via the agencies listed above. It is much better to get together with your neighbours to do this.
Sometimes residents can get passes to a local gym or swimming pool for showers.