Living without mains gas
Not everyone heats their home in the same way. While the majority of people living in Great Britain are able to heat their homes using mains gas, 16% of households in Great Britain rely on non-gas fuels for heating.
“Off-gas” is the term commonly used to refer to households who use either electricity or an alternative fuel, such as liquid petroleum gas (LPG), heating oil or solid fuel (coal, coke or wood), to heat their homes. This latter group of fuels is commonly referred to as “unmetered fuels”, and are usually delivered to people’s homes by individual suppliers.
Households in rural areas are particularly likely to use unmetered fuels for heating (34% of rural homes in England use heating oil, 46% in Wales and 32% in Scotland). Households without mains gas are more likely to be in fuel poverty; 26% of off-gas households in England are in fuel poverty, compared with 10% of those using mains gas. In Scotland, 56% of off-gas households are in fuel poverty, compared with 29% that use mains gas, whilst in Wales, 49% of off-gas households, compared with 23% of households that use mains gas.
The selling of unmetered fuels is not currently regulated by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem), and so consumers have few legal protections against bad practice in areas such as service standards, support for vulnerable consumers and provision of information. This means there is a high risk of consumer detriment remaining unaddressed, with particular impacts on vulnerable consumers.
To better understand how this market is working for consumers, Citizens Advice (England and Wales) and Citizens Advice Scotland commissioned research with households using unmetered fuels as their primary source of heat. More details on the background to this project, the methodology and final reports can be found in the full research reports [ 9.2 mb], available on our website.
Previous research by Consumer Futures (2012) and the Office for Fair Trading (2011) showed that some off-gas consumers were struggling to pay for fuel, especially in periods of very cold weather. Our research found lower levels of consumer concern. However, it is important to note the significant differences between these surveys. The previous surveys were conducted when the exceptionally cold winter of 2010 and high oil prices and service disruptions were fresh in people’s memories. By contrast, our research took place after two much warmer winters, and at a time when oil prices were comparable with mains gas. It is inevitable that this will have impacted on the results of the survey.
However, price per unit is not the only important aspect of consumer experience in the energy market. This short report outlines the challenges consumers face in the unmetered fuel market in relation to cost, convenience and consumer rights, and makes recommendations to suppliers, trade associations and governments, to ensure that these consumers are better served.