Boiler types explained - combi, heat only & system
What type of boiler do I need?
There are three main types of boiler: combi, heat only and system. Heat only boilers (aka conventional or regular) work with a cylinder in the airing cupboard. System boilers are often found in modern homes with an ‘unvented’ hot water cylinder (but they can work with a vented cylinder also). Combi boilers produce instant hot water. We help you identify which one you have and consider the advantages and disadvantages of each. You may be thinking about a new boiler. This guide can help you decide whether to stick with your existing boiler type or install a different boiler type.
Summary of Boiler Types
What is a combi boiler?
A combi boiler is a single unit that generates all the heating and hot water for the home. There are no hot water tanks. How much is a combi boiler? Try our guide on combis: Combi boiler guide
What is a heat only (regular) boiler?
A heat only boiler only provides heating. It works with a hot water cylinder. How much is a heat only boiler? Read our guide to Heat Only Boiler Prices
What is a system boiler?
A system boiler has all the same components as a combi boiler without the hot water production. It often works with a steel hot water cylinder but can work with vented cylinders also. How much is a system boiler? Read our guide to: System Boiler Prices
Identify your current boiler, what are the pros and cons?
How does a combi boiler work?
A combination boiler heats water via an integral heat exchanger directly from the cold mains. It provides instantaneous hot water.
This is different from a traditional system which stores hot water in a tank in advance of use. A combination boiler does not need a hot water cylinder or tanks in the loft. Everything is done through a single, usually wall-hung, unit.
Advantages of a combi boiler
- Creates space when removing old hot water tanks
- Lower maintenance costs - the integral heating and hot water functions are covered by the boiler manufacturer's warranty/guarantee
- No long wait times for hot water
Disadvantages of a combi boiler
- They do not work well in properties with poor flow rates and/or poor incoming water pressure
- Hot water flow rates are reduced when providing hot water to two or more outlets simultaneously, although this is really only a problem in houses with two or more showers.
- High-performance combi boilers - that provide 12.5 litres per minute of hot water or more - may not be effective on 15mm pipework supplies and can be oversized for the heating - for more on the appropriateness of combi boilers see our Guide to Boiler Sizing
How does a heat only boiler work?
A heat only boiler (also referred to as a 'regular' or 'conventional' boiler) provides heating directly to the radiators and works with a cylinder to provide hot water. They often work on what is called an 'open-vented' heating system, i.e. there is a Feed and Expansion tank in the loft, but they can work on a 'sealed' system too. (To find out whether you have an open vented system and the pros and cons, read our Guide to Open Vented and Sealed Systems).
What is a back boiler?
A back boiler is a type of heat only boiler that is situated in a chimney breast with a fire on the front. It is currently not possible to replace a back boiler in the same location. For those with an existing back boiler that would like to replace it with a new boiler then you will need to opt for a wall hung heat only boiler elsewhere in the house or consider a combi boiler. For more help read our dedicated guide: Back Boilers: Advice on Replacement, Repairs and Servicing
Advantages of a heat only boiler
- Work well with old radiators. Older radiator systems that are put under the high water pressure delivered by system or combi boilers may leak.
- Low replacement cost as heat only boilers are the cheapest type of boiler to buy
Disadvantages of a heat only boiler
- Only the boiler is covered by the manufacturer's guarantee/warranty. This leaves lots of other components on the system (e.g. hot water tank, pumps and valves) that are subject to replacement and breakdown
How does a system boiler work?
Like regular boilers, system boilers work with a hot water cylinder. Unlike regular boilers, the system is not open-vented, i.e. there are no tanks in the loft, and some of the components that would normally be outside a heat only boiler (pumps, valves etc) are integrated into the boiler. These are a modern version of the regular boiler and are often installed along side unvented hot water cylinders but can with copper vented cylinders.
For a comparison of system boiler models and help finding the best system boiler based on price, warranty length and efficiency, read our dedicated System Boiler Guide.
Advantages of a system boiler
- Good for properties that have a high hot water demand, i.e. lots of showers, as the unvented tank can deliver good hot water flow rates to multiple outlets simultaneously
- Good cover from manufacturer warranty/guarantee as there more of system's components are integral to the boiler
Disadvantages of a system boiler
- Good hot water flow rates depends upon good incoming mains water pressure, if the pressure is poor then internal flow rates will be poor
- They are require more space than a combi boiler. If you are swapping a combi boiler for a system boiler you will need to find an appropriate location of the hot water cylinder, usually on the first floor
Stick or change boiler type: Our Top Tips
- If you have old radiators or pipework buried in screed - stick with an open vented, heat only boiler
- If you and your family have lots of showers at the same time – consider changing to a system boiler with unvented hot water tank (if your water pressure is good)
- On a tight budget - replace your existing boiler with the same type of boiler in the same location
- Want low maintenance costs - install a combi boiler with a 10 year warranty/guarantee from the manufacturer (providing your water pressure is good).
- Extending your property and adding bathrooms - consider a system boiler with unvented hot water tank (if the water pressure is good)