Whilst almost everyone has access to mains water and electricity, there are many villages and isolated rural homes which don’t have access to mains drainage and mains gas. If you are considering such a plot, how much extra are you going to have to pay? And what are the additional costs of being ‘off everything’?
First, check how far off the gas mains your property is. Sometimes the mains have been laid to nearby residences and National Grid (who handles most of the UK’s gas connections) will lay on extra pipe to get your site on the mains. Obviously this is price dependent, but there is no harm in obtaining a quotation. Generally speaking, a mains gas connection is well worth having.
If mains gas is not available at a sensible price, what are the alternatives? You have to find a credible method of heating your home and hot water. The options are:
Oil-fired heating was the preferred option for most rural self builders until about ten years ago when the oil price started spiking. It still has a lot going for it because it’s widely understood and there are a wealth of suppliers both of boilers and heating oil.
- Pros: It’s simple to understand and there’s lots of rural suppliers and servicers.
- Cons: Oil requires storage and you can’t cook with it. Compared to gas, installation cost is around an extra £2,000 and running costs are high. It is more expensive than gas, but where gas is not an option note that is is cheaper than biomass, LPG and electricity.
LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas)
This used to be the main alternative to oil, but was less popular due to the expense. Not so anymore. It is also arguably more versatile than oil. You will, however, have to install a large unsightly tank; although at a greater cost this can be installed underground. Currently, LPG is more expensive per kWh though.
Electric heating used to be frowned upon as extremely expensive and rather wasteful, but electricity seems to be becoming fashionable, especially if it’s used to power heat pumps, which promise significant savings on heating costs with running costs on a par with mains gas:
- Ground-source heat pumps: They are expensive to install (upwards of £12,000) and require an area three times the size of the heated footprint to draw ground heat from, so are not suitable for many sites. You should undertake a survey of the site before you go ahead.
- Air-source heat pumps: They are much cheaper to install and take up less space than ground source, but are not as efficient and can be noisy. They are best used with well insulated, airtight builds.
Biomass solutions range from woodburning stoves used to boost other heat sources, to state-of-the-art wood-pellet boilers which can cost as much as ground-source heat pumps. Such boilers come fully automated so that you don’t have to manually re-fuel, but they require large storage facilities. Running costs are relatively cheap.
Solar thermal provides a credible source of hot water through the summer months, but is not as effective in the winter. It’s therefore only a partial solution.
Another option is to build high levels of energy efficiency into the house and reduce the amount of energy required to provide space heating, such as a combination of a woodburning stove, electric heaters and a whole-house ventilation system. At ultra-efficient levels (i.e. PassivHaus), you can usually dispense with the stove, though you still need a heat source to heat water.
There are well-worked routines for dealing with sites off the main drainage systems. The additional cost of off-mains drainage solutions has to be set against the cost of mains drain connections, which can vary from a few hundred to thousands. In fact, there are many sites where site treatment will work out less expensive, though a house with a mains drain connection is worth more. On-site treatment requires servicing and the tanks need emptying once a year.
The cheapest option used to be to use a septic tank with a large drainage field built under the garden. However, septic tanks are now banned in much of the UK due to pollution issues and where they are allowed, creating a regulation approved soakaway can be prohibitively expensive.
A popular option now is a water treatment plant. They can be costly to install (around £5,000 for plant and installation, and you have to then add on the cost of a land drainage system which will depend on your site), but have reasonable running and maintenance costs.
Some isolated sites have to provide their own water supply, usually achieved via a borehole. Costs for boreholes vary widely depending on how deep you have to go, and approximate costs are £60–100/m depending on the geology of the site. This means you could pay as little as £2,500 or as much as £25,000.
You are also responsible for your own water treatment and have to carry out various tests for the Environmental Health inspectors. You must also consider the issue of ground contamination and bear in mind that borehole drinking water doesn’t go well with septic tanks!
Very isolated sites may be inaccessible to mains electricity. Power is often drawn through a mix of on-site solar photovoltaic panels and wind turbines (such sites tend to be in windy locations), combined with battery back-up and diesel generators for times of peak demand. By their very nature, these sites tend to get snowed in on a regular basis and, combined with the ongoing costs of maintaining access along unadopted roads, the cost of going totally ‘off mains’ in this instance can be enormous — both in terms of set-up costs and ongoing expenses.