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What is District Heating?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2016
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District heating is a heat distribution system that sends heat to multiple buildings from a central plant that generates heat and sometimes power as well. This approach to heating is ancient; human communities thousands of years ago in a number of regions of the world, such as Ancient Rome, used geothermal district heating systems to provide heat energy to their residents. Modern systems use a number of heat generation methods and are often in regions like Scandinavia, where cold climates necessitate efficient heating systems and residents are often interested in environmentally friendly heating options.

In district heating, rather than having individual heating systems like boilers and furnaces within each structure, residents tap into a centralized heat distribution system. This cuts down on expenses significantly. Maintenance costs are lower, and the generation of heat is more efficient, as it is less costly to generate heat for an entire neighborhood all at once in a central location than it is to have each resident handling heating needs individually.

In regions where geothermal sources of energy are available, they are popular for district heating. Communities can also use waste heat from industrial processes. In some regions, fuel is burned as cleanly as possible to generate electricity, and the waste heat is used in the district heating system. The piping carries both electrical wiring and heat to homes and other buildings.

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This approach is most effective in clustered communities with large buildings. Scattered standalone homes can connect to a district heating system, but the costs of each individual connection can be high. When heat is supplied to apartment buildings and connected homes, the distribution system is much more efficient. In some communities, urban planning encourages the use of dense, clustered development to increase open space and create more efficiency for heating and cooling. In these communities, district heating can be a good option.

This method tends to be stable and reliable. In planned communities, people can structure district heating right into the layout of the community and its buildings. With other kinds of communities, retrofitting can be done to install a heating system. Initial costs are typically high, as it is necessary to develop a plant large enough to meet heating needs and install sufficient heating pipe to reach the community. Over time, these costs are made up for in savings in terms of the cost of energy generation, as well as reduced costs on maintaining individual heating systems.

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