Central heating systems in Bulgaria may be powered by electricity, gas, oil, solid fuel (usually wood) or solar power. Most rural properties use wood-fired heating with an electric boiler as a back-up. Whatever form of heating you use, it’s essential to have good insulation, without which up to 60 per cent of heat generated is lost through the walls and roof.
In larger towns, houses and apartments are heated by hot water pumped by the district heating company. A hangover from the communist period, the system is incredibly inefficient, although the municipal government subsidises the cost to consumers – mainly to ensure that low-income tenants (such as pensioners) can afford to keep their homes warm in winter.
Since the switch to a market economy, however, electricity prices have risen substantially, and you should allow around 300 lev (€150) per month to heat an average-size two-bedroom house in winter, compared with around 100 lev (€50) using an oil-fired system or just 50 lev (€25) using a wood-fired system. As a result, many Bulgarians have recently switched to wood-fired heating systems.
If you need to install a hot water boiler, ensure that it’s large enough for the size of the property, e.g. 100 litres for a one-room apartment, 150 litres for two rooms, 200 litres for three to four rooms and 300 litres for five to seven rooms.
Electricity prices rose substantially after the switch to a market-based economy and are now on a par with those in the UK at 0.17 lev (€0.08) per kilowatt hour (kWh) and forecast to double in 2007, although night-time rates are lower in most areas.
Most people living in apartments in the main towns use a combination of oil-fired heaters and electricity for heating if they aren’t supplied by the district heating company (see above). Off-peak storage heaters are an economical solution for smaller, well insulated properties.
In rural areas, many Bulgarians use wood-fired stoves for heating (see Wood below) with a water heater attached to the back of the stove. This isn’t only for reasons of economy but also because power cuts are common in some areas.
Stand-alone electric heaters (such as bar radiators) are expensive to run and are best suited to holiday homes.
Gas central heating is common in the cities and towns where mains gas is available, but in rural areas wood burning heaters tend to be more popular. If you have access to mains gas, it’s usually the best choice for heating, as it’s clean, economical and efficient, and a gas-fired boiler is usually fairly small and can be wall mounted.
In areas where there’s no mains gas, you can have a gas tank installed on your property or have gas delivered in bottles. You will need space for the tank and piping will add to the already considerable cost of a gas tank. The system also requires regular maintenance and will increase your household insurance. Not however that having a gas tank on your property will increase your insurance premiums.
Heating oil costs have risen with the worldwide rise in crude oil prices, making it a (relatively) expensive option. In rural areas very few people use oil to heat their homes, mainly because wood is cheaper. If you’re in a remote area or your property is difficult to access, the fuel company may not be able to get a delivery truck to your house. As a rough guide, you will require around 1,000 litres of oil to heat a two-bedroom house for a year. At the current price (around 1.7 lev per litre) this works out at 1,700 lev (€850) per year.
Although more expensive, oil is much more convenient than wood, especially if you have a larger home, as you don’t have to continually refill the burner and chop and stack wood. As with gas, you will need space to install the storage tank. Smaller tanks can be installed in your house, while larger tanks can either be buried in the garden or installed in an outhouse or even outdoors. Oil causes a rapid build-up of deposits, so it’s essential to have your system cleaned and checked annually and to replace the jet regularly. Note also that you should wait at least two hours after an oil delivery before restarting your boiler, in order to allow any foreign bodies in the tank to settle to the bottom.
A solar system is, of course, the most environmentally friendly way to generate power, although solar systems must usually be combined with an electric or gas heating system as solar power cannot be relied on for heating even in the sunniest parts of Bulgaria.
Solar-cell technology has advanced rapidly and a modern solar system can provide hot water even on cloudy and overcast days. The main drawback of solar power is the high cost of installation, which varies depending on how much energy you require.
In Bulgaria, solar-powered water heating is increasing in popularity and, depending on how much sunshine there is in your area, a system takes between two and five years to become cost-effective. To get an idea of costs and the type of system that might suit your property contact Apex MM, which has a showroom in Sofia (31A, Bratya Buxton Boulevard, Sofia, Tel.: 02-9555 6165, http://www.apexexperts.com).
The advantages of solar power are no maintenance or running costs and silent operation, as well as ‘free’ (after the installation costs have been recouped) heating and electricity. A system should last for 30 years and can be uprated to provide more power in the future. A solar power system can be used to provide electricity in a remote rural home where the cost of connecting to mains electricity is prohibitive. Improvements in solar cell and battery technology are expected to dramatically increase the efficiency and reduce the cost of solar power.
Wood in Bulgaria is cheap and readily available, and most homes, particularly in rural areas, rely on wood-burning stoves for their heating and hot water. Stoves come in a huge variety of sizes and shapes and are available almost everywhere – some models also come with a back burner, to which you can attach several radiators throughout a home. Wood for fuel is measured in cubic metres and is usually sold for around 50 lev (€25) per cubic metre. Depending on the size of your home and how warm you like it to be, five cubic metres is usually enough to get you through winter.
If you live in a village the mayor will be able to organise a delivery of wood for you, and elsewhere commercial suppliers will deliver wood to your door cut and split. Don’t be tempted to collect your own firewood (i.e. chop down trees) without a licence; if you’re caught by the (armed!) Bulgarian Wood Police, you will be issued with a substantial fine.
The main disadvantages of wood are the chores of chopping and stacking wood, cleaning the grate and lighting fires. Smoke can also be a problem. While an open fireplace looks pleasant, it’s usually wasteful of heat and fuel. An enclosed hearth with a glass door can be had from as little as 200 lev (€100) and is more effective. It also has the advantage of less heat wastage, a reduced fire hazard, and less ash and dust.
Bulgaria's Black Sea coast has regular summer temperatures over 30ºC (86ºF) and, particularly if you’re in an apartment block, you might want to install air-conditioning. But keep in mind that air-conditioning uses a huge amount of electricity, which is becoming increasingly expensive, and that it can aggravate asthma or other respiratory problems.
Many new developments along the Black Sea coast have air-conditioning units installed, but they’re often cheap and noisy and it's usually worth spending extra money for a better quality (usually Japanese) model, some of which have a 'silent running' mode.
The most effective air-conditioners are wall-mounted units, which often have a heat pump attached for economical heating in winter. A good-quality air-conditioner costs around 1,000 to 1,500 lev (€500–750), plus 100–150 lev (€50–75) for installation. Cheaper brands, such as the Turkish-made Beko, cost around half this and can be very noisy.
Remember to have an air-conditioner serviced regularly, as the filters fill up with dust and bacteria during extended use.
Humidifiers and De-humidifiers
Central heating dries out the air in your home and can cause your family to develop coughs. If you find dry air unpleasant you can purchase a humidifier to add moisture to the air. Humidifiers that don’t generate steam should be disinfected occasionally with a special liquid (to prevent colds and other nasty bugs).
If you’re going to be using a holiday home only for a few weeks or months a year, it’s worthwhile installing de-humidifiers, especially in the bedrooms, to prevent clothes and linen going mouldy.
This article is an extract from Buying a Home in Bulgaria from Survival Books.