During cold and snowy weather, the press is full of stories about heating breakdown and plumbers being inundated with calls. There’s not so much coverage of the industrial equivalent, but there are plenty of industrial and commercial boiler breakdowns too. Heating and Ventilation News has been reporting the concerns of the National Grid over the resilience of both types of heating systems.
There has been much coverage of gas running out, but actually, domestic supplies were not threatened. The market responded by supplying more gas, and the Grid prioritised supplies to domestic consumers.
However, the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineers (CIPHE) has expressed concerns about boiler maintenance schedules. There certainly seems to be an issue of a lack of resilience here, with vulnerable households unable to maintain heat during severe weather. Kevin Wellman, the chief executive of the CIPHE, has said that gas supply isn’t the real issue – it’s the lack of action to promote consistent maintenance checks on heating systems and boilers.
During the March 2018 freeze, CIPHE received reports both from installers, and from their members, of significant levels of boiler failure across the country as a result of the low temperatures.
So how can the industry help the country to be better prepared next time? Mr. Wellman thinks that addressing issues of fuel poverty and energy efficiency will lead to better preparedness.
However, the key problem appears to be ongoing servicing – people simply not having boilers serviced regularly, so that when they are used intensively, as in a sudden period of freezing temperatures, they fail. It appears that the public – and that may include some businesses – simply don’t understand the importance of regular checks on heating systems.
Mr. Wellman referred to the issue that became a huge subject on Facebook during the last freeze – water perceived as a “leak from a pipe” by owners of condensing boilers who then switched them off. Another issue was lack of insulation around condensing pipes. A boiler that is properly maintained is far more resilient when coping with low temperatures.
Many people are unaware for example, of the need to maintain thermostatic mixing valves, and the fact that they will fail if not regularly maintained.
It’s important that the government takes the initiative because otherwise, some of the advice given may be dangerous. One online newspaper ran with the advice that if your boiler had broken in the bad weather, there was no need to call a plumber, you could fix it yourself. This may have been true if the cause was the condensate pipe freezing because it was not lagged. But many boiler faults do need to be fixed by qualified heating engineers, as there are very real dangers involved with poor repairs.
Can we expect a similar outcry this summer, if there’s a heatwave and air con cooling systems fail, causing problems for those less able to cope with the heat? Almost certainly, so perhaps the government could try and get the message across, that our weather is unpredictable and both heating and cooling systems need to be maintained, or at the very time you want to use them intensively, they may stop working.