“Leaky pipes lead to puddles of despair.” – Anthony T. Hincks
In December 2019, our oil boiler exploded. This was rather inconvenient as it was the week before Christmas, we had only moved into the house a couple of months prior and my parents-in-law were over visiting to see the new place for the first time. It was also bitterly cold and our only sources of heat were a hot water bottle, two hyperactive kittens and an old electric heater the previous owner had left forgotten in the shed – plugging it in was effective but sent the meter spinning so quickly that I’m pretty sure I could have rigged up a dynamo and used it to keep the water bottle warm. It was doubly annoying in that one of the first things we did when we moved in was to get the boiler serviced and that turned up no obvious problems.
It took us a couple of days to find a trader able to come out and assess things. He discovered that the relay switch connected to the timer had shorted. He came back the next day with a replacement, fixed it in a few minutes and left. What he didn’t do, despite telling us otherwise, was check that everything except the relay was working. When we turned the heating on….nothing.
So I phoned him. Of course he was still driving and didn’t answer. So I called his boss who was suitably shocked that his engineer hadn’t checked the entire system and offered to come out the following day to see what he could do. It didn’t take too long for him to discover that yes, while the relay had indeed broken, the primary problem with our boiler was that the main combustion chamber had split in half and ruined just about every moving part in the system. What we thought was going to be a £100 quick fix turned into a £3,000 bill for a new boiler and the reworking of a good chunk of our heating system including removing the storage tank from the loft (which, in fairness, did allow us to retrofit the loft into the office from which I’m writing the article today). The team worked fast and managed to do the whole job in a single day – on Christmas eve no less – and pretty much saved our Christmas and our folks’ holiday.
Fast forward to the other week when the time came for our annual service and (after four failed attempts to get someone out) the service engineer telling us some bad news. The new boiler itself is working fine (more efficient than expected actually) but the team who installed it took some shortcuts that fell somewhat below what building regulations demand for this kind of thing.
The first problem was that they hadn’t installed an emergency fuel cut off next to the boiler. There was one at the tank, but there really should be one at each end of the fuel line. The fire sensor wasn’t installed correctly and may not have picked up a problem as quickly as it should have. Finally, and most seriously, the exhaust wasn’t installed correctly. All fossil fuels produce pollutants in addition to carbon dioxide – notably fossil fuels contain a certain amount of sulphur which, when burned, results in sulphuric acid. In a boiler that is working “to code”, this acid would be extracted from the exhaust and would flow into an alkaline trap where it would be neutralised and captured.
In our case, instead of running the acid into a trap, our engineers had simply…not connected the outflow to anything at all. The acid was just dripping into the bottom of the boiler casing. It’s not bad, just a little surface staining, but it would have eventually eaten through the bottom of the case and caused a real problem some years down the line. Our service engineer was great and fixed everything that needed to be fixed in short order and without too much expense (though quite a lot more than it would have cost to do things right the first time). There’s not much of a possibility of redress from the original installers. Their company appears to have not survived the pandemic.
I’m almost certain that I’m not alone with a story like this (please leave yours in the comments below!) and there’s a serious reason for bringing it up. While I’m a former laser engineer, I’m not an oil boiler engineer. If a qualified trader tells me that a job is done (especially after the box is closed up) then I’m not in a position to assess their work – especially after the job is done, the box is closed up and everything packed away and seemingly working. If something hasn’t been installed correctly, I literally cannot tell you that until someone else spots it and points it out to me.
The same goes for many of the other repairs and retrofits we’ve done around this house since we moved in. The same especially goes for every other house owner in Scotland that is staring down the barrel of a substantial retrofitting bill to bring their buildings up to the standards required to meet Scotland’s climate targets. The Scottish Government estimates that Scotland will need to spend £33 billion to meet their targets for home energy efficiency and net-zero carbon emissions (In our Green New Deal blueprint, we estimated something closer to £40 billion for insulation upgrades which includes bringing houses up to an even higher efficiency standard than the Scottish Government will settle for and we’ve also budgeted another £35 billion to replace and improve the heating systems of those houses as well).
The thing the Scottish Government is not keen to tell people is that £33 billion bill (an average of £12,500 per household) is largely going to be left to households to scrape together. There is no coordinated plan to retrofit houses as a matter of public works and infrastructure on anywhere near the scale required. It’ll be down to you (or your landlord) to do the job and that means that I have no doubt we’ll see more stories of the kind I’ve experienced. If folk are left to the mercy of trying to assess work based on the reputation and word of individual traders then for every one that actually does a good job, there’ll be others who cut corners, do things on the cheap, make mistakes or otherwise do not do the job to the standard needed – with the reminder that higher energy efficiency means lower margins for such error. Your fancy quadruple-glazed window will offer only limited efficiency gains if there’s draft coming through the frame because it wasn’t fitted properly. That’s if you do it at all because, like I certainly do, you probably have more urgent things to spend £12,500 on this winter. Like your heating bill. Or food.
If we continue to leave Scotland’s climate targets to struggling individuals then we will, at best, get variable results from each job and we’ll have to work so much harder to reach those targets. Individual houseowners will likely have to spend so much longer sourcing traders (and checking to see if they’re GOOD traders), lining up the various jobs and then, if errors happen, going back to fix them. Instead, we need a collective approach that takes on entire streets and communities at a time. Retrofitting as a public infrastructure project will benefit from economies of scale, economies of planning (traders don’t need to spend days travelling from job to job if they’re all in the same street and if they hit a bottleneck in one house they might be able to go next door and work on something there) and, most importantly, a coordinated approach allows for a proper system of regulation, checks and compliance during the work to ensure that everything is done correctly first time and to the required standard.
There’s a bit of bright news for me in all of this. The engineer who fixed our boiler this week turned out to be a big fan of converting kerosene boilers over to biofuels. He says that this is a better solution for many older rural houses that might struggle to install an appropriate air source heat pump and will work particularly well in areas that are difficult to serve with a district heat network (a conclusion that we also reached in our paper on rural heating). He also points out that this would be an easier job for himself too as he’s a sole trader and doesn’t have the team around him that he’d really need for such work. I’ve been keen to try to get my house carbon-free and a large tank of oil in the back doesn’t sit easy with me for obvious reasons. It’s early days yet but we’ve made sure that our boiler is biofuel compatible and we’re going to explore converting over next year when it comes time for a refill. Until the day comes that the Scottish Government finally admits the scale of the climate challenge, their central role in delivering the best possible solution and announces that they’re digging up my street to install a district heat network, I think this is the least, the most and the best I can do to reduce my own contribution to the climate emergency.
Note: The image used to illustrate this article was created by me using the AI Image Generator Stable Diffusion. It doesn’t look anything like either my old or my new boiler.