Investigation: why so many boilers froze this winter — and who is to blame for this cold-snap scandal

This is a worthwhile story in itself, becuase I suspect a lot of householders might not be aware of this simple fix, along with the shortcoming in their boiler installation.

However, that’s not the main reason for copying this item from the Sunday Times.  Towards the bottom of the article, there’s the following paragraph:

‘In response to The Sunday Times, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said that rules published in 2005 make clear that “any external condensate pipework must be insulated to minimise the risk of freezing”. It stated that it is the job of local authorities to apply building regulations and inspect installations.’

Assuming that the last statement is accurate, it shows a remarkable lack of understanding by MHCLG, of even the basics of how the building control system works in England.  So, just for their benefit.

A brief history of Private Building Control
Back in 1984, a body called the Construction Industry Council (CIC) was formed to allow the privatisation of Building Control. This central government organisation regulates Private Building Control and approves inspectors to carry out this role.
The first company to gain CIC approval was the National House Building Council (NHBC) in the 1990s. There are now more than 150 companies nationwide who offer Building Control services for residential or commercial properties.
What’s the difference between Private and Local Authority Building Control?
Your Local Authority is a non-profit organisation, so it is likely to charge less than Private Building Control. On the other hand, if you can pay a bit more for Private Building Control, you get a dedicated inspector for your project.
When taking a straw poll of other surveyors, many seem to agree that the Local Authority Building Control officers have a reputation for being more independent and thorough; for instance, with more on-site inspections than Private Building Control. Contractors may understandably prefer the ‘lighter touch’ of the latter, which can mean fewer and less thorough inspections. This can give obvious advantages to contractors but may not be in the best interests of the client.  
Reference:  http://www.grumittwade.com/private-building-control-local-authority-building-control/

Copied from Sunday Times on line

Investigation: why so many boilers froze this winter — and who is to blame for this cold-snap scandal
Bruce Millar and Jonathan Leake. April 1 2018, 12:01am,
The Sunday Times Home and garden
The flow never bothered me anyway… Unless you want to live in an ice palace, you might want to insulate your pipework
The flow never bothered me anyway… Unless you want to live in an ice palace, you might want to insulate your pipework

A simple plumbing problem left tens of thousands of households without heat and hot water when temperatures plummeted last month — just when the nation needed them most. The issue? The intense cold froze water in pipes that drain condensation from boilers — which then automatically switched off in their droves.

Cue no heating or hot water… but white-hot anger. At the peak of the cold spell, on March 1, the gas emergency helpline — which is supposed to be reserved for serious concerns such as gas or carbon monoxide leaks — received 40,000 calls in a single day.

Plumbers were the main beneficiaries. The London firm Pimlico Plumbers, owned by Charlie Mullins, the high-profile Tory donor and anti-Brexit campaigner, did record business, taking 25,485 calls in the peak week and making 900 visits on the busiest day, at charges ranging from a minimum of £100 to £220 for callouts after midnight. All of this helped the firm to earn £4m last month — £1m more than in March 2017.

It happened to one of us, too — and to about 10% of the parents in my son’s year at school, Bruce writes. When I battled home through the snow from work, I found the boiler switched off and the radiators fast losing their heat. I cursed and called a local plumber, whose automatic message informed me that demand was high, and asked me to call back when the weather had cleared.

I then spent £20 registering for an online plumbing advice line, but there was a backlog of queries. Finally I checked the website of my boiler’s manufacturer, Vaillant, which told me how to solve the problem.
The remedy turned out to be simple. In most cases, it is sufficient to pour hot (but not boiling) water on the frozen pipe, wait for the blockage to thaw out, then reset the boiler, which will fire up automatically. Being left without heat and hot water in the coldest weather is uncomfortable and distressing, expensive if callout fees are involved, and potentially dangerous. Ahead of the “big freeze” of 2010, the Department of Health and Social Care forecast as many as 30,000 additional deaths.

Has your boiler broken because of frozen pipes? Share your story

What is scandalous in 21st-century Britain is that this commonplace problem is predictable, unnecessary — and completely avoidable. Indeed, for the plumbing trade, it has become a regular cold-snap cash windfall.

Pimlico Plumbers, for example, noticed the red warning weather forecast , cancelled all leave and booked local accommodation so it could handle callouts around the clock. “It was stressful, but great for business at the same time,” one member of staff said.

Exactly the same problem with frozen condensate pipes was reported following icy spells in 2010 and 2014; on the second occasion, the British Standards Institute tightened up its guidelines to stress that: “Insulation does not give complete protection if the temperature continues at or falls further below freezing point. Consideration should be given to fitting a frost thermostat, which should be set to operate at a temperature of approximately 4C.” The institute can only make recommendations, however; it has no regulatory power.

Following pressure from The Sunday Times, a clearly embarrassed industry called an emergency “summit” last week to thrash out a unified response. Hosted at the headquarters of the Energy and Utilities Alliance (EAU) in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, it brought manufacturers and installers together with representatives of the Heating and Hotwater Industry Council (HHIC), the Association of Plumbers and Heating Contractors (APHC), and the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE).

In an admission of the industry’s failure to self-regulate, it was concluded that the problem was the fault of the government and a lack of oversight of building regulations. “From the feedback we have received, it has become clear that there was a significant proportion of installations that were not carried out to current standards and manufacturer’s instructions,” says Stewart Clements, director of the HHIC. “We believe it is time for the government to act.

“Greater enforcement and strengthening of the building regulations will reduce this risk of boiler condensate pipes freezing. We are calling on the government to make the necessary legislative changes.”

In response to The Sunday Times, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said that rules published in 2005 make clear that “any external condensate pipework must be insulated to minimise the risk of freezing”. It stated that it is the job of local authorities to apply building regulations and inspect installations.

As the squabbling continues, thousands of householders and tenants will be left trying to avoid a repetition of the problem as early as tomorrow, with blizzards forecast in parts of the country.

The cheapest DIY approach is to buy a length of insulating foam to clad your pipe: it doesn’t look great, but then external pipework never has much aesthetic appeal. Then, when the cold bites, place your boiler on its maximum setting — turning down the room thermostats if necessary — and leave it on continuously, rather than using cost-saving on-off settings that may permit a build-up of ice.

Hot tips

Since 2005, every new gas boiler installed in the UK must be a condensing model: these are much more efficient (up to 90%, compared to 60% for older models), so reduce running costs. About half the country’s 26m households now have one and 1.5m are installed every year.

They work with flue gases at a lower temperature than earlier models – 50C, rather than 130C – and the process produces up to two litres an hour of acidic water, known as condensate, which must be carried away as waste in a non-corroding pipe.

Ideally, this condensate pipe should empty directly into the waste water system, inside the property. In some countries, including Germany, where many of the boilers are manufactured, this is the only permitted method of installation. In Britain, however, the condensate pipe can be run down the outside of the wall directly behind the boiler. This is often the easiest and cheapest way.

Pipes passing through unheated parts of a property, including attics, are prone to freeze and should be insulated. Running down the outside wall, exposed to cold winds, they are more vulnerable still. To reduce the chances of the pipe freezing, it should be vertical, at least 32mm in diameter, no more than three metres long and properly insulated or (expensively) fitted with a “trace heater” system.

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