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We have a condensing boiler and have heard that they are prone to failure in cold weather – is this correct and is there anything we can do about it?

One unforeseen development of the extremely low winter temperatures experienced in the UK in last couple of years has been the widespread breakdown of modern condensing boilers. This left tens of thousands of homes without heating when these boilers shut down without warning.

Condensing boilers recover a great deal more of the heat produced when gas is burned, to the point where some of the by-products of combustion – water vapour – condense inside the boiler and have to be disposed of. This involves an extra pipe to take the condensed water away to the property’s waste water drainage system. In some cases the routing of the pipe will involve running the pipework on the outside wall of the property and positioning the outlet over an adjacent household drain. What has happened during those sub zero temperatures is that the condensed water has frozen in the external pipework, stopping the flow and the safety systems within the appliance have then shut the boiler down.

When these boilers were being developed in the 1980’s the heating industry believed that it was entering a world where winter temperatures were rising and expected to rise still further. It had been many years since the last seriously cold winter and the weather experts were warning of global temperature increases and certainly not predicting the long periods of sub-zero winter temperatures we in the UK have endured recently. External pipework routes were therefore considered acceptable as it enabled more installation options, particularly when retrofitting in existing properties.

Of course there is nothing worse than being in the middle of a period of sub zero temperatures with a central heating boiler that doesn’t work. If these extreme winters are going to continue we can only recommend that homeowners take advice from a local Gas Safe Registered installer. The favoured options to take preventative measures are likely to be:-

What is the 'Green Deal'? Is it something we can benefit from?

The Green Deal is the latest in a long line of Government initiatives to increase home energy efficiency. With this planned new legislation homeowners may be entitled to spend up to £6,500 improving the energy efficiency of their home. Repayment will be from savings in future energy bills - but with the homeowner still seeing an overall saving. Even if the property is sold, the repayment will continue to be made through the energy bills by the new owner. Green Deal isn't going to have any impact in the short term. It looks as though the intention is that Green Deal financing and the revised energy supplier obligations will both come into force at the end of 2012. For more information click here.

How can I cut my home energy bills?

There are many ways that you can cut down on your energy consumption in the home – in the process reducing your energy bills. Some things you can do require little or no expenditure – others will require a larger outlay leading to longer term savings:

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What is renewable energy – is it something we can benefit from?

The term "renewable energy" can be a little confusing: what does it actually mean? In simple terms, renewable energy is energy generated from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides and geothermal heat (from the air or ground). They are naturally replenished or replaced, hence "renewable".

With no sign that utility companies are reducing energy prices, despite significant falls in the wholesale prices they pay for power and fuels, it is becoming imperative that homeowners look at ways to become more energy efficient. Generating your own heat and power could be the answer to saving energy and money – and now could be the perfect time to invest for the future.

However it's important to recognise that investing in renewable technologies and products should be viewed as part of a wider solution to reduce your carbon footprint and save money – you have to be realistic about the return on the investment. Renewable technologies are unlikely to make you completely self-sufficient and before you commit to the expense of a solar heating system or your own wind turbine there are many other simple and less expensive things that can be done to improve your home's energy performance – these measures are also a pre-requisite for an award of a government grant for your renewable project. They include loft insulation, draught proofing, cavity wall insulation, hot water tank insulation and having energy efficient light bulbs.

There are many different types of renewable energy sources, each offering different 'paybacks', and the following is a brief explanation of the main ones.

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Solar hot water heating

Solar thermal panels can provide around 70% of your hot water for free. Water flows through tubes (arranged in panels) mounted on a south-facing roof. The sun warms the water in the pipes to around 60ºC and it is then stored in a hot water cylinder ready for use. In most areas there are now reliable, reputable specialists that can supply and fit solar hot water systems for your home.

DIY Superstores are also now stocking low cost solar heating panel installation kits and homeowners trying to cope with the prevailing high levels of energy prices are bound to be tempted. Installing solar heating kits purchased from a DIY outlet or builder's merchant will be beyond the expertise of all but a minority of highly competent DIYers. So homeowners that buy them from a superstore will get a local tradesman to fit them. But be aware that there are hundreds of "rip off" rogue solar heating installers operating in the UK so only use reputable, reliable tradesmen for such installations and steer well clear of the rip-off tactics of the cowboy installers.

There are Government grants to help with the costs of installing solar water heating technologies – but to be eligible for a grant a homeowner must use a competent installer and certified products.

Cost: Typically £3,000 to £4,000, but Government grants can help.
CO2 saving: 350kg/year.
Potential cost saving: Up to £300 a year, depending on fuel replaced.

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Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels

PV panels convert sunlight into clean electricity and a 2.5kWp system (kWp = the peak output in kilowatts) will provide around half a household's electricity needs. It only needs daylight, so can still generate power on a cloudy day. Depending on the system, if you generate more power than you use, you could be sending the electricity company a bill!

Cost: From £5,000 per kWp, but Government grants can help with outlay.
CO2 saving: 645kg to 1.2 tonnes a year.
Potential cost saving: £250.00 a year.

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Wind turbine

Although the technology is improving, roof-mounted turbines are not big enough to generate significant amounts of power, and urban wind speed simply isn't consistent enough – but they are useful for boats, sheds or other outbuildings that need just a small amount of power. You will also require planning permission, which may be difficult to obtain. To make real savings, you'll need a 2.5kW to 6kW mast-mounted turbine. If you've got the space and sufficient wind speed, this can generate enough electricity to power the whole house – and any you don't use, you can sell back to the National Grid.

Cost: £11,000 to £19,000 installed, but Government grants are available.
CO2 saving: 1 to 5 tonnes per year, depending on size and location.
Potential cost saving: With enough wind, you may never have to pay another electricity bill.

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Ground source heat pump

A ground source heat pump consists of pipes buried underground that have liquids pumped along them at pressure. An electric heat pump converts the constant temperature (around 11ºC) of the earth to 55 ºC – perfect for use with underfloor heating. It's disruptive to install but, if you have the space, it can be much more efficient than a traditional boiler.

Cost: 8 to 12kW systems cost £6,000 to £12,000. Grants are available.
CO2 saving: 1.2 to 7 tonnes.
Potential cost saving: £400 to £1,000 a year.

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Air source heat pump

Air source heat pumps extract the warmth in the air and convert it ready to be used in the home – either as warm air pumped through vents or in underfloor heating. They are best suited to off-grid properties and are much easier to install than the ground source option.

Cost: a 6kW system will cost £7,000 to £10,000.
CO2 saving: Around 1 to 5 tonnes.
Potential cost saving: £300 to £800 a year.

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Underfloor heating

A hot water underfloor heating system is more efficient to run than radiators, provides invisible warmth and frees up wall space. If you're renovating a room, this could be the perfect heating solution for a greener home.

Unlike traditional radiators that just heat the air, pipes under the floor concentrate the warmth where you sit or stand, leaving your feet toasty and your head slightly cooler – ideal conditions for genuine comfort.

Radiators also require significantly higher temperatures to heat a room, while underfloor heating needs around 45ºC to work. This means the boiler needs to work less, reducing running costs and cutting CO2 emissions. It also makes the system ideal for use with renewable technology such as ground or air source heat pumps.

Installation can be disruptive, but next time you're renovating a room, consider underfloor heating. It works under almost all floor surfaces and, because it takes up no wall space, your furniture can be positioned anywhere you want.

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Micro CHP (combined heat and power)

Micro CHP appliances replace a standard gas or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) boiler and generate both electricity and heat – it's rather like having a mini power station in your own home. Generating electricity at a creaky old power station is less than 50% efficient, but electricity generated through a micro CHP boiler is 80% to 90% efficient, saving money and fossil fuels. It's even possible to feed power back into the National Grid and get paid for it. CHP has been used successfully in schools and hospitals and new domestic units are currently being brought to market.

Cost: from £3,000.
CO2 saving: 500kg.
Potential cost saving: £150.00 to £400 per year.

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How can I tell if my gas appliances are safe?

Gas is the most commonly used fuel for home heating systems across the country and although in principle it is completely safe, lack of routine maintenance means too many people still needlessly die every year from preventable gas-related carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide is a silent killer and failure to properly maintain gas appliances can put you and your family at risk, so it is essential that gas appliances are maintained in good condition and subjected to annual maintenance and safety checks by a qualified Gas Safe registered engineer.

If your boiler is more than ten years old or has been infrequently serviced in the past, you really should contact a Gas Safe registered engineer to have your heating system inspected.

Even though you cannot see or smell carbon monoxide there are vital signs to look out for such as:

Fitting a European Standard certified audible carbon monoxide alarm is a vital second line of defence after having your appliances safety checked. It is essential that your alarm is marked with the EN50291 safety standard and with the CE mark.

If you smell gas, or suspect a leak, call 0800 111 999.

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How can I avoid being ripped off by rogue traders?

There are so many rogue traders operating in the UK that the BBC has been running a TV series for the last nine years called Rogue Traders. This popular programme sets out to expose businesses and individuals giving customers a raw deal. In just one area alone it is estimated that there are 20,000 bogus gas installers operating in the UK.

It's all too easy to get ripped-off by a rogue trader – what follows will show you where to find the most reputable traders, how to employ them and what to do if things do go wrong.

To find a reputable, qualified heating engineer use the search facility on this website. For other trades the easiest way to locate reputable, reliable tradespeople is to use a TrustMark registered company. By doing so you can be confident that the firm operates according to the very best industry standards set out by the government. TrustMark covers most of the trades householders look for such as builders, plumbers, electricians, glaziers, roofers, landscape gardeners and damp-proof specialists.

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Why you can rely on a TrustMark registered company

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How to get the best from your local trader

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Sound advice

Avoid dealing in cash only. If this is unavoidable, make sure you get a receipt for every payment.

Never pay for your work in full before it has been carried out. Once you have handed over your money it will be difficult to put things right if things go wrong. Only make the final payment when you are satisfied with the work.

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What to do if you are not satisfied with the work undertaken

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We're selling our house – do we still need an energy performance certificate?

Although Home Information Packs (HIPs) have been discontinued if you are selling a house the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) is still compulsory – they are required whenever a flat, house or building is built, sold or rented out. They are designed to help residents and occupants improve the energy efficiency of the property, saving energy and therefore money, and cutting their carbon footprint.

The EPC will provide an energy rating for a building which is based on the performance potential of the building itself (the fabric) and its services (such as heating, ventilation and lighting). The energy rating given on the certificate reflects the intrinsic energy performance standard of the building relative to a benchmark which can then be used to make comparisons with comparable properties.

The certificate provides 'A' to 'G' ratings for the building, with 'A' being the most energy efficient and 'G' being the least, with the average up to now being 'D'. The EPC will also list energy saving recommendations to demonstrate how much more efficient the house could be and how you could save on your bills.

EPCs can only be provided by accredited energy assessors. As 90% of people in England use an estate agent to sell their property, it's likely that most will leave it to the agent to arrange the EPC. Whoever you employ must be affiliated with an accreditation scheme, as this ensures that the assessor is operating to approved, professional standards.

For a list of approved accreditation schemes in England and Wales visit www.directgov.uk or contact your local authority.

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Where can I find a reliable, reputable heating engineer?

To find a reputable, qualified heating engineer use the search facility on this website. All the companies in the directory are members of the Heating and Ventilating Contractors' Association (HVCA).

Established in 1904, the HVCA is the premier organisation representing central heating contractors across the UK, and exists to promote fair dealing and the sound installation of heating systems.

HVCA members all undergo inspection and assessment of their technical competence and commercial capability every three years. This process is carried out by an independent certification body with an established industry reputation.

All HVCA members that undertake gas installations or work on gas-fired appliances in the home are registered with Gas Safe – the gas safety watchdog body.

HVCA members are also members of TrustMark, the Government-endorsed scheme designed to direct consumers towards reliable tradespeople.

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It's been a while since we had our boiler serviced – does it matter?

It's very easy to forget about getting your heating system serviced – year after year it keeps on going so why bother? There are three very good reasons why!

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What to expect from a boiler service

Often homeowners do not know what they can expect from a boiler service. This 10-point guide lists the work that a qualified, reputable heating engineer should typically complete:

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Are we eligible for an energy grant?

The UK Government funds schemes providing up to £3,500 to households on certain benefits (see below for examples of eligibility criteria) to improve their heating and energy efficiency. In England the scheme is known as Warm Front, in Northern Ireland it is Warm Homes, in Scotland it is the Energy Assistance Package and in Wales it is the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme. The eligibility criteria for the schemes differ between countries – with some schemes you need to be in receipt of certain benefits, whilst others are available to anyone over a certain age.

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Eligibility criteria

These are some examples of Warm Front eligibility criteria, available to those who own their own home or rent it from a private landlord.

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Energy suppliers

The Government's Energy Efficiency Commitment (EEC) has been replaced by the Carbon Emission Reduction Target (CERT) – this means energy suppliers with a certain number of customers operating in Great Britain are obliged to achieve targets for improving home energy efficiency. The suppliers therefore provide a range of offers which significantly reduce the cost of installing energy efficiency measures. What's more, you can take up offers from any of the energy companies, regardless of who supplies your gas and electricity.

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Local authorities

Most local authorities provide grants and offers for local residents to install certain energy efficiency measures in their home.

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The Clean Energy Cashback or Feed in Tariff (FIT) scheme

Householders that have installed small-scale renewable energy systems could receive up to £1,000 a year for the electricity they generate under a new government scheme launched in April 2010.

The scheme, known as the Clean Energy Cashback Scheme or Feed in Tariff (FIT), requires energy suppliers to make regular payments to householders and communities who generate their own electricity from renewable or low carbon sources such as solar electricity (PV) panels, hydroelectricity or wind turbines. Most forms of renewable electricity generation in all sizes up to 5 megawatts are eligible.

By generating their own low-carbon electricity this Government backed incentive scheme means that homeowners can, in the future, play a key role in contributing to UK emission reductions. Apart from improved energy efficiency the aim is to also help homeowners reduce their fuel bills.

The scheme potentially delivers a "package" of financial benefits for a homeowner: for any energy they produce and use themselves they will see a reduction in their electricity bill; a payment for all the electricity they produce, whether used by the household or any surplus exported into the national grid – in the latter case the homeowner gets an additional bonus payment.

According to Government figures a typical 2.5kW solar PV installation could offer a homeowner a reward of up to £900 and save them £140 a year on their electricity bill.

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How do we go about replacing our old boiler?

The starting point is to ask advice and obtain quotes from reliable, reputable, registered heating engineer. The easiest way to find reputable heating engineers is to use the search facility on this website (see the box at the top).

All the companies listed are members of the HVCA. Established in 1904, HVCA is the officially recognised organisation representing central heating contractors and exists to promote fair dealing and the sound installation of heating systems. Members who undertake gas installations are all Gas Safe registered. As a trade association HVCA has also taken the unusual but highly commendable step of requiring all its members to undergo third party inspection and assessment, which verifies technical competence, commercial capability and customer service.

Your local registered heating engineer will offer professional advice on what type and perhaps make of boiler suits your requirements and your budget. But there is no harm in knowing a little about the types of boilers and systems available – it could help you get the best heating system for your home.

Combination boilers – these are small, do not require a separate water tank and produce instant and limitless hot water. But heat will be interrupted if anyone else runs a hot tap at the same time. They are best for smaller houses and flats with only one main bathroom and/or for homes short on space.

Sealed system (un-vented) – these rely on stored water, so you will need space for one hot water tank. Water pressure will be good as it uses mains water pressure and more than one hot tap can run at once. They are best for family homes that need more hot water than a combination boiler can provide but don't have the space for two large water tanks.

Open vent and open vent sealed system – a traditional system that requires a cold water storage tank in the loft and a hot water storage cylinder in an airing cupboard. Because water is stored you'll have less water pressure and only have drinking quality water from one tap. Most older homes have these systems.

Back boilers – often hidden behind a chimney with a fire front to hide it, they're often inefficient but if you upgrade to new components you will save on your bills. They can also be teamed up with wood burning stoves to provide eco friendly heat and hot water. They are best for anyone thinking about using alternative fuels like wood.

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How much should I expect to pay to replace our old boiler?

Without knowing your exact heating requirements it would be impossible to say. A reputable heating engineer should carry out a survey of your property and discuss your requirements in terms of heating and hot water. From this he would be able to recommend and price the right boiler that would meet your needs. As a rough guide for a family of four (two adults and two children below twelve) in a three bedroom terrace property you would expect to pay around £3,000.

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How much should I expect to pay to renew our central heating system?

Without knowing your exact heating requirements it would be impossible to say. A reputable heating engineer should carry out a survey of your property and be informed how many independent water users are resident in the home. From this he would be able to recommend and price the whole central system for you. As a rough guide for a family of four (two adults and two children below twelve) in a three bedroom terrace property you would expect to pay around £5,000.

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I've been told a new boiler must be a condensing type – is this true?

Due to changes to Building Regulations all new and replacement boilers have to be high efficiency 'A' and 'B' -rated models as standard since April 2005. The only domestic boilers available that can deliver this kind of efficiency are condensing boilers.

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I've heard CORGI no longer exists – can anyone install a new boiler in my home?

On 1 April 2009 CORGI was replaced by a new scheme called Gas Safe Register. From this date it became a legal requirement for anyone carrying out work on domestic gas appliances to be a member of the new Gas Safe Register – the vast majority of former CORGI registered heating engineers have now transferred over to the new scheme. Anyone undertaking domestic gas work in the UK that is not Gas Safe registered is operating illegally and is likely to be very harshly treated by the Courts.

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The heating engineer I called for a quotation wants a survey fee/call out charge – is this right?

There are no laws that govern the charges tradespeople demand. Each installer will apply charges as they see fit. What is important is that they make you aware of their charges before you agree to employ their services. Most reputable heating engineers are happy to make an initial visit to discuss your requirements at no charge, following up with a free quotation.

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