When It Comes To Boilers, How Old Is Too Old?

Published: August 24, 2010 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: The Business of Heating

8b57c00a dbd4 423f a9c1 a4eb43aeea0fnews.ap.org r620x349

We reserve the right to be ridiculous

The United Kingdom prides itself on being quite energy efficient these days. As with most of Europe, there are strict rules in the U.K. that keep everyone in line. If you need a new boiler, it must be of the condensing variety, and this goes for both oil and gas. This makes for great business.

Recently, npower, which is one of the U.K.'s largest suppliers of electricity and natural gas, set out to find the oldest boiler in the land. They did this by running a contest. If you win, npower will award you £3,000 towards a replacement boiler that is much more energy efficient that your ancient one. It will, of course, condense.

As you can imagine, this got U.K. homeowners excited because that's a lot of loot, especially these days, and new boilers don't come cheaply in Europe. I also got excited when I heard about the contest because I figured that any country with a history as long as England's is bound to turn up some very old equipment, and I have a thing for old stuff. So I watched and waited.

Well, they disappointed me. As I write to you, they think they have a winner. It's a boiler up in Alnwick, but it's a mere 32 years old. This, they consider old? I don't think so. To me, this boiler is still a wet-behind-the-ears young man, but npower gushed over it. They pointed out that the boiler is older than the owners' 24-year marriage. Big whooping deal. I have underwear older than this boiler.

Richard Cotton, who is in charge of sales for npower (and, hey, that's what this contest is all about), said, "In our search for Britain's oldest boiler, we've already uncovered many boilers more than 30 years old, with some families owning boilers that are older than their grown-up children."

Well, yeah. It's because of the children that most of us can't afford to buy new boilers. Everybody knows that.

The Energy Saving Trust, which is an independent U.K. organization charged with making the kingdom more climate-conscious, says that any boiler more than 15 years old is far less energy efficient than what's available today, and that folks could save as much as £235 each year on their heating bills if they would just upgrade. They also mention that an older boiler may cause a fire, an explosion, or a gas leak, which, I suppose, is inspirational to British people.

Say the same to most Americans and they'll ask you how soon they're going to get their money back on the new boiler? Better not take more than three years. They'll also tell you that they've never had a fire, explosion, or gas leak, so you can take that thought and stuff it, buster.

We're like that.

Which brings me to Jonathan Metz of West Hartford, Connecticut. Mr. Metz, 31 years old (one year younger than the oldest boiler in the U.K.), was vacuuming his boiler when a part of the vacuum fell into the boiler. He reached in to retrieve it and his arm got stuck, and I mean really stuck. He was working alone and he wasn't a professional, so no one was watching him, or checking up on him, or even thinking about him.

He yelled and screamed for three days in his basement, but no one came to help him. At one point, he popped the relief valve and drank the boiler water by scooping it up with his flip-flop. He said it was all red and disgusting, but he was glad to get it.

After a while, his arm began to smell as if it was going gangrenous, so he fashioned a tourniquet from his shirt and some old phone line that he could reach, and used a hacksaw blade to cut through most of his arm. The doctors said this probably saved his life because it prevented the infection from spreading to the rest of his body.

This was one coyote-ugly boiler, as you can see by the photo at the top of this story. I'd say it was at least 60 years old. It had a huge copper tank for domestic water above it, and it would have won that U.K. contest, hands down (no pun intended).

A local company, Automatic TLC Energy, was nice enough to donate a new boiler, along with the labor to install it. I watched a news video of the guys carrying the big copper tank onto their truck. Smart guys.
Mr. Metz is getting married in November, and it's a happy ending all around. I'm glad he's still with us.
When I was growing up here on the Isle of Long, I thought that everyone in the world heated with oil. Back then, most people did. You'd buy a house and the oil companies would come calling. Each would offer a deal that was better than what the last guy offered, and I remember my father working one against the other.

The big thing back then was the free service contract. If you signed up for automatic fuel deliveries for a certain amount of time, say, five years, the oil company would take care of any service your boiler or furnace would ever need. And the coverage extended beyond the boiler and into the system. Some oil companies would even send a guy to your house to bleed your radiators.

The cost of all of this was the cost of doing business, and the oil companies made good money selling comfort by the gallon. Most saw their service departments as necessary overhead and they just sucked it up, as their customers' boilers and furnaces sucked up the oil.

When the five years of any service contract came to an end, the customer would call the oil company and say that he was thinking of switching companies. This would prompt another offer of five years free service, of course. I never met anyone who ever paid for service.

But wait, it gets better. When my father needed some plumbing done, he would call it in as a service call. The oil technician would show up and my father would take him down to the basement. He'd explain that there was nothing wrong with the heating system, but he needed some other work. He'd be happy to pay the guy a few bucks off the books if he would come back after work and take care of the problem. I can't recall one technician ever saying no. It was just the way things worked.

Today, in many parts of America, those guys will still show up at any hour of the day or night, and on any day of the year, and they will work on the oldest equipment you can find, so where is the incentive to upgrade to new equipment? What's that you say? New equipment will save me fuel? How much fuel? Oh, you don't want to guarantee that? And what's the payback on the new equipment? It had better be less than three years. What's that? My boiler is old and liable to break down? That's your problem. I have a service contract, and if you don't show up when I call, I'll take my business elsewhere.

So these guys keep showing up, and they keep working on stuff that rightfully should be in a landfill. This is why we still have residential boilers that date to the Great Depression - boilers that are big enough to stick your arm into. Once.

And when these boilers leak, even that's not a problem. An old-timer once told me that the best way to stop a boiler leak is to put a handful of oatmeal in the water. "Swells right up and plugs the leak!" he said. "Gets you through the winter."

I mentioned this to another old-timer and he said, "That guy is right, but better still is horse manure. I've never seen that fail, and it lasts for a long time. If the problem happens again, you can always add more."
I figure that when a boiler is leaking it's time to install a new boiler, but the old guys said that was nuts. Why replace it when you can keep fixing it?

I suppose that's part of what makes us Americans.

We reserve the right to be ridiculous.