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

In this episode, Dan Holohan shares stories about a quest for the oldest boiler, a near-death experience, and century-old equipment that has nine lives.


Episode Transcript

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. That makes for great business.

A few years back, 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 won, npower would award you £3,000 towards a replacement boiler that is much more energy efficient that your ancient one. It would, of course, condense.

As you can imagine, this got U.K. homeowners excited because that was a lot of loot, and new boilers didn’t come cheaply in Europe. I also got excited when I heard about that 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. The boiler they awarded was a mere 32 years old. This, they considered old? I don't think so. To me, this boiler was still wet behind the ears, 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 that boiler.

Richard Cotton, who was in charge of sales for npower (and, hey, that's what this contest was really all about, right?), 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 children."

Well, yeah, and 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, said that any boiler more than 15 years old is far less energy efficient than what's available today. They claimed 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 they imagined would be 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 that new boiler? It 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 was one year younger than that contest-winning British boiler. when he was vacuuming his own boiler. A part of the vacuum cleaner fell into the boiler. He reached in to retrieve it and got his arm 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 the water was 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 he 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 the new 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 (uh, 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 loading the big copper tank onto their truck. Smart guys. I’m glad Mr. Metez is still with us. 

When I was growing up here on the Isle of Long, I thought that everyone in the world heated with fuel 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 salesman 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. Imagine that.

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 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 on an oil-fired boiler or furnace.

But wait, it gets better. When my father needed some plumbing done, he would call it in as a heating 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 back then.

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 those guys keep showing up, and they kept working on stuff that rightfully should have been 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.

But not so much anymore, right? Have you noticed that there are new laws coming around that say that past a certain date, you’re not going to have natural gas, or fuel oil that’s not biofuel? And that old boiler is probably going to step aside so the new heat pump can take its place. And who knows what’s next?

We’re catching up to where Europe has been for some time, and I don’t see this as a bad thing. I see it as a great business opportunity. Maybe you do too.

Thirty two years ago, I asked a German boiler manufacturer how long these new modulating condensing boilers would last. “Ten years,” he said. “That’s ridiculous!” I said. “Americans would never stand for that.”

“But, Dan,” he said. “Imagine what we will have for you in 10 years. Think of how much better it will be.”

Guess what? It worked out just fine for them, didn’t it? See the opportunities. They’re coming on strong. They really are.

I hope you enjoyed that story. And if you did, please share it with your friends. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have lots more Dead Men Tales to share with you, and I’m really enjoying our time together. Thanks for being here!

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