A Post About Boilers

Commenter Alex M. chimes in under this post on the subject of boilers, and I thank him for that:

My plumber has a handy sideline reselling perfectly good boilers than people replace because they fall for all the guff about modern energy-efficient equipment. New boilers may use slightly less oil but the savings will never cover the cost of replacing an old serviceable boiler, never mind the much higher maintenance costs and the fact that new condensing boilers are only designed to last around ten years. A bog-standard 20th century non-condensing boiler will last fifty years or longer with regular servicing.

It is probably not surprising that I never owned a property with a boiler until recently.  My employer has always been generous enough to supply me with accommodation wherever I’ve been posted, and the place I bought in Thailand back in 2009 has nothing more than a small water heater for showers and washing up, for obvious reasons.  That changed when I bought a property in Annecy a couple of years ago, a modern apartment which was fully electric (i.e. no gas) and independently heated (i.e. unlike the older apartment complexes, there was no centralised heating system for the whole development).  The boiler was new, so the previous owner told me, and he had receipts to prove it.

When II collected the keys I didn’t even have a place to sit down, and so after looking around I switched off the water and the power and went back to Paris.  That’s one of the advantages of an apartment over a house: you can drop the shutters, switch everything off, and just leave it unattended for months.  Do that with a house and you’ll find things have gotten inside and taken up residence.  Anyway, I made a habit of visiting the place every few months and then switching everything off when I wasn’t there.

I arrived at the property on 22nd December last year, intending to spend Christmas there, and found the boiler leaking.  It wasn’t a bad leak and fortunately there was no damage to my property or that of my neighbour, and I could even still take showers, but something had gone wrong with the boiler.  I found it odd that the leak wasn’t coming from the bottom, but about halfway up.  I couldn’t see any hole but I could feel that below the leak the casing was warm, but above it was cold.  The water was dripping down the inside of the casing.

My first reaction was to swear loudly.  This was 3 days before Christmas, remember.  And plumbers are known to be cheap and readily available, especially with foreigners close to a major holiday, oh yes.  My second reaction was to pull out the warranty.  I called the service number and as I was on hold a passage in the warranty terms caught my eye: the warranty is void if the power has been off for more than 24 hours.  Mine had been off for seven months.

I’m an engineer, mechanical according to the certificate.  Not a good one, but an engineer nonetheless. I know about corrosion and how it works.  I’d suspected the leak was caused by corrosion, but was struggling to figure out how the hull had been breached so fast.  Now I knew.  Modern boilers are made from paper-thin steel to save costs, make them lighter, and make them more energy efficient.  This is inherently sensible.  The problem is corrosion: even the slightest degradation of thin steel will cause a hole to appear.  All boilers deal with corrosion by using sacrificial anodes, but they need to be replaced every few years increasing servicing costs.  You can avoid this by using a powered anode, which does not deteriorate with time but – as the name suggests – needs to be powered.  When I pulled apart my boiler I found a small 9V battery underneath: that would be the emergency supply when the main power is switched off for whatever reason.  The anode wouldn’t need much power, but a 9V battery is not going to keep it working for seven months.  As such, the anode stopped working and the boiler itself corroded in short order.

This all came as a surprise to me.  The house in which I grew up in rural Wales had a boiler, which from memory was made of steel an inch thick and probably needed a crane to install.  If the anode lost power there would be enough allowance in the steel to withstand months or even years of corrosion before springing a leak.  But modern boilers have no such margin, they will be made using thin steel and will become useless at the slightest sign of physical degradation.  So you have to keep the damned things powered up.

I was fortunate enough to find a decent plumber in Annecy who replaced it on 23rd December with a better one for 1,200 Euros including installation, taxes, etc.  It was a bit of a dent in the wallet, but it didn’t mean Christmas was ruined.

This isn’t a rant about disposable boilers, though. Old-style boilers might last forever, but that comes at a cost too: you need a strong floor to put them on, and you certainly can’t hang them from a wall like you can the modern ones.  You also can’t install them with one person and another one helping, you’d need some serious kit to move them in and out.  And they’d also be more expensive to run.  There is a reason why modern French apartments are all electric: heating technology and insulation has gotten so good that you no longer need a heavy, industrial central heating system or a gas-fired boiler, and all the equipment you need can be bought from a DIY store and chucked in the back of your car (just about).  In the long run, I suspect the savings on heating costs would easily pay for replacing the boiler once every ten or fifteen years (though perhaps not every seven months).

But there’s another point, which as an employee of an oil company I understand well: CAPEX versus OPEX.  Most people would rather pay for a cheap boiler and replace it every ten years – $700 up front, then two $1,000 payments at year 10 and 20 respectively, totalling $2,700 – than pay $2,000 up front on Day 1 and not pay anything for the next 20 years.  What do economists call it?  The time value of money, or something.

And that’s the real benefit of modern boilers: they are cheap according to the price tag hanging off it in the shop.

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21 thoughts on “A Post About Boilers

  1. We once needed a plumber in an emergency, to deal with the pipework attached to a boiler. He came out immediately. On the first of January. In Scotland. Either he was exceedingly noble or stir-crazy.

    The source of the problem was some other plumber: the tit had installed the low point drain at a point that was not the low point. He’s a wonderful chap, the British working man; backbone of the country; salt of the earth; blah, blah, blah. Except actually at working, where his standards are erratic.

  2. Ah, life with plumbers: Phoned a local plumber, or one pretending to be local, for help with an iffy tap causing problems. Turned out I was talking to a call centre somewhere near Bristol, or at least 200 mile south of me. Yes, they assured me, the plumber was local and would be with me inside an hour.

    Now, sir, said the Bristolian before we do anything else such as your address and the nature of the emergency, give me your credit card number.

    I needed a plumber urgently, so paid. When the problem reappeared and I tried another plumber in the book, as soon as they asked for credit card details I said goodbye. To hear them screeching “no, don’t go” as I put down the phone was pitiful.

    Yes, I learned that these people always ask for a fixed fee payment on my credit card beforehand so that a two minute job (what it turned out to be, helped by the right tools) costs the same as an hour-long job. Anything longer is probably charged at the same rate. Plus VAT, naturally.

    My daughter asked the other day what job anyone would do to get a lot of money fast. I said ‘plumber’ at once because I have never heard of one going out of business. (My mother used to say ‘Bookies’ for the same question but I have heard since they occasionally go out of business.

  3. @watcher,

    Actually the cost of the drive etc. means that almost any job for a plumber or electrician or similar needs to have a 1 hour minimum to make money reliably.

    The problem with the call centre and credit card thingy is that you now have to pay taxes, NI, pension etc. to the government as well. Which is why, if you find a good genuinely local plumber you get his mobile number and call him direct the next time. Then you pay him cash and you’ll probably save considerably.

  4. I didn’t know modern boilers had to be switched on to not corrode. That’s interesting news seeing as the one in our house in France now gets turned on for a fortnight or so every few months.

    Mind you the water there is extremely hard so I suspect a calcium carbonate shell has formed over the metal.

    I take your point about the relative strengths etc. That house had an ancient one that dated to some time about 1950 which was exactly the kind of one that needs three men and a crane to move. In fact as a result of that when it did finally kick the bucket in a way that couldn’t be fixed (they no longer make spares for the ignition bits that died), we left it in place and put the electric boiler next to it.

    At some point I need to pay attention to the price of scrap iron and get someone to take the boiler and the similarly aged central heating pipes and radiators away because it wouldn’t surprise me if there were a good ton of iron in the whole assembly

  5. “Most people would rather pay for a cheap boiler and replace it every ten years – $700 up front, then two $1,000 payments at year 10 and 20 respectively, totalling $2,700 – than pay $2,000 up front on Day 1 and not pay anything for the next 20 years. What do economists call it? The time value of money, or something.”

    I realise that your numbers are nominal but you could actually make the huge boiler work for you if you done it with finance. That way you purchase it with debt at today’s monetary value and then pay it back with tomorrows money this way you have the mother of all boilers and a stronger cash flow.

    Just saying that the Capex/Opex relationship needs to consider debt financing as well.

  6. You have to take account of the cost of installation among other things, replacing a boiler is not as straightforward as installing a new washing machine for example.
    My London flat had a big cast iron lump that I replaced after 20 years — not because it had failed but because I wanted a hot shower at mains pressure. It cost twice as much to install as the cost of the boiler itself. And after ten years it had already required twice as many repairs as the old one had in twenty. But never mind, I got the hot shower performance I wanted and using gas rather than electric did save money: even if the sums were not quite break-even the hedonic calculus was favourable.
    Now I have moved to the country and inherited a big cast iron oil-burning lump that has lasted 30 years. It’s a risk but it might just see me out — or not. The man who has maintained that boiler for thirty years confirms my suspicion, a new boiler is unlikely to see me out. And once again I need to consider the benefits of a proper hot shower rather than an electric drizzle in winter.

  7. It all makes sense now that you’ve explained it, but it wouldn’t occur to the average, uninitiated customer that an unplugged boiler would corrode in seven months. The previous owner should have warned you.

  8. Have another think, Tim.
    Annecy water is a bit alkali. then they put some chlorine in it to neutralise the bugs.
    I suspect that your battery was dead on arrival or not even connected, A 9v battery on a smoke detector can last for years.

  9. I didn’t realise that they had DC powered anodes these days. Anyhow I hope that Tim introduced a design change on his new boiler and went for a sacrificial anode this time around so that at least he can still leave the power off and not worry about corrosion. The cost saving will more than compensate for the anode replacement over time.

  10. @dearieme
    “wouldn’t a power-shower have suited you? We’ve found them wonderful”

    I recently installed a high volume continuous gas heater at the same time that I installed a ceiling mounted shower head. My trusty plumber also removed all of the drought busting water flow restriction devices throughout and set the water heater above the maximum recommended temperature. Needless to say that I thoroughly enjoy my very high pressure hot showers free of the worry of the water tank leaking.

  11. “a ceiling mounted shower head”: good grief, 1950s technology from the rugby changing room. I suppose you must have a bidet for nether-end duties.

  12. A natural gas fired or electric hot water on demand system is the way to go. I believe they also make oil fired versions of them. The maintenance of the heat exchanger is straightforward, and for the corrosion it’s the same as the normal plumbing.

    We have our own water well, grid tied electric system, and a biofilter system tied to the septic tank. It does take a lot of research to do it well and a bit of engineering background doesn’t hurt, but it is well worth it. I can monitor, and maintain all the systems through simple lists and tests. I might spend 8 hours/month keeping on top of them.

    I recently had the water well re-drilled and the new well pump dropped, it was a big hit ($25,000 USD) but if you invest $40/month for the next 25 years no problem. Planning is your friend.

  13. @dearieme

    Those high ceilings do give it that little bit of extra gravitational free fall, no bidet but I do have a Robotic Pool Cleaner.

  14. Bloke in France,

    I suspect that your battery was dead on arrival or not even connected, A 9v battery on a smoke detector can last for years.

    It was connected, I checked that. I have no idea what current a sacrificial anode draws, but as soon as I told the plumber I’d switched the power off for seven months he said “Ah, that’ll be why it’s corroded, then.”

  15. Bardon,

    Anyhow I hope that Tim introduced a design change on his new boiler and went for a sacrificial anode this time around so that at least he can still leave the power off and not worry about corrosion.

    From what I could determine, this is like opting for an LCD TV over an LED TV these days.

  16. It all makes sense now that you’ve explained it, but it wouldn’t occur to the average, uninitiated customer that an unplugged boiler would corrode in seven months. The previous owner should have warned you.

    I think it would be a bit unfair on the previous owner, I doubt he knew about it either. And it does say in the instructions not to switch it off, but who reads them, eh?

    I think it’s a symptom of uninterrupted power in Europe being taken for granted and the expectation that people actually live in properties they buy.

  17. “I think it would be a bit unfair on the previous owner”

    Too right, the only thing that the previous owner has to do is to hide as many defects as possible from the buyer, that’s about the extent of their obligations.

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