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.