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Soaring gas prices expose the real cost of boiler inefficiency

19/09/2021

Jo Alsop

Heating Hero

The Heating Hub

Jo asks if rising fuel prices will reduce our gas consumption through awareness of poor efficiencies

 

Soaring gas prices might encourage us to reduce our gas bills through efficiency and avoid fuel poverty.

As with anything that is cheap and plentiful, little care is given to how sparingly we use it. It is only with scarcity and rising prices that our behaviour changes. Think about when the petrol light comes on in your car, as you approach empty you may turn the heating/aircon off to preserve fuel.

Mains gas is cheap, in recent years less than 3p per kWh compared to oil at 5.5p per kWh and bottled gas at 7p per kWh or higher. Electricity prices have soared from a stable 12.5p per kWh two years ago to 18p per kWh currently. Our experience is that those off mains gas are inherently more careful with their fuel use.

So, as we watch wholesale gas prices soar and wonder how long it will be before it hits our energy bills, now is a good time to consider how we might be more careful will our gas consumption; but not through reduced comfort, rather through increased efficiency.

To be clear this is not a ‘turn your thermostat down’ discussion, it is a ‘can my existing boiler operate more efficiently’ discussion. Because the answer is almost always yes it can and up to 32% more efficiently (BEAMA).

To be clear also, this is not a discussion about just ‘upgrading’ to a new boiler (unless it is at the end of its natural life). As I have discussed elsewhere, swapping out a poorly set up 10-year-old boiler for a poorly set up new boiler will not reduce your gas use, despite claims that it will.

This is a discussion about the failure of the gas boiler industry to deliver to us the ‘on-the-box’ efficiencies of their condensing gas boilers and now is the time that we ask for them back.

Condensing gas boilers became mandatory in 2005 and were pitched to installers and consumers as a huge technological leap forward that would save use up to £350 on our gas bills (NB this figure hasn’t really changed today because gas prices are still so low). The £350 figure is for a household that moves from a G-rated non-condensing boiler to an A-rated condensing boiler, assuming the new boiler is running at its A-rated efficiency.

The problem is new gas boilers do not run at their A-rated efficiency. In more than 99% of gas households they are running B, C, D or even E rated. How do we know this? A study carried out by the Energy Saving Trust more than a decade ago found that boilers in the home significantly underperformed compared to label efficiencies.

We also know from our own research that more than 99% of installers have not been trained to set up condensing gas boilers as they were design to operate. As a result, most installers cannot accurately size the boiler, explain how it ‘condenses’ or why condensing is important for efficiency.

To compound the matter, a legacy of basic boilers and basic heating controls in the market, not phased out through better regulation, means we have oversized boilers with little efficiency potential and heating controls that should have gone out with the coal shed. Even some ‘smart’ controls are little more than a dial thermostat with a better outfit.

As Kim Betty points out, improvements in the motor trade only came about when manufacturers were forced to do so. This has not happened for our heating systems. Earlier this year the Government asked for advice from manufacturers, installers and consumers on whether their proposed new building control regulations would be effective in improving efficiency. On the version I responded to the answer was a resounding 'no'. The suggested ‘uplifts’ were horribly weak and left the door open for basic boilers and basic controls to remain.

The risk is that installers will never be forced to understand what ‘good’ looks like and more importantly how to fit it. Industry speculation suggests that manufacturers do not want their technical helplines clogged up with installers trying to understand advanced controls for the first time; so whilst they make advanced controls available, they are not keen to make them mandatory.

Likewise with installers hugely undervalued in the market and prices squeezed to lower than they were 10 years ago, they too find little reason to spend the time learning new things that consumers have not been educated to appreciate.

But none of this is new. These conversations have been going around at a grass roots level for many years. A handful of installers have pushed themselves to understand the technology and have often been lambasted on social media for pioneering it. Momentum is growing however and there are now enough voices to drown out the trolls.

Our own website is the first to bridge these voices to consumers and enlighten households to the truth about their boiler; as well as holding their hands to procure an efficient system.

These are small changes however and perhaps what was always needed was a catalyst, to catapult heating efficiency into the mainstream. Our soaring environmental awareness has certainly made us receptive to news stories about energy, but there is nothing like a financial hit to motivate us into action.

So, whilst we have your attention, we want you tell you this: do not replace your boiler if it is less than 10 years old (unless it is incredibly damaged). The success of our industry is built on persuading you to change your boiler every 6-10 years and as such we have one of the highest replacement boiler rates in Europe. Your boiler can always be repaired. If you think a new boiler will be more efficient, it will not, but there are small changes you can make today to your existing system to make it run more efficiently.

Our path to net zero is a long one and what we do along the way counts. Improving the efficiency of your existing boiler, avoiding scrappage, and picking a good boiler and good installer when the time is right to replace it will make an enormous contribution. This is something that all households can do from TODAY, not some future date whilst we wait for renewable technologies to work in all homes.

We need our heating industry to thrive sustainably and give us the right products with skilled installers to deliver A-rated efficiencies across all energy types so we can keep costs down and reduce our carbon footprint for our children and our children's children.

 

Jo & Caroline - Heating Heroes

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