Thursday, 17 January 2013

Danger: dick head on the roof

Flue away
There are few things more worrying to a gas engineer than a phone call to say that people are currently in hospital with suspected CO poisoning and that their work has been reported to the HSE (Health and Safety Executive). I know this is the case as this happened to us a few months ago.

My first thought, and I suspect most people would react this way, was to think “Oh my God! What did I do wrong?” Then as we drove to the customer site I had time to ponder the installation, which was only about 9 months old, and realised that we hadn’t done anything wrong.

We arrived at the house in question and wandered into the kitchen to see the boiler we’d fitted. The boiler itself looked fine but the vertical flue had been disconnected with ‘extreme prejudice’.

The house was rented out on a room by room basis and was generally filled with students. Now I have been a student myself so I know they aren’t all idiots but it still didn’t stop me suspecting that in a teenage drunken frenzy someone had pulled the flue out deliberately.

As it happened I’d have been wrong to think this, but what was clear was that the flue could never have been installed like that 9 months ago. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that a 30Kw boiler operating all day without a flue would have left the house littered with cold, blue, bodies within a few days, let alone 9 months.

Anyway, we stepped outside to see what the flue looked like as it exited the roof and within a few seconds the cause of the problem became clear – all the lead had been stolen from the roof, including the lead flashing that came with the vertical flue. The thieves had tried to pull the flue terminal out but the support bracket had dug in and stopped this happening so they had just hacked away at the lead flashing with a knife. Sadly, in exchange for this 3p of lead they were now putting the lives of 6 or 7 people in real danger because, although they hadn’t managed to put the flue terminal out, they had managed to rip the base of the terminal out of the boiler itself.

It’s at times like this when you really appreciate the smart phone. Within seconds we were taking all the photo’s required to show that this was in no way an installation error. We then rang the Gas safe register and explained what had happened and offered to show them around the site or send them the photos of the incident. Fortunately we had had a gas inspection just a few months before and the inspector remembered us and was perfectly happy to accept that everything was as we were explaining it.

So, nothing happened to us and, fortunately, no one was harmed but that doesn’t detract from the fact that the process was still fundamentally flawed.

It all started off ok. The tenants smelt fumes in the kitchen, thought it was gas and rang the National Grid. They responded quickly and sent someone over.

Now it starts to go wrong. They either sent over an idiot, or someone who hadn’t been trained properly, or the National Grid doesn’t train their inspectors correctly. Because I would expect anyone seeing a faulty vertical flue in the current climate to at least think “Is this a case of metal theft?” and to check it out and report it accordingly. I don’t expect them to do this to let off the installer, I expect them to do this because otherwise flue design does not improve and deaths, or near deaths, due to metal theft go unrecorded.

The remains of a roof flashing kit
In this case the danger could have been averted if the flue had been better designed. Many flue designs expect you to screw each section together and the flue base is then securely screwed onto the boiler. This doesn’t mean it’s vandal proof, but it’s going to cope a hell of a lot better. Sadly, other designs, such as the one in this incident, use little plastic or metal collars to secure the sections together and to hold the base into the boiler. Whilst these are fine in that they stop the sections just falling out they don’t stand up to deliberate vandalism for very long at all. So the question is, when approving flue design what, if any, criteria is there for resistance to vandalism? I suspect the answer is none.

Another change would be to make the securing brackets a little more rigid so they could cope better with an idiot on the roof. The ones in this case did stop the fool pulling the terminal out completely but the metal was soft enough, and thin enough, to allow the vandal to bend it sufficiently to raise the terminal up a good 4 inches.

Finally, they should stop the use of lead for flue terminal roof flashing kits, and what’s more use an alternative material that looks nothing like a valuable metal.

Sadly, this isn’t going to happen whilst the guy from the National Grid just turns up, sees a flue disconnected from a boiler and immediately blames the installer, though in fairness nothing, as far as I can see, would have happened if he had reported the cause as metal theft either. For some reason, despite its prominence in the news, the HSE doesn’t seem interested in it as a safety issue.