Monday 11 November 2013

A Concerned Installer?

Several rumours have been running around t'internet concerning a number of boiler manufacturers. In essence the rumour was that the customer information innocently passed on by the boiler installer was being sold-on by the manufacturer to large service companies who where then using that data to, effectively, nick the maintenance contracts.

Like many people I assumed the rumours had foundation, although I did think that as a business tactic it was a bit short term and ultimately a pretty poor idea. However, it seems that the original rumours had little or no basis in fact.

I struggle to see why the original "concerned Installer" would have initiated this rumour if he/she didn't have some fairly hard facts but, judging by a recent email I received, it would appear that it was all either a genuine mistake, a piece of malicious gossip, or it was all based on some flimsy evidence that fell apart the moment a heavy-weight corporate lawyer hoved into view.

Either way, Worcester Bosch have issued the following statement:

To be honest I'm quite relieved about this as we have still been fitting Worcester Boilers for the simple reason that customers have still been asking for them. Nice to know that we get to keep the service contract after all.

The original rumour also hinted that a number of other boiler manufacturers were trying the same thing. Hopefully this was also based on little or no actual fact.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Ariston Boilers

Ariston E-Combi Evo
Our local plumbing merchants often do breakfast mornings, an event cunningly designed to entice the innocent heating engineer into a chat with one of the many UK plumbing manufacturers. 

The lure is usually a sausage sandwich so, being a sucker for such wonders, I duly ended up in conversation with the rep from Ariston. To be honest I didn’t even know Ariston did boilers but after a brief natter I was left wondering why we hadn’t been fitting them. After all they seemed well priced and appeared to be good quality but - and here’s the numb of the problem for the less well known manufacturers - my first thought was, ‘why change?’

This got me thinking about why I was so conservative about the boilers we recommend and, having had my ponder, I figured that it really boiled down to the following criteria:

How easy is it going to be to sell this boiler?
If the boiler comes with a great reputation then, occasionally, it might be able to sell itself. Sadly, most customers struggle to tell the difference between a quality boiler and a bag of nails, so the usual deciding factor is price and if your quote is more expensive than everybody else’s because you’re promoting an expensive boiler you will struggle to win business. So most installers will look for a boiler that is competitively priced.

Another factor that helps sell a boiler is warranty. If boiler A comes with a 2 year warranty whilst boiler B comes with 5 years it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which is the better buy. A long warranty is also a help to the installer in that it suggests that the manufacturer is not expecting many problems within that warranty period – otherwise they’d have to put up the price of the boiler to cover the cost of the warranty. So both installer and customer are comforted by a nice long warranty period.

How reliable is this boiler going to be?
A strong counter to the first point is reliability. Many people forget that the party most affected by an unreliable boiler is the installer. Assuming he or she is not one of these ‘fly-by-night’ outfits that disappears from sight the moment the cheque clears, it is the installer who’ll be called out to investigate any problems - even if the boiler is still under warranty - and the installer who’s reputation will be badly tarnished if the boiler turns out to be as reliable as a political manifesto.

How easy is it going to be to install?
Again, if you’re going to win business, you’re going to have to give a competitive quote and one of the biggest price factors is the length of time it’s going to take to complete the install.

Initially this means how good is the installation manual because, if this is the first time you’ve installed this type of boiler, you are going to have to refer to the literature. Once you’re familiar with the boiler the odds are that the manuals will barely see the light of day and it will all come down to what the manufacturers have provided to make the job of installation quick and easy.

The trouble is that until you’ve actually installed the new boiler you can’t be sure of many of these points and so, unless the manufacturer makes a total mess of things, you tend stick with what you know.... Unless the customer buys the boiler and you just fit it!

As luck would have it a customer of ours did just this and soon found himself the proud owner of an Ariston E-Combi 38. Well this seemed like an ideal opportunity to test them out – if it worked, great, if it turned out to be a heap of rubbish we hadn’t bought it, we hadn’t even recommended it... so it wasn’t our fault.

Well I’m happy to report that it all turned out well – as least so far. The installation manual was pretty good so the basic install went ok. We had a problem with the blow-off connector, which wouldn’t fit anything we had. I assumed it was one of those strange foreign fittings but it turns out it was just a dud batch that would only work after you’d spent half-an-hour paring them down with a flat file.

It didn’t come with any pre-formed copper fittings for the main inlet and outlets pipes so you had to manually cut lengths of tube and fit elbows to them. This is no great shame but after you’ve been fitting Logic+ boilers it felt like a bit of a bind.

The manual asked that you fit the condensate pipework into a tundish and that you fitted a trap in the pipework, both of which seemed a bit odd and outdated. The end result was that the condensate pipework was strangely noisy.

On the plus side it came with an inbuilt timer and filling loop. What’s more (Ideal take note) you could actually see the pressure gauge on the front of the boiler!

The commissioning process was fairly neat, once we’d figured out that the button they constantly referred to as “Esc” in the manual isn’t actually labelled that on the boiler - it’s a circle with an arrow on it! In fact the installer interface is very comprehensive, allowing you to adjust the boiler heat output and play around with umpteen settings so as to maximise the efficiency.

I suppose the obvious downside to this is that the engineer gets put off by the threat of maths and ignores this section all together. However, Ariston will actually send out one of their own engineers to walk you through this process and, if you feel it’s all getting far too technical, the boiler comes with an “Auto Function”.

Most boilers just blast out as much heat as they can muster when the CH is first switched on, which wastes a lot of energy. With the Ariston you can just press this nice, non- threatening, “Auto Function” button and the boiler will immediately start to learn the heating characteristics of your home and central heating system. Once it’s worked these out it will operate the boiler at the lowest settings required to get your home nice and warm within a reasonably period of time but without wasting fuel. The auto-function can also be used with a weather compensation control to increase efficiencies still further.

All in all they seem to be remarkably good boilers, very reasonably priced. All we have to hope for now is that they are also very reliable. The fact that the “Clas” range comes with a 5 year warranty would suggest that Ariston at least think they are.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Who'd be a gas boiler engineer?

problem? What problem?

This is the sorry tale of a gas engineer and his noble fight against the boiler from hell.

One fine day our gallant hero received a call from a customer. His boiler had stopped working and - if we could find a minute in between saving fair maidens and slaying evil dragons - would we be able to pop out and have a look at it.

I won’t say what boiler it was as I can’t afford a lawyer but most service engineers will recognise the make from this description: it had a large bucket underneath it to catch the various leaks that were coming from its various joints! I have yet to see an example of this particular make of boiler that didn’t have at least one leak, in fact I’m surprised that the manufacturer doesn’t provide a free bucket with every purchase.

So, donning our dragon skin wellies, we waded over to the recalcitrant boiler. As luck would have it it was one of the easiest diagnoses I’ve had to make – I removed the burner unit and water started pouring out of the primary heat exchanger!

Personally I’d start looking for a new boiler at this point but for some bizarre reason the customer was rather fond of this old, damp, lump of metal and rust, and so we ordered the new part.

A few days later this arrived and we began to remove the old heat exchanger. As usual the service manual suggested that this would be very easy and straightforward, and as usual it wasn’t, not because there were lots of intricate bits to remove but because what bits there were were stuck together by years of limescale, rust and sheer bloody mindedness.

In the end we were left with no choice other than to cut out a bit of pipe and order a replacement. This decision made, we quickly had the old heat exchanger out and the new one in.

Two days later we return with our new section of pipe. As expected, fitting it was far from straightforward but we got there in the end and refilled the system. And it leaked! Not from any of the new parts, but from an area of the boiler we hadn’t even touched! So we tightened the joint in question, and it leaked even more. So we took it out. And it promptly fell apart.

Just to add a much needed touch of excitement to the situation the customer was hosting a party that evening and needed the boiler working. Sadly the bit that had just disintegrated was the by-pass assembly and the quickest we could get a replacement part was 10 working days.

So off we pop to the merchants to have a root around their warehouse and see what we can find that might work in the interim. An hour later and we return with a fine collection of obscure compression fittings and, as luck would have it, we manage to cobble something together.

We refill the system and much to everyone’s surprise we’re leak free. We switch on the boiler and... Bang! A fuse blows!

By now I’m convinced that this bloody boiler is cursed! Fortunately it’s only 4:45 on a Friday evening so the Technical support department isn’t drunk yet.

Sadly, the only way of knowing what bit was failing was to disconnect the suspect and turn the boiler on; if it still blows the fuse, it’s not that part so try disconnecting something else. This approach works but does tend to make a large dint in your supply of fuses, especially when the fuse that’s blowing is the aptly named ‘quick-blow’ 2amp fuse on the boiler itself. As you’ve probably guessed we had at least 5 suspect parts and only 3 fuses.

Fortunately I am quite familiar with the Law of Sod in all its forms so I figured that in this scenario the most likely cause would be the least suspicious item. With this in mind we disconnected the flue stat, wired the terminals together and turned the boiler back on... and it worked!

All we had to do now was find a replacement, fit it, and then quietly back out of the room before another bloody part blew.

We returned a week later to fit the new by-pass assembly, which caused another leak. So we ordered a new isolation valve and came back yet again the fit that.

Finally, after about a three weeks of buggering around we had the boiler fully fitted and working. It still looks like a refuge from ‘scrap-heap challenge’ but inside it’s pretty much new these days.

And if it ever breaks down again? Yup, we’re on holiday! And it's going to be a long, long holiday :)

Tuesday 12 February 2013

A Good Old Moan

And another thing! Get your bloody hair cut!

I turned 50 last week. Few benefits accrue from such ancientness but there is one; I am now honour bound to become a grumpy old git.

With that in mind let’s have a good old moan.

First off, business email accounts! We get about 60 emails a day and my email software battles valiantly to filter out the wheat from the chaff yet, despite thousands of blocks and filters, at least 95% of the emails that arrive can best be described as ‘useless bollocks’. For every email from an existing or potential customer there are legions of them trying to flog me crap that I really don’t want. A large proportion of these are from numpties who think that because we bought a van a few years ago we’ll want to buy another very soon. So, in order not to miss their opportunity, they send me the details of vans I don’t want every. Single. Bloody. Day!  Even more annoying than those wankers are the prats that send me junk emails asking if I’ll like to buy their wonderful databases. Why? So I can send out my own junk email and irritate the pants off millions of other email users!

And another thing! Who was the genius at the spare parts company that decided to send out an email telling me about their “Top 10 most popular spare parts”? I can see the point of someone like Amazon sending out a list of their top selling books or games but why would anyone buy a spare part just because it was popular?

“Yes, I was going to order that gas valve for your broken Alpha boiler but when I went on-line I noticed that the fan assembly for a Worcester was immensely popular, so I decided to buy one of those instead!... Woolly jumpers are very popular at the moment..."

Designers! Especially those that design bathroom stuff. You know the thing, the beautiful, elegant tap that took 12 hours to fit, still wobbles and can’t fill a bath in much under 2 days. I can forgive the frilly cuffs and the long curly hair but it really pisses me off when someone thinks design is solely about form and nothing to do with function. To add insult to injury they then cart these things out the door with an installation pamphlet that reads “To install, turn water off and fit.” There’s one company, that will remain nameless only because I can’t afford a lawyer, whose installation guide says little beyond “Ensure that this product is fitted by a NVQ Level 3 qualified plumber”. You could have amassed 33 lives and fought your way through to NVQ Level 9 and you’d still be left frothing in fury at the stupidity of some of their designs. What the leaflet should read is:

“This product should only be fitted by a fully qualified plumber with unfettered access to NASA, MIT and the spirit of Isambard Kingdom Brunel”

Last, and by no means least, are those customers who know best. We don’t actually have any clients like this for what are probably fairly obvious reasons. However, we have had our brushes with these people. 

We had a woman who could barely spell her own name yet lectured us at length because we’d fitted her taps with the cold on the right and the hot on the left when she knew for a fact that it should have been the other way around. And why did she know this? Because she had a very good friend who was an exceptionally good plumber. Strangely enough this very good friend never, ever, had any time to do any plumbing for her. Odd that!

I have sat and listened whilst a guy told me exactly what the problem was, exactly how to fix it, exactly how long that would take and exactly how much he should be charged. Bizarrely enough the only thing he didn’t seem to understand was why I shook his hand, wished him good luck and left.

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.