Bridge over troubled water

Around 45 per cent of failed boilers are due to poor quality water in heating systems. This same phenomenon is also responsible for premature boiler breakdowns and repairs. Although the cost of poor water quality is high, the solution is decidedly inexpensive. Craig Mitchell of Sentinel explains how a few changes to water treatment practices can ensure lifetime protection

Housing associations invest vast sums every year on heating system upgrades and maintenance in order to increase tenant satisfaction, improve system performance, save energy and reduce heating related costs (both for tenants and themselves). Despite this, independent research shows that the social housing sector absorbs a veiled cost of millions of pounds every year in heating system issues, while the National Housing Federation reports that ‘almost a quarter (23 per cent) of all housing association and local authority tenants are unable to keep their living room warm’ – a problem that is known to impact wellbeing. So where are things going wrong? The answer is complex and likely to involve numerous factors. However, poor water treatment – which is remarkably prevalent – is guaranteed to be involved.

To illustrate, research and testing by Sentinel and two major boiler manufacturers in over 50,000 UK homes found that 87 per cent of heating systems are without correct water treatment, while 50 per cent of systems over five years old suffer from dirty circulating water. Another study of 16,000 homes discovered that 28 per cent of treated systems had lost inhibitor in just 12 months. Inadequate water treatment will almost certainly allow corrosion to ensue (and limescale, where systems are located in hard water areas), which can wreak havoc inside heating systems. Where corrosion exists, common problems include boiler breakdowns, early repairs and parts replacements, reduced energy efficiency (and therefore reduced savings), degraded heating performance, loss of boiler warranty, and shortened boiler and component life. In fact, according to a national social housing contractor, poor water treatment is responsible for writing off around 45 per cent of boilers five to seven years early.

The cost to the social housing provider? Approximately £344,000 for every 1,000 units – an expense which has to be absorbed since heating provision cannot stop. Callbacks are yet another consequence of poor water treatment that involve alarming figures. Independent research found that every boiler incurs an average of 0.86 unplanned callbacks per year. Across the sector, this equates to more than 3.3 million unplanned callbacks every year for heating alone. The cost? Depending on contractor rates, this is likely to be anywhere from £40,000 to £890,000 per 1,000 boilers, every year. Add to that the cost of repairs and component replacements (and all other associated costs, such as investment in what are ultimately erroneous water treatment schemes), and the figures keep rising. And what about the impact of poor water treatment on tenants? Sadly, the story doesn’t improve. For example, radiator cold spots, which arise when corrosion deposits (‘sludge’) accumulate inside radiators, make homes colder. Often tenants will try to counteract the effect of cold spots by turning the thermostat up, but all this tends to do is increase bills rather than temperatures (by contrast, a warm home is associated with better wellbeing, lower energy bills and a higher disposable income). Of course, boiler breakdowns can leave tenants without the basic provisions of heating and hot water, while unplanned engineer visits can be extremely inconvenient.

Overall, the picture painted by poor water treatment is pretty grim for both landlord and tenant, but it can be avoided with system care that effectively implements and ensures best practice water treatment (a process of correct system cleaning, protection and maintenance). In fact, best practice water treatment can deliver lifetime protection from corrosion-induced problems in heating systems, optimising system longevity, performance, and efficiency. The proof? Many adopters of such programmes report to have practically eliminated heating repairs and callbacks, benefiting from annual savings of tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds. Initiatives that ensure comprehensive system care comprise four essential components: Free best practice water treatment training for installers and contractors; complete, pre-packaged product kits; water quality testing (via an independent lab) on each heating system to confirm adequate cleaning and protection; and online reporting that details contractor performance (handy data that some housing associations use to incentivise better practice from contractors by withholding payment until systems have passed water quality checks). An additional monitoring innovation, due to launch in early 2019, will help housing associations to benefit from ‘right first time’ water treatment, and catch potential problems early, thus reducing return visits and reactive callbacks. Best practice water treatment is estimated to cost less than £13 per year, per boiler. In return, potential lifetime savings are available of over a quarter of a million pounds per 1,000 boilers.

Furthermore, best practice water treatment can increase the reliability, performance and energy efficiency of heating systems, ensuring greater tenant satisfaction; surely that is one bridge worth crossing.

Craig Mitchell is sales director for Sentinel