Preparing your heating system for winter

What can go wrong?

We all do it —; in late spring as the days get longer and the ambient temperature rises, we start to scale down our heating systems for the summer and use our boilers for the provision of hot water only, timers will be reset, thermostats may be turned right down and radiator valves shut off. Then, as autumn kicks in and the days gets shorter and increasingly colder — we turn up the thermostat, wind on the radiator valves and expect our efficient heating system to provide the warmth to our home or premises.

More often than not our well maintained systems work fine and provide us with the warmth and comfort we expect and look forward to, however, there are occasions when our systems fail us following the summer lay off and there may be many reasons why. Radiators don’t get hot, thermostats might fail to operate, timers may no longer function correctly, valves can stick or fail, pumps can stop working, even circuit boards can fail as tired resistors or capacitors upon them blow (much the same as a plug fuse blows for no apparent reason). It is most doubtful that the average person would be capable of diagnosing and remedying many of the aforementioned possible problems, aside from the fact that working on gas appliances without having the correct qualifications and certification is illegal, so calling in a qualified heating engineer is the only option.

Of course, any problem can occur at any time of year, but the problem of a failing or failed heating system in the depth of winter seems amplified as the temperature inside a building resembles that inside of a refrigerator, family occupants or residents are no longer comfortable and employees unable to work or complete their tasks.

Radiator problems

One of the more usual problems is with the radiators, as they stand through the summer it’s possible that air can leach into the system and take up space in radiators preventing hot water from circulating around an entire radiator’s area, so lessening the radiant effect of that radiator. Diagnosis is simple, with the heating on feel the radiators and if any of them is hot to the touch at the bottom but cool or cold at the top there is air trapped within it, which needs to be bled out. This procedure can easily be completed by the householder, all that is required is a radiator bleed key or sometimes a small screw driver and an old towel or thick cloth. Firstly make sure that all of the radiators to be checked have their valves open and warm up the system, then start with the radiator that is furthest from the boiler and on an upper level if there are multiple floors. Hold the towel or cloth just below the bleed valve, which will be located on top of the radiator to one side, then loosen the valve with the key or screwdriver, the radiator will hiss as the air escapes and when the air is finally expelled by the rising water it will start to flow from the valve at which point the bleed valve can be closed, any dripping water will be caught by the cloth but remember any escaping water may be hot. Work back through the radiators toward the boiler on all levels, it’ s also a good idea to check all visible pipe work and connections for damage or signs of leakage as a precautionary measure.

Another, more serious problem that may cause cool radiators, is the settling of debris and/or sludge throughout the system when water no longer flows through it during summer, this debris, which could have been accumulating for many years, may thicken and block the pipes, valves or lower portion of a radiator, stopping the water from circulating. This can only be remedied with professional assistance, as the sludge needs to be removed using specialist equipment. Read our power flushing page [here]

Condenser overflow problems

A common problem with the highly efficient condensing boiler is when water freezes in the overflow pipe as winter really bites and outside temperatures plummet, the boiler will shut down immediately this pipe freezes and normal function cannot be resumed until it has been thawed. The usual solutions are to pour warm water over the pipe or warming it with hot air, care has to be taken with both methods as hot water can crack the pipe and hot air can melt it. Of course the problem is best avoided by well insulating this pipe and eliminating the possibility of pipe freeze, a task which should be undertaken when the boiler is fitted and checked during the annual maintenance procedure.

Thick pipe insulation to the side of a home may not be aesthetically pleasing but it’ s far preferable to a freezing home in the depth of winter.

Try to avoid Winter problems

We would always recommend consumers to start using their central heating systems (even as a temporary indulgence) during early autumn, purely as a precaution so that any problems can be identified and rectified before the really cold weather really sets in. Central heating systems and gas boilers should also be maintained annually, not only to ensure that they are running at their optimum efficiency, but also to ensure their safety (a legal requirement for landlords and employers). Regular maintenance may not only help to avoid winter problems, it also helps prolong a systems life and can help to save money by ensuring efficiency and keeping running costs to a minimum.

Smoke and monoxide detection

Gas and fire can be dangerous, even in the most well maintained property there can be accidents or incidences, so the fitting of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors is essential, especially in winter when the boiler will be most used, as is their maintenance and (if not mains powered) they should have their batteries replaced annually (or even bi–annually) using a good brand of manufacturer, alkaline batteries are well capable of 12 months quiescent operation. Also check with the detector’ s literature when they are to be replaced, usually detectors should be replaced every 5 or 10 years — take no chances with safety.

Burst and leaking pipes

Not always associated with either the heating system or winter, but usually a seasonal problem, burst pipes are not only an annoyance but can be a massive property problem, aesthetically and financially as leaking water can cause damage over a vast area. Good and plentiful insulation is a must, not only in attics, cellars or beneath ground floors, but any location where pipes may be subject to outside influences, such as close proximity to a north facing wall, or in outbuildings. Even the smallest leak can cause substantial damage, as they often go unnoticed until sufficient water ingress becomes visible.

Most importantly remember that water and electricity do not make happy bed fellows, if there is any possibility that leaking water may come into contact with electricity keep clear of the area until you have turned off the electrical supply at the mains consumer unit.

The moment a leak or burst becomes evident it is important to try and shut off the supply of water to the pipe, this may mean shutting of the main stop cock, or if you’re lucky there could be an isolating valve near by. Shutting of the supply may not stop the flow of water immediately as the pipe will be full of water and the longer the run the more water there will be left to flow out. If possible place a container under the leak and wrap the burst to soak up water, if desperate it may be possible to crimp the pipe to ease the flow, but take care not to crimp in an area where it would be difficult for your plumber to later repair the pipe. There are now commercial compression wrapping products which can be used to temporarily stem the flow of water from a leak or burst, they are not particularly cheap but are extremely effective and can prove invaluable in an emergency, it may well be worth keeping some as a precaution.

Outside taps and pipes

Outside taps are most obviously prone to winter problems due to their location, but problems can be easily avoided by fitting an insulating jacket specifically designed for outside taps and insulating exposed pipes with foam insulation, a simple task which will cost only a few pounds, an insignificant sum compared to the inconvenience and expense of repairing or replacing a damaged tap. All outside taps should have some kind of isolating valve attached to them, so that the water supply can be cut for the winter and they may have a small drain valve which can be used to evacuate water from the pipe after isolation.

Also take the time to check outside and ensure that waste pipe brackets are in good order and that there is no sagging of waste pipes, which would allow standing water to freeze and block the flow of waste water. Sinks and baths could remain full of waste water and some appliances, such as older washing machines and dish washers, will continue to pump out waste water regardless of whether the pipe is clear or not, water which will end up covering the kitchen or utility room floor. Many modern appliances have special devices which halt the evacuation of waste if a blockage is detected, however the appliance will remain closed until the waste pipe has been cleared and waste water removed.