Fake flues driving home a maintenance message

boilers, space heating, DHW, Commercial Flue Cleaning & Maintenance Services, A1 Flue Systems, flue, biomass
Boilers and flues as a double act — John Hamnett.

The rise in cases of sub-standard or fake flues is bringing the issue of maintenance to the fore in the perennial discussion about ensuring the optimum performance and long-term reliability of boilers, according to John Hamnett of Commercial Flue Cleaning & Maintenance Services

When we were approached by the BBC about getting involved in the making of a programme about fake products, we knew that the issue of substandard flues had reached a critical mass. It’s a problem that has blighted our industry for years, but for it to get to a point where the BBC was considering including it in a TV programme warning members of the public about a range of counterfeit goods, that’s serious.

To go off on a tangent for a moment, we thought that the mandatory introduction of the CE Mark in 2013 would resolve the problem once and for all because manufacturers had to adhere to new EU rules that applied to flues, stoves, radiators, fans and other HVAC products.

But, in reality, it has only divided the industry into what we call the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good is obvious. They are the flue firms like us which jumped through all the hoops to achieve the accreditation — from day one, I might add. In hindsight, it was a laborious but relatively easy process because, in truth, we were operating to higher standards than those set out before the CE Mark was introduced.

The ugly are the tin bashers who knock out rogue bits of flue on a ‘no names, no pack-drill’ basis. Sadly, there will always be this section of the market, but all the indications suggest that these guys are become fewer and more marginalised.

The bad are the worst because they think they’re doing the right thing. Their flues and their paperwork appear to be compliant but, sadly, neither stand up to the scrutiny or rigours of prolonged, fully operational use with boilers and CHP units.

The reason for mentioning fake flues is because it’s actually a back-handed compliment about the increase in the recognition that the maintenance of flues is equally as important as the regular servicing of boiler systems.

We have long banged the drum about the maintenance of flue systems. For a long while, it fell on deaf ears because, after all, flue systems are only a system of stainless-steel tubes that carry omission gases away from boiler systems. But slowly but surely the message is hitting home about inspecting flue systems at the same time as servicing boilers. Don’t get me wrong — there is still a long way to go, but it is encouraging.

Some do it because it is now written into the terms and conditions of CHP management. Some have had to learn the hard, way, and a small few know their way around regulations such as the British Standards.

Did you know that there is a British Standard on the inspection and maintenance of steel chimneys?

Appendix A of British Standard 4076:1989 says: ‘For lined and insulated chimneys it is advisable to carry out an examination as above at three-yearly intervals subsequent to the first examination. Lined chimneys should also be inspected internally by close examination from a bosun’s chair, or similar means of support, to ascertain that the lining is still in serviceable condition and fulfilling its task.’ That advice is in A.6 Appendix A, page 16 of the British Standard Specification for Steel Chimneys BS 4076:1989.

As I have already mentioned, there are those who have learned the hard way about maintenance. In a lot of those cases, the culprit has been a biomass boiler.

Heralded by many as a near-maintenance-free solution for schools and other municipal buildings, biomass boilers soon started running into trouble, largely because of the fuel they were burning.

Deposits of fly ash are created as a result of burning wood chips. At best, this build-up can quickly reduce the nominal bore of the internal diameter. In some cases, it can totally block the flue.

If the wood chip gets damp for any reason, the burning process creates a tar that can condense inside the flue, creating a form of creosote that corrodes the joints of the flue system.

Blocked flues and corroding joints will, at best, lead to situations where appliances break down, causing obvious issues of no heating or no hot water. In worst-case scenarios, the situation can be dangerous — with flue gas leaking anywhere inside a building because of blockages in the system forcing gases to escape.

Some would argue that biomass boilers should be featured on BBC TV’s ‘Watchdog’ because of their propensity to break down. Sometimes bad publicity is as influential as good publicity if it raises awareness of a more fundamental point, such as boiler and flue performance going hand in hand. And so should their maintenance and servicing.

John Hamnett is a director of Commercial Flue Cleaning & Maintenance Services Ltd (CFCM), which is a subsidiary of A1 Flue Systems Ltd.

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