Solar Water Heating

For home owners struggling with today’s spiralling energy costs, any means of trying to reduce those costs now, and in the long term, is going to be an attractive proposition.

Improving domestic insulation and adopting measures to use fossil fuel derived energy more efficiently are being embraced by many as a necessity in helping to keep their diminishing energy usage still affordable.

Alternative energy sources are being encouraged by government to help meet Britain’s pledges to reduce carbon emissions, to avoid EU sanctions for not meeting pollution reduction targets and to compliment our own declining supplies of natural gas.

Desperation is beginning to cause problems for government as home owners end up with reduced disposable incomes, older power stations reach the end of their working lives and sources and supplies of imported fuels, upon which Britain is becoming increasingly dependent, become less secure and continue to fluctuate in price due global uncertainties.

Large-scale industrialisation of renewable energy production and supply is still in its infancy and can currently, and for the foreseeable future, only supplement conventional energy production due to the weather dependent nature of supply.

Not surprisingly, it is the fuel user who carries the burden of most of the additional costs.

Small-scale renewable energy collection and utilisation is a practical consideration for home owners. Many of the inhibitory factors that make renewable energy an inefficient proposition on a large scale are reduced by capturing energy on site. Energy loss through long supply networks and the cost of maintaining those networks is not an issue for domestic installations.

Although there are a number of renewable energy collecting devices and installations available for domestic use, solar water heating has become quite popular for home owners who have a suitable property.

Solar water heating works on quite a simple concept. Energy released by the sun is transferred to a liquid medium that carries the hot-water energy into the home. It can then be transferred to the domestic hot water system via a heat exchanger or added directly to the supply.

The process simply raises the temperature of the domestic hot water and reduces the additional boiler energy requirement required to bring the hot water supply up to an acceptable temperature.

Of course, the system can be made quite elaborate. Refinements can be added to improve performance but this inevitably increases installation costs.

Away from the high-pressure sales pitch that accompanies any request for information about solar water heating, the home owner can evaluate the suitability of a system by examining the practicalities.

A home owner considering installing solar water heating panels should first take a close look at how hot water usage is managed by the occupants of the property. Are baths or showers the most frequent or greatest water consumption activities?

Would the current heating system be adaptable to the integration of a solar water heating system? A modern combi boiler installation would not be adaptable. Solar water heating might have to be a stand-alone installation.

Would a separate hot water storage cylinder be required to facilitate a heat-exchanging coil or is the current cylinder suitable for modification?

Would an under-floor heating system provide a better utilisation of the heat obtained from solar energy?

Answering these and similar questions will help to establish what benefits the installation of a solar water heating system could be expected to provide.

To operate at an optimal performance, solar water heating panels need to be securely mounted on a surface that faces approximately south at an inclination of 30 degrees. A pitched roof usually provides a suitable angle. The homeowner must also consider the weight of the installation and ensure that the roof is capable of supporting it.

It is quite feasible to locate solar water heating panels at ground level if space allows. However, it is necessary to consider pumping implications if the hot water storage cylinder is above ground level.

The installation site should provide an unshaded exposure to the sky with no objects limiting that exposure as the sun moves across the sky.

The greater the surface area of the solar water heating panel, the greater the energy collection potential. A panel with a surface area of 4 m would be expected to provide up to 60% of the hot water requirement for an average family throughout the year.

Naturally, output from the panels depends upon the time of year, but during the summer months, the output can reach 100% of hot water requirement and then reduce to below 20% in winter.

There are a number of models of solar water heating panels on the market. However, regardless of elaborate claims made about efficiency, in the UK, deviating from a standard flat plate collector or a slightly superior integral collector is unlikely to offer added advantages that warrant the extra cost.

Solar water heating systems can operate by natural circulation or with the aid of a pump. The electricity demand of the pump may need to be taken into consideration where the benefits of a solar water heating system are marginal.

There is the option of installing a PV solar panel to operate a pump. These pumps do not require mains electricity, but the purchase cost of a system can outweigh the benefit.

Hot water energy generated by a solar water heating installation can be added to the domestic hot water directly, but issues surrounding bacterial and microbial production can make this option undesirable. However, a direct supply would be suitable for under-floor heating.

Energy collected and transferred via a heat exchanger, such as an enclosed coil in a water cylinder would be a suitable alternative.

Where heat is collected by solar heating panels and circulated in a closed loop utilising heat exchangers, the system can operate using antifreeze solutions to improve conductivity and allow the system to operate during sub zero conditions.

Where water is the sole circulatory fluid, the entire solar heating panel and its dedicated system will need to be drained down in winter to prevent frost damage to the components.

Apart from any draining down and pump maintenance costs, the system requires little attention other than a periodic inspection.

With the cost of a basic solar panel hot water heating installation being between £4000 and £6000, calculating the long-term energy cost savings may indicate that the benefits are marginal. However, solar heating panels may qualify for payments under the government’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

It is important to check current guidelines in respect of the continuation of RHI and to investigate any further incentives that may become available.

Solar heating panels can provide a domestic renewable energy source to compliment domestic energy requirements. Whether they reduce energy demand and cost depends on the household’s awareness of energy issues and their ability to modify their own patterns of use.






Power Flushing

Back in the olden days, when you could get a gallon of beer, fish and chips and still have change from a farthing, and domestic central heating was something you wore, owners of institutional buildings very occasionally drained their central heating systems and replaced the emitted Guinness coloured gunk with clean water.

This might have been quite satisfactory. The diameter of the iron pipe-work probably ensured that a problematic build of internal deposits would never become an issue in the lifetime of the system.

Today things are a little different and due to the popularity of domestic central heating systems, central heating has become a necessary inclusion in almost every home.

In addition, these systems have become progressively advanced and sophisticated, and the people who use them are demanding increasing efficiency from their systems, spurred on by environmental issues and the escalating cost of energy.

Power flushing is another tool in the armoury of maintenance tasks designed to maximise the efficiency of a wet heating system, minimise the running costs and prolong the life of its components.

In a wet central heating system over time, water reacts with the internal metal components, the radiator and pipe-work to oxidise them and produce rust and other chemical deposits. Combined with this, organic and biological contaminants congregate and congeal to produce a thick, foul sludge that increases the viscosity of the water, making it harder for the pump to move it around the system. Not only does this add extra strain on the pump reducing its operational life span, it also requires extra electrical energy to operate.

Most of this sludge, having an oxidised metal component, cannot be suspended in water and so separates and sinks to the bottom of radiators, gradually building up over time and leading to the classic symptom of a radiator that only gets hot at the top.

Left unchecked, this process of sludge build up gets progressively worse resulting in a metal scale formation in pipe-work that is incredibly difficult to remove and may require re-plumbing. These contaminants often lead to considerable damage to the boiler, heat exchangers and pump.

Much of this can be prevented by power flushing.

Power flushing is a procedure carried out by a professional operator whereby the central heating side of the boiler system is flushed through by machine to remove nearly all the sludge and deposits from the system. It is possible for the D.I.Y. enthusiast to hire the equipment and do the work alone, but in general, professional, competent and experienced operators are best placed to deal with any problems that might occur.

The machine, usually operated from an external part of the property, is connected to the central heating side of the system via two points. An inlet and outlet point which will allow complete circulation of the machines chemicals around the system. In an open vented system, the header and expansion tank feed to the system may require separate cleaning.

A water and chemical solution is circulated under light pressure by the machine with the intention of breaking up and dispersing the congealed and separated sludge and flushing it into an internal tank contained on the flushing machine. This tank has a submersed magnet attachment that collects the oxidised material and larger metal fragments.

Although initially, the water and chemical circulating around the system will become quite dark coloured due to the concentration of the contaminant suspension, the objective is to operate the process until the circulating liquid has a suspension value ( T.D.S. Total Dissolved Solids) and pH as close to clean tap water as it is possible to achieve. Depending on the severity of the sludge build up this can take some time. It would be advisable to consider power flushing as a full day operation.

Once the system has been thoroughly cleaned, a proprietary inhibitor is added to the central heating system and the power-flushing machine can be disconnected.

When the central heating is restored to normal operation, there should be a noticeable difference in its effective operation. Energy efficiency can be improved by up to five percent.

After power flushing or any maintenance procedures on a wet central heating system, it is advisable to monitor the system for leaks or the need for radiator bleeding.

For old systems and pipes that have developed a severe restriction due to many years of neglect there is an alternative form of power flushing which uses a suspended abrasive powder in the flush, but this is a specialised operation.

Lime-scale build up, which can be a problem on the domestic side of the boiler system, requires alternative specialist attention.

The length of time between power flushing procedures is dependent on the boiler system, with conventional open vented systems requiring more frequent flushing. However, the regular use of, and the topping up to maintain the concentration of an inhibitor in the system can dramatically extend the period between flushing.

Power flushing should also be performed on the installation of a new boiler. Failure to do so can invalidate the new boiler warranty if subsequent boiler problems occur.

Finally, take care to ensure that any problem you are experiencing has its origins in a suspected build up of sludge. Always research the credentials of any professionals and seek additional advice before having any power flushing carried out.



Electric or Gas for Heating and Cooking?

When it comes to energy cost per kWh, gas has always been substantially cheaper than electricity for the domestic energy user. Even when the seemingly attractive tariffs of night time Economy 7 offered by electricity suppliers are taken into account, gas still offers the best value.

Gas currently offers a single tariff, regardless of when the supply is used.

In order to justify the higher daytime tariffs that accompany electricity users with Economy 7 plans, users need to use Economy 7 for at least 40% of their yearly electricity consumption. Even so, gas still has the advantage of being cheaper. In fact, electricity works out to be around three times more expensive than natural gas.

Electricity is often mistakenly perceived as being a very clean fuel and boasting a 100% efficiency. This is only true at the point of usage.

A considerable amount of electricity is produced from the burning of fossil fuels, particularly natural gas. The electricity produced then has to be supplied to the consumer, often along hundreds of miles of the National Grid network and then sub-stations. From the energy contained in the primary generating fuel to the consumption by the end user, around 70% of the energy is lost. This is a major factor that contributes to making electricity so inefficient and expensive.

Natural gas, on the other hand, requires very little pre-treatment and when distributed through gas mains networks loses none of its energy along the way.

However, energy cost alone does not necessarily make gas the best option for domestic heating and cooking. There are other variables that should be taken into account.

Natural gas is only the cheaper option where a connection to the mains gas supply is available. The use of LPG or other liquid gases, either in bulk or in re-chargeable gas bottles can work out to be much more expensive than electricity. That is of course, providing that mains electricity is available as an alternative. For those living in an isolated area, the cost of supplying either gas or electricity to a property where the mains supply connection point is some distance away can be enormous. The further the property, the more prohibitive the cost.

In the absence of any connection to either mains supply, LPG can be the only practical fuel option. Often, in these rare situations, the occupiers relish the isolation that being ‘off grid’ provides and come up with other ingenious methods of energy production and utilisation that are far more superior and cost effective than conventional sources.

For conventional central heating, natural gas from the mains supply has to be the most cost effective fuel. However, that does not mean that using gas is the most efficient way to use energy. The amount of energy used can also depend on the size of the property and the energy usage patterns and behaviours of the occupants. Heating a whole house of empty rooms by gas is going to work out to be considerably more expensive than heating one room with an electric fire.

When gas was perceived as being a cheap and abundant energy source, the tendency was to often use it with scant regard for installing energy conservation measures, such as adequate loft insulation, cavity wall insulation, room thermostats and zone heating.

That view is changing and most people now regard energy as being an expensive commodity with some forms being more expensive than others are.

With a new build property, the emphasis is placed on conserving heat and the implementation of compatible renewable energy components. These minimise gas consumption and the difference in cost between gas and electricity becomes less important.

This is particularly the case in a smaller property where the area requiring heating might not justify the expense of installing a gas wet central heating boiler and the central heating network. Central heating boilers are more expensive to purchase than an electric point of use water heater. Electric slim line heating panels can provide economical background heating quite efficiently in a small, well-insulated property.

Gas central heating boilers are expensive to purchase and have extra costs attached to them, such as maintenance, to keep them operating efficiently. Wet central heating systems need regular attention such as power flushing. The replacement of parts for gas condensing boilers can be expensive and the operating life span of these boilers is often shorter than the old, inefficient boilers they were designed to replace.

Electric heating appliances are easy to maintain and replace if necessary. They do not require specialist engineers to work on them and are not under the notification requirements of the Building Regulations.

The installation of a gas boiler and central heating system can add value and appeal to a property if it comes onto the market, whereas electrical heating appliances are not seen as particularly attractive.

Electricity, from a safety point has more to commend its usage than gas. There is no combustible fuel source and little potential for explosion. Electricity is safest when installed correctly and used with the provision of appropriate fuses and circuit breakers. There is no risk from noxious gases caused by inadequate combustion and no flues are necessary. Ventilation is not an issue for electrical appliances other than to prevent condensation. Electricity usually provides the silent operation of most heating appliances.

When it comes to cooking, it does seem to be very much a matter of preference. An electric kettle will heat water far more efficiently and quickly than a kettle on a gas ring, although not necessarily more cheaply. Gas is certainly more responsive when cooking than conventional electrical hotplates; however cooking with electrical induction appliances can be far more efficient.

A gas oven is noted for producing a better finish when baking and gas cooking appliances tend to be cheaper to purchase than their electrical counterparts are.

The list of comparatives is considerably longer. However gas is currently and likely to remain the cheapest conventional fuel that can be purchased for heating and cooking per kWh used. There are, however, many situations combined with the use of specifically designed appliances where electricity provides the only suitable power source.

No matter which energy source is utilised, its potential for efficient utilisation, and the motivation for optimising it, is likely to be the main factor in deciding which the better fuel in any given situation is.


Ground Source Heating Explained

I recently received my latest dual fuel energy bill and, quite frankly, winced at how much of my hard earned cash is being drained away to accommodate my family’s energy requirements.

Not that my family’s energy usage could be regarded as exorbitant. On the contrary, I would describe us as being fairly typical of a family who are becoming increasingly conscious of our social obligation to consider our carbon footprint and our impact upon the earth’s finite resources. We are, and in quite a satisfying way, actually embracing the green revolution. Triple glazing, generous cavity wall and loft insulation, solar heating for our hot water, ‘A’ class electrical appliances and a general awareness that we need to use energy as efficiently as possible.

And yet I suspect our greatest cost has to be heating.

Now I’ve heard that Iceland is reputed to be the largest producer of bananas in Europe, thanks to its unlimited geothermic resources. Although that is undoubtedly true, it might be regarded as misleading, as a few hundred bunches can easily outweigh Europe‘s almost non-existent production. But it also uses those geothermic resources to heat over eighty-five percent of its homes. As we in the U.K. are not fortunate enough to live in a region of the same level of seismic activity; we are unable to access such a valuable source of energy.

Or so I thought.

Surprisingly this is not the case. Below our feet, the ground manages to maintain a fairly constant temperature of ten to sixteen degrees C throughout the year. This, of course, is dependent upon the local soil and geology. Yet the upper ten metres of my garden could supplement my energy requirements simply by tapping into this renewable and free resource.

The principle works on a system not dissimilar to refrigerator, although the objective is to reverse the process.

The most common and cheapest installation is an indirect circulation system where a high-density polythene pipe is buried below ground and filled with an antifreeze and water mixture. The pipe work is laid in an extensive horizontal closed loop and the fluid is pumped around this external system and heat absorbed from the ground is collected by a heat exchanger containing a refrigerant.  A separate heat pump then concentrates the heat taken from the ground and circulates it through the house to fixed space heaters or, better still, an under floor heating installation, and this heat can even supplement the solar hot water system.

The temperature output of the system has the potential to deliver up to fifty degrees centigrade although this is dependent on the ground temperature.

Fair enough, the pumps are electrically driven and the initial outlay costs are significant, but the system has the advantages of low maintenance costs, typically a yearly check by the owner and a professional check every five years or so by a qualified engineer, usually on a contract. But once installed the system is hidden below ground away from the eyes of vandals and regarded as ‘fit and forget’ technology.

The system has a life expectancy of around fifty years. The larger the underground loop, the greater the efficiency the system, typically providing up to ten kilowatts. But for people with a somewhat limited access to land, a vertical borehole may provide a practical solution. There is also a system based on a coil that is laid into a trench. The output from a five-metre coil would be around half a kilowatt.

The cost of installation of a system is currently around fifteen thousand pounds although this is dependent on the system. There are a number of professional installers although I suspect that the installation would not produce insurmountable problems for the do-it-yourself enthusiast. The requirements for planning permission are a little vague and would-be installers are advised to check with their local councils before embarking upon installation. It is also worth those interested in ground source heating projects to research the U.K. Government’s Renewable Heat Incentives for further information and advice.

For those seeking the services of a qualified installer, an extensive list and further advice can be obtained from the Ground Source Heat Pump Association.

It should be stressed that this potential heating source can only be fully exploited by those who have already installed considerable modifications to their properties in respect of supplementary energy conservation measures. But as an addition to these energy saving devices, ground source heating will provide an efficient, cost effective, energy bill reducing solution.


Do You Need a New Boiler?

It may be that the gas engineers have broken the news. Calmly and with a sensitive and compassionate tone, they’ve gently informed you that your faithful, reliable and dependable old boiler has a terminal condition. Spare parts are no longer available and your old friend has been classified as obsolete.

Worse still, you find that you have just had a gas safe inspection and the engineer has disconnected your boiler and slapped an ID (immediately dangerous) notification on the appliance.

It could be that you have noticed your heating bills are considerably higher than friends and neighbours who have much newer boilers and modern thermostatic controls.

Maybe you have peered into your gas boiler and wondered just how much that pilot light is costing to run continuously.

Alternatively, perhaps that old boiler is just costing more than you are prepared to pay in call-out charges and bills for constant and inconvenient breakdowns and repairs.

In all possibility, you will know when the time has come to consider installing a new boiler.

A new boiler can be an expensive outlay, but it could save you money in the long run. With around sixty percent of an energy bill being allocated to boiler consumption a new boiler could almost halve that cost.

Whether you can afford one or not might be another matter. However, there are government schemes available for people on low incomes. For others, the government’s Green Deal initiative might be an alternative.

Whatever your circumstances, choosing a new boiler requires careful forethought to ensure that what amounts to a considerable financial outlay actually provides the improvements and benefits that a new installation claims to deliver. With a new gas boiler costing around £2500 it is important to investigate all the facts before committing yourself to an upgrade, particularly if you are considering finance from a secondary source.

One of the main issues to take into consideration is how long a new boiler will take to pay for itself. It can take a considerable time before a new boiler has recouped enough in energy savings to recover the purchase and installation costs, particularly where secondary finance agreements are a commitment. It is also worth bearing in mind that finance agreements can, in some poorly considered cases, exceed the life expectancy of the appliance.

It should also be borne in mind that new gas boiler installations must by law, almost without exception, be condensing boilers. Although these boilers are extremely energy efficient, their life expectancy or extended periods of continuous durability is marginally less than might have been expected from their somewhat primitive but functional forerunners.

Facts and figures abound about the potential energy saving benefits of installing a new boiler. Calculations based on the energy efficiency of an older boiler in comparison to a new one tend to be more of a very basic guide rather than a clear indication of expectation. As always, there are too many unpredictable factors that can influence energy costs and the period needed to recover the investment costs. Broadly speaking, an investor might find it hard to ever recover the cost by virtue of new boiler efficiency alone. Some calculations put the replacement of an old boiler rating 75% + efficiency compared to a new boiler taking up to 23 years to recoup the outlay. Whether you or your new boiler will still be functioning after that period is a matter for optimists.

What is clear with a new boiler is that it will save money on your future gas bills. Your home will benefit from the current latest thermostatic technology and in the short term, your new boiler will very likely be much more reliable than the appliance it replaced. Your home will probably be a warmer and more welcoming place. The faint lingering odour of an older gas appliance will have gone, along with some of the strange noises that often indicated an old boiler’s operation.

You may feel somewhat elated that you and your household have taken measures to reduce your carbon footprint and will probably be motivated to continue adding improvements to your home to improve its energy efficiency and reduce your energy bills.

You could also discover that the installation of a new boiler actually adds value to your home should you decide to sell it within a reasonable period after having it installed.

However, take care if you have entered into the government’s Green Deal initiative whereby any finance for eligible efficiency improvements is recouped via future energy charges. These charges are inherited by successive inhabitants of the property, and as such may be a disincentive to a prospective purchaser. You could of course settle any outstanding finance and disguise the cost within the property purchase price.

Finally, just because you may be considering home improvement measures, you do not necessarily have to replace a perfectly good boiler. It may be feasible to simply reallocate an existing boiler to somewhere less conspicuous and make improvements to existing central heating systems and radiators. The installation of new and sophisticated thermostatic and programmable control devices can also considerably improve an existing system.

If you do decide that you need a new boiler, try to view existing installations and get their owner’s feedback, compare prices and costs and beware of pressure selling and unrealistic claims often made by major energy suppliers or their agents.

The Causes of Low Water Pressure.

For some people low water pressure or a loss of mains water completely, can be nothing more than a temporary inconvenience, particularly if it results from a water service provider’s routine maintenance of the mains supply network.

If this is the case, then the householder may have been fortunate to receive the courtesy of advanced notification from the provider.

On the other hand, a sudden interruption to supply might be the result of a burst water pipe or other unpredictable system failure, hopefully before leaving the main supply pipe and the responsibility of the water provider.

Low water pressure issues that cannot be attributed to the fault of the provider can be caused by numerous problems.

Low pressure can sometimes be an issue where neighbours share a supply pipe from the mains. In these cases pressure may seem to fluctuate at regular times throughout the day. Increased demand on the water supply will also reduce available pressure and this can often be noticed in summer when other residents reduce pressure in the supply pipe whilst watering their gardens.

When a water provider has determined that the pressure at the mains boundary is sufficient, the capacity or internal diameter of the supply pipe may be a problem.

Where a pressure or flow and capacity issue arises on a shared supply pipe, the owners of the properties that the pipe supplies are jointly responsible for the pipe’s maintenance.

When investigating water pressure issues within the home, a first consideration should be the extent or limitation of the problem. The problem may be restricted to an individual appliance or to an entire system’s function.

A water filter on the inlet valve of a boiler may be blocked and could need cleaning and likewise, a slow running tap may have the same problem on the outlet filter, if installed.

Shower-heads can become blocked with lime-scale, seriously impeding flow or preventing operation altogether. These require regular cleaning or entire replacement.

Where there appears to be a drop in water pressure throughout the entire domestic water supply of a property, a leak in the pipe-work may be the cause of the problem. Apart from the obvious visual evidence of leaking pipes inside the home, leaks can occur both internally and externally that might not be quite so conspicuous.

If you are fortunate to have a water meter installed it can be worth turning off all the water utilising appliances and taps and taking a reading from the meter. If, after a few hours with no domestic water consumption, a further reading of the meter shows an increased unit usage, then a leak in the domestic system could be the problem. Externally, a leak in the pipe-work below ground will usually show up as a wet patch, particularly on a dry day.

Sometimes a leak in a pipe will be heard and identified by the hissing sound of escaping water under pressure.

Over time, pipe-work supplying the water from the mains can become restricted or completely blocked by accumulating deposits. This is a particular problem with old galvanised pipe-work. Replacing this pipe-work with copper is the best solution.

In some old properties, lead pipe-work may still be installed. This can be identified by gently scratching the exposed pipe. The resulting scratch mark will be silver in colour. Lead pipe-work is quite soft and susceptible to accidental crushing and bending which can restrict flow rate and pressure within the damaged pipe.

At the point where a water meter is installed, or where the water supply enters the property it usual to find a stop valve. Sometimes, particularly when plumbing has occurred within the property, this valve is turned off and then on completion of the work, is
not turned back on fully.

Occasionally, and particularly following provider maintenance work, air and debris can accumulate behind this valve and restrict or prevent flow. Turning on a tap within the property and then turning the stop valve on and off a few times should resolve the problem. If an airlock has been a problem, the water will splutter out of the tap and then normal water pressure should be restored.

In some cases, and particularly where a new occupant has moved into a property, those occupants may become aware of a water pressure difference between their old and the new property. A reduction in water pressure is likely to be noticed where the new property is on a hill or where a supply pipe facilitates the water requirements of numerous homes.

Many new appliances require a minimum operational water pressures and a householder is well advised to ensure that the water supply to the property is capable of meeting the appliance’s requirements. Some appliances will fail to operate without a minimum pressure for safety reasons, for example shower units and boilers.

Water service providers aim to supply a water pressure of 1 bar at the mains boundary. If for some reason the home-owner is unable to obtain the minimum pressure required by appliances, the installation of an accumulator water tank may provide a solution. These cylinders store a supply of water imparting and maintaining a suitable pressure, which can supply appliances where low-pressure issues would prevent operation.

Where a provider affects a householder’s mains supply by delivering a low water pressure below 0.7 bars, and lasting for over one hour on two or more occasions within 28 days of each other, the householder may be able to claim compensation from their provider. However, planned maintenance and emergency work on the mains network are excluded from this provision.

Replacing lead pipes.


If you happen to live in an older property, you will probably notice that the water plumbing system has been frequently modernised and updated using whatever materials were available and popular at the time. Copper, galvanised steel, cast iron, gunmetal, lead and plastic.

In the past, lead was a very popular plumbing material due to its malleability and anti corrosion properties.

However, when old pipes were replaced, the main inlet supply leading up to the domestic stopcock will probably have remained unaltered, due to the added expense of excavating and removing the old pipe-work. Consequently, in houses built prior to the 1970’s, this pipe is likely to be lead.

Concerns about lead leaching from pipe-work into the mains water supply, and the potential for concentrations of lead to exceed safety levels, meant that all houses built after 1970 were prohibited from using lead and lead based solders in their plumbing.

It is impossible to taste, smell or see lead dissolved in water.

To establish whether an old lead pipe supplies your property, locate the mains water stopcock and look at the pipe immediately below and connected to it.

Modern plumbing will be evident by the use of a 25 mm MDPE blue coloured pipe. Older pipes may be made from iron or galvanised steel.

Lead is often identified by its dull, grey colour. If you suspect that your mains supply pipe is lead, scrape it with a coin or sharp instrument. If it is lead, the exposed metal will be of a bright, silver appearance.

If you discover that you have a lead mains water inlet pipe it is important to consider very carefully whether it poses a significant health risk prior to panicking and undertaken costly removal and replacement measures.

If you are concerned about the implications of having a lead water pipe connection, it might be wise to ask either your water supplier or an independent company to test your mains water for lead content. Often the lead traces are negligible and well within accepted safety levels.

This might be because you live in a hard water area. Hard water coats lead pipes with lime scale over time. This coating acts as a barrier preventing lead from leaching into the water supply.

Even soft water will still give lead measurements well below any level of concern.

It is worth remembering that lead in water supplies is more likely to be an issue of concern for households where children or newborn babies are present. This is because children are more at risk due to their size in relation to the amounts of potential lead absorption from affected water supplies.

The main problem in relation to lead and the ingestion of affected water by children and adults is that nobody can quite assess the possible long term affects of drinking water supplied by the alternative, MDPE, and other permitted replacement materials. Concerns have already been raised about the possible leaching of carcinogenic compounds from such materials. As these plumbing materials are relatively new, having only being utilised for the last 30 years or so, the long-term effects of water contact on the durability and material stability of these products are unknown.

Although it might seem wasteful, adopting the practice of running the cold tap for a short period will allow any water that has been held within the pipe-work to pass through the domestic system. This will remove any lead or other suspicious residues. This would seem to be quite an essential operation and a general precaution to take in any situation when water has been left standing in the system for several hours, or even days, or if the property has been unoccupied. To make the operation more ethical, the drained water can be collected and used for grey water purposes such as watering the garden.

It is also important, regardless of whichever material is used in the pipe-work supplying the property, to only drink water from the cold mains supply. Heating and storing domestic hot water supplies increases the concentrations of metals such as copper and lead dissolved into the water.

Where it is decided that the lead pipe should be removed it is a good idea to contact the water supply company before embarking on the project. They can supply valuable information about the processes involved and how to comply with regulations. These regulations are contained within the Water Supply (Water Fittings) Regulations 1999.

There are certain situations where the water company may not be able to connect a new water pipe installation to its supply pipe. The Street Works Act 1991 may prevent the water supplier from digging up a pavement or road that has been re-surfaced in the previous 3 – 5 years.

Where the water supplier confirms that it is able to connect a replacement to a lead pipe supply to its mains, the homeowners can either undertake the work either completely or partially themselves.

Once the mains supply is turned off at the suppliers’ valve, the work of removing the old pipe-work can commence. Some homeowners reduce the overall cost by digging the trenches and removing the lead pipes and then getting a plumber to install the new pipe work.

If the plumber is WIAPS registered, a certificate of competency regarding compliance with the water regulations can be provided for the water supplier.

An unregistered plumber will have to have his work inspected to ensure that it complies with the regulations. The water company will not reconnect the water supply in the absence of this certificate.

Most water companies will re-connect the water supply within 6 weeks of receipt of the certificate. Some water suppliers will charge a connection fee.

The cost of replacing the lead or iron supply pipe has to be met by the homeowner up to the point of connection at the boundary.

Where a communication pipe supplies a number of homes, all the homeowners are jointly responsible for its maintenance.

As always, each water provider has their own policy with regard to replacing lead pipes and their involvement and advice must be undertaken. Local councils may also have schemes that can help with the funding required to replace lead pipes.

It is important that other homeowners are consulted where pipe-work runs under their individual property boundaries prior to undertaking any work.

It is fair to say that it is not always a practical or necessary requirement to remove and replace existing lead pipes. A careful and considered approach will ensure that a homeowner alters the existing supply only where necessary. In some cases, the decision to remove old lead and iron pipes is taken for alternative reasons, such as the lack of capacity in old, corroded and restricted pipe-work for supplying modern plumbing requirements.

However, in keeping water contamination issues in context, the quality of water delivered to consumers through any pipe-work currently installed in UK households is very good.