Millions of homeowners who were forced by John Prescott to buy expensive energy-saving boilers are now facing bills of £150 to stop them from breaking down in the cold this winter. Mr Prescott made them compulsory as a way of getting Britain to reach its CO2 targets under the Kyoto Protocol.
The £4,000 water heaters – known as condensing boilers – were hailed by Mr Prescott, when deputy leader of the Labour Party, as a green alternative to traditional ‘dirty’ boilers.
A law was passed in 2005 stating that when an old boiler is replaced, it must be with a condensing boiler.
However, last year’s freezing weather caused hundreds of thousands to break down because a pipe that carries waste water from the boilers to the house drain froze up.
More than eight million have been installed, and British Gas – which has sold almost a million of them – is now urging its customers to fit a new cold-resistant pipe.
In a letter to 46,000 customers who suffered boiler breakdowns last year, the energy giant is saying it will fit the new pipe for £149.
But their offer has been criticised by MPs and consumer groups as another instance of ‘profiteering’. They said British Gas should fit the pipes for free as the problem is a design fault and nothing to do with the customers.
Labour MP Barry Gardiner, who is a member of the Energy and Climate Committee, said: ‘This is outrageous. It is clear that British Gas has installed the product which is not working properly.
‘This is like a product recall – they must put right the defect with the product for free. You have to assume responsibility for the product.’
Charlie Mullins, managing director of Pimlico Plumbers, Britain’s largest independent plumbing company, said: ‘This is a total rip-off. It is a manufacturing fault and it should be fixed for free. British Gas have people over a barrel.’
Pensioner Ellen McGhie, 85, from Boughton, near Faversham, Kent, who received the letter from British Gas, said: ‘This is a cheek. I spent nearly £4,000 on a new boiler and it should work, even when it gets cold. It is obviously a design fault.
‘Why should I pay for a faulty product? This would not happen if I bought a new car. The last time it packed up they told me to pour boiling water over the pipes. But as they are in the loft, and I find it difficult to walk, that was impossible.’
The company is already being criticised for profiteering from its customers by hiking fuel tariffs. Last week, watchdog Ofgem said that the ‘big six’ energy suppliers – including British Gas – had increased their profit margin per customer per year from £15 in June to £125.
British Gas says it sells 130,000 condensing boilers a year, which means it would have installed almost 800,000 since the law was changed. Based on this, British Gas will charge £119 million if all its customers install the pipe, called a condensulate.
Around 1.2million Britons are fitting condensing boilers each year as they replace their old boilers.
Mr Prescott made them compulsory as a way of getting Britain to reach its CO2 targets under the Kyoto Protocol.
New Labour even introduced a ‘boiler scrappage’ scheme with homeowners offered £400 towards the cost of a new boiler.
In traditional boilers, a quarter of the heat generated vents out of the exhaust pipe in the form of hot steam and gas.
In the new boilers, a condenser claws back much of the heat, condensing the steam back into water. This increases heat efficiency to as much as 93 per cent.
Why should I pay for a faulty product? This would not happen if I bought a new car.
One by-product of the process is waste condensed water, which escapes through a pipe into the house’s external drains. But in severe cold, the pipe freezes and blocks the flow of the waste water, which shuts down the boiler.
Thousands of customers have complained about the problem.
This year, homeowners are expected to spend hundreds of pounds each with private plumbers to prevent the same type of breakdown.
Even despite the freezing pipe problem, it often does not make much economic sense to replace old boilers with the condensing type.
It is estimated that replacing an old, inefficient model with the best condensing boiler will save about £200 a year in gas bills. But with condensing boilers costing £4,000 to buy and install, it will take 20 years to pay for itself.
However condensing boilers do not last anywhere near as long as 20 years. Experts say they do not even last ten years.