Weighing It Up
In all probability, the £80 figure is almost certainly far too optimistic, and the real saving, if any, is more likely to be something like £40 a year. With that in mind, let’s now consider the process of installing that new boiler system, to see what the costs might be. Of course, the system could just mean the boiler unit on its own, but, when energy-saving figures are being quoted, it usually includes radiators and thermostats as well.
Two engineers head over in their van, brandishing the new boiler and all its accessories. They decouple the gas supply, drain the system, disconnect the pipes and set to work removing the old boiler. To fix the new one they may have to do some plumbing to modify the pipe runs, and will have to find a way of securing the whole assembly on the wall, but eventually they will get it all done and can start sealing everything up and doing the safety checks.
All in all, the labour and new assembly is going to cost around £1,500, or considerably more if the ‘inefficient’ radiators are also being replaced. But even if the cost only amounts to £1500, it will still take over 37 years of £40 savings to balance the installation expense.
Of course, these days, things aren’t built to last in the way that they once were, so there is no guarantee that the new boiler will last as long as the new one, and in all probability it won’t. It certainly won’t last 37 years. In that time several more ‘very efficient’ boilers will have come and gone, each with its own purchase and instillation cost. It might be the case that wastage of new boilers will be far greater than those sturdy old ones which just plodded on for decades requiring nothing more than a little routine maintenance.
Environmentalists might still look at the £40 as a worthwhile saving, as it represents less gas usage, which should add up to a considerable environmental saving if applied to large numbers of households. That is certainly what the boiler sellers like us to think, but once again, the issue is far more complex.
Environmentalists and boiler manufacturers might argue that any gas usage reduction is good, even if it is £40, because it means that the Earth’s resources are being saved and carbon emissions lowered. At least as far as the gas throughput of each house goes, this assertion might be true, but in order to achieve a reduction, there will be an increase in consumption elsewhere in the production chain.
Let’s start with the parts. The boiler assembly contains many pipes, a water pump, water tank, the burner and a heat exchange chamber of some kind, probably using special insulation, depending on the design. There has to be an exhaust flue, electrical and monitoring system, internal and external mounting brackets, a frame, and finally all the pressed and painted metalwork which make up the outer casing.
All of the above components are joined with bolts, screws, solder joints, rubber and nylon bushes and expansion joints. All in all, there are quite possibly hundreds of items on the parts list, and every one will have had to have been manufactured somewhere. Anything which is not an off-the-shelf component, so to speak, will require the design and manufacture of steel a mould, which itself will be formed in another factory.
All in all, thousands of machines, consuming electricity and oil will be called into action to make the parts for even the most rudimentary boiler.
Then there are the raw materials to consider. Every metal component is made from materials which have to be dug out of the ground in some industrial mining operation, and that includes the mouldings and machines that have been made to help form the boiler parts. If millions of home owners are pressed into buying new boilers, the resources used up to provide the hardware will be vast.
But still that is not all, for there is the matter of the old boiler and radiators. Assuming their precious parts are not going to end up dumped in landfill sites, they will need to be recycled before the material are ready for action again. In this process they have to be transported, disassembled, sorted, cleaned, melted and so on, all of which involves yet more machines and produces quite a lot of waste, in terms of polluted water and chemicals (paints and grease has to be removed somehow) not mention the fuel usage of the equipment used to do that.
As for manufacture, in all probability it will take place in a country where environmental standards are not so high.
Take a look at the short story The Tip, elsewhere on the Polymath Perspective web site to get a better idea of the interconnectedness of industrial processes.