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Wise homeowners have their domestic boilers and heating systems checked regularly by a competent
heating engineer. Nonetheless, it is sensible to be familiar with the layout and terminology of the system.
This will facilitate better communication with an engineer in an emergency.
Please refer to How-to Understand your Hot and Cold Water System.
HOW-TO UNDERSTAND YOUR CENTRAL HEATING SYSTEM
• Adjustable spanner, 250mm
• Adjustable spanner, 100mm
• Square nose pliers, 150mm
• Footprint wrench, 225mm
• Pozidrive Nos 1 and 2 screwdrivers
• Flat-bladed screwdrivers, with 3mm, 6mm and
• Combination stop valve key, to fit ﬁin and ﬂin
square heads and ﬁin and ﬂin tee handles
• Radiator bleed key
In old systems, central heating is operated on the same gravity principle described in ‘Direct Hot Water’ in
How-to Understand Your Hot and Cold Water System. Not only does it require large bore pipes to handle
the flow of water, but these pipes tend to fur up with lime scale. The system is very inefficient.
Pumped open system
Water is heated by a boiler and pumped through small-bore pipes – 22mm and 15mm – to efficient radiators.
Cold water is reheated by the boiler as it is pumped round. Any minimal loss of water due to evaporation is
topped up from a feed and expansion tank. A pipe from a high point in the system allows the water to expand and
contract. If the water overheats, steam will escape into the tank.
The following tools are useful in all emergencies and are also handy for maintenance.
The boiler is also used to heat domestic hot water via a heating coil in a cylinder which may be gravity fed (F1).
In almost all modern systems, both the primary and central heating water are pumped (F2).
Sealed pressurised systems
These have no feed and expansion tank, but they do have a closed expansion vessel close to the boiler (F3).
Inside the vessel is a flexible membrane sealing off a quantity of air or nitrogen that has been pumped in to a
predetermined pressure. As water expands into the vessel, the water pressure increases. As the expansion vessel
is smaller than the tank, the design can be more flexible. It is efficient and easy to install. Only convector radiators
should be used with this system, because of a higher water temperature.
There are four fuels available for heating boilers – solid fuel (coal or wood), oil, mains gas and liquefied petroleum
gas (LPG). All have advantages and disadvantages.
It is not recommended that DIY householders install or maintain gas appliances. Do not tamper with or attempt to
alter gas appliances or flues without taking expert advice. By law, professional installers must be registered with
the Council for Registered Gas Installers (CORGI). If you do suspect a gas or water leak, shut down the boiler
and contact your gas supplier or a CORGI professional immediately. For a gas leak, shut off the valve next to the
gas meter and ventilate the house.
CONVENTI ONAL BOI LERS
These are floor standing and, depending upon design, may be fuelled by gas, oil or solid fuel, which heats water
via a heat exchanger. General reliability and long life offset their inefficiency and higher running costs. They
require a chimney or must abut an outside wall for a balanced flue.
Solid fuel boilers go out unless topped up with fuel and are maintained on a daily basis. There are two types:
hopper feed, which usually requires filling once a day (F4), and hand feed, which needs regular filling (F5).
Gas- and oil-fired boilers are easily controlled and need very little maintenance.
OI L F I RED BOI LERS
These are cheaper to run than gas-fired ones, but the maintenance costs are higher. Oil is supplied from a storage
tank, pumped or gravity fed. In order to burn, oil must either be turned into fine droplets (atomised) (F6) or turned
into gas (vaporised) (F7).
Conventional, combination and condensing boilers can all be oil fired.
COMBI NATI ON (COMBI ) BOI LERS
These may be gas- or oil-fired. They are usually wall mounted and are neat and compact. Being a pressurized
system, the pressure vessel is built into the boiler, as are the circulating pump, pressure gauge, air vent and safety
and pressure relief valves (F8). If LPG is used, it is supplied from a large permanent storage cylinder and needs
special gas jets.
Central heating water is in an enclosed pressurized system. Water for domestic hot taps is fed from the rising
main, through the boiler and directly to the hot taps, as required. No storage tanks are needed. These systems
are very suitable for flats and small houses, when water pressures are reliable. In a large house where several
people may require hot water simultaneously, the system is not recommended.
CONDENSI NG BOI LERS
These are very efficient, using less fuel than other boilers for the same heat output. Water returning from the
heating system extracts the heat from the exhaust gases, which are wasted in other boilers.
This system is available for fully-pumped open systems, pressurized systems or for combination boilers. All types
require a fan-assisted flue.
BACK BOI LERS
These may be fuelled by gas (F9), oil or solid fuel. All require an open flue (chimney), while oil and gas boilers
require a lined flue.
Coal-fired boilers (F10) only work when the front fire is lit. An electric immersion heater is required during the
EXPLANATION OF COMPONENTS IN DIAGRAMS
Overflow warning pipe (F1 and F2). This usually runs from the tank or cistern to the outside of the building. In
some cases, a WC cistern overflow pipe may discharge inside the property in such a way that the water may be
seen. The diameter of the overflow pipe is always larger than that of the supply pipe. This ensures that water will
not overflow the edges of the tank or cistern.
Drain taps may be straight or bent (F19). They may be combined with a stop-valve and all allow a system to be
drained down. A hose is attached to the nozzle or spigot and the tap opened with a small spanner or special key.
A Pressure gauge is a dial indicating the running pressure of a system in bar or foot-pounds.
The Circulating pump (F26) pumps water round the system.
F LOAT VALVES
Referred to in the past as ball-cocks, these are fitted to water storage tanks and WC cisterns to control water levels.
As the float rises with the water level, it shuts off the valve at a predetermined point. The three most commonly
used float valves are:
Portsmouth (F11). As the water level drops, the arm moves a piston away from a nozzle, allowing water to flow.
Diaphragm or Garston (also known as BRE or BRS) (F12). The water inlet nozzle is closed by the action of the
float arm pushing a plunger onto a rubber diaphragm. The filling action of this valve is gentler and quieter than the
Servo-diaphragm or Torbeck. This operates in a more sophisticated way than the Garston valve. It discharges
water into the cistern via a collapsible plastic valve. The water delivery is fast and very quiet, while the arm and
float are quite small by comparison. This valve is only for use in WC cisterns.
Less common valves are the Croydon valve (F13), now obsolete, and the Equilibrium valve (Portsmouth pattern).
Similar in pattern to the Portsmouth valve, it is designed to overcome supply problems where the water pressure
Gate or Fullway valves (F14) are used to regulate the flow of water and when fully open will permit a full-bore
flow of water without any resistance. This valve has no washers and may be inclined to dribble very slightly, even
when fully closed. This dribble will not be so much that it will disallow basic maintenance work.
Check valves (F15) have a device within them that only allows water to flow one way, thus reducing the risk of
contaminating the mains water.
Service valves (ball-fix valves) have a ball with a hole bored through it. When the ball is turned by means of a
lever or screwdriver, the water may be shut off. This allows for maintenance of taps, washing machines and so on
without having to shut off and empty a complete system.
Service valves are available as straight (F16) and 90 degree bend (F17). These valves restrict the water flow –
unlike the ball valve, which is handle operated (F18) – only require a quarter turn and do not restrict the flow of
water. They are ideal for use in conjunction with showers.
Pressure relief valves (F20). If a closed system is overfilled with water or overheats, the pressure will rise.
As a safety measure, this valve opens and allows water to escape until a safe pressure is reached.
Automatic air valves (F21) automatically purge air from the system. Air trapped in a system can stop water flow
and cause radiators to remain cold.
Motorized valves (F22) are motor-driven and controlled either by the system programmer or a room thermostat.
Most motorized valves have manual overrides for maintenance.
Lockshield valves (F23) control the flow of water through a radiator at the return end and are used to balance
the radiator within the system. After the plastic cap is removed, it is operated with a small spanner or screwdriver.
Hand-wheel valves (F24) turn a radiator on and off at the flow end.
Thermostatic radiator valves (F25) are used in some systems instead of room thermostats. The temperature of
each radiator is controlled by a thermostatic valve, which can be set to close off at any given temperature.
Stop-valves are also called stop-cocks and turn water on and off (F27). They only allow water to flow one way.
Some have a built in drain tap.
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