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Removing an Old Back Boiler

what are back boilers

One of the things we were most excited about when we purchased this house was having central heating! We'd spent three years living with single glazed windows and terrible electric storage heaters (which we simply couldn't afford to run!). When we had seen 'Part Central Heated' and 'Double Glazed' listed on the specs for this house, we couldn't believe it. We could easily add a few extra radiators and make it fully central heated! We were finally going up in the world of luxuries!

Or so we thought. The day we actually moved in, it suddenly dawned on me: where the heck was the boiler? Sure, there were a few radiators, but where was the boiler? We walked around the house completely baffled and then Grant pointed at humongous fireplace in the dining room and said "that must be it". Was he for real? That's a fire, surely?

1970s glow worm back boiler

Call be naive and young, but I had never heard of anything called a 'back boiler'. But that's exactly what we had. It's basically a giant gas fireplace out of the 70s (literally) with a box of water concealed within it and a flue that runs through the chimney. Voila, a boiler.

Doesn't sound that bad right? It was slightly unusual, but maybe we could replace the 70s fireplace bit and keep the boiler? No. It's the whole package or nothing at all. You know those energy rating scales, the ones when you buy a new appliance and it boasts at being A-rated? Or when you buy a house and it's D-rated but with the potential to become a C? Well, this old thing is so un-energy efficient that it's completely off the scale! Yes I'm not joking, there isn't even a letter to grade back boilers, that's how terrible they are. As it produces heat, it then loses most of it through the chimney. It also has a pilot light that's constantly lit, which means there's always gas running to this thing. Seriously, if you could see the bills the previous owner of this house was paying, you would have nightmares.

retro back boiler from the 70s

Oh and to top it all off, back boilers are notorious for producing carbon monoxide. Well, I'd heard and read enough - we shut the whole thing down weeks within moving in and our dreams of having central heating quickly vanished. We looked into getting a new boiler, which can only be done by getting a whole new system. But the cost was just more than we could afford - which we already knew, as we couldn't afford to have a system put into our old house either. Not to mention this house was infinitely bigger! A year ago there was still one brand that made back boilers, (a far more economical version mind) but they weren't very pretty and you can't change how the fireplace looks, it's a whole package and it just wasn't the look we were after. Having researched to add a link for this back boiler, it now appears they have also been discontinued, so back boilers seem to be forever gone. Hooray!

changing a back boiler

So, we wont be having gas central heating - but we will be doing something with this chimney to produce some heat, albeit only in this room. We're having a log burner! It's much cheaper than a boiler and if you've read my previous post on electric radiators, you'll know we'll be adding some of them throughout the house too. So we do have some plans for heat, although yes, they're not very conventional! I should mention, that you can get log burners with back boilers to heat radiators - but again, this was far too costly for us.

With our recent new cooker installation, we had the gas guy disconnect all other gas pipes which means we could finally safely remove this old monstrosity and move forward with things to get ourselves some heat (even if it is now summer!).

how to remove a back boiler
removing a gas fire

Can you believe that entire frontage was to conceal this tiny little gas appliance? Bonkers! The front popped off pretty easily and then we used a masonry chisel to remove the terrible 70s brickwork, which felt so unbelievably relieving and even made the room feel bigger! There was also quite a bit of fibreglass stuffed behind the fireplace, which despite being horrible stuff, we were quite relieved to find as we did have some worries that there was the possibility we would come across asbestos insulation instead. Luckily, we did not! Fibreglass we can deal with.

removing 70s brickwork
removing bricks around a fire
removing a 70s gas fire

With a bit of force, we cut the pipes to the actual fire and yanked it out to reveal... The boiler....

old back boiler

And here he is. A genuine piece of the 1970s height of technology. Is he incredible or what?! It was almost a shame to remove him. He's almost robotic in appearance. Personally, I find him more attractive than that 70s fire frontage!

It looks nothing like a boiler, but works in pretty much the same way. The two pipes going into the boiler on the left, go through the side of the chimney and upwards to the airing cupboard. One goes to a separate central heating, which feeds the boiler and the other goes into the immersion tank which is heated by the boiler for hot water. Then, on the right (you can't quite see them) the pipes go out of the boiler, all heated to the radiators. We already had the tank drained from removing a radiator, which I think is probably the quickest way to do it (just make sure you close any valves in the airing cupboard too!) so we could simply cut through the pipes with a saw to release him from his chimney prison without too much water going everywhere. I had read that it would turn our dining room into something like a pond, but luckily it did not. A lot of our radiator pipes are in the basement (including the one we drained from) so I think that also helped as they're obviously lower than the boiler.

1970s glow worm back boiler how to remove

He did however weigh a freaking ton, so Grant had to take him apart bit by bit so we could actually lift him out together.

removing a back boiler

And then after everything had been removed, we were just left with some very questionable brickwork inside the chimney, a massive amount of soot and a chimney liner. The brickwork is so dodgy it's unreal. For starters, they'd used the 70s decorative brick instead of actual bricks, which had been built up in two pillars either side of the boiler to hold up the chimney. That in itself is questionable, even if they had used the right bricks. But then even more questionable was the fact that they'd used plaster as the mortar in-between these bricks. Oh and then they'd stuffed a load of rubble in the back, again in amongst plaster as if it's simply been poured in there by the bucket load.

chimney liner and soot from back boiler

So it was pretty apparent these gas men of the 70s were not builders and had left us with a now, much bigger job to fix. But the boiler is out and we're getting somewhere! If you don't mind getting very sooty and having to use some muscles, this is definitely a job you can do yourself, providing the gas  supply has been safely cut off and you're not too unfamiliar with plumbing and capping pipes. We did get some quotes for having this removed at the same time as the cooker being installed and quotes for this alone were in the region of £300(!!!).

We haven't removed the central heating tank in the airing cupboard yet or finished removing all the other pipework, but I still don't think £300 is a suitable figure to pay someone to do this job when you can totally do it yourselves. It's one of those jobs that has to look worse before it looks better, but progress is progress. It took us a full day to remove and really wasn't that complex. We've capped any pipes that we had cut and may continue to seep out water, which also means we can turn any valves back on and continue to use our immersion tank. In the long term, we will need to completely remove all radiators and disconnect the two pipes in the airing cupboard as well as remove the central heating tank, which is probably going to be a bit more complex. But for now though, the capped pipes are fine.

back boiler removed yourself

I'll be sharing the progress of rebuilding this chimney and getting it log burner ready in another post, so watch this space for that soon!

Have you ever removed a back boiler? Was it easy enough for you?

9 comments

  1. That looks like a mega messy job - but the log burner will sooooooo be worth it!

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    1. Ridiculously messy! The smell of soot lingered for days, ugh!

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  2. We've been gradually doing up our Victorian terrace and although it was expensive, I've never regretted spending on our log burner. It's been worth every penny. Every autumn, I love getting the wood stacked and then love the cosiness it creates all winter. I like that if money's tight, we just use that as the wood is already here and paid for rather than turning on the heating. My top tips are to clean your screen with a bit of damp newspaper dipped in ash which you can then burn, it works better than any cleaners and doesn't cost. And to experiment with wood suppliers. We have to barrow our wood round the back of our house through an access alley and we found a supplier that has a mini crane arm on the back of their truck so they can just lift a bag over. This is soooo much easier than the first supplier who tipped it loose all over the pavement/road outside our front and then we had to frantically clear it!

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    1. Wow, they tipped it all over the pavement? How considerate of them! I'll definitely experiment with suppliers and if we can find one with a crane that would be so much handier! Our house is pretty much directly on the road (albeit a very quiet one) but there's not even a pavement, so we always have to remove deliveries sharpish. I moved about a tonne of tiles the other week, I don't fancy moving a giant bag of logs in quick speed as well!

      I'd actually been looking online for cleaners as well, so I shall definitely try your newspaper tip that instead first! Thanks for the tips - I'm slightly excited for winter to begin and get the log burner running! Hopefully it'll be worth it!

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  3. Omg. I am so feeling your pain. Whilst we don't have a backburner this year has seen us rip out a gas fire (with similar faux brick surround) which was our only source of heat. We are in the process of creating a new fireplace and also have the shocking patterned carpet and have just spent almost a fortnight fixing the ceiling after the removal of the horrible polystyrene ceiling tiles. Man the 70's did us both over bad. Shall be following your blog keenly. :)

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  4. Omg. I am so feeling your pain. Whilst we don't have a backburner this year has seen us rip out a gas fire (with similar faux brick surround) which was our only source of heat. We are in the process of creating a new fireplace and also have the shocking patterned carpet and have just spent almost a fortnight fixing the ceiling after the removal of the horrible polystyrene ceiling tiles. Man the 70's did us both over bad. Shall be following your blog keenly. :)

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    1. Oh no, sounds like another 70s time-warp! What were they thinking?! I mean, floral carpets and oversized faux fireplaces are one thing.. But polystyrene ceiling tiles? I just don't get it! How could that ever have been desirable? Good luck with your renovations! If you're an Instagram addict, there's a whole community of home renovators on there sharing photos and updates - I totally recommend for inspiration, advice and somewhere to moan about the woes of renovation with people who can totally relate! X

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  5. Be careful with capped pipes behind a log burner if as heat can cause expansion of the water inside(or air if drained) and if no provision for expansion then could cause an unsafe pressure in pipework and anything attached to them. Especially as a log burner is relentless with no thermostatic control

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    1. Yes, you're absolutely right! I read lots of articles regarding this, particularly with people having left the water boxes of a back-boiler in a chimney opening and then having a log burner fitted. Our pipes are capped WELL away from the burner - Although I said they're "on the other side" of the chimney; our chimney actually has a random extension to the side (no clue why!) with about a 30cm hollow void in between. It's on the other side of this and capped close to the ceiling. Far far away from any heat I can assure you :) But you're absolutely right, it can be a real dangerous DIY if not considered!

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