Werewolves – and Boilers – of London

1978 was one of those milestone years: Senior prom, high school graduation, one last summer working for the old man and then off to college.  Musically, ’78 was a mixed bag, with the Bee Gees, Andy Gibb and The Village People topping the charts.

But on the plus side, ’78 featured the Stones hitting #1 with Miss You, The Cars debut album, Ian Dury & The Blockheads and one of my favorites from one of my favorites..

Some pretty good stuff from some classic rockers in ’78 (although in ’78, they weren’t considered classic rockers just yet, and admit it, you’ve never heard of Ian Dury and The Blockheads). Unfortunately, 1978 also gave us “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” from Rod Stewart.

Just sayin….

Zevon’s classic received some accolades in 2004, when BBC Radio 2 declared the opening line of Werewolves of London the greatest ever.  Didn’t even know where was a contest for that.

And speaking of contests, what’s the oldest boiler you ever worked on?

I remember working on some old American Standard Arcoliners from the 40’s my Dad and uncle installed, and I remember looking at, but not daring to touch, an old asbestos-coated gravity behemoth from the 20’s.  There’s something awe-inspiring about an 90-year-old hunk of cast iron with a burner that’s still cranking out the BTU’s.

Makes me want to hang on to my 2004 Mini-van for a couple of more years, at least.

In our recent podcast (click here to listen), Dan Holohan (www.heatinghelp.com) talked of a contest searching for the oldest boiler in the United Kingdom.  “I thought this was going to be great, because you look at how old England is, and how old Scotland and Wales are.  They’re going to come up with a boiler that’s absolutely ancient.”

And how old was the oldest boiler in the UK?

“32 years old,” says Dan.  “They were marveling that this boiler was as old as the marriage of the old couple that owned it.  Can you imagine a boiler that’s 32 years old, and how astonishing this is?

“I got underwear that old!”

So do I.

A Google-search on the UK’s oldest boiler brought this headline:

Search for UK’s Oldest Boiler Finds 32-Year-Old Relic

Relic? What in the name of Monty Python’s Flying Circus is going on here?

The oldest boiler in Merry Olde England is 32 years old?  That means it was installed in 1978, the year Andy Boyce, Louise St. John, James Yates and I all graduated high school.

England may swing like a pendulum do, and the British may live in houses dating back to the Boer Wars, heck even the War of the Roses. But if the boiler is older than Animal House, The World According to Garp or Ashton Kutcher, it’s a goner.

Earlier this year the UK announced something called the Boiler Scrappage Scheme (leave it to the British to make a government program to upgrade boilers sound like a scandal).   It was a plan to encourage homeowners to upgrade their old boilers to new, high efficiency condensing boilers, sorta like the tax credits and utility rebates provided by the Stimulus Package on this side of the pond.

The “scheme” issued 125,000 vouchers in England alone, worth £400 (400 Pounds = $630.47) to offset the replacement cost (Government stats say the average replacement cost is around £2,460, or roughly $3,900.00).  It took less than 2 months to run out of vouchers.  In Scotland, all 4,600 available vouchers were given out in just two days.  Homeowners were told they could expect to save up to £235 ($370.00) annually with a new boiler.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a government “scheme” without some sort of controversy.  Apparently, the big energy suppliers that offered boiler installations often charged up to ⅓ more for the job than independent contractors.  In typically British phraseology, the press said that controlling prices under a scheme “designed to incentivize the move towards energy efficiency by reducing costs would seem cynical to the extreme.”

Well, it was a scheme, after all…

Post script: Upon further review, that 32 year old boiler was, relatively speaking, just a pup, a mere babe in the woods compared to what was found in Billericay, Essex.

Colin Sadler’s boiler was much, much older than 32 years.

It was 42 years old!

Mr. Sadler’s boiler was installed way back in 1968.  It was a Crane Cavalier boiler, and by all accounts was still going strong (here’s a link to the article).

Now get this – Sadler says he bought the house in 1982, and was warned by the seller that the boiler was “quite old.”  At that time, the boiler was 14 freaking years old!!!

In the US, we would have told the buyer that the boiler was brand new.

Wait, it gets better.  Colin said the old boiler has “done us proud for many years, but we’re looking forward to a new energy efficient boiler, as I think this one has earned its retirement.”

And a guy named Richard Cotton, head of sales for something called “the npower hometeam” (which ran the contest), said “Colin’s boiler is a great example of some of the antique systems entered in our competition.  It’s a surprise to see a system still working after more than 40 years.”

Hey Richard, come visit your former colonies sometime.  We got your antique boiler right here!

It is interesting, is it not, to consider the differences in attitudes?  Over there, it’s a “surprise” to see a boiler still working after 42 years.  Here we howl when told that a new condensing boiler might have an expected life span of “only” 12 to 15 years.

Here we get wrapped around the axe-handle trying to decipher “paybacks” and “ROI” on boiler upgrades (click here for that story!) and complain that the Stimulus Package incentives didn’t go far enough.  In Scotland vouchers that cover roughly 15% of the installation costs are snapped up in 2 days.

In a land that gets bored with a new cell phone in 6 months, trades in cars every few years and gets up at 3 in the morning the day after Thanksgiving to buy a $200.00 laptop at Wal-Mart, we’ll struggle with vise grips, bubble-gum, paper clips and a can of stop-leak to get a 50 year old clunker-boiler through “one more winter.”

In a land where Willie Shakespeare was writing As You Like It decades before the city of Boston even existed, and where his 16th century childhood home is still standing, a boiler installed in 1968 is considered such an oddity that it required a nationwide dragnet to track it down.

Just sayin…

So, what’s the oldest boiler you ever worked on?  What’s the oldest one you ever actually replaced?

And what about the top hits of 1968?  #1, by a mile, was Hey Jude by the Beatles.  But for sheer novelty, check out the #39 song of the year from The 1910 Fruitgum Company:

Now try to keep that one out of your head for the rest of the day.

4 Responses to “Werewolves – and Boilers – of London”

  1. John,
    It doesn’t surprise me that the oldest boiler found in the UK was installed in’68. No common working chap in the UK needed or could afford central Heating. Prior to the 50′s and well into the 60′s most all heating was done using coal firepalces, then with the death fogs of the 50′s cities started going smokless ie; gas room heaters, electric,or fireplaces that were converted to burn smokless coal (coke). Nearly all rooms had a fireplace, living room, some bedrooms in older palces, and if it was large enough a fireplace in the kitchen that had a back boiler to heat water. Natrual gas (highspeed gas)didn’t come onto the scene until the 60′s starting in SE England and gradually moving N and W to Scotland and Wales. The british heating system from the 60′s and before was like the US in the 1880′s. The big building boom started in the 60′s on so CH just wasn’t there before. I lived in Scotland in the 60′s and 70′s and the first CH system I saw was in a house that was a couple years old and it consisted of a small coal boiler in the living room that had a glass door and pipes going to panel radiators in the other rooms. Now they even put CH in two room tenements. How things have changed over there in the last 40 years.

  2. Thanks Rich…that does put some perspective on it all. I still find it amazing though, considering just how old the entire country is. The other part of the story that really amazed me was when the guy bought the house in ’82, the seller warned him that the boiler was old.

    The contrast is what gets me…over there, 42 is positively ancient. Over here, not so much.

    Thanks again for the input — I was watching an old episode of “The Avengers” from 1968 on Netflix last night and kept looking for the radiators in all the sets….
    now I know why they weren’t there!

  3. John,
    Like the saying goes; to an American 200 years is a long, long time.
    To a Brit 200 miles is a long, long way.

  4. What about climate? I understand the reason why the Brits boilers are “new” in regards to the addition of central heating systems but, maybe climate has a little to do with the age of boilers here in the U.S.

    As I see it, people are cheap no matter where they live, however, outside forces may be at play when time comes to replace a boiler. My current habitat consists of extreme low winter temperatures and the added stress of seven month heat loads. Either great sales techniques, the raging bull force to switch to scorched air or just regional wear and tare have had me looking at 20-30 year old boilers as the “relics”…not that there aren’t some “really old” ones…like maybe 32 years old or something.

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