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It's good being able to heat a house in a cold climate by burning all sorts of rubbish on an open fire in a fire grate hearth and have free heating. With a Back Boiler, there's another advantage to real fires, which is that a back boiler heats the hot water tank, and saves the electric immersion heater from heating it at your expense. Electricity costs money, but burning rubbish doesn't. So, free heat, and free hot water.
Back boilers have been around a long time, and are considered quite old-fashioned. However, that doesn't stop them being a good idea. The technology is quite basic. It's like a radiator, but in reverse. Heat from the fire heats up the back of the fire, into which is fitted a water-jacket which is connected up to the hot water tank.
There's nothing thermostatic about this, which means that the hot water resulting from the waste heat of the solid fuel burning is much hotter than the electric immersion heater would be. Care is required when using it.
Back Boilers could come back into fashion, and it will be interesting to see which of the plumbing shops start promoting them first.
Looking around online, I've noticed various sites are talking of back boilers as if they are something old and obsolete and the emphasis is on how to get rid of them, decommission them, etc, and how to avoid the dangers of them in various ways. Having said that, most of the stuff about the problems of back boilers is about GAS back boilers, not the type that form part of a solid fuel hearth fireplace. Also, there is a particularly good warning about relighting disused back boilers, by the UK's Health and Safety Executive www.hse.gov.uk/services/localgovernment/boilers.htm . The problem is, if a back-boiler is disconnected, the water pipes should be left "OPEN". Some plumbers have left them closed off, and then when someone opens up the fireplace in later years, there's a risk of explosion.
Back boilers, when in use, are safe, and there's no problem. They are a practical way of getting hot water without having to pay (both economically and ecologically) for the heating.
As such, I think that in any climate that's cold enough to require heaters, having a fireplace with a back boiler makes good sense. And, for those climates where no fireplaces are required, water can be heated in solar panels on the roof. Incidentally, if you decide to have both a back boiler and solar panels, this requires a non-standard control system.
Back boiler experts include www.solidfuelboilers.co.uk - very helpful!
* If you get a back boiler fitted, make sure you insist on having a drain valve so that maintenance can be done without problems.
* Changing the gasket in a back boiler can be a bit tricky. It's like the cylinder-head on a car engine.
Picture: A back-boiler in use. It's a back-boiler by Redfyre, and has a distinctive back plate (door) with the name "Redfyre" across the front. If you are looking for a replacement panel, or a gasket, the aforementioned www.solidfuelboilers.co.uk have them in stock.
Is solid fuel ecological? Well it depends on what you're burning. Coal is a fossil fuel and so there are problems of an eco nature, but wood as fuel (firewood) can be done sustainably. Plant plenty of trees.