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When The North Wind Blows

For several decades at least the phenomenon of carbon monoxide poisoning has been known to the experts - there is no mystery about this subject.

And yet we still have terrible news stories of people being killed accidentally - usually in their own homes.

Some years ago - about a decade or so - it was made illegal in the UK for any non-registered person to work on gas appliances. The idea was to prevent such tragedies and yet they continue.

Just this past couple of weeks in the area I currently live, Greater Manchester, (UK), I have read TWO front page stories involving carbon monoxide poisoning, one was a whole family that came down very suddenly with the symptoms, the father called an ambulance and waited at the open front door while the rest of the family were in the process of dying - that open front door may have brought them precious extra seconds. Fortunately the paramedics quickly and accurately assessed the situation - so at least that move forward has to be acknowledged (not so long ago they would have been totally puzzled) - and took appropriate action. The family recovered and British Gas, it was reported in the 'story' paid up compensation to them - not 100% though, but 60% as the family accepted '40% blame' (can you believe it!). Still at least that was not the tragedy it very nearly became and all survived.

The second story was two men in their shared flat who it appears died from the same thing.

In the first you will note that THE company in the UK that ought to be absolute experts in such gas related matters, British Gas, used it's legal and corporate might to pass some of the blame on to the family - this is despite the fact that it was BG that did the regular gas appliance service! It is utterly preposterous to be able to place a portion of the blame on to the family in this case and yet they, BG, got away with this legal ploy.

The very idea that THE people in the UK that can be EXPECTED to be experts in this subject passing off a significant (40%) of the blame is totally reprehensible. It also means they clearly have no intention of accepting the responsibility for the proper servicing of gas systems in the future - in other words their attitude is that they will disown any real responsiblity for finding out about and preventing their systems from inflicting carbon monoxide poisoning, instead they will blame things like "thermal inversion" much like they might have used "an act of God" as an escape from their clear duty towards their paying customers and the community more generally.

With the second case the appliance will also have been properly serviced too as it was a Housing Association property so the landlord will have been legally obligated to see to it. Though it could have been any registerd (CORGI) technician who actually performed the services.

What I am trying to convey is a number of important things, one of which is that despite the stringent new law stopping the householder from doing his own services to gas appliances and enforcing regular (annual) services by only registered technicians, these tragedies are continuing just as they did before.

It has always been my belief that the previous law was better - it required the person to be "competent" and of course a court of law can decide if the person was or not so there is a clear obligation to make sure that one is competent. Now no one has to be competent at all - merely registered and while it may be thought that registered people are competent it obviously doesn't mean that at all. The notion of competency is one of being responsible - and if BG can get away with only being 60% responsible then clearly it is only pretending to be competent which means it is incompetent.

Now I am not such a registered person but before the law changed I did install my own gas appliance for central heating and in my case I obtained and studied the relevant "British Standard" - which is a document that describes the ways and means of performing the installation in order to satisfy safety and legal requirements and I made doubly sure that I did - after all it was my own house so I was hardly going to be half hearted about it!

I also mainly wanted to provide something on the web to answer a question that householders may have when it comes to gas and carbon monoxide safety which is simply that if you have an OPEN FLUE type of gas boiler AND it is not "room-sealed" AND the wind blows from the NORTH AND there is not a HUGE amount of ventilation then BEWARE! YOU ARE IN DANGER OF LOSING YOUR LIFE!.

Also, just because you have your gas "boiler" serviced by experts each year and everything seems perfectly safe DO NOT REST ASSURED that all is safe and well. You MUST find out for YOURSELF that there is NO RISK of carbon monoxide poisoning.


The most important thing to understand is that your system can be PERFECT in normal, usual, wind or atomospheric situations BUT when the wind blows from the north or in similar circumstances - I have heard the term "thermal inversion" used as if that really tells us anything helpful at all - then the OPEN FLUE will cease to work. This is not something that can be tested for except during such unusual conditions so how are you going to know that your system isn't going to be affected? You can't know!

In my own case, after I had my own open flue boiler up and running, I visually checked the flame and listened to the sound it makes very carefully during the winter (it operated year round as it was a 'combi' boiler - does heating and hot water combined). With my own installation it was safe but the previous hot water "boiler" was not but I educated myself until I understood what was happening and so I KNOW that these gas heaters seem perfectly safe and are perfectly safe during most weather but at certain times in the winter they switch from safe to deadly. If you want to test your own system so you know what to look and listen for then with lots of ventilation and someone to help you cover your flue to stop it from working - for a few seconds only - while at the other end you observe the flame change and listen to the sound change. Probably a pointless exercise though but it does show how little clue there would be if this affected your system. Certain unusual winter weather conditons (and it seems to me that it is when the wind blows from the north) act upon the flue as if a cover were being placed over it and it ceases to function as a flue which does two things, it stops fresh air from reaching the flames which stops the flames from burning properly (it will turn yellow usually instead of blue) and it will stop the fumes from leaving via the flue so they will go any other way available instead - the combination is deadly. It's about two decades since I fitted my own system but if I remember rightly at first it was not room sealed and then, after a short time of testing operations and observing it, I room-sealed it. This is the only solution but usually it is not a difficult one to achieve as you can duct in fresh air and build an air tight cupboard around the boiler which should be possible in just about every case with a bit of thought and once it is done you can rest assured that you are finally safe from this particular danger.

Most of these open flue systems can be made 100% safe by adding an outside air supply directly to the boiler and sealing it from the rest of the room - I would imagine such an adaptation might well need to be done by a registered technician but possibly not - you would have to enquire. In the BS I was using both installations were described, open and room-sealed so there is nothing new in this at all

My recommendation, having installed and suitably room-sealed a combination gas boiler, is that if you do not have it already room sealed then find out if that is possible in your case and if so how advisable - the only concern is the prevention of carbon monoxide poisoning.

I wrote this article because I just got pi***0ff with the fact that these tragedies still keep happening even despite BG performing the safety annual service and, in the other case, a supposedly socially responsible landlord being the owner of the property concerned AND a decade at least of law brought in for the very purpose of stopping this from happening! It hasn't worked and it is because the people like those at BG are refusing stubbornly to accept their responsibilities in this highly technical issue that the average householder cannot possibly, nor legally is able to, take responsibility for. We have to rely on the experts and when they are so obviously below the standard needed then something else has to be done.

Therefore if you live in premises (or indeed use premises) that have such a system (open flue) then make it your business to find out if it really is safe.

I haven't mentioned the symptoms of such poisoning - that's because they are well described and easy to research, instead I wanted to focus on information that might just as well be top secret as it is just not available. That's because of the assumption that the experts - these registered technicians and their own educational system and standards - will take care of that on our behalf. It is obvious that such an assumption is completely wrong and that is why I have provided this short minimally educational article.

To polish off I will recount that around about a decade ago there was a case in the news of a local swimming pool where, from the symptoms, it is clear to me (though apparently it was a mystery to others) that here was a case of carbon monoxide poisoning. The fire brigade were present and people were taken to hospital. So you never know when this might affect you so get familiar with the symptoms of it so you know if it strikes what is happening. Just because it's a modern building and the owners are responsible it doesn't mean that they are aware of the risk and if the experts like British Gas can get it wrong so easily then it is obvious that each of us has to look out and be on our guard.

It used to be the older boilers that were the risk, those that were fitted in the 1960s, such as the very widespread Ascot models but the fact that a boiler looks new and may be very new is not a good guide to it's safety. It is obvious from the two recent front page reports that there is either a great ignorance or a great incompetence among registered technicians even those working for BG - they may be good in all other respects but not in this one special area. I remember watching television programs twenty years or more ago that covered this very issue so you might imagine that such experts would be properly clued up by now but it obviously hasn't worked like that at all.

If you have a system that using a flame, usually gas fired, then do your own checks - I don't mean take the cover off (because that might be illegal now) but find out if it is (a) open flue and if it is then find out if it is (b) room-sealed. If it is open flue and not room sealed then I suggest that you find out more about your own situation and especially enquire about the wisdom of making it room-sealed. If it is not open flue then as long as it has been checked properly then it shouldn't be a danger. "Balanced flue" types are closed systems which are not a danger (but still need to be checked every year).

Remember too that even though this doesn't apply to you, you may know someone who it does apply to and if that person isn't aware of the danger then perhaps take an interest on their behalf. You might end up saving their life.

By Paul E. Coughlin
3 March 2009

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