Is your church’s heating system ready for winter?
Kevin Thomas of the Baptist Insurance Company turns his attention to the cold weather and church heating systems, including the most common problem - burst pipes and water leaks
“Have you turned the heating on yet?” It’s one of the great topics of conversation Britons mull over each autumn as the temperature drops and the energy companies seem to announce their price increases just in time for winter. In churches, too, trustees fire up the boilers and order in new supplies of heating oil. After all, no one wants a chilly congregation blowing into their hands and stamping their feet.
Churches are, on paper, tricky buildings to warm – they have large internal spaces and high ceilings – so a well-maintained heating system is important. But, from an insurance perspective, heating systems create one or two risks of their own of which church trustees need to be aware.
Most churches will have a system powered by either mains gas or fuel oil, stored in an external tank. Both require an annual service by a suitably qualified engineer, which means they are registered with Gas Safe – or, for oil systems, OFTEC. You will need to have records of these inspections and they also provide an opportune moment to tidy up the boiler room and remove anything that might fuel a fire.
At Baptist Insurance, the most common problem we see with heating systems is water leaks. Pipes burst in cold weather as the water inside them freezes; when the ice thaws, water pours into the church damaging the fabric of the building as well as furnishings, books, carpets and electrical equipment. In order to prevent this, we recommend an annual inspection of the church’s plumbing system by an engineer registered with the Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineers.
All pipes should be lagged to protect against the cold and it’s a sensible idea to find the building’s stopcock and make sure other volunteers and trustees know its location, too. A froststat is another good investment: this device will turn on the heating should the temperate drop too low, thus preventing pipes from freezing.
During recent years, we’ve all become more aware of the potential for ill-maintained heating systems to produce fumes. Carbon monoxide is particularly dangerous as it is odourless. Installing a carbon monoxide detector is a simple way of managing this risk – they’re quite common in homes and are relatively inexpensive. One is probably sufficient for most churches.
Some churches supplement their heating with portable heaters powered by cylinders of liquid petroleum gas (LPG). I’m not too keen on these as they pose a fire risk and, should a fire break out in the church, the emergency services will be wary of entering if they know there are LPG cylinders inside which could explode. There is also the risk of children or vandals entering the church and interfering with the cylinders. All in all, not a heating option we recommend. If your church does need to use them, think carefully about where you site them.
Finally, a word on external oil tanks. Under current legislation, anyone with an oil tank is required to have a drip tray or a bund – a protective wall or embankment – beneath the tank to capture any oil that leaks. The law also specifies how large these should be; if in doubt, speak to an engineer or the team at Baptist Insurance on 0845 070 2223.
Apart from leaks, problems with church heating systems are few and far between. By ensuring annual checks are carried out and just being vigilant, you can ensure your church is not one of the unlucky few.
Kevin Thomas is the survey manager at Baptist Insurance Company. Kevin has been surveying churches for more years than he cares to remember and is a Fellow of both the Chartered Insurance Institute and the Institute of Risk Management.