Summer is officially over and as we draw closer to October it’s getting pretty cold. I’ve already dusted off the winter coat and despite trying to hold out until the last minute, I’m approaching the point where I have to turn the boiler back on.

This year, of course, putting on the heating is far more of a concern for millions of people than it has ever been. In October, the Government’s Energy Price Guarantee kicks in. This means the average household will have their bills capped at and average of £2,500 a year – not the frankly terrifying £3,549 announced by Ofgem in August. That’s still a nearly 30% increase on the last price rise in April – and one that many can ill afford.

The team at Times Money Mentor are focusing on all things energy this week in our guides, columns and newsletter. However, I’m going to take a look at boilers and home emergency cover this week.

That’s because the first weeks of October are also the peak times for callouts for heating systems, cracked pipes and wonky boilers. This is largely because the heating has been off for such a long period over Spring and Summer – and problems only become apparent when you take the plunge and turn everything back on.

Here are a few tips if your boiler isn’t playing ball and you are worried about the cost of an engineer. I’ll also take a look at insurance policies that cover home emergencies and ask whether they are worth it.

What to do if the heating isn’t working

Let’s start with a confession. Who knows the intricacies of how their thermostats work? Surveys have consistently shown that of all the household devices we have, the humble thermostat is understood among the least. We often set a temperature and never fiddle with the dial. Since the energy bill crisis, many more people will have got to know how their heating systems work, invested in smart thermostats or read their boiler guide. But for many people, that mystery box on the wall is the source of many misunderstandings.

Yet astoundingly, we pay hundreds of pounds on emergency callouts due to problems with thermostats that cost less than £1 to fix. It sounds ridiculous but a common problem with faulty boilers stems from the battery in the thermostat running out. The display might suggest there’s a problem with the boiler but a quick battery change could solve the problem and save you an expensive call out. You’d be amazed how many people make this costly error. If you have an older thermostat, the connection can cut out if the batteries aren’t resting properly within the device too.

Smart thermostats can play up as well. There are lots of different types of smart thermostat, but as a very general rule, a blinking screen usually means the system is doing something important, like downloading software, or is frozen or not functioning properly. Your guide will tell you how to reboot the thermostat and troubleshoot the problem. Why not photo the screen before you do so then take the time to read the guide thoroughly to identify what the flashing codes or symbols mean. Some smart thermostats can be USB charged too.

Next up, make a few basic checks, like turning the dials and thermostat down, pressing the ‘boost’ option and seeing if the boiler kicks into life. Represurising the boiler can be a bit nerve wracking if you’re not technically minded, but it’s a relatively simple process for most boilers. Don’t launch straight into it though. Read the steps first and make sure you are confident with the process.

Can’t find the boiler guide? You’re not alone. You can find most guides online – and there are loads of YouTube guides to basic problems too. Don’t get too ambitious though. I am legally obliged to tell you not to tinker with the boiler’s inner workings if you’re not an expert.

If your radiators aren’t heating up properly then you might need to ‘bleed’ them. This is where air becomes trapped in the system which can have an impact on how much heat the radiators are generating. Again, this can seem rather intimidating if you’ve not done it before but it’s actually quite easy. Most energy companies have guides on how to do this online. If you’ve lost your radiator key, they’re often quite generic and easy to replace. It’s recommended that you bleed your radiators once a year even if they seem to be working fine. Don’t go rushing straight in to this though. You’ll need to turn off the heating, wait for it to cool down and make sure you’ve got a bowl and towel handy for any leakage.

If you think you need to make a claim on a boiler or home emergency policy, check first to see what you’re covered for. Most have 24-hour call out lines and a long list of things covering your rights and timescales on repairs and replacements. That way you are prepared for any hidden costs and know your rights if there are delays with repairs. You may also have some home emergency or boiler cover through your home and contents insurance policy, so give the insurer a call before commit to an emergency callout.

If you’ve got blocked or leaking pipes, check if you can to see whether the pipes are on your property (claim through your insurer) or outside it (usually the water company needs to sort this out). Confirming access points can save a lot of hassle should you ever need to make a claim. Have a look around your home for wet or discoloured patches or sniff out strange smells. If you live in a communal property then speak to your landlord or building management committee about their building insurance.

Boiler and home emergency cover

Is it worth taking out a policy to cover boiler breakdowns? Costs for calling out an engineer can be pricey and can increase quite a bit depending on what’s gone wrong. I’ve called a few specialists and been quoted around £150 to £400 for an emergency callout, though that doesn’t cover all the work that might be required. Annual boiler servicing can be between £60 to £100. All of this might make you consider paying extra for a specialist boiler or home emergency insurance policy.

A few years back you could fork out £300 or more for some insurance policies, which meant that there was a good argument for just putting that money to one side to save you some more money in the long run. However, if you have a look online now, you’ll find some policies covering just your boiler for as little as a couple of pounds a month. Watch out though, the devil is in the detail.

These super cheap policies suddenly become a lot more expensive as you enter in the details of your home. Even moderately priced policies come with catches. For example, one of the big boiler cover businesses starts prices at just under a tenner a month. But that includes a call out fee for £100 per callout. Their policy with unlimited free callouts will set you back £17 or £200 a year. So the actual price you’re paying if you need to make a claim is higher than you might think.

In addition, not all boiler contracts are insurance products. Some are ‘regulated’ insurance contracts and others are ‘service contracts’ – which matters because if there’s a dispute, you can’t go to the Financial Ombudsman if it’s a service contract or an unregulated agreement. An insurance policy will list the underwriter – the firm that investigates and pays out claims.

So what do you need to watch out for it you’re buying a boiler or home emergency policy? Aside from the type of contract and the emergency call out fees, look for a 24 hour, 365 days a year emergency helpline. Keep an eye out for the initial ‘no claims’ period when you can’t make a claim (usually around two weeks after signing the contract). There are also call out limits with some policies and caps on parts, repairs and labour.

If your boiler is over seven years old, you might find your policy might not cover you. And if you already have home and contents insurance in place, ask your insurer how much an add on home emergency or boiler policy might cost as they’ll already have the details of your home and might be able to give you a better deal.

Turning the boiler back on

Don’t be like me and hold out until the last minute before turning the boiler back on. Most experts suggest cranking up the boiler for a short while a few times over the next month, to help identify any problems and avoid damage to pipes. Keep the thermostat low while you do this (though not so low you can’t tell if the heating is on!)

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

How much boiler cover costs, who needs it and the important small print

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