Because boilers make such a difference to the comfort of a home by providing residents with central heating and hot water whenever they want it, it is no surprise that the appliance is now found in almost every home in the UK. But boilers only became commonplace relatively recently – many people alive nowadays would have bathed in tin baths, warmed using hot water from a kettle heated over the fire in their childhood.
Nonetheless, the invention of water heating is credited to the Romans, who used natural heating sources to warm up their famous baths. However, they never appeared to have created individual domestic water heaters, although we owe them a lot of thanks for many modern plumbing techniques.
Early-modern domestic boilers and boiler covers
Modern domestic gas boilers can trace their history back to 1868, when Benjamin Waddy Maughan, a painter by trade, developed an instantaneous water heater that was intended for domestic use and that did not use solid fuel. His invention – the Geyser – was quite popular, although it was also incredibly dangerous, and was liable to exploding as it did not have a flue or vent. In the event of a boiler breakdown, covers and shells could rupture and blow apart, leading to injury or even death. Regardless of the safety risks, the joy of domestic central heating was too much for some people to avoid, and the success of the Geyser was further buoyed by the invention of the automatic water storage and heating tank, credited to Edwin Rudd in 1889.
The safety issues of early boilers were somewhat mitigated in 1919 with the invention of the Hartford Loop. If the return pipes began to leak, the Hartford Loop pipework system would prevent water from leaking out of the boiler. While modern boilers contain a huge range of technologies that effectively eliminate the risk of explosion, such as automatic water heaters and low pressure cut-off points, the Hartford Loop is still widely used as an additional safety measure.
The Plate Heat Exchanger was developed in 1923 by Dr Richard Seligman. This innovation uses two different metal plates to transfer heat from a hot fluid to a cold fluid, improving the speed of temperature changes and the efficiency of boilers. His simple but brilliant invention is still seen in millions of combi gas boilers across the world.
Boilers and boiler covers in recent decades
In 1956, boiler technology underwent another transformation. Previously, boilers were made from cast iron, which was strong enough and durable enough to cope with the pressures boilers face and the gases they may be exposed to. However, as Brits turned towards mains gas and away from solid fuel in the wake of the Clean Air Act, and as they began to use boilers in increasing numbers, steel became a more commonplace material.
This innovation further improved the safety of boilers – it is easier to develop seamless steel boilers than seamless cast iron boilers, and cast iron boiler covers and pipework were liable to having weak spots that could rupture over time. Modern manufacturing techniques have eradicated the additional safety dangers cast iron boilers pose and this material is making a comeback, particularly in commercial central heating systems.
Although there have been dozens of innovations and developments in boiler technology since the 1960s, the most significant development was the creation of the condenser boiler, which only reached widespread use in the last two decades. Condenser boilers expel cold water and trap heat from their emissions, making them substantially more efficient than older models. Despite the fact that these are a relatively new invention, all new boilers installed in the UK after April 1st 2005 must be condensing models, underlining the incredible energy-saving standards of these new gas boilers.
While boilers might still use the same heating technologies as they did one-and-a-half centuries ago, the massive range of new functions available on the latest models turn what could be a dangerous and wasteful appliance into something that can reach 100% efficiency and that will never blow up.
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