Central Heating Sludge Build-up? Here’s How To Remove It.

Roughly 20% of boilers will break in any given year. And, there is a well-known killer (and it’s not age); central heating sludge. This is what it will do to your radiators.

A lot of people think that their boiler breaking after 5-10 years is normal. It is, in a way. Understanding, removing and preventing central heating sludge could mean that a boiler lasts for years.  And that’s because sludge build-up contributes to a whole host of heating and boiler problems that could have been easily avoided.

If you are unsure about anything we cover here, please leave a comment at the bottom, and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

In this article, we’ll cover:

What is Central Heating Sludge?
Common Symptoms of Sludge Build-up
Testing Your Heating System for Sludge Build-up
Do I Need to Remove Sludge Before Having a New Boiler?
Preventing Heating Sludge Build up
Removing Heating Sludge

What is Central Heating Sludge?

Sludge is essentially dirty water. Particles of dirt from the water in the system combine with rust (iron oxide). This rust comes from the inside of radiators, pipes and soldered joints. So, the older the system is, the more likely it is to have some heating sludge build up.

Dirt and rust combine to make a gooey liquid. As this passes through the central heating components it deposits some of the particles.

It can block pipes and radiators to a point where the heat is patchy on radiators, radiators don’t work properly or get to temperature, or they don’t heat up at all. And it can physically block important components such as the boilers heat exchanger which are incredibly expensive to fix.

In some cases, we’ve seen sludge block radiator valves and microbore pipe work. This restricts the flow of water.

The problem is the heating pump doesn’t recognise the change (increase) in pressure. It will continue to pump, and the back pressure can sometimes blow the pumps seal.

We’ve seen these blown seals leak to a point where they corrode internal parts in the boiler (such as the PCB) and the boiler must be replaced. Sludge build-up really is a big deal and it shouldn’t be ignored if you want to protect your heating system for years to come.

And this could have been prevented by troubleshooting for heating sludge build up early on. The pump flow setting could have simply been turned down, meaning there would be little or no back pressure. So, the pumps seals would likely have stayed intact!

Common Symptoms of Sludge Build-up

  1. Radiators have patchy areas of warmth.
  2. Radiators are cold at the bottom and middle.
  3. Some radiators in a house fail to heat at all.
  4. Radiators need bleeding regularly and you don’t know why.
  5. Boiler keeps making strange noises.
  6. Radiators don’t get up to temperature, even though the radiator valve is turned up to the max.
  7. The pump is struggling with back pressure and is overheating.
  8. The pump is leaking due to the back pressure causing a blown seal.
  9. Pipe work to radiators is hot, but the radiator is cold.
  10. Broken parts from boilers are blocked with dirt.
  11. The flow on the boiler is boiling hot, but the return is pretty much cold.
  12. Valves keep breaking.

Testing Your Heating System for Sludge Build-up

Without ripping your heating apart, there is a really quick and easy way to test for sludge build-up.

Using a radiator drain key and a small container, open the radiator bleed valve. Wait for water to drip into the container. If the water is dirty, that’s a sign of sludge.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s causing the problem. If your radiators are hot at the bottom, but not the top, that’s a sign of air build up. Bleed all the radiators in the house.

Once you’ve bled all the radiators, put the heating to full temperature. You’ll want to check all the radiators and see if they are cold at the bottom.

If they are cold at the bottom, check the pipes going into them. Are they hot, or at least warm? If they are, there’s a very good chance heating sludge build-up is causing havoc on your central heating system. The sludge has settled at the bottom of the radiators and isn’t allowing them to heat properly.

Do I Need to Remove Sludge Before Having a New Boiler?

If you are planning to have a new boiler replaced, having the sludge removed from the system first is certainly a good idea. Most people think heating sludge build-up will just affect the radiators’ ability to heat up.

The reality is that the restrictive flow that heating sludge causes will put back pressure on the boiler. This can destroy parts like the heating pump, and deposits can destroy the heat exchanger extremely quickly, even if they are brand new.

And, it’s not just the pump and heat exchanger that are the issue here. The sludge will deposit harmful particles like rust and dirt on pretty much every component in the boiler.  This will reduce its life expectancy considerably.

Preventing Heating Sludge Build up

Preventing heating sludge build up is quite simple.

The first step would be to fit a scale reducer. The scale reducer will catch any particles that are in the water. This is particularly important in areas of hard water (around 50% of the UK). A scale reducer can be fitted for less than £100 and offers great protection to your system against heating sludge.

The second step, and probably more important, is to fit a magnetic sludge system filter. The dirty water we’ve mentioned is constantly circulating around your central heating system. A magnetic system filter will catch most the particles in the sludge.

I’d suggest going with a quality brand your sludge magnet. Top brand filters include the Fernox TF1 filter and the Magnaclean Professional 2 (they are available in 22mm and 28mm depending on the size of your pipe work).

Check out this video that shows the difference that a magnetic system filter can have on sludge build-up and how quickly it can get rid of it. In a matter of minutes, it can remove the majority of sludge that is circulating throughout your radiators and pipework.

To aid the system filter, you should dose your system with inhibitor. All heating merchants sell inhibitor. What this chemical does is break the particles down that are being stubborn (for instance, collecting in the bottom of radiators). This puts the particles back into circulation and eventually, they’ll hit the scale reducer, or the magnetic system filter (also known as a radiator sludge magnet).

A popular system inhibitor that will help to keep sludge at bay is Sentinel X100. Although, any inhibitor from a reputable plumbing merchant is going to be better than having none!

Removing Heating Sludge

If you have put sludge prevention methods into place, you should now have a scale reducer and sludge magnetic system filter installed, as well as the system being dosed with inhibitor. This will keep any future build-up of sludge staying in the system. The inhibitor will also break down some of the existing stubborn sludge in the system.

So, let’s cover some methods to remove sludge and how much they cost. Some of the methods can even be done on a DIY basis.

Manually Flushing Radiators

If you’re willing to take the risk, you can do a DIY manual flush on the radiators. You will need to remove every single radiator manually, and flush them out to remove sludge build-up. This method shouldn’t cost you anything, but will probably take a day.

Alternatively, a heating engineer will be able to do this for £150-300.

You will need containers and lots of towels. The radiators will be full of dirty water, so make sure you cover the holes where the valves go. It might be an idea to get another person to help you.

Prepare an area outside (near a hose) and lay down something to protect the radiators from scratches and dents (if the area is slabbed etc).

Step 1 – Leave the Heating To Cool Down

Step 2 – Turn off Thermostatic and Lockshield Radiator Valves

Step 3 – Disconnect Valves from Each Radiator

Step 4 – Open the Bleed Valve on the Radiator Using a Bleed Key

Step 5 – Tip Out Any Loose Heating Sludge

Step 6 – Connect the Hose to The Radiator and Turn on The Hose

Step 7 – Wait for Water To Turn Clear

Step 8 – Give The Radiator a Few “Love Taps” (this will loosen stubborn sludge) Until Water is Clear Again

Step 9 – Refit the Radiator and Move onto the Next one

Bear in mind, this isn’t going to clear the most stubborn of sludge (and unfortunately, this is probably what is causing the problem). However, it will clean out most sludge build-up in your system, so it should be noticeably better than before.

Power Flushing

The next option to remove sludge is by power flushing the radiators. Power flushing costs vary depending on the area of the UK you live in, but mainly depending on how many radiators you have.

A power flush is essentially the same as a manual flush. However, the heating engineer will use a machine to flush the radiators at a much higher flow rate. That means they’ll be able to remove sludge that is extremely stubborn. Some of this dirt and rust would not be removed with a manual flush at a lower flow rate.

This, in combination with a quality radiator sludge cleaner will get the job done.

Expect to pay anywhere from £300-700. A power flush from a national company such as British Gas is likely to be £450-850.

There are some downsides of a power flush over a manual flush. The extra pressure can put lots of pressure on old heating components and joints (copper elbows and radiator valve connections) and a lot of the time it leads to leaks.

Replace Offending Radiators

If you have just one or two radiators not working correctly, the cheaper option is going to be to replace them. This will be a small fraction of a power flush cost. You can see our guide on radiator installation costs here.

If you’re in luck, the radiator with sludge in it is relatively small (for example, a 600mm x 600mm single panel radiator). This would be less than £100 to replace, depending on the location.

Bear in mind that newer radiators are around 50% more efficient than old radiators. So, this could improve the heat in your home, and save you money.

After replacing the offending radiators, a quick manual flush will usually be enough to get your heating system working again.

Get Your Boiler Serviced Regularly

Finally, get a Gas Safe engineer to give you an annual boiler service.

Not only are they likely to notice some common signs of heating sludge build-up, but they will also be able to clean out the magnetic system filter (which should have caught a years’ worth of sludge).

We’ve already written an article about boiler servicing costs here.

Conclusion

Asides from genuinely faulty boiler components, central heating sludge build-up is the #1 killer of heating systems. Hopefully this article has explained a few ways to identify if your system has sludge, how to remove sludge and how to prevent it from returning.

If you have any questions regarding heating sludge or any other heating and boiler problems, please leave a comment and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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3 comments

  1. Dan Reply

    We have a 2 story home with 9 radiators. The downstairs radiators stopped working. The down pipe was hot and the return stone cold. We’ve had a heating engineer in who has drained the system and used a magnacleanse to try and flush the system. He’s also used a vibration device directly on the radiators also and put several series of chemicals in. He;s also put a magnaclean on the system above the boiler permanently.

    The situation after almost a week is some downstairs radiators are working – slightly – the only one that works properly is a heated towel rail that is a lot newer than the other rads. We’ve left the central heating on all weekend (72 hrs plus) and tried turning off all the upstairs rads we could to increase flow downstairs. No improvement. All the time our costs are rising.

    I don’t want to come across as telling the heating engineer his business, but I don’t want him to continue repeating a method that doesn’t seem to be removing the sludge from the system while his intial projections for the job double.

    — Should he be using a pump togeather with the magnacleanse to increase pressure in the system. Is this safe?
    – Maybe our expectations need setting effectively. Should we be more patient in waiting for the chemicals in the system to do their job and re-engage an engineer after a month if the situation has not improved?

    1. heatingforce Reply

      Hey Dan,

      A hot flush (no pressure) gets rid of most sludge. Some just doesn’t shift. Yes, you can do a powerflush, but the problem with that is it’s older systems that need them (i.e. more sludge), but it’s risky as it can blow seals, joints etc. Newer systems shouldn’t really need the pressure…

      If there’s been inhibitor/descaler, a flush and then a scale reducer catching scale and magnetic filter catching sludge it’s either:
      Completely blocked somewhere.
      A totally different problem.

      What boiler/system do you have? I assume it’s been bled and balanced?

      Did the problem suddenly happen, always happened, or was it after another event (additional radiator fitted, new pump etc)?

      1. Dan Reply

        Hiya – We’ve lived in the same 1950s property since 2002. The boiler was replaced in 2006 with a Worcester Bosch condensing boiler. TRVs went on most of the rads then as well. A power flush was performed at that point. The boiler was serviced last year. I assume its been bled and balanced either then, recently or both. I can always ask!

        The problem with the downstairs rads has been progressive. One after the other they stopped working over the passage of a few months. We did have a new kitchen put in about 8 months ago, but that’s the last thing I can think of when we used a plumbing engineer.

        As I say, some of the downstairs rads are sort of working. Not all. The ones that are might get a bit warm, following the flow in one end, across the top of the rad and down the other. I guess that’s consistent with where sludge gathers. My worry is that it is simply not improving any further.

        The upstairs rads work just fine – hot, hot, hot! 🙂

        Appreciate the responses.