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
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!
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.