We talk to Vincent Thomas, North West Field Service Manager, about the most dangerous gas leaks he’s worked on, why you can’t hire a domestic engineer for commercial gas work, and how to check if you or your landlord is responsible for gas safety.
How did you start out as an engineer and what is your role now?
I began work as a domestic heating apprentice for British Gas in 1980, in my hometown of Blackburn. Six years later, I moved on to Service Engineering for Commercial and Industrial customers. I then left the company to become a founding member of Gasforce. In 2011 I rejoined British Gas when they bought Gasforce’s parent company, and now I coordinate the activity of 19 Business Service and Repair engineers.
What was the worst gas safety issue you’ve had to deal with?
I once traced a major gas leak from a pipe that had degraded in a factory. It was a massive building, so the company had no idea, but a spark could have brought the whole place down.
Carbon monoxide is also a real risk to businesses. Last year our technicians visited a large office block for the first time, and despite their boilers only being five years old, one of them was leaking carbon monoxide. We had to shut them off quickly and then replace them.
But the problem there was all down to a lack of boiler maintenance. And this example isn’t a rare occurrence; you see it all the time.
Why do businesses need to hire special service engineers? Is a commercial boiler really so different from a domestic one?
To work on a commercial appliance, you need many more qualifications than a domestic engineer does.
We visited a medical centre last winter for the first time, and found that a relatively new boiler which had only been serviced a few months before by another company had all sorts wrong with it.
We think that the surgery chose a domestic engineer out of the phone book, or used a family friend who wasn’t fully qualified.
The truth is that there is a wide variety of appliances and scenarios out there, and domestic engineers aren’t trained for them. For example, an office block might have three domestic-sized boilers, but they’re being supplied by a larger meter with a bigger gas supply that a domestic engineer isn’t qualified to work on – so they couldn’t test the pipework to check for leaks.
Who is responsible for gas safety?
Employers have a legal responsibility to keep their gas appliances and pipework regularly maintained. They should check if it’s the landlord’s responsibility or their own to look after their appliances – this should be clear in the lease agreement. Then they need to make sure those obligations are carried out by a competent and Gas Safe Registered Engineer.
If you get your appliances serviced, inspected and tested once a year you won’t just be better protected, you’ll also get maximum heat efficiency from your appliances, and that can reduce energy costs.
Any appliance also needs adequate ventilation that’s kept clear.
Do businesses have to install carbon monoxide alarms?
The general recommendation is to install an alarm if your boiler or gas appliance is near somewhere that’s habitable, where people work or rest, or near a bedroom. Educational establishments with boilers near classrooms have to install a carbon monoxide alarm beside the door of the room where the boiler is.
Your landlord, if you have one, should be aware of their obligations, but if you own the property we strongly recommend you get one.
What else would you recommend small businesses do?
It’s really important also to have a plan in place for when things go wrong during the winter, which is when businesses tend to notice boiler problems.
The hotel industry is quite busy for us, for example in the Lake District and Blackpool, particularly over Christmas. So it’s important to have a plan.
Businesses want compliance and reliability. When they take out a British Gas Careplan contract, it helps keeps the businesses running, we make sure their appliance is correctly maintained and they have the comfort of a 24/7, 365 day-a-year service.