When the boiler breaks down, that's a winter of discontent

Sod's Law dictates that your heating will fail just when you need it most. Kate Hughes sees how you can guard against the huge cost of emergency repairs
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The Independent Online

Almost like clockwork, the minute the first real cold snap of the winter season blows in, the chances are that your household boiler will pack up. Almost one in three boilers break down within the first six years of being installed, according to consumer group Which? And the costs of a breakdown can be horrendous, credit crunch or no credit crunch.

The bill for even basic repairs can run into the hundreds if not thousands of pounds once you throw in labour costs and emergency call-out charges – and you can add on even more if you have a breakdown over the Christmas holiday period.

You may think that another insurance policy is the last thing you need but boiler cover, providing some protection against this sudden and massive outlay, can cost as little as £5.99 a month.

"You don't have to take this insurance from your energy provider," adds Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at the price-comparison website uSwitch.com. "There are plenty of deals around, so you can find the best level of cover and price for your own needs. At the very least, it will mean you are not taking a chance on your family's safety."

One of the best deals is from Homeserve, uSwitch suggests. The firm will pay out for your boiler, pump, flue, controls, spare parts and the labour to an unlimited value each year for £5.99 a month, with a £50 excess. But a safety inspection is not included and you will have to cover the cost of the heating system itself, radiator valves, system scale damage, boiler scale damage and the annual boiler service. Alternatively, there is E.on's policy for £9 a month, with a £50 excess. This will pay out for your boiler, controls, pump, flue, a 24/7 emergency helpline, unlimited call-outs, parts and labour, an initial inspection and the annual safety and maintenance inspection. And you are guaranteed a two-hour appointment including evenings and weekends. Again the cover doesn't include the radiators, system scale damage or boiler scale damage.

If you rent your property, it is your landlord's responsibility to maintain the boiler. However, you may wish to keep an eye on it, perhaps investing in a carbon monoxide detector to be sure of your safety. These are available from most good hardware stores and are a useful idea for all homes as, according to Corgi, the gas-installation accreditation body, 21 deaths occur each year due to domestic carbon monoxide poisoning.

Meanwhile, some homeowners may feel that their boiler is reliable and that they don't want to commit their money to an insurance policy.

If you're in this category, you could still guard against an emergency by putting the same amount you would pay out in premiums into a high-interest savings account. Kevin Mountford at price-comparison site Moneysupermarket.com recommends a regular saver product.

"You may want to build up reserves to cover the one-off expensive costs, but you will need to be disciplined enough not to spend the money on something else," he says. "A regular savings option will make you put that cash away, and with a typical minimum monthly investment of £25, it may be the best way forward. Some of the best fixed rates of interest are available for cash savings."

Alliance& Leicester offers 8 per cent for its Save and Protect savings account, while Abbey's Super Fixed Rate Monthly Saver is available at 10 per cent and Barclays' regular savings deal offers 7.75 per cent interest. Beware of reductions in fixed rates, though, in response to the recent Bank of England decision to cut the base rate by a third.

"And check the terms and conditions on the account you wish to go for though," Mr Mountford adds. "Although the interest rates are higher than on an easy-access account, there may be significant penalties for withdrawing your cash prematurely should you have an emergency call-out to foot the bill for."

The best variable rates on instant access deals include the AA Internet Saver account paying 6.28 per cent and Abbey's eSaver Direct at 6 per cent including a 0.75 per cent bonus for the first year.

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