Property: Doctor On The House: Only boffins can keep their cool with bo ilers

We're too darned hot. So please give us central heating with programmes we can follow, begs Jeff Howell
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The Independent Online
You may have heard that the clocks on 75 per cent of the nation's video recorders are permanently flashing on zero. This statistic is usually quoted to raise a laugh at the technophobia of the wrinklies, but it also points up the shortcomings of the technology: you have to reprogramme the thing when the clocks go back, and also every time you unplug it or if a fuse blows. Most of us just give up. Still, it's a bit of a laugh, eh?

But the manufacturers of central heating systems might not be so amused if they knew how many of their customers were unable to set the time switches on their boilers. The Department of the Environment, Transport etc. might also take note that its energy-saving advice is falling on incompetent ears. Turn the thermostat down? Many people don't know what the thermostat is, let alone which way is down.

Now, I'm not saying that three out of four people are in this position, but it must be a fair few, and not just the sad old gits either. I've met plenty of 20 and 30-somethings who haven't worked out how to programme their heating. It is common to find the boiler set permanently "on" and the room thermostat used as an on/off switch, or else for the thermostat to be on "max", with the override trip on the boiler being employed to turn the heating on and off. Both these methods will warm the place up, of course, but hardly efficiently, and there is no safeguard if the occupants go out and forget to put into effect their version of down, or off.

The new generation of digital controls seems to have made things worse. The designers think their control systems are increasingly "user-friendly", but the users themselves are getting ever more baffled. The designers are so used to playing with their own gadgets that they can't see things from the point of view of the general public.

This is often put down to the fact that the technology is designed by men and is, therefore, inaccessible to women. But I think there is more to it than that; it also seems to be designed by Lilliputians, who can read instructions and labels that we humans can only detect with electron microscopes. To adjust the humidistat in my bathroom extractor fan, for example, I have to borrow my neighbour's six year-old - he's the only person on the block who can focus on the tiny numbers when he's close enough to turn the miniature dial. And to think that in the old days he'd only have been good for going up chimneys.

On gas-fired radiator systems it is useful to be able to turn the water temperature down - then you can leave the system running when you go away, knowing that the constant low-level heat will stop the pipes freezing and prevent condensation. There is actually a knob that does this - you know, the one that you've always wondered what it's for, or the one hidden away behind the secret panel.

So what's to be done? A major re-education programme is needed; not for the public, but for the people who design appliances for them. Dyson has set a good example with the vacuum cleaner, so now how about central heating that can be programmed by people without electronics degrees, miners' head torches and huge magnifying glasses? There's got to be a market for it.

q You can contact Jeff Howell at the Independent on Sunday or by e-mail on: Jeff@doctoronthehouse. demon.co.uk

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