In a twist over tie-in repair schemes

A significant number of customers who pay into boiler protection plans were left for weeks without hot water and heating over Christmas. Sophie Hazan asked what went wrong

Taking out emergency home repair cover should provide a certain peace of mind.

One monthly cost - no hidden charges, no call-out fees - covers the price of parts, labour and VAT, with all work guaranteed for the next so many months.

Yet many dissatisfied customers got in touch with Consumerwatch over the Christmas period to complain about their boiler and central heating cover.

Long waits without heating and hot water, and 'no shows' by engineers were the two main complaints.

Disgruntled customers said they expected more from a service that gives the impression that repairs will be fixed quickly and efficiently.

Complete

Some are demanding compensation.

All are considering whether it is worth being tied into a scheme rather than having the flexibility to use a local plumber.

Gillian Pridmore, 45, who lives in Rothwell, Leeds, took out the E.ON boiler central heating cover in August, paying 16 each month.

So when her boiler broke down on December 20 she got in touch with the utility company assuming it would be dealt with before Christmas.

But it took engineers eight days to get out to her home just to take the first look. The repair was not complete until well into the New Year on January 6. Even then it required another call out when the boiler sprung a leak.

Mrs Pridmore said she was told there had been great difficulty in getting hold of a part for her three-year-old Worcester Bosch boiler.

After weeks of waiting for E.ON to get it fixed, she called a local supplier who claimed to have the part in stock.

She said: "They advertise a 'no hassle' service while you sit back and relax but it isn't like that at all.

"If your boiler breaks down they should be out to see you that day."

Mrs Pridmore is now considering moving to a rival's scheme that promises to make the fist visit within four hours of your first phone call.

She said: "I want a guarantee as to when the work will be done, not a scheme that suggests it will do something but then goes and does something else."

A 90-year-old from Roundhay, who wished not to be named, was forced to pay 70 for a repair to her boiler after she was left waiting for the British Gas Homecare team. She spends 300 a year for their assistance.

She said: "It was absolutely freezing cold.

"It's a massive house and the gas fires wouldn't heat the rooms without the central heating.

Breakdown

"I waited in for four days and consequently I had to do all my shopping on Christmas Eve while a local plumber did the work. I had people coming to stay so I just had to get it fixed."

Gail Rayner - known as Lynne - had similar trouble with nPower's Homeserve team, who took three weeks to fix her boiler despite her paying 16 a month for the privilege.

"I am not kidding," she said.

"I have had a mental breakdown over this. I can cope without heating but I cannot cope without hot water.

"I paid for this emergency service to cover the times when a normal plumber wouldn't be available such as at Christmas."

All three utility companies apologised for any delays to customers, and said they had experienced an "unprecedented" level of calls over what was the coldest recorded winter in recent times.

Vulnerable customers were prioritised, they said, and electric heaters were offered to households where possible.

nPower said it received more than 131,000 calls between December 20 and January 2 alone, mostly about heating and plumbing emergencies.

E.ON reported a 50 per cent increase of call-outs this winter.

British Gas claims to have repaired more than 1.2 million of the 1.3 million boiler breakdowns reported to them since the beginning of October.

They say they experienced the busiest Christmas Day in five years with more than 10,000 calls received on December 25 alone.

Bogus European energy grants could cost you

watch out for rogue traders offering fake grants for energy efficiency improvements to homes.

Conmen are offering customers money off double glazing and insulation claiming they have a European Union grant.

No such domestic european grants exist, confirmed West Yorkshire Trading Standards, who will investigate all claims of traders offering bogus grants.

Typically leaflets are posted through a resident's door outlining the tempting offer of a European grant deduction, or they are cold called.

Conmen are then often said to overinflate quotes, so that even when they apply their "discount" the final invoice is still overpriced.

Some people say they were tricked into signing a contract after they invited a salesman into their home to provide a quote.

They claim that they were asked to sign a document or handheld computer to confirm they had received a quote, yet were later told they had signed an agreement for the work to go ahead.

Householders thinking of taking up a grant for energy home improvements to their property are urged to only get involved with a council run scheme such as Kirklees Council's Warmzone that provides free loft or cavity wall insulation.

Consumers are reminded that they have seven days to cancel a contract made at their property. All workmen should outline a customer's cancellation rights.

If you are concerned about a trader call Consumer Direct direct on 08454 04 05 06.

Sarah Champion MP

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