Vulnerable and elderly people are at risk of being left unable to heat their homes this winter due to a shortage of parts for boilers and central heating systems, plumbers have warned.
The industry has sounded the alarm over growing problems sourcing boilers and parts due to supply chain chaos caused by Brexit red tape, high demand, disruption to manufacturing during the pandemic and a shortage of lorry drivers.
The combination of issues has left shelves on supermarkets empty and led to shortages of products from building materials to microchips.
People could face lengthy waits for a qualified plumber to be able to fix their heating, the industry’s trade body said. Charities warned that any shortages would add to a “potent mix” of factors that people in fuel poverty already face.
Close to 3 million people are expected to be unable to afford to heat their homes this winter, according to estimates by the End Fuel Poverty coalition. The number increased drastically after energy regulator Ofgem raised the energy price cap by £139 this month - a measure that will come into force on 1 October.
Kevin Wellman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineers, said plumbers had already been forced to delay work and that manufacturers were finding it difficult to keep up with increased demand.
“It’s having a direct impact on the consumer,” he said. “My fear is that as we get to the winter months there is even more of a problem for the vulnerable if their appliances fail, if their boilers fail and there is a delay in getting a replacement boiler or parts.”
Problems are exacerbated by a long-running lack of skilled plumbers and heating engineers as well as high demand for work during the pandemic. Large numbers of people have used money they have saved on things like holidays, clothing and commuting costs to make home improvements.
A stamp duty holiday and “race for space” have turbo-charged the property market, further increasing demand for skilled tradespeople.
Mr Wellman also warned plumbers to be careful about where they buy parts from and not to turn to potentially sub-standard suppliers.
“What could make things even worse is if there are non-compliant products being purchased, not through reputable wholesalers, but perhaps online. There could sadly be all sorts of dangers still to come. People have to be very vigilant.”
He added: “Conscientious plumbers are working as many hours as they can work to help out
“Our advice is to know a good, competent plumber because when it comes to an emergency, if you’ve never had contact with them you may not be at the top of their list of priorities.
Charities and campaign groups representing the elderly and people living in fuel poverty expressed concern at the warning.
"Any workforce shortages which impact on the ability of households to keep themselves warm is a dangerous addition to the already potent mix of problems facing people in fuel poverty,” said Simon Francis, co-ordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition.
"Skilled workers will be at the heart of installing new, greener, heating systems as well. Therefore, a solution to this skills crisis must be found urgently."
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at AGE UK said: "Staying warm is really important for older people’s health through the winter, so any suggestion that there could be a shortage of spare boiler parts, or of trained engineers able to fix heating systems if they go wrong, is a cause for concern.
“Older people are more likely than others to have ageing heating systems that, in turn, are more liable to break down, so any problems with supplies are likely to hit them especially hard."
Anyone who is struggling to pay for a boiler repair or replacement should check with their local council or energy supplier, to see what support they may be able to offer, Ms Abrahams said.
AGE UK has also published a guide calles Save Energy, Pay Lesswith practical tips to help keep homes warm this winter.