If you have a closed water heating system in your home, such as a combi boiler, you will have an expansion vessel. Also known as an expansion tank, this crucial component helps to maintain the proper pressure in the system. Put simply, it acts as a kind of shock absorber, handling the expansion and contraction of water in your central heating system as it heats and cools.
If this element stops working, the pressure in your heating system will fluctuate too much - meaning your boiler won’t function as it should. This could leave you without heating and hot water until the problem is fixed.
Want to know more about this essential part of your central heating system? Here, we take a look at everything from how expansion vessels work to where you can find them and how you can re-pressurise them to keep them in fully working order.
This vessel contains air, as well as water from the central heating system. As the water heats up in the central heating system, it expands within this tank. Acting like a spring, the air that is present in the vessel compresses. In this way, it absorbs the extra pressure, helping to keep the system stable.
There are different expansion tank designs, but the majority of newer boiler systems feature bladder type vessels. In these systems, the central heating water and compressed air are separated by a flexible membrane - or diaphragm. The vessel has a Schrader valve on the air side that allows for more air to be pumped in when necessary to maintain a suitable resistance to the expansion of the water.
The location of your expansion vessel will depend on the type and model of boiler you have. In combi boilers, these tanks are usually fitted within the casing of the appliance itself - meaning many people don’t even realise these components exist.
If you’re not sure where this tank is in your heating system, you should be able to get this information from your boiler manual.
Caution - by law only a Gas Safe registered engineer is allowed to remove the casing of a gas appliance - never attempt this yourself.
When you get a new boiler, it will come with an expansion vessel of the appropriate size that will be fitted during the appliance installation. If you need to get a replacement because this tank develops a fault, your heating engineer will be able to advise you on the right model for your particular boiler.
Fitting a new expansion vessel can be a difficult and time consuming job, particularly if it is not easy to access because of your boiler setup. This isn’t a job you should attempt yourself. Only Gas Safe registered engineers should remove and replace these tanks.
Depending on where it is situated, complex parts of your boiler may have to be taken out in order to get to the vessel. In some cases, the boiler needs to be taken off the wall in order to fit a new expansion tank, and this involves disconnecting the flue.
So, if you need to replace this part of your boiler, make sure you call a heating engineer.
To do its job properly, the compressed air in an expansion vessel must be at a suitable pressure. Your boiler manual should tell you what this pressure is, but usually this is around one bar.
When you push down on the Schrader valve to check the pressure in this vessel, you should hear air escaping. If you don’t, there is no pressure. Another warning sign that something is wrong with this central heating component is if water escapes when you press on the valve. This may just be condensation, which can be drained from the Schrader valve. Draining and recharging the vessel should always be attempted prior to calling the manufacturer for a suspected failed vessel. However, if this doesn’t work, it may be that the diaphragm inside has failed, meaning you might need to get a new vessel.
If you think your expansion vessel may need to be re-pressurised, also referred to as recharged, the safest and easiest thing to do is arrange for your heating engineer to take a look at it.
If you plan to do this yourself however, you’ll firstly need to switch off your boiler and remove the fuse as an additional safety precaution. This will ensure it doesn’t switch back on by accident. You should also make sure that the central heating side of the vessel isn’t pressurised, meaning it’s important to drain off any excess pressure first.
Once you’ve taken these steps, you can check the pressure of the compressed air in the vessel against the recommended value provided in your boiler manual. You will need appropriate measuring equipment to test this. For example, you could use a car tyre pressure gauge. If you discover the pressure is too low, you can recharge it using any type of air pump and attachment.
After you’ve re-pressurised the vessel, it’s a good idea to make sure the Schrader valve isn’t leaking air. You can do this by simply putting some washing up liquid over it. If you see bubbles forming in this liquid, you may need a replacement valve.