Today I was reminded forcibly of two remarks that I made to a friend recently. The first was that advances in technology that at first seem a novelty soon become a necessity so that we are rendered helpless when they fail. The second was that while we have been amazed by the “noisy revolution” of ever “smarter” smart phones, ever more sophisticated computers and an ever expanding array of powerful electronic devices, the “quiet revolution”, that of the development of the increasingly powerful and long-lasting batteries needed to power these devices, has gone almost unnoticed by the public.
During refurbishment of our flat 3 years ago, our lovely gas fire was taken away from us but we were given gas central heating instead. Our little flat is surrounded above, below and on both sides by other dwellings which help to warm it and we never need to run the central heating continuously even in the dead of winter. It is enough to switch it on from time to time for a quick burst of warmth. This morning, feeling a little cold, I went into the hallway and pressed the button on the little control box on the wall. A little later, I realized the radiators were still cold, so I pressed the button again, but to no avail.
Investigating, I found that near the boiler, a red light labelled “Alarm” was flashing. I opened the control panel on the boiler and took a look. All the settings seemed to be as they should be and the only anomaly was the flashing light. There was only one thing for it: I phoned the repairs line run for Islington by Partners.
A friendly lady listened to my description of the problem, asked a couple of questions and then said she would pass the job on to an engineer. They were quite busy, she explained (why does everything go wrong on a Monday?), and he might not get there until 5 pm but he would definitely come.
The day rolled by as days do, and it became late afternoon. I received a message that the engineer was running late but would still be coming. Then I received a phone call: the engineer was at the door but had received no response to pressing the doorbell. (It turned out that the door phone was slightly off the hook, silencing the bell – something to watch for in future.)
I let in the engineer who turned out to be a cheerful fellow who seemed to enjoy detecting faults. It turned out that the little box in the hall runs on batteries and communicates with the boiler by radio. The batteries had lasted 3 years but were now exhausted. I think I would be, too, after 3 years.
“Do you happen to have a couple of AA batteries?” enquired the engineer, apologising for not having any with him.
I did happen to have some, fortunately. With the new batteries installed, the heating… still didn’t come on. This seemed to make the engineer very happy: a new problem to solve! His face lit up with an amused smile as he worked out what the trouble was. Apparently, the failure of the batteries had jinxed the synchronization of the control box with the boiler. Once this had been sorted out, everything worked perfectly.
As I signed the chit to certify that the job had been done, I asked the engineer whether I could replace the batteries myself next time. After all, if I replaced them, say every two years, that should prevent another breakdown.
“Just call us,” he called airily as he left. “We’ll sort it out.”
Ten out of ten for good customer service, I thought, but it does seem an unnecessary expense to call out an engineer just to change a couple of batteries. I think I should enquire further and find out whether it is safe for me to do the job myself.
Either way, the points I started with have been made: firstly, when our wonderful technology fails, we are stuck precisely because it is so reliable most of the time that we allow ourselves to become dependent upon it; and secondly, batteries now are so good and so long-lasting that we are hardly aware that they are there. All being well, it will be another 3 years before I again have to worry about these particular examples of the technology.
In the meantime, heating on tap is something I am happy to become accustomed to!