Living On A Narrowboat In Winter

If you’ve ever considered living on a narrowboat, you’ve probably imagined lazy days cruising gently down a tranquil waterway under a cloudless blue sky, evenings on the tow path with chilled wine and barbecued food and tranquil nights lulled to sleep by the gentle sound of the countryside through open windows. Of course narrowboat life can be like this in the summer, but as we all know too well from painful experience, a British summer can be far too short and very unpredictable.

So what is it really like to live on a narrowboat when the weather’s not so good? What’s it like in the winter when there’s ice and snow and Arctic winds to contend with?

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Last year (2010) ended with one of the coldest spells on record. From the last week in November until the first week of January, the canal system was at a standstill. With up to six inches of ice on many waterways, many boaters were stuck for more than a month. I was one of the lucky ones but life wasn’t particularly comfortable.

Calcutt Boats Meadows Marina In The Winter

Calcutt Boats Meadows Marina In The Winter

Water and intense cold don’t get on well. Water freezes and, on a boat, when it does there are all kinds of problems. Unfortunately because the waterways that narrowboats use don’t have flowing water they freeze quite easily. If you are on your boat when a canal freezes you can…

Coping With Winter Weather At Calcutt Boats Marina

In many respects I am very fortunate. My marina is beautiful in the summer and can be stunning in the winter. The photograph on the left was taken on a morning after an overnight freezing fog. The daytime high was well below zero so the frost covered grass, reeds and trees transformed the site into a winter wonderland.

I am also lucky because, no matter how low the temperature drops, I still have access to running water. Even though the taps on the pontoons are turned off to prevent the pipes under the walkways from freezing, all moorers have access to any one of half dozen or so protected below ground taps. This year I read reports by many residents of other marinas who had to carry heavy containers of water to their boats when all nearby taps froze. The reports stated that they “managed OK”.

Personally, I don’t want to “manage OK”. I’ve enough to do without having to find and fill numerous (clean) containers, lug them back to the boat and pour them carefully into the water tank. I live on my own. I don’t consider that I use an excessive amount of water. I shower every day but each shower takes less than two minutes and I cook and wash up daily. Even so, I go through a full tank of water every ten days. My tank takes 20-25 minutes to fill using a hose with the tap on full blast. For me, the tap and hose option wins every time.

Because I live on a marina I have access to the main road and a car parking space 20m from my boat. We didn’t have a huge amount of snow here in Warwickshire but 5-6 inches was enough to immobilise boaters on moorings with poor road access. There are many narrowboats on the nearby canals moored close to canal bridges. These bridges are often on minor back roads which are very difficult to use in bad weather. Boaters on these moorings struggled to resupply.

Winter Narrowboat Fuel Supplies

Many boaters tell me that their boat is as warm as toast inside regardless of the weather. That’s not the case with me. I was cold in December. James is an old boat. Built in 1975 with a composite top she’s seen better days. When I moved on board last April, she had been empty and unloved for a number of years. She was very damp and leaked through the roof in heavy rain, the side doors were a poor fit and the insulation was practically none existent. Little has changed. I have to work hard to stay warm.

I have two Coldwatcher 500w heaters and a 700w oil filled radiator. These are on all the time at this time of the year and are just enough to keep the boat from freezing but don’t provide much in the way of heat. I also run a dehumidifier in the back cabin (my bedroom) to keep the damp at bay.

Real heat is provided by my solid fuel stove. It’s situated about four feet from the double doors to the front deck and feeds radiators at the rear of the boat in the second bedroom/study area, bathroom and rear bedroom. Because the stove’s back boiler has to provide hot water for the radiators, the stove doesn’t throw out an enormous amount of heat. However, at the moment it’s minus three outside but very cosy near the stove. It’s not quite as warm at the rear of the boat where I work. so I have to wear an extra fleece and a hat while I’m sat still working. No problem.

There are numerous solid fuels available. They all have slightly different characteristics. I use Pureheat. It’s a manufactured smokeless fuel and is the best I’ve tried. It stays alight for longer than other fuels (handy when I’m away from the boat for the night), burns hotter and creates less mess. The cost for a 25kg bag from my marina chandlery is ?13.50. It’s just ?9.50 from my local coal boat.

The coal boat passes by the marina roughly every four weeks. It couldn’t when the canal froze so the owners hired a van to keep their customers supplied. Bless them!

Preventing Frost Damage

Water can be very destructive. When it freezes it damages pumps and pipes and tanks. When water melts it floods. There are more than a handful of boat owners this winter in our marinas alone who are currently facing costly repair bills because they didn’t “winterise” their boats. If you live on board all the time, you don’t need to do this. If you leave your boat for extended periods and have on board heating attached to a reliable power supply you don’t need to bother either. But if you are going to leave your boat in very cold weather without any heating, you really are asking for trouble.

Winterising a boat is quick and easy (and common sense). The purpose of the exercise is to prevent water from freezing and rupturing whatever it’s in. So that means emptying some of the water from the main tank, turning the main stop cock off, then opening taps and shower attachments to allow water in the pipes to run out. If you have an “on demand” water heater you will need to drain that too. You will also need to drain your engine water too (Can’t help you with that one. I’m a bit of a dummy when it comes to engines).

Taking Care On Slippery Surfaces

Boats can be dangerous places at the best of times. There are ropes to trip you up, narrow steps up and narrow steps down, gunwales to slip off and water to fall into. Add a touch of ice and you’ve a recipe for disaster. Be careful.

I returned a boat to its marina mooring yesterday. I took Stuart, one of our younger members of staff, along for the ride. As we approached the pontoon, he nimbly hopped from the boat’s front deck onto the pontoon… did a spectacular backward somersault and landed on his head. Fortunately for Stuart he has quite a thick head so there was no damage done (only joking Stuart). But his slip on the ice could have had a very different outcome.

Stuart was uninjured (apart from his pride). We had a very different outcome two years ago on a sunny summer’s day. A hirer slipped off the back of one of our boats. The boat surfaces were dry and ice free – unusual for an English summer – but she still slipped. She slipped and fell into the canal as the boat was reversing. The propeller caught her leg, severing a major artery. Thanks to immediate first aid from one of our staff and an air ambulance she made a full recovery. But it was a full year before she could walk properly again. Boats can be dangerous at any time of the year. In the winter with ice, snow and rain, you need to be extra careful.

Cold Weather Toilet Problems

Unfortunately, when you live on a narrowboat, you have to pay a little more attention to human waste management than you would perhaps like. It’s not so much of a problem most of the year if you have a pump out toilette but you can get caught short in very cold weather. Your toilet or the contents of your holding tank aren’t likely to freeze, but the water around your boat is.

If your boat is iced in, you can’t get to a pump out station to empty your holding tank. If you don’t have an alternative, you’re stuck without an on board toilet until the ice melts. If you live at a marina, inconvenient as it might be, you can use their facilities. If you’re moored on the cut, you have a problem. Many full time narrowboaters also have a cassette toilet on board as well as the main pump out toilet.

Cruising During The Winter Months

Many narrowboat owners cruise through the winter. In fact, some prefer to cruise off-season. There are fewer boats about (no queues at the locks) and the scenery can be stunning. There are two problems with winter cruising though. One is ice and the other is stoppages. Stoppages are the closure of sections of the canal for essential winter maintenance. You can find a full list here.

A single heavy overnight frost has little impact on the water in the canal. Continuous sharp frosts and sub-zero days though can cause a build up of inches thick ice. Towards the end of December 2010 we had over four inch thick ice on the canal above Calcutt Top lock. Anything over half an inch and you’re engine will be working overtime. An inch or more and there’s a risk of tearing a hole in your boat. (One of the Grand Union canal coal boats is currently out of service due to over vigorous ice breaking). More than two inches on the canal and you’re stuck until mother nature decides to let you go.

The Key To Problem Free Winters

In my previous life as a stressed out business owner, I attended may training days. On one them I was introduced to the concept of the six P’s… Proper Preparation Prevents P*** Poor Performance. This applies to every area of your life including narrowboating. Although the six-week period from the end of November 2010 to the beginning of January 2011 was particularly chilly, you can expect every winter to be cold enough to freeze water.

Make sure you are prepared. If you are cruising, ensure that you know where the stoppages are and pay attention to short and medium term weather forecasts. Stock up on your winter supplies. Carry a little extra coal, top up your diesel tanks, develop a tinned food reserve and invest in a cassette toilet and, when all else fails, buy a case of mulled wine and a few good books for those cosy nights in by your roaring fire.

About The Author → Working at and living on a narrowboat at one of the most beautiful marinas in the UK; Calcutt Boats’ Meadows marina on the Grand Union canal near Napton Junction
  • shannon Friday,10 February, 2012, 12:10 pm

    Hi.

    Thanks for this article, I found it really useful.

    I have just moved onto a narrowboat (1 month in) and testing out ways to keep warm. I use a Morso multi-fuel stove with back boiler that feeds 1 radiator in the bedroom- stove in front of 45ft boat, radiator at back.

    I have found that I am spending a lot of money on coal and seasoned wood (I have bought bulk and sourced cheapest prices.) and to be fair the bedroom is still cold as radiator doesn’t work all that great. To keep the boat warm when freezing outside all week and reach temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius I reckon I consume 1x 25kg bag charcoal, small bag kindling, and 1 bag seasoned wood, fire lighters – works out to approx. £40 per week.

    I would say that the multifuel stove with back boiler is prooving disappointing. Even though I am careful not for the room to not fill with smoke when opening stove door to restoke, there is always a smoke filled smell which needs airing out as sticks to your clothes.

    I am a single girl living on the boat, and as much as I like the outdoors and collecting wood and stuff, its a huge physical effort to re-stoke fire and carry 25kg bags etc. It also demands a lot of storage if you’re trying to be prepared with fuel supply. And when you get in at 10pm, its freezing and takes at least 1-2hrs to heat up. I am also very busy working and can understand that if I constantly use newspaper and found kindling it will reduce costs slightly, but I find I save a lot of time buying kindling of coal barge and lets be frank, fire lighters are just far easier when your hands are freezing to get the fire started. I’m also thinking that the emissions from wood and coal aren’t that great when burning at this rate.

    So. I am looking to find out if anyone can comment on what is cheapest and possibly with a low carbon footprint (in the long term) to heat your boat quickly and for extended periods. I am seriously considering an like stove as it can warm boiler, radiators and you can cook on them- its a heavy outlay (£3000+) but I reckon long term its worth it.? There are various options with these cast iron stoves, one being diesel or gas or wood, so would be great to hear which one is the most fuel economical, demands less storage space for fuel and has a lowish carbon footprint.

    It would be great if you could do a table and compare ways to heat up a boat without elec that compares:

    -Approx initial cost layout
    -Time it takes to heat up a 45ft narrowboat to about 20 Degrees celsius
    -Running cost of fuel system demands
    -Storage space needed for fuel
    -Method, frequency and how long it takes to restock fuel to achieve a daily temperature of 20 degrees celsius for a period of a week (This is the worst case scenario when its freezing outside).
    -Carbon footprint

    Possibilities of types of heating systems to compare could be:
    -Mutli-fuel stove (coal and wood)
    -Multi-fuel stove (coal and wood) with back boiler hooked up to one radiator with eco-fan
    -Gas fueled aga (or similar make)
    -Diesel fueled aga
    -Gas fueled radiators

    I wold love for someone to say a diesel aga (or any cheaper iron stove) is the way to go and using the multifuel stove as a backup or for the sheer joy of watching wood burn is the best solution for the long term despite heavy initial layout.

    I would say that keeping warm during winter has proved a very difficult task and enough to put me off living permanently on the boat, so am really keen to get around the problem.

  • Pengalanty Friday,10 February, 2012, 9:57 pm

    Hi Shannon!

    # My name’s Allan (a friend of Pauls). He is unable to reply to you immediately so I’ll endeavour to answer some of your questions:

    FIRSTLY
    The Cost of feeding your Multifuel stove –
    I am surprised that it is costing you as much as £40.00pw, especially as you let it go out during the day. My Neighbour (On a 63’0” nb called Snowdrop) uses 25kg “Cobbles”. These cost about £8.50 per 25kg bag and a bag lasts over 48-hours (Approximately £30pw) Some trade names for these are Wonderfire (20% CO2 reduction), Taybrite, Maxibrite, etc

    Unfortunately you didn’t say what make or model of Multi-stove is fitted, nor the size or output. The most likely size is 4kw to 5 kw. (Or should be). If you have a “Boatman’s” stove, I think it may be too small for most medium sized narrowboats

    It is only when one has extra information that a rough calculation can be made on things like:
    Is the back boiler large enough for radiators, or only designed to heat your hot water?
    Have you too many radiators for the output of the fire? And questions like this

    It does seem to me though, (I am an ex heating engineer) that your fire, from the description you give, is not burning properly so let me give you a list of things that may be wrong with your heating and fire

    Don’t get alarmed, it may be only one of the possible things that are wrong and most unlikely that the whole system is unserviceable So here goes:

    You say that you have radiators being fed from the back boiler and these do not get hot enough, due to the boat being constantly on the cool side. Most boats, (With or without central heating), get too warm and even in the winter ones opens the doors to let the excess heat out (I mention this for comparison). This also leads me to think there may be a problem with the burning of your fuel

    You unfortunately omitted to say whether the central heating is gravity fed (With Large 1” (25mm) diameter pipes) running down the boat, or whether the C/H system has a pumped feed – in this case you should have 15mm pipes to the rads.

    If you have a pumped system, one must check to see if the pump is actually working properly. It is not enough to hear the motor making a noise

    If the pump is set at a too high setting it can draw air into the system and then you will get air in the rads. To check to see if you have air in the rtads, see if one, or all, are hot at the bottom cool or cold at the top. If there is air in the rads, this is the effect you will get. It’s easy to sort out – They need “bleeding” with a special small key, to let the air out

    There is another fact that could stop the radiators from working properly; no inhibitor has been put into the system. This stops the boiler, pipes, radiators and fittings from rusting or corroding. If this is the case, the whole system needs draining down, flushing out until running clean, then refilling, adding an inhibitor. I personally use “Fernox” Central Heating Protector “F1” This is a concentrated formula and is in a 500ml bottle. It costs around £20.00 from any good plumbing supplies

    SMOKE IN THE BOAT
    If you have an aroma of being smoky when the stove is closed and in normal setting for burning, I would be rather concerned. It may be not only leaking smoke but carbon monoxide as well and this is “Potentially Dangerous”

    This may not be the case but be aware that this invisible and odourless CM poison is dangerous. With a solid fuel stove, it is important to have a carbon monoxide detector. They are available everywhere, including places like Tesco
    I have both smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detectors on my boat. The smoke alarm always goes off when I make toast but a press on the button reduces the sensitivity for 10-minutes, enough time to finish the toast. The carbon monoxide alarm went off once

    This was due to wind conditions and the diesel exhaust from next doors boat, (On the cut), was being blown into my boat. I changed the window opening positions and this put matters right. I had no idea of the potential hazard, so if you don’t have these, I highly recommend this is on the top of your shopping list for your own safety

    OTHER POTENTIAL PROBLEMS
    You may have a problem with the flue if the fire is not drawing properly. If you are using a “Cobble” or smokeless fuel (House coal is not recommended by many manufacturers – but I won’t go into details about why etc – the “cobbles” should glow a nice bright red and only leave a very fine ash

    As you have a back boiler type, there should be a metal “relector” plate at the top (inside the fire chamber) to stop the heat going straight up the chimney and “force” some of the heat around the boiler

    It could be that the space between the chimney and the plate is full of soot. This would effectively partially block the chimney and stop the fire burning properly. This is something you might be able to check with an angled radiator brush (For painting the flutes of radiators) I have a wire handled one that I use on my fire to clean this area. It is surprising how much debris and soot is taken out

    The chimney may need cleaning. If you don’t have a chimney brush, (Available in some chandlers and looks like a brush for cleaning glass milk bottles – only bigger), you can get some stiff wire, fold and twist one end, so that a rag of some sort can be fixed to it and put that down (And back up) the chimney. An ever simpler way – no special tools – is roll up and old tea towel, so that when it is folded in half it will fit into the chimney with a firm fit, you can push this down with a broom handle

    BUT, BEFORE you do this however, make sure you have some strong string or cord, so that you will be able to pull it out again without breaking. I am talking about the chimney between the roof and the fire, not the extension above the roof

    Then the seal around the door (Usually glass rope) must be checked to make sure that when the door catch is screwed up tight, it is a seal and not leaking

    All this is pretty basic stuff, so if you are a practical “hands on” person this is easy. If not, ask around you boating neighbours. Most of them are willing to help, especially a damsel in distress

    Once one knows for sure that the above items are serviceable ie.
    Flue not blocked or partially blocked
    Top of fire (Above reflector plate) clean
    Air Vents at bottom of fire (And Air wash vents at top of fire) not blocked, some of the better fire have these, as when wood is burnt the should be open; wood being a “top” burning fuel (Smokeless, coal, etc are bottom burning and need the air going through it via the grate)

    If you burn wood, you need a double skinned chimney above the roof line, otherwise you will get a tar residue (By condensation) dribbling down the outside on to the roof and this will ruin the paintwork to roof and cabin sides

    CONCLUSION
    Unless you are unlucky enough to have bought the boat with one of the few unsuitable fires, that I have seen on boats occasionally, it will be one or two of the “faults” I have outlined. If you are not knowledgeable enough to sort this out for yourself, do please invest in someone who has experience in this field

    It should not be difficult to find out what is wrong and I suspect something is wrong. As so many people have solid fuel stoves and are completely satisfied, I would endeavour to obtain another view before thinking of spending £3k on a cooking stove with back boiler

    Another thing to consider, a cooking range is rather large and heavy to put into a 45’ boat – not impossible but I would reserve making any definitive comment on this, unless I saw your layout and what it would involve

    I hope that my explanations have been of some use. It is rather difficult to be firm about what is needed unless an exact situation is known. If you are near a good Marina/boatyard, pop in and ask someone for their opinion. Most people connected with canals are extremely friendly and offer free advice based on perhaps a lifetime of experience

    I do hope you are able to solve your difficulty. It’s a lovely life on the canals and one comes across very interesting people from time to time

    Happy boating! Sincere regards, ~Allan~
    (Cruising the GU Leicester section, when weather permits!)

  • Pengalanty Friday,10 February, 2012, 10:23 pm

    Hi Shannon,
    An update – I missed the fact that you have a “Morso Squirrel” stove.
    It is the best stove for any narrowboat
    This Multi-fuel stove should be much more efficient than you portray
    I believe it may be a 1412 Morso. If so this has a 5kw output. It is
    more than capable of making you comfortable, cosy and warm, being
    rated the best of it’s type by boater’s themselves
    Sorry I missed this fact but it is reassuring that you cannot buy better!
    Regards, ~Allan~

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