Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.
This is one of an ongoing series of posts detailing my narrowboat expenses. Each post breaks down my monthly costs for the previous month, the same month three years earlier and a third set of figures for three years before that. As a Narrowbudget Gold user, you will always have access to the narrowboat running expenditure no more than a month old and you’ll be able to compare it with data which spans six years. You’ll be able to use this information to estimate the likely cost of buying and maintaining your own floating home.
Calculating accurate costs for the boat you intend to purchase is difficult. There are so many variables that the best you can hope for is a good idea of the expenses involved and the nature of the variables you need to consider. Even on the two similar length boats I have owned over the last decade, the running costs have varied signifficantly. With that in mind, I have explained the difference in the two boats’ systems, style and design in the series’ first post here.
Phew! This was an expensive month. I ploughed every spare penny into the refurbishment of my beloved boat, transforming her slowly from an abandoned eyesore to a fully specified live aboard narrowboat.
Tools and fenders: I added a couple of tools to my onboard kit; a pair of mole grips and some bolt cutters. The mole grips saved the day a couple of months later when I lost a windlass, a recovery magnet and my spare windlass in the canal’s murky depths. The last windlass disappeared when I tried to juggle my essential lock key and a mug of hot coffee while negotiating a lock’s narrow balance beam. I was in the middle of an eight lock flight at the time. I used my mole grips as a windlass on the remaining four locks. It’s not a method of paddle raising I recommend.
Bolt croppers are handy for removing any metal which snags the propeller. I invested in them after spending an hour removing a submerged mattress from my boat. £34.82
Traffic Film Remover: TFR is very effective for removing stubborn stains and stove tar from your cabin paint. Twice as clean for half the effort so it’s worth the investment. £15.95
Inverter: An inverter is part of your boat’s power management system. The device converts the DC electrical charge stored in the battery bank to AC so that you can use mains appliances. Pure sine inverters are better for sensitive electronic equipment. This model was a Sterling 1.6kw pure sine inverter. I couldn’t run power guzzling devices like irons or electrical kettles on it, but it was powerful enough for all my day to day needs. £360.69
New flooring: I’d had enough of James’ threadbare and filthy beige carpet. I replaced it with easy care oak effect laminate flooring. It looked great and sounded awful. One of the dogs, springer spaniel Charlie, paced up and down the boat constantly. His claw clicking drove me mad. £640
Solar Power: An essential addition for an off-grid lifestyle. This 300 watt array with its MPPT controller catered for all my electrical needs for most of the year. Input fell to about 10% of the summer high during short and cloudy winter days. Then, I had to run my engine for 60-90 minutes a day to keep my battery bank fully charged. £1,000
Recovery Magnet: This is a marvellous device. It’s compact and powerful. The magnet can lift 50lb, more than enough for anything you might drop in the cut. Apart from the magnet itself. This is the one I lost between windlass drops which resulted in me using a pair of mole grips to work through a lock flight. A word to the wise; if you have novice crew on board, check their knots. £25.99
Fire Protection: All narrowboats now need a Boat Safety Scheme Certificate. James had been tied to its marina mooring since the scheme was introduced. I needed to make many changes to get the boat through its first exam. One of the more basic requirements was to ensure that the correct fire fighting and detection equipment was on board. I purchased a smoke alarm, a fire blanket and three fire extinguishers. £82.90
Additional leisure batteries: James had just one 110ah lead acid battery installed for the domestic supply when I moved on board. And that one didn’t hold a charge. I didn’t know my arse from my elbow when I moved on board. I didn’t know how much power I would use, how many batteries I would need to cater for that demand or the best way of upgrading my battery bank. Adding batteries to an existing bank isn’t a good idea. If you have a bank of different aged batteries, when the oldest fail they take the newer one down with them. The accepted wisdom is to change all batteries in a bank at the same time. In my ignorance, I added two 135ah lead acid batteries to my existing bank. £233.70
Maintenance and repairs total: £2,394.05
Coal: James wasn’t an easy boat to heat. Polystyrene sheets were sandwiched between the pine cladding and the treated plywood cabin sides and top. Spray foam insulation is much more effective method of heat retention. The cabin’s exterior ply had deteriorated badly. I had the complete cabin over plated with steel. I had more polystyrene sandwiched between the original cabin and the new steel. In hindsight, and what a wonderful gift that is, I should have used sprayfoam instead. Polystyrene can crumble and leave cold spots, bare patches which showed clearly on cold winter’s days when the cabin heat quickly melted the roof frost on unprotected areas.
The stove struggled to heat all of the boat too. There were bulkheads between the galley and the utility area, the utility area and the space I used as an office, between the office and the bathroom and between the bathroom and the bedroom at the back of the boat. Consequently, heating anywhere other than the saloon area was difficult.
I used roughly ten 25kg bags of coal briquettes each month. I purchased ten at the beginning and ten at the end of the month. £215.60
Mooring fee: The charge to keep your boat on a static mooring is likely to be your biggest ongoing boating expense. Most marinas do not accept live aboard boaters. Calcutt Boats doesn’t, but they make an exception for members of staff. I had a discounted mooring, but the price I’ve quoted here reflects the price you would have paid, if you had been allowed to stay at Calcutt full time, in March 2013. As with most marinas, there was a discount available for a single annual payment. I couldn’t afford to pay a year’s mooring in advance so I paid a slightly inflated monthly rate. £258.00
Electricity: Because James was so difficult to heat I needed a second heat source. I used two 500w greenhouse heaters, one in the bedroom to remove the evening chill and another in my office space. Consequently my electricity bill was much higher then than it is now. £60.00
Gas: I use less propane gas these days too. I had an on demand gas water heater on board James for the first few years. I had it removed after it tried to cook me. The unit failed while I was showering. It failed to push the cold water supply through the burner fast enough. The end result was a shower cubicle filled with scalding water. I escaped with most of my skin and a morbid fear of these types of water heater. I was using one 13kg cylinder every three weeks when the water heater worked. That dropped to one every six to eight weeks when I only used gas for cooking. £22.90
Total narrowboat expenses for March 2013: £2,950.55
Please remember that this is not a typical month’s expenditure. James was an old and poorly maintained boat which needed extensive repairs and upgrades. Even so, March 2013 was an expensive month. Please read all the posts in this series to gain a clear picture of the costs involved in living on board full time.
Now we’ll move on to the running costs for the same boat three years later.
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Oh boy, oh boy oh boy! The expenses keep on coming. I’m determined to get James in a suitable condition for long term cruising after the boat’s spent over a decade of decline stuck on a marina mooring. There’s been a huge amount to do. Sometimes I think I might have been better off spending more on a better boat. But then I look around me and know that I spent my money on the right boat. I just wish that the spending would slow down a bit.
Electricity: Each mooring has a 230v electrical supply which is charged at 20p per unit and topped up cards available from our reception. I generally buy 3 x £10 electricity cards at a time. Two purchases this month so the solar panels (see below) aren’t contributing much so far – £60
Gas: I bought two 13kg cylinders this month, one at the beginning and one at the end of March – £45.90
Coal: The need for constant heat continues. My stove has been on continually now for six months. I bought ten bags of Pureheat briquettes on 7th March and then another ten on 30th March – £215.60
Mooring: Mooring costs £2,300 a year – £191.66
Maintenance & Repairs: The upgrade continues. I think we’ve broken the back of it now but it’s been such an expensive month.
Solar panels – Tim Davis installed his popular 300w system with MPPT controller on 8th March. I think that the sun has come out twice since then. Still, while the panels basked in the not so warm sunshine, they generated a maximum of 17 amps. I assume that we’re going to get one or two cloudless days this year and that the cloudy days are going to be slightly warmer than the weather we’ve “enjoyed” so far this year. So far the additional power produced by the panels hasn’t had any impact on my electricity costs. Time will tell £995
New flooring – For the last three years I’ve put up with very tired and wafer thin beige carpet. It didn’t look very atractive, nor was it practical with dirty dog paws and the inevitable but rare accident. We’ve had Colonia light oak laminate flooring planks fitted. We’re delighted with the result. The boat looks newer, fresher and far more welcoming.
Unfortunately the fitting hasn’t been completed. The fitter discovered that a section of the original ply floor was rotten. The area is in the centre of the boat undearneath the roof and side hatches. During James decade of neglect, the old wooden hatches decayed and allowed water to pool on the floor beneath.
There’s a section about the size of a dustbin lid which needs replacing. The rotten wood can’t be cut out and replaced with new because there arem’t any bearers underneath the damaged section to support the new ply. I think that a new section of flooring is going to have to be laid on top of the old and a feature made out of it so that the repaired section doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb – £640
Inverter – I’ve spent very little time away from the marina and away from the every so convenient mains power that I can plug into via my shore line. Each trip out has been without the ability to run my laptop, television or other 230v appliances. I’ve just had a Sterling 1600w pure sine wave inverter fitted. An inverter takes the DC 12v power stored in the boat’s leisure battery bank and converts it into AC 230v power so that you can run mains appliances while you’re off your mooring. I currently have one 110amp starter battery and two 135amp leisure batteries. So that the inverter has enough power to draw from for a reasonable length of time, I need to increase the leisure battery bank to 4 x 135amp. I’ll do that next month – £360.69
Fire extinguishers and blanket – My Boat Safety test is due in April. No that’s not quite true. James hasn’t had a boat safety test since it came into the marina in 1997. I don’t know what issues there are going to be yet, but I know that I have to upgrade the 230v ring main and replace the sub standard fire extinguisher and add a fire blanket. I’ve bought three 1kg powder extinguishers and a fire blanket for the galley – £56.59
Floormat – I bought a polycarbonte wafer thin transparent floormat to protect the new flooring from abrasion by the castors on my office chair. I know from past experience how quickly flooring can be damaged from constant back and forth rolling – £31.94
New Batteries – When I moved onto James the botat had just one starter and one leisure battery. I doubled the domestic battery bank at the time to two 135amp, but it wasn’t really enough. Now I have my solar panels producing a decent amount of free electricity, I need somewhere to put it. I’ve now doubled the domestic bank again to four 135 batteries. At the same time I’ve replaced my 110am starter battery which wasn’t holding a charge. £233.70
Carbon Monoxide Alarm – It’s literally a life saver. Carbon monoxide is produced by the solid fuel stove. If the stove’s not shut or working correctly, the odourless and tasteless gas can leak into the boat and kill you. The cost of the alarm is a very small price to pay to ensure that you don’t die in your sleep £26.31
Maxigrab Magnet – Most boaters like to throw things of value into the water now and then. I’m no exception. Providing the item of value in question is steel, it can be retrieved using a strong magnet and a length of cord. My new magnet is tiny but it can lift 50lbs, more than enough to retrieve my folding bike or windlasses and mooring pins and chains. – £25.99
Bolt Cutters, mole grips and fenders – The bolt cutters and mole grips are to aid removing debris from around the propeller. There’s always a chance of picking up debris as your boat ploughs through shallow canals. The bolt croppers are very handy for cutting stubborn wire. I also needed to replace a couple of work truncheon fenders.
Maintenance and repairs total – £2,370.22
Our technology needed upgrading this month too.
Laptop – My old laptop had beco,me virtually unusable. The cursor had developed a mind of its own and jumped about the page like a spring lamb. The resulting correction of incorrectly inserted text took as long as the initial typing. Given that I spend a minimum of four hours each day typing, the problem was driving me mad. It’s my birthday next week so Sally bought me a new one. It has a gazillion magabyte hard drive and more memory than I can shake a stick at. I love it. – £500
Printer – I suppose we don’t really need a printer, but it makes life so much easier. It’s an all in one WiFi printer, copier, scanner and fax machine (do people still use fax machines?). It’s the Epson WF-2530 and was a bargain at £59.99
Total technology expenses – £559.99
Other expenses for March…
Of course, the boat expenditure is only a part of the cost of life on the boat. Here’s what we spent on our day to day expenses in March.
Internet: I’m still using the excellent 15GB per month mobile broadband service from Three – £19.80
Telephone (Mobile): Sally and I both have mobiles on contract and Sally has an iPad, also on contract. If you’ve been reading the weekly newsletters recently you’ll know that I had my online identity stolen this month. I had to close my bank account which meant that the direct debit for T Mobile failed. T Mobile have agreed to defer payment until next month.
Laundery: Calcutt Boats as two washing machines and a dryer for moorers’ use. We only use the washing machines. Sally hangs the damp washing inside the boat. It’s dry within 24 hours. The washing machines take tokens which we buy at reception. Each token costs £1 and keeps the washing machines going for 45 minutes. – £30 (Does everything need to be so clean Sally?)
Groceries: We eat well but not extravagantly. The total includes £27.96 for wine – £314.43
Eating out: We enjoy a coffee in a cafe and the occasional meal out. Two treats in March. We went to The Boat House in Braunston twice for a meal. It’s on the Grand Union close to Braunston junction. They have a permanent two main meals for the price of one deal on. Sadly it doesn’t include the sweets – £48.80
Entertainment:Two books downloaded for my Kindle this month plus my first paperback purchase since I bought my Kindle in December 2010. It’s The Water Road by Paul Gogarty. It’s an excellent read but it isn’t available digitally. Sally bought a book too and then we had the additional unexpected expense of a Lovefilm monthly subscription that we cancelled three month ago. According to Amazon we didn’t cancel the subscription, we simply took a three month “holiday”. They won’t give us our money back. We also bought some cheap DVDs from Blockbuster £36.75
Car: Just fuel for the car this month – £72.56
This is an example of the monthly expenses detailed in my guide Living on a Narrowboat: The REAL Cost of a Life Afloat. If you’re seriously considering buying a narrowboat to live on it’s an essential read. Some of the costs listed in this article are optional. You may be able to live on less than we do, but many of the costs that apply to us will also apply to you too. Many potential boat owners mistakenly think that a narrowboat floating home is a low cost alternative to bricks and mortar. Nothing could be further from the truth. Please read the guide before you make a very expensive mistake.
This year (2013) is going to be an expensive year for Sally and I. We have a huge amount of work to do to get James up to scratch. I’ve had some of the more major work done already. In November 2011 I replaced the old perished leaking and rotten wooden top with a new steel cabin. Actually, I didn’t replace one with the other. I had the new steel added on top of the existing cabin, and added another layer of insulation between the two. Removing the existing wooden cabin would have meant destroying much of the woodwork inside the cabin. James is beautifully fitted inside. Removing the woodwork would have been a tragic, almost criminal waste.
The new steel work, transportation and remedial work cost roughly £10,000. The transport alone was £1,100 for a delivery to and collection from a boatbuilder just eight miles away. The boatbuilder didn’t have any lifting gear on site so the road haulage company had to provide a crane too.
In April 2012 I took James out of the water to black the hull. Two days of dirty, back-breaking labour saved me the £500 that I would have been charged if I had asked Calcutt Boats to do the work for me. After James was put back in the water, I took her into one of our paint tents, took three weeks off work and painted the rest of the boat. It was a frustrating but ultimately rewarding project which resulted in a half decent finish and which saved me a fortune. As a ball park figure, you can bank on £100 a foot to have your boat painted by the professionals. James, at 62′, would therefore have cost me over £6,000 for a “proper” job. As it was, the cost of the materials plus the hire of the paint tent was under £1,000.
So I started 2013 with steelwork to the top and to the bottom of the boat with a decent layer of paint. The hull needs doing every three years so I next need to do it mid 2015. The cabin should last five or six years at least if it’s looked after properly, which brings me to January 2013 and my expenses for the month. Here they are…
Electricity: Each mooring has a 230v electrical supply which is charged at 20p per unit and topped up cards available from our reception. I generally buy 3 x £10 electricity cards at a time. I bought cards twice this month. My electricity purchases should be significantly reduced in March when I have the solar panels fitted. Time will tell. – £60
Gas: I should have known better. I ran out of gas in January. I have two 13kg propane cylinders in the front gas locker. When one runs out I usually buy a replacement on the same day. I forgot in December so when the smell of gas alerted me to the fact that the cylinder in use was on its way out on a bitterly cold January morning, I scrambled out of the boat to the gas locker to (I thought) quickly switch from the empty to the full cylinder. Both were empty so there was no morning cup of coffee, and no toast. I wasn’t happy. Consequently, I bought two cylinders later than day. – £45.90
Coal: I get a better deal if I buy ten bags at a time. Ten 25kg bags of Pureheat last me about a month – £108
Mooring: My mooring costs £2,300 a year – £191.66
Maintenance & Repairs: There were no maintenance and repair expenses as such in January, but I did make a purchase to help me when I’m out cruising. I bought a folding bike. Folding bikes are very handy for getting to and from the local shops, or returning to a parked car so that it can be brought to the boat’s current mooring. You can pay £500 or more for a new folding bike. The one I bought was being sold by the owners of a narrowboat we have on brokerage. It’s very comfortable, but basic Apollo folding bike from Halfords. The list price is £149 but this one has had Derailleur gears added. The cost to me? – £65
Heating the boat increases my monthly outgoings during the winter. In January I spent £108 for coal and about £30 more than I would during the summer on electricity. The increased electricity cost is due to two 500w Dimplex Coldwatcher greenhouse heaters that I use to provide additional heat towards the rear of the boat where the stove’s heat can’t reach.
The total directly boat related regular expenses this month were £213.90 for heating and electricity and £191.66 for my mooring, a total of £427.80. Then of course there was the bike purchase bringing the total to £492.80.
Of course, the boat expenditure is only a part of the cost of life on the boat. Here’s what we spent on our day to day expenses in January
Internet: I use the excellent mobile broadband dongle from Three. For the last two and a half years, since my bankruptcy, I have been using the Pay As You Go option because my credit rating wasn’t pretty. The PAYG service costs £25 for 7GB per month. I’m connected 24/7 as I’m aditing the site early morning, on breaks from work through the day, and in the evening. Sally has an iPad. She’s online quite a bit too. Consequently, we often ran over the monthly allowance. Over the last 12 months I’ve been trying my luck by attempting to order a dongle on a 24 month contract. In January I was successful. My mobile broadband now costs me £15.99 a month for 15GB rather than last year’s average of £29.69 a month. – £15.99
Telephone (Mobile): Sally and I both have mobiles on contract and Sally has an iPad, also on contract – £115
Laundery: Calcutt Boats as two washing machines and a dryer for moorers’ use. We only use the washing machines. Sally hangs the damp washing inside the boat. It’s dry within 24 hours. The washing machines take tokens which we buy at reception. Each token costs £1 and keeps the washing machines going for 45 minutes. – £20
Groceries: We eat well but not extravegantly. £366.40
Eating out: We enjoy a coffee in a cafe and the occasional meal out. In January we had a meal in local pub, a fiery chicken feast in Nandos in the Bullring, Birmingham and a coffee in a canalside cafe – £81.60.
Entertainment: I love to read. I love my Kindle. It’s so easy to finish a book, use my laptop to browse through the Kindle books on Amazon, click a button and open my new book within a minute or two. I don’t read as much as I would like because of the time I spend adding content to this site. However, I still get through three or four books a month. We also buy second hand DVDs from Blockbuster about once a month. The local store sells four for £10 – £32.50
Car: The insurance on my Seat Althea was due in January (£298). I don’t use my car very much so just £31.10 for fuel – £329.35
Clothing: I try to spend as little as possible on clothing but in January I needed a new pair of wellies and a fleece hat – £58.49
My total none-boat-related living costs for January were £1,019.33 bringing my overall total for January to £1,512.13. I fear that the totals for the coming few months are going to be far more than that with the improvements we have planned but what a lovely boat James will be when she’s finished!
Do you want to live on a narrowboat because you think it’s a low cost alternative to living in a house? Living on a narrowboat is a fantastic lifestyle choice but the cost is possibly a little more than you expected. In this article ALL of the costs are detailed and explained.
Below, I have detailed the general narrowboat costs that you will incur followed by some specific costs that I have faced since moving onto narrowboat James in April 2010.
Your narrowboat will probably be your largest financial investment after your dry land home. If you want a brand new narrowboat designed and fitted out to your own specifications you can pay in excess of ?100,000. You will be able to pick up a decent second hand boat of about 60′ suitable for living aboard for about ?40,000.
The majority of narrowboat owners have a boat in addition to a house. Some though fund the cost of their boat from the sale of their house. Whichever way you choose to fund your boast purchase, make sure you include any monthly finance repayment amounts in your calculations.
Here’s a great place to research narrowboat designs and prices. Last time I looked, there were eight hundred narrowboats for sale.
Insurance for your boat is a legal requirement. You can find a list of narrowboat insurers here. Please note that your intention to live on your narrowboat and the age of the boat will have an impact on the insurance cost so must be declared.
Your car needs an MOT both as a legal requirement and as a regular check to make sure that it is safe to use. Your narrowboat needs a Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) Certificate when it is four years old and every four years after that. Here’s some very good information about the examination, the likely cost and what you need to do to prepare for it.
You have to buy a British Waterways license if your narrowboat uses the canals of England and Wales. The fee is dependant on the length of your boat. At the time of writing (November 2010), the annual fee for 62′ long James is ?804.48 with an ?80 discount for prompt payment. You also need to pay a fee to use the rivers that connect some of the canals (e.g. the Thames). British Waterways is responsible for river Avon, Soar, Ouse, Severn and Ure. The Environment Agency controls river Thames, Medway, Nene, Great Ouse, Ancholme, Glen, Welland and Stour. British Waterways offer their Gold License which allows you to travel on all the waterways controlled by British Waterways and the Enviroment Agency. The 2010 fee for a 62′ narrowboat is ?967 for payment in full or ?1,039 if paid by direct debit installments. You can find more details about British Waterways licenses here
River Canal Rescue offer breakdown cover for boat owners. They offer three levels of cover; bronze, silver and gold ranging in cost from ?55 to ?160 a year.
Bronze cover simply registers your boat on their database. You pay additional fees for call outs and for towing you to the closest marina if they can’t easily repair your boat. Silver and Gold membership give you additional services and benefits such as an annual engine inspection (rather than a service).
It’s essential cover for you if you don’t like to get too close to your engine or if your craft is a little long in the tooth.
Mooring fees vary enormously but you can get an idea of the likely fees by the mooring location and the facilities on offer. A bankside mooring with no water or electricity is going to cost far less than a spacious mooring in a picturesque marina with all mod cons. At Calcutt Boats the fee for the older Locks marina is roughly ?2,090 for a 60′ boat. In the newer more spacious Meadows marina the standard piers are ?2,300 or ?2,683 for the 70′ moorings.
Mooring fees are usually based on a single advance payment. There are often options to pay quarterly or monthly but they ill cost you more. Please note that many marinas also charge an additional amount for “high usage” so make sure you check the small print before you commit yourself.
I don’t use diesel heating so don’t have any first hand experience. Work colleague and fellow moorer Anthony on his posh boat Second Sister does. He claims that he uses an average of 1/4 litre per hour over a 24 hour period or six litres per day. Diesel for heating is currently 78p per litre at Calcutt Boats.
I don’t get out much so use very little propulsion duel. I am reliably informed though that, when cruising, you will use 1 – 1.5 litres of diesel per hour. Propulsion diesel is currently about ?1.30 per litre
Please note that when you pay for your diesel, you will be asked to sign a declaration. Not all boats have separate tanks for propulsion and heating so the boatyard doesn’t know which part of your boat will use the fuel. Propulsion and heating diesel are identical but attract different levels of duty. The accepted split is 60% propulsion, 40% heating. So, if you put 100 litres into your tank, you will be charged 60 litres at the propulsion rate (about ?1.30 per litre) and 40 litres at the heating rate (78p per litre). However, some boatyards allow you to declare a different split. In theory, you can declare 100% for heating and pay for all of your fuel at the lower rate. In case of a government inspection though you need to be able to justify it.
Every two to three years you will need to take your boat out of the water to “black” the hull. Blacking is a term used for the process of applying several coats of bitumen or other coal tar based paint to prevent rust. You can paint the hull yourself or ask a boatyard to do it for you. Either way, your boat will need to be removed from the water so that the work can be done. You should budget ?400 – ?500 for both removing your boat and having the work done for you.
Just like your car, your boat needs to be serviced. And just like your car, the cost of those services can vary enormously. Here at Calcutt Boats, the cost of a service ranges from ?60 – ?160 plus parts.
The costs detailed below are real costs. Every narrowboat related expense has been recorded by me since moving aboard narrowboat James. Each narrowboat’s day to day running costs will vary depending on the boat’s age, condition and equipment on board and equipment usage so let me tell you a little about James.
In boating terms, James is an old girl. Built in 1975 with a steel hull and composite top, she’s 62’ long and has seen better days. James hadn’t been used more than two or three times in the previous ten years before I started to live on board full time in April 2010. Consequently she was in need of some TLC and was very damp.
Because she hadn’t been used or maintained for such a long time, the windows and roof vents leaked and there was water seeping into the boat through the skin. The solid fuel stove (which heats four radiators along one side), had a cracked glass plate and leaks in the flu.
All of the above meant that keeping warm and dry was a problem. The stove has now been refurbished and the windows and roof vents sealed. I think that there’s still a leak somewhere on the roof channelling water behind the cladding, which ends up under the floor of the rear cabin. Consequently I need to run a dehumidifier pretty much full time to combat the damp.
As I said, every boat has differing factors which will impact on the running and maintenance costs. In addition to the boat’s age and the condition, the type of equipment used and how much it is used will also play a part.
Whoever designed the heating on James liked to cover all available options. In addition to the solid fuel stove, there are four radiators – powered by the stove – plus gas heaters and an electric radiator. I also have a Dimplex greenhouse heater and a 1200w halogen heater for emergencies. There is a Paloma gas powered “on demand” heater which supplies an unlimited amount of scalding hot water.
The hob, oven and grill are all gas and are powered by two 13kg Propane cylinders. The two cylinders do me for about two months.
How much time you spend on board will have a direct impact on your fuel consumption, as will your eating and cooking habits. The costs I have listed below are based on the following…
On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday I get up at 05:15, shower, have a quick breakfast of tea and toast and work on the web site until 07:30. From October onwards the stove is burning coal twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Overnight and when I’m away from the boat I have the stove turned down as low as possible to ensure that it’s still alight when I return. The maximum period is between ten and eleven hours. I come back to the boat for lunch and a cup of coffee, then return after work just after 5:30 and generally stay there for the evening.
I use the gas for a shower every day, three or four kettle boils, toast in the morning, grilled meat or fish four times a week and a roast of some kind once a week. I don’t ever use the gas fires because they produce “wet” heat which contributes to the damp.
My electricity is provided via a metered shore supply which charges the boat batteries for lighting. The shore power also allows me to charge my laptop/phone/electric razor, listen to the radio (I don’t have a television), power two Dimplex Coldwatcher 500w heaters (on all the time) and run a 620w dehumidifier for two hours a day.
The graph below shows the actual costs incurred for gas, coal and electricity since moving onto James in April 2010. The costs are updated on the graph at the end of each month.
Your stove will burn either wood or coal. Personally, I steer clear of wood. It’s more bulky than coal so needs more storage space than I have available. My stove is also on the small side so I would struggle to fit logs in.
I use coal. I’ve tried a number of different brands and types but the ones I’ve stuck with is Pureheat. Pureheat is a manufactured smokeless fuel sold in 25kg bags of goose egg sized ovals. Pureheat produces more heat than wood or housecoal, burns away to a powder so doesn’t clog up the grate (and put the fire out) and is less messy. A bag of Pureheat usually lasts me just under three days although in December with so many sub -zero days and ridiculously cold nights, I was using a bag every two days. The cheapest supplier I can find charges ?9.50 a bag.
My gas consumption has remained pretty steady over the last ten months. I only use gas for cooking and to supply hot water dish and body washing so the cold weather doesn’t alter the amount I use. One 13kg cylinder lasts me a month and costs about ?22
My electricity costs dipped to just about zero in July. It was the only month as far as I can remember when I didn’t have to plug either heaters or dehumidifer in. I was also away from the boat for a week. The electricity costs appear to be very high for December. However, although December was very, very cold most of the reason for the increase is because I was away for ten days. I didn’t want there to be the slightest chance of the electricity running out so I put extra on the meter before I left. I then didn’t buy any more until 10th January (the graph shows May 2010 – April 2011)
Mobile of course. Reception varies wildly when you’re on the cut. I have very poor reception with Three on my mooring. I can only make and receive calls from one spot halfway between the dining and the seating area. I just about get a signal there. I tend not to use a phone much anyway (no friends) so my mobile phone cost is about ?15 per month.
A connection to the internet is one of life’s essentials as far as I’m concerned. I update the web site daily, send out newsletters, stream TV programmes from BBC iPlayer and the ITV and channel 4 equivalents, tweet on @narrowboatlife and search for information.
I use a mobile broadband dongle from Three. They have a coverage checker on their web site and even though the site indicates that there is limited connectivity for my postcode, I rarely have a problem with my connection. Sometimes my broadband is a little slow but most of the time I can stream TV programmes and films. Three offer pay as you go top ups of 500MB for a day or 1GB, 3GB and 7GB for a month. I use the best value 7GB top up which usually lasts me the full month (I’ve just checked on my current usage. I’ve actually used 6.5GB in twenty days. I know that is unusually high and is because I’ve watched a few data hungry films.)
So now you know what it costs to live on a narrowboat. At least, you know what it costs me to live on one. I’m sure that many narrowboat owners with newer, better insulated boats will pay less than me for heating fuel and electricity. But they will have paid more than me for their narroboat.
I hope you find this guide useful – and I hope the costs haven’t put you off. I love living on a narrowboat. I hope you do too.
I finished writing this post in February 2011, just over a year ago. I thought it would be a useful exercise to review the figures quoted above to see if they have changed after the second year of living aboard.
When I moved onto James two years ago, the boat was cold and damp in all but the warmest weather. The damp was due to water seeping – sometimes pouring – through the four joins in the roof and then dripping through the internal cladding in heavy rain. The plywood cabin sides had also seen better days. James is moored broadside on to the prevailing south-westerly wind so on the port (weather) side of the boat the ply had deteriorated so much that water leaked through the window surrounds in wet and windy conditions.
I didn’t want to replace the cabin because James is very well fitted inside with piranha pine cladding and plenty of cupboards and shelves. The best solution then was to overplate the existing cabin with 4mm steel. While the work was being done by local boat builder Reeves, I took the opportunity to fit a layer of one inch polystyrene between the existing masonite and the new steel.
The work was completed in early November and what a difference it has made. The new steel means that James is now totally waterproof and the additional insulation has made a huge difference to the boat’s heat retention. And the boat is now more secure too. In addition to the roof and sides, new rear, side and front doors and new rear and side hatches were fitted. The new steel side hatches replaced the old deckboard hatches that could just be lifted off (locked or not) to gain access to the boat.
I was very pleased with the work, and very pleased with the price. A new lease of life for James for just ?6,500 + VAT. Of course, that wasn’t the total cost. James had to be lifted out of the water and transported eight miles to Reeves in Bishops Itchington, about eight miles from the marina. The transport costed a staggering ?500 each way.
There was also a fair amount of preparation and post fitting remedial work that needed doing. All of the windows, the roof vents, chimney, navigation lights and headlight had to be removed prior to the work and then refitted to the new steel cabin when James returned. Of course, there was then a 2″ gap between where the windows had fitted into the masonite cabin originally and where they ended up in the new steel cabin. Roger, our carpenter, did a fantastic job fitting a hardwood surround to all ten windows.
As you can see from the graph above, from September 2010 to February 2011 I spent ?643.48 on coal. The expenditure was before the cabin was overplated and during one of the worst winters on record when, even with the stove operating at maximum capacity, I often had to resort to wearing a hat and two thick fleeces when I was working in my “office” twenty feet away from the fire.
This winter the weather has been much milder. In fact, of the three winters that I have been working at the marina, it’s the mildest by far. I think that there have been no more than 15-20 nights when the night-time temperature has been below freezing. Milder temperatures, no damp and more insulation around the cabin have had an impact on my coal use. From September 2011 to February 2012 I spent ?292.09
My gas consumption has remained pretty much the same. In the first year I spent ?163.16. The second year was ?194.14. The increase is due partly to the increase in the price of gas but more because of my increased use. My girlfriend Sally is now spending most of her time on the boat. She wasn’t even sure what a narrowboat was before she met me. She liked her clothes and had dozens of pairs of shoes, pairs of designer jeans and expensive handbags. Now she’s supremely happy traipsing along the towpath in her scruffiest jeans and wellies with her two spaniels Charlie and Daisy. Anyway, I digress. The increase in use is due to her having a shower twice a day.
My electricity costs are down too. I spent ?520 in year one and ?345 in year two. I use far too much electricity. Our carpenter, Roger, lives on board a similar length narrowboat to me and uses just ?5 a month to light his two table lamps. I don’t yet have an inverter so I am totally reliant on my connection to the marina supply for any mains appliances. I don’t have a secondary heating system on the boat so, when the weather is too warm to have the coal fire burning but to cold not to have any heating at all, I have to use my two Dimplex 500w greenhouse heaters.
I have an electric radiator in my bedroom at the rear of the boat. I used to leave it on all the time but over the last six months I have been turning it on just for an hour or two before I go to bed. I have also stopped using the dehumidifier now that the boat is no longer damp. That’s been a significant saving on electricity.
I didn’t quote any figures for repairs and maintenance in the original post because I didn’t keep very accurate records of expenditure in that area at the time. I do now. I can tell you that since June last year when I started to keep records of repairs and maintenance costs, I have spent ?942.73. Roughly half of this was on a new cratch cover. I paid ?450 which was an absolute bargain. A decent cratch cover normally costs about double that. I knew several boaters who had used this guy and who spoke highly of him. He was as good as they said he was. It’s excellent. If you want his name and number, please let me know.
What have I spent the rest on? Normal boaty stuff I’m afraid and stuff that you are likely to spend money on too. I bought paint, sanding discs, white spirit, paint brushes, two new padlocks for the front and rear doors, two spare ignition keys, varnish, a coat rack for the engine room, a power monitor to find out what each appliance was costing me to run, a new Porta Potti to replace the one that was marked by red hot sparks when the new steel work was done, a replacement for the Chinese hat that blew into the marina, a new coal shovel and brush and a set of jump leads so that, if my starter battery fails, I can still start the boat from the domestic batteries.
My next planned expense will be the fitting of an inverter. I would be lost on the cut without one and, this year, I hope to spend more (some) time cruising. But I don’t want the inverter just for cruising. While I’m moored on the marina, my batteries are being constantly charged through the shoreline. I understand that a common problem is with the batteries of boats that have spent months charging their batteries from a mains supply. You need to get into the habit, even on a mooring with a mains supply, of charging batteries from the engine for several days at a time just to check the battery health. I can’t do that at the moment so I’m going to have to raid my piggy bank soon.