It may be the beginning of March and ever so close to the start of much needed warmer spring weather, but my stove is still in use twenty four hours a day. I use Pureheat, compressed coal briquettes. It burns well, produces plenty of heat and stays alight overnight, but it’s messy. Very messy. It drives Sally mad. No matter how often she races around the boat with a duster (and she races around the boat with a duster very often), there’s a new layer of dust, often within hours. It’s coal dust and the price we have to pay for using very convenient coal briquettes. Because of the constant dust, and because we often get bags of coal with holes in them which let the water in, soak the coal and form an oil coloured liquid in the bottom of the bag which inevitably end up on the carpet, I am always looking for a better alternative.
Waterways World have tested stove fuel this month. It’s fascinating reading if your boat’s main heat source is going to be a solid fuel stove. They tested coal briquettes, wood briquettes, wood, straw logs, newspaper logs and peat. The testers recorded stove heat, room heat and the volume of ash and unburned fuel for each of the products tested. Of all the fuel coal briquettes produced the most ash and unburned fuel. “No surprise there!”, said Sally waving her duster around for the umpteenth time that day. The four wood briquettes tested produced just 8% – 11% of the volume of ash – and possibly dust – produced by the coal. Of course, the heat produced by the fuel is the most important factor and the wood briquettes scored well there too. They actually produced slightly more room heat than coal.
Many boaters burn wood in their stoves. The clinical tests proved what I have suspected for a long time. Even though wood can be sourced for free as you cruise the network, it’s just not practical to use it. Wood, with the exception of ash, can’t be used immediately. It needs to be stored under cover for at least six months so that it can dry out. If the wood you burn isn’t dry, much of the energy produced during burning is used to evaporate the water in the wood rather than producing heat. If you live on your boat you probably don’t have anywhere to store your wood to dry it out. You certainly don’t have the space inside your boat and, unless you have a permanent mooring with dry canalside storage, you don’t have the space outside either. You’ll see many liveaboard narrowboats with logs stored on the boat’s roof. It’s not going to dry there, so it’s not going to burn very well.
The Waterways World testers used wood that had been seasoned for over a year. Even then, the results weren’t very impressive. Seasoned wood only produced about 60% of the heat produced by either coal or wood briquettes.
Peat and newspaper logs didn’t fare very well at all. Peat is difficult to light and doesn’t produce much heat. Newspaper logs may be free to produce yourself once you’ve bought an inexpensive log maker, but they are time consuming and messy to make, leave a lot of unburned ash/fuel and don’t produce much heat.
The best fuel on test appeared to be wood briquettes. As the dust created by our coal use drives Sally mad, I thought I would run my own test to see how the briquettes fare in real life. I’ve ordered two 10kg sample bags from firewoodandlogs.co.uk; one bag of Ecofire high density heat logs and one of their Ecofire oak nuggets. Each 10kg sample bag costs £15 including delivery.
There are a number of factors that will determine whether we switch to heat logs full time. One of them is the cost. The high density heat logs are available singly at £3.99 each, in packs of fifty for £183.75 (£3.68 each) and in packs of 100 for £364.09 ( £3.64 each). The fuel that I use at the moment, Pureheat in 25kg bags, costs me £10.78 a bag. The cost of the heat logs for the same weight fuel is £9.98, £9.10 and £8.27.
The heat logs work of cheaper than my current Pureheat, but it’s not the only consideration. The option I would prefer is the 50 bags at £3.64 each. Where can I store them? I buy Pureheat ten at a time. I store them on the walkway next to the boat. Although the coal is stored in plastic bags to keep them dry, sometimes the bags have holes in them. Wet coal is messy to handle but the fuel still lights easily enough. Heat logs are an entirely different matter.
I use softwood heat logs at the moment. I don’t use them often so a pack of ten kept in a cupboard is enough to provide a quick burst of heat if the boat is cold when I get up in the morning. They’re softwood so they’re not particularly good but they work very well if they’re kept dry. However if they come into contact with water they act like a sponge, expand to twice their size and prove very difficult to light. Heat logs need to be kept completely dry.
Fortunately Sally and I have a storage unit, a twenty foot container, a couple of miles from the boat. We can keep it there and bring two or three bags back to the boat as and when we need it. Storing the bags next to the boat wouldn’t work. Any holes in the bags would render the logs unusable.
I considered buying a sample bag of one of the other heat logs on test, Easy Logs. Unfortunately the supplier, The Briquette Company, doesn’t want to do business with southern softies, or for anyone else outside their immediate area. They’re based in Preston and will only deliver less than 25 bags to the nearby postcodes. They’re expensive too. The equivalent of 25kg of logs cost £13.10 compared with £9.10 for the Ecofire logs that I’ve already ordered.
I’m now waiting for my two sample bags of logs to be delivered. I placed the order yesterday. They emailed me almost immediately to tell me that they were out of stock (because of the WW article?) but would deliver them week commencing 4th March.
I’ll let you know how I get on with them.
Update 2nd March 2013
My 10kg sample bag of Ecofire Oak Nuggets arrived yesterday. I’ve used them already. What a waste of money.
Each oak nugget is slightly smaller than a tennis ball. The first time I used them, I made the mistake of filling the grate with about fifteen of them. The result was spectacular. I had a taste of what it must be like standing in the centre of the sun… on a particularly warm day. We had to throw the doors and windows wide open, remove the Ecofan off the stove top before it took off, and move to the other end of the boat until the heat died down… which took about half an hour. It was an intense, but short lived blast of heat and totally useless for providing a steady heat throughout the boat.
On my next attempt I added just six nuggets to the stove. The heat was less intense, but still too much for comfort even with the fire damped down (by closing the vents). Half and hour later I had to add another half dozen, and so on throughout the day.
Coal briquettes are so much easier and more practical to use. My stove is old and not particularly good. It’s certainly not a patch on the Morso Squirrel which, I’m told, will stay alight for more than 24 hours without any interference. Even so, my stove will stay alight without a problem overnight if I use coal. If I had to rely on the oak nuggets, the fire would last no more than a couple of hours unattended.
The oak briquettes are absolutely useless for providing steady heat. They burn quickly and fiercely. In the Waterways World test there was very little ash or unburned fuel left in the stove at the end of the test. I agree. There was very little residue in my stove either, but what WW didn’t mention was the unburned fuel in the bag. I didn’t weigh it but I estimated that there was between 500g and 1kg of sawdust in the bottom of the bag which in addition to the ash in the stove was more waste than the coal briquettes produced in the test.
I can’t think of any occasion on the boat when I would rather have a bag of Ecofire Oak Nuggets on the boat rather than my regular Pureheat. Coal might produce more dust, but it’s a far, far more reliable heat source.
I’ve just been talking to a fellow liveaboard about the above fuel test. He told me a story demonstrating two very good points. I’ll share both with you. A few years ago, he had to go to Germany leaving his wife alone on the boat. While he was away, the carbon monoxide alarm went off and continued its shrieking all day. She put it under the mattress to deaden the sound and thought nothing more of it. Of course the alarm was making a racket because it had detected dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide inside the boat. Fortunately they weren’t high enough to incapacitate, or kill, his wife.
When he returned to the boat, and recovered from shock at hearing what his wife had done to silence the carbon monoxide alarm, he used a torch to look down his chimney. Wood burning stove flues can suffer from a build up of tar. Coal burning stoves suffer from accumulated soot. He burns coal. I piece of biscuit hard soot had fallen from the flue wall accross the flue which restricted the air flow. It hadn’t caused enough of an obstruction to prevent the coal from burning, but it was enough cause the carbon monoxide to build up to an unacceptable level.
Learn from others’ mistakes before it’s too late;
When I first moved onto James I couldn’t connect to the internet. I had bought a USB dongle to get me online. The instructions were simple. Plug the dongle into your laptop’s USB port, watch the dongle automatically install the required software, and click the Connect button that appears on the screen. In reality it wasn’t quite so easy.
The dongle doesn’t work very well inside a steel box. I had to buy a USB extension lead so that I could hang the dongle out of the window before I could get a signal. I wrapped a plastic bag around it to protect the dongle from the rain. It looked very untidy. The setup is much neater now. I have run the extension cable through some nearby trunking and up through a vent where it is attached to the top of a four foot metal pole I have attached to the roof.
Using the dongle alone, I could get a good internet connection for my laptop, but not for my Kindle, my Galaxy S2 (It’s now well and truly dead. I went for a swim with the phone. Neither the phone nor I enjoyed it. I recovered, the phone didn’t) or Sally’s iPhone or iPad. I bought an Edimax N150 wireless 3G compact router. It works perfectly. All of our devices are now fully connected.
If you’re a Narrowbudget Gold user, here’s a comprehensive account of my expenses for January. Everything’s included. There’s a breakdown of my mooring fees, maintenance and repairs, general living costs and sundry expenses. I’ve listed every penny that I’ve had to spend to keep myself afloat in January.
There are dozens of helpful and interesting articles on the site, but have you found them all? I thought you might appreciate a list of the more popular articles that you can glance through and click on the ones that take your fancy. Here it is.
Now that the forum login problems have been resolved, forum posts and visits have seen a dramatic increase. There’s a wealth of information on the site in general, but if you’re struggling to find the answer to a particular issue, the forum is the place to find it. I’ve listed some of the more popular posts below but if you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask your question on the forum. If you don’t know how to create a post, or if you can’t log in, please let me know. I’ll be more than happy to get you up and running.
Living on a Narrowboat: The REAL Cost of a Life Afloat – Narrowboat costs explained in detail. My own maintenance and living cost on narrowboat James for a full year. Use this information to work out your own costs.
Find out what parts of the canal are closed and for how long. Essential cruising information for you.
Do you need to find a home for your boat? Here’s a comprehensive list of the narrowboat friendly marinas in the UK
Do you want to see where these marinas are on a map? Here it is.
Here’s a map of all the canals on the system to help you plan your route.
Newsletter Archive – Browse through a wealth of useful content in the newsletters over the last year.
Click here to get a FREE copy of “Living On A Narrowboat:101 Essential Narrowboat Articles”
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