Narrowboat Stove Fuel Test
Waterways World tested stove fuel in their March 2013 edition. 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.
Update 20th March 2013
My 10kg sample bag of Ecofire Heat Logs arrived three days ago. The supplier was out of stock when I ordered them and then, when they did send out my sample bag, they went missing in the post. As soon as I reported the problem to them they sent out a replacement bag.
The heat logs are far less messy to handle than the oak briquettes from Ecofire. They’re very dense and hexagonal in shape. The logs were slightly narrower than my stove so I could fit six or seven at a time in the stove if I wanted to. Not that I wanted to. I think the heat would have melted the stove.
While the heat logs lasted longer than the oak briquettes, I still had the same problem with them. The heat they produce is intense but short lived. The stove needed regular attention while I was using them and even with the stove damped down, the initial heat was unpleasant.
If I had to use either the Ecofire Heat Logs or the Ecofire Oak Briquettes, I would choose the heat logs because they are less messy and burn for longer. Would I use them regularly instead of coal briquettes? Not a chance.
The two heat logs that I tested for this article, plus the softwood heat logs that I buy from the Calcutt Chandlery occasionally are OK to use for a quick burst of heat on a cold morning, but they’re practically useless for constant use. They have to be kept bone dry, which is difficult given the limited storage space on a narrowboat and they burn too hot for too short a time. I’ll stick to dusty coal briquettes thank you!
I included a link to this test in the newsletter I sent out on 3rd March 2013. Here’s some additional information provided by site subscribers.
“Like Paul, we normally only burn smokeless fuel in our Boatman 4kw stove. However, as Continuous Cruisers we are not always able to obtain the same fuel two deliveries running and neither are we able to purchase large amounts as we are limited to how much we can store on the roof. With more than 8 bags the boat starts to feel a little unstable.
We find http://www.solidfuel.co.uk/mai…..chants.htm a good place to look for a coal merchant and have had no problems with them finding us although it does take a bit of forward planning, especially during the colder months when it can take up to two weeks to get a delivery slot. We also buy from coal boats but it can be difficult to know their route and also from boatyards/chandleries.
When comparing prices ask the weight of the bags. Last Autumn we needed some fuel and were quoted £12.50 but he would have to drive to his lockup to collect it. After waiting for 45 minutes for him to return we found the bags were only 20 kg rather than the more normal 25 kg making it very expensive coal!
Because of our moving around, we often have to take whatever brand we are offered but our preference is for Taybrite as a good all round fuel. Others we have tried are:
Stoveglow: Stays in overnight well but strange colour ash and smokey.
New Flame: Stays in overnight well but lots of ash and smokey/fumey.
Pure Heat: Seems to differ in quality across the country but generally what it says on the bag.
Real Flame: Very large nuts. Little ash but some smell.
Burnwell: First lot was rubbish. Second was great!
Brightheat: Great but we’ve only found it in the North.
Excel: Larger nuts. Little ash and smell. Hot.
Coalite: Medium sized nuts. Hot but difficult to keep in overnight. Lots of ash.
Phurnacite: Small nuts. Lots of ash. Not easy to keep kin overnight but responds quickly when fire opened up.
There seems to be an opinion that the Smokeless Fuel Regulations don’t apply to boats. This may be so but why would you want to upset land based neighbours, even if you are moving on soon. Too many complaints and we might find those particular moorings closed next time.
http://www.coals2u.co.uk/ is the online site for CPL. We have used it a couple of times when iced in so we know we won’t be moving for a while but you do have to pay in advance and then wait upon CPL s convenience. 10 days the last time we used them in Dudley.”
I have, as a landlubber, been testing some “green” alternatives. I have no figures, but “Hotmax” is good (but will not stay in overnight). At present I am burning “Blazer Logs” – forestry by-products from Scotland and Kent, I think. They are clean and convenient but you have to break them up first as they expand when they burn. They also make similar highly compressed “Bark Logs”, which are supposed to burn overnight – get them lit then shut the stove right down. I have managed to get 7 hours out of one. They are about 60p each – in packs of 5.
As you say, they have to be stored absolutely dry. You probably know all this, but I thought I should give some feedback. I attach a photo of the “Blazer” log and its bark relative, with the labels. (The hand is just for scale).”
“I use Wood & Homefire as the cheapest and most flexible. Any old wood, chopped at home and taken to Odin, with the Homefire burning very slowly and economically (including overnight). Brilliantly clean and easy.” James Ellis
“If you don’t burn logs and have the correct fire bricks for using a ‘solid fuel’, suggest you try ‘Phurnacite’. Don’t know the availability & may be more expensive, but in the long run … You’ll always have trouble burning solid fuels in a fire with firebricks designed for wood as everything will burn but tend to overheat, but the other way around, … wood will NEVER give the heat of solid fuel, but providing your firebricks are correct then suggest Phurnacite if you can obtain it … It’s a sod to get going, but once it is well alight it goes on and on …” Nigel Dalby