There's a nip in the air

Sunday, October 5, 2014

It was an absolutely glorious September here in London: the warmest in a century and the driest on record. In fact, this September could well have passed through a US airport security checkpoint carrying ID for June or July and not have raised an eyebrow.  And now, as if on cue, October is suddenly properly autumnal.  Seasonal changes are supposed to be gradual, but this year it's as if the Early Sunset switch was flipped and the back-order of brightly coloured, crunchy dried leaves arrived overnight.  I've been busy with a small show at Hampstead Theatre (London readers, go see it) so I haven't been out to the boat in while. However, there was a bit of a clamour for more posts about the boat (here at GSWPL World Headquarters a "clamour" is defined as at least three of the total of eleven GSWPL readers commenting in favour of something), and given the fresh nip in the air, it seemed like an opportune time to talk about boat heating.

I've only been a boat owner for a very short time, but I'd say that there are two questions that everyone asks when they find out I've bought a narrowboat. The first is always "Where are you going to moor it?", which is a topic we'll skip lightly over right now since its a bit of a minefield.  The second is usually something like, "What are you going to do in the winter? Aren't those boats really cold?"  Of course they can be chilly.  A boat has the disadvantage of sitting a foot or two deep in water (of course) which is an excellent way of siphoning off heat. Add to this the fact that most boats aren't overly-well endowed with insulation, which doesn't help matters at all.  The final indignity is that, due to the presence of gas appliances and carbon monoxide producing device on board (like the gas cooker and the wood stove), there are very strict requirements for how many fresh air vents there must be in a boat, and where they are to be located.  So a narrowboat is essentially a steel shell sitting in cold water, riddled with above-the-waterline holes you're not allowed to close.  Not ideal for creating a dry and cozy home.

However, there are solutions!  Right now my boat is equipped with the most basic and reliable of those options, a wood burning stove.  Actually, my stove is what's called "multi-fuel” or “solid fuel” since it can burn wood or coal, which is a great advantage.

The stove in question.

I've had the stove fired up several times since I bought the boat.  Ripping apart some of the more heinous Unabomber decor has provided a reasonable supply of dry wood, and I inherited a partial bag of coal from Nes before he fled to South America.  When it gets going, that stove puts out a lot of heat, but getting it lit properly is by no means an exact science.  At least not for me.  At least not yet.  I've lit many a campfire in my day, but getting a coal fire burning well and evenly is a different ball game.  However, right now it's still a fun diversion starting and tending the fire, and having a roaring fire crackling in the stove is one of the most cozy things imaginable.  I've even managed to get it going well enough that it's still warm to touch the next morning.

However, enjoying poking at a fire on an evening that's just slightly chilly when the heat and light is merely a pleasant addition to a quiet evening is a long way from arriving home late from a long shift in January, when you can see your breath in your own living room and then having to essentially rub sticks together to make warmth to keep yourself alive.  It's all a bit primitive for my tastes.  And when I think about the amount of wood and coal I've burned just running the stove for fun, I'm a bit flummoxed about how to keep enough fuel on hand to have the stove ticking over more or less all the time through the winter.  And there's the question of where to store that amount of wood and bags of coal.  I see quite a few boats with piles of wood on the roof which seems a bit... hillbilly to me.

Some of my boating friends swear by the wood stove, saying it's by far the most reliable method.  Another says he grew up in a house heated by a coal fire and claims you quickly become very proficient at getting it lit and burning efficiently.  A solid fuel stove will also help dry the air in the boat, where humidity and condensation are always an issue.  And apparently a lot of wood can be found by foraging on the towpath when the maintenance crews cut down trees, but that wood then has to be dried and seasoned and stored and chopped and... ugh.  I get exhausted just thinking about it.  It sounds like you'd have to make feeding and tending your woodstove a part time job, which is why I started looking into more advanced boat heating systems.

At the other end of the spectrum from the rubbing-sticks-together method are the highly engineered (mostly German, naturally) gas or diesel burning furnaces.  With names like “Airtronic” and price tags to match, these are tiny things about the size of a loaf of bread, that live in the engine compartment and heat either by blowing forced hot air through small diameter ducts, or by heating water in a separate tank and then pumping the heated water through radiators.  It's the closest thing to the set-it-and-forget-it sort of heating that people have in normal houses.  There are programmable thermostats and you can move the heat to different rooms in the boat, which is a problem with the solid fuel stoves.  Stoves provide a lot of heat for the room they're in, but the bedroom at the end of the boat wouldn't get as much of that heat as I'd like.  The fancy bread-loaf furnaces burn the same diesel that's already in the tank for the engine, so no need for piles of wood on the roof.  The fanciest of the diesel furnaces even come with apps for your phone so you can fire up the furnace as you emerge from the tube station and get things nice and toasty before you ever get on board. Undeniably, there are a lot of advantages to the posh system.

Airtronic and van
Here’s a photo from online of the Airtronic D2, which are popular with people who have camper vans and trailers / caravans.  See? It really is tiny.

So what are the disadvantages?  Cost is one. A complete system with the burner and ducts, properly installed, will end up near the £3,000 mark.  The solid fuel stove is free, since I've already got it.  The machines are also quite noisy - emitting a high pitched sort of whine when they run.  Even though it would be outside under the back deck, having that noise as a background to your life for several months of the year could get tedious.  They also use a fair bit of electrical power to run, which is an important consideration.

The biggest problem, though, is reliability.  Time and again people have told me in person, or I’ve read online that while these systems are great when they work, they require a lot of potentially expensive maintenance and are prone to breaking down.  When I mentioned to the boat mechanic about getting one, he said, quite matter-of-factly, “But you’ll still need the stove for when the other breaks down.”  Not if the other breaks down.  When.  That’s what really pushed me to think about another alternative.  I wasn’t too scared off by the price, since I’ve already decided that I was going to make a point of NOT cheaping out on the parts of the boat that will make it pleasant and comfortable to live on - batteries and battery charging, heating, hot water supply, that kind of thing.  But enough people said enough bad things and the tiny fancy diesel burners that it’s clear I need a third way.

Enter the Refleks stove, a sort of half-way house between the cheap and cozy reliability of the wood burning stove and the expensive fuel efficiency and ease of use of the diesel furnace. Refleks stoves burn diesel fuel, but do so in a stove-style way.  And they come in some very sexy options, including stainless steel.

This is my favourite.  I’ve started calling it the dalek. And that round rail at the top is called a "fiddle rail".  I love that! You can stick a kettle on the top burner to keep hot water on while you've got the stove running.

Yes, they're more expensive than my existing stove - probably about £1,000 installed.  But unlike the wood stove, the Refleks burns diesel from the boat’s existing tank, so there’s no need to forage for wood along to towpath and festoon the boat with piles of deadfall in various stages of preparedness.  And there are no ashes to clean up.  The website claims “instant variable heat output”, though poking around various websites indicates that lighting the stove can be a bit of a process.  But can it really be any worse than piling up sticks and coal and poking away at them hopefully?

And unlike the Ebersbacher type furnaces, there are basically no moving parts to a Refleks stove.  There may be a small pump to pull fuel from the tank, but otherwise, no power draw and no noise.  Maintenance is supposed to be quite simple, and you can get models that have a little round window so you can see the flame and get some of that atavistic coziness that comes from staring at fire.  And you can even get models fitted with what’s called a back-boiler.  That’s essentially a sealed jacket of water that wraps part-way around the back of the stove.  The water is heated by the stove and can then be sent around the boat to radiators to provide heat in other rooms.  (I suppose I should point out here that it's possible to make up a back-boiler system for a solid fuel stove using a jacketed chimney.  But that doesn't eliminate any of the other disadvantages of that kind of stove.)

It really feels like the Refleks stove is the best of both worlds, so the shiny stainless steel dalek stove is currently the top pick for heating on my boat, though purchase and installation will likely have to wait until I’m back from Azerbaijan.  Until then, any time spent on the boat before my departure will be accompanied by the evocative smell of woodsmoke,  somewhat endless poking at reluctant coals, and occasional cursing.  And probably three pairs of socks and a nice wooly jumper worn to bed.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

A couple of small fans will move the heat around the boat fairly well and the price cannot be beat.

Beware one consideration of the diesel furnace is that you and everything you own will stink of diesel.

Go for the sexy German system with the i-phone app. Treat yourself after your next gig when the bank is full again.


Post a Comment