Living off grid on my small narrowboat was great fun but, as we’ve seen previously, requires some planning ahead to make sure you don’t run out of essentials like water, gas and electricity. It’s not hard, just a way of thinking ahead that in a “traditional” western home you don’t need to bother with as mains services are always available.
Well, usually available… I was disturbed from my studies one evening by the sound of a woman screaming hysterically nearby. Hurrying out on deck I could see that across the canal a woman was screaming in the street at the door of her neighbour. The houses were fairly new, a block of four built in between canal-side factories that were now sadly unused. The cause of her hysteria was that her electricity was off and she couldn’t watch something or other on TV. I just shook my head in disbelief and went back down below deck to continue studying by the light of the various candle lanterns I’d acquired over the first few months living on board and congratulated myself on my superiority.
Pride, as they say, comes before a fall, and I guess I shouldn’t have gloated so much. I’d spent most of the previous 25 years living with those same mains services myself and in particular with gas central heating keeping me warm in the winter. So perhaps naively I assumed that my 2 gas heaters would suffice on my boat: why wouldn’t they, it was a small enough area to keep warm. There are 3 problems with bottled gas that I know of,
- You need adequate ventilation to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. This sounds simple but when it’s cold outside the last thing you want is to have a window or two open losing much of the heat you’re getting from the fire.
- Burning gas in an unflued appliance leads to a great deal of condensation.
- The colder it gets the lower the pressure of the bottled gas until it eventually becomes unusable.
Most boaters have propane as it can be used at lower temperatures than butane but in my experience the -40 degree “freezing point” quoted for propane is completely unreliable. I found this out to my cost after being away for a few days when the temperature outside dropped dramatically in my first winter on board. I remember huddling over the gas heater in sub zero temperatures, trying in vain to get it to light: it just wouldn’t. The longer I tried the colder I got and the more I was shivering, making it increasingly difficult to hold a match near the ignition point. I don’t remember how long I tried to get that heater going but I eventually gave up. It could have been a pretty dire situation with everything frozen, no water, no cooker, no shower etc but fortunately this wasn’t a survival situation and I had friends who put me up in their nice warm, centrally heated, mains connected house until I could remedy the problem with what is obvious in hindsight, the fitting of a wood burning stove.
That stove was my pride and joy. It heated the confines of my 30 foot boat to a degree of luxury that was almost unbelievable. When I’d meet new people at work and say I lived on a boat the first comment most of them made was “that must be cold in the winter”. Cold? It was like a sauna in there! From the first frosts of autumn to the end of the cold of the winter the stove only went out if I was away for more than 12 hours at a time. It was pure luxury waking up in the depths of winter to a warm, dry boat, with a kettle almost at boiling point for that first cup of tea of the day. I spent many peaceful evenings with the stove door open watching the wood burning brightly near my feet. Of course it required work, knowing when to riddle the ashes, top up the fuel and empty the ash pan, then there was a lot of cleaning to do as it’s messier than a gas boiler but the satisfaction of a wood burning stove is something that has to be experienced to understand. It can also be virtually free to run if you have the time to collect and prepare the wood yourself.
As I was working full time I tended to use coal to keep the boat warm and wood for those luxury times spent dossing in front of the fire but in a grid down situation where coal might not be available wood could easily keep you warm indefinitely. Keeping the chimney swept was also very easy as it’s such a short metal tube, something pretty much anyone can do in a few minutes either standing next to the boat on the bank or from the boat roof.
The confined living area of a small narrowboat is the reason it’s so easy to keep warm with a wood burning stove. I know there are stoves available to run radiators but if you can cope with a small home things become far easier.
More to come in Pt 4