Many thoughts came together to lead me to write this story about heating systems on boats. The first was my usual annual fall chore of stacking five cord of wood for my own woodstove. The second was taking advantage of some utility rebates to retire my house’s secondary heat source, a 55-year old oil-fired forced-hot-water boiler, before it could expire on its own. Choosing an efficient replacement system before the old one quit has taken some research and learning on my part. And finally, I have been trying to help a crew member find a boat to live on. While he would eventually like to go south with the boat, he will be living on the boat full-time until then, and this led me to think about heating systems for boats.
I can’t imagine living on an unheated boat for an entire winter here in the Northeast U.S. And while I don’t have the experience of extended living onboard a heated boat, I have repaired and installed heating systems on clients’ boats.
There are a few options for heating a boat and they revolve around what type of fuel to use and whether you need a temporary warm-up or a full-time system. For temporary heat you might consider an electric space heater, a kerosene stove, or a small charcoal briquette stove to take the chill off. Obviously, any heating source that consumes oxygen and produces CO has to be properly installed, vented, and provided with a chimney, which is called a “Charlie Noble” on a boat. Even a well-installed combustion stove will pull oxygen out of the cabin if that’s the olny place it can get it, and this is unhealthy. For this reason, I would recommend only stoves that pull in ventilation from the outside air—they will typically be more efficient as well.
If you’re planning to live aboard, and you’re going to the trouble of installing a stove-pipe and a Charlie Noble, you might want to consider a longer-lasting fuel like propane or diesel. Efficient propane gas stoves can run on high heat for maybe 4 days on a 20-pound propane tank (5 hours per pound of propane). Diesel stoves can last even even longer, depending on how big your vessel’s fuel tank is. Adjusting the fuel-to-air ratio of a diesel stove in concert with the temperature of the oil itself is a minor but necessary issue for boaters who might want to leave their boats unattended, yet heated, for any length of time.
The size of your boat, the stove’s BTU output, and its location should be part of your consideration for a stove. On a small live-aboard boat (30-feet) a bulkhead-mounted stove in the main cabin might suffice, but on a larger boat with multiple cabins a multiple-output heater (not a stove) such as an Espar hydronic system might prove the better choice. The final consideration is whether you want to add a domestic hot-water option to the heating system.
For smaller boats with a bulkhead mounted setup I like the Dickinson Marine stove products that are available with either propane or diesel fuel. They have outside air intakes and water-heating options. The base price for these stoves alone starts around $800.
For larger, more yacht-like, installations Espar makes a variety of heating systems that include self-diagnostic controls. These systems can cost in the thousands.
Having an experienced installer put the stove or system in, along with adding insulation to your boat, will make your live-aboard comfort all the greater.