Nothing beats a naked flame’s mesmeric beauty. Just the sight of fire warms you to the core. There’s something primeval about it.
There’s a reason why narrowboat stoves are so successful at heating our boats and have been tried and tested for centuries: They work! It’s that simple.
And why are they called stoves when really they’re multi-fuel burners? Well, the name derives from the days when the only cooking source and boat heating was the solid fuel stove.
Narrowboat stoves are relatively cheap to run, have multiple uses, and are super efficient, with some models only losing twenty percent of their heat up the chimney. Also, canal boats suffer from condensation in the winter, and the best way to combat this is through heat. If you can keep your narrowboat at a steady warm temperature, it stops moisture from forming and decreases the humidity levels in the more heated air. Couple that with proper ventilation, and the narrowboat stove could be one of the most effective ways of banishing moisture. Now that has to be kind to your lungs.
Handy Uses of a Narrowboat Stove
You might be surprised to learn there’s considerable movement in the UK, and in other countries, for stovetop cooking. Much like our boating descendants would have done, the stove is a heat source with many uses. Take my advice; get yourself a sturdy cast iron pot with a good lid and give it a go. Last winter, I cooked several casseroles and curries in my cast iron pot. Not only were they delicious (okay, I had help from the wife!), but it was free if you consider the stove was already lit.
Now that’s what I call eco living!
You can even find recipes involving ash can cooking! Baked potatoes are a favorite, and at Christmas, what about hot chestnuts? Mmmn, I can imagine you salivating as I type this!
On a narrowboat, to boil water you need gas unless you’re plugged into a shoreline. Gas is costly, but by placing the whistling kettle on the lit stove, you have another use for a stove’s lovely heat. I know someone who boils their eggs for breakfast on the narrowboat stove.
This one’s a bit controversial because damp clothing adds moisture to the atmosphere, but as a realist, how else are you going to get your clothes dry on a boat mid-winter. The key is not to stand the airer too close to the fire. The clothes should dry just fine in the ambient temperature of the room.
The Best Stove Vs. Size of Boat
Here’s where it gets a bit technical.
A narrowboat stove’s heat output is measured in Kilowatts, or kW for short. To determine the production needed, measure the length, width, and height of your boat’s saloon where the stove is going. Next, multiply them together.
Width x Height x Length
I calculated my boat like this:
3.05 meters x 2.13 x 7.32 meters
This calculation gave me a volume of 47.55 cubic meters or 1,679 cubic feet.
To determine your stove’s kW output, divide the total by either 15, depending on whether you have excellent insulation, or 10 if the insulation is poor.
This gave me around a 3kW output. But remember, you have an entire boat to heat, not just one room, so when buying, it’s better to overestimate the kW output. I always recommend a 5 kW stove to be on the safe side.
It’s fair to say a stove’s heat production matters, but what are other considerations?
For all of the technical calculations about kW and output, one straightforward rule is to look at the stove’s firebox size. Put simply: The more significant the firebox, the more fuel you can burn and the hotter the stove.
So, if you have a widebeam boat, like me, you’ll want the biggest firebox for your money. It also means on the coldest nights, the fire can be banked up, to keep the boat warm until morning.
Now that’s not very technical at all, is it?
Think safety first: Don’t position the stove near access ways, try and avoid placing it near steps (difficult on a narrowboat where space is a premium, I know), and it shouldn’t cause any obstructions.
Also, consider pets and children. Are they likely to come into contact with the burning stove if placed incorrectly?
The other consideration for your stove’s position is heat distribution. On my boat, some bright spark placed it in the saloon’s corner, away from the corridor leading to the bedrooms. This makes the heat distribution difficult.
However, there are ingenious devices to help. Stovetop eco-fans help to move warm air around the boat, and best of all, the energy they use gets generated by the fire’s heat. They’re silent too.
It’s also a good idea to check the clearance of the wall and surrounding cupboards where the stove sits. If surrounding surfaces get too hot due to heat transference, it could ignite.
Narrowboat Stove Safety
Make sure there is a minimum gap of 45mm (~2 inches) between your wall and the narrowboat stove. Also, the wall area nearest to the stove should have a minimum of 25mm (~1 inch) fire retardant board, with a 10mm (~½ inch) air gap between the wall and the board.
Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines when fitting a new stove, and where possible, get the job done professionally.
Regularly check the door seals. The last issue you want is carbon monoxide escaping in such a small space.
Install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide meters (check price on Amazon), but don’t make the mistake of fitting them up high, because not everyone will be as tall as you. And in the bedroom, fit them at breathing height when you’re asleep. They’re relatively inexpensive and might save your life.
Never leave a stove’s door open. Logs can fall out, causing a fire.
What Are the Best Fuels for Narrowboat Stoves?
Multi-fuel stoves are designed to burn coal and wood, and they sure produce the heat needed to chase away the nip of winter; however, burning coal is not good for the environment. Why not choose a greener fuel source.
This stuff is great for the environment. In areas of dense population, smokeless fuel is generally the only accepted form of fuel for stoves. You’ll need a grate in the firebox to get the heat out of smokeless briquettes (check price on Amazon), but coupled with wood; they create a real homely fire.
Good old wood!
It’s plentiful, cheap, and excellent for heating the boat. Most boaters source a lot of their wood along the canalside. Most towpaths border woodland and countryside. I should point out that cutting trees down or removing branches is illegal, but the stuff on the ground is free to anyone willing to collect it.
Top tip: Don’t burn wet wood. It chokes up the stove’s chimney and rarely gets to temperature. Let the wood season and dry, that way it burns super hot. Do mix it with smokeless coal though, for the best results. Wood burns quickly, and coal burns slowly, so the two compliment each other perfectly.
Firelogs (check price on Amazon) are a great alternative to wood. Made from industrial waste products like sawdust, they are pressed into log shapes and coated in wax, just like a giant candle. They produce very little in the way of particle pollution and carbon monoxide, but be careful; they have been shown to be less efficient than wood.
So, they’re cleaner but produce less heat.
You could choose to burn coffee logs, a new alternative on the market. They smell lovely, filling your boat with the aroma of our favorite hot drink.
Narrowboat Stove vs. Other Forms of Heating
Narrowboat stoves aren’t the only way you can heat your craft. There are other alternatives:
Manufacturers like Webasto (check price on Amazon) produce fantastic heating systems and act just like the central heating in homes. They have programmable timers, just like the ones at home, and the heat gets distributed via radiators. The only issue with this system is it runs on the diesel in your fuel tank, and can be costly to run.
Most narrowboats have diesel heating but as a backup source of heat.
Some boaters try electric plug-in heaters (check price on Amazon) as a quick fix for colder nights, and while electric heaters are capable, they are super expensive compared to a multi-fuel stove. They offer instant heat but are not considered a long-term solution.
Again, as a supplement to your narrowboat stove, they are excellent but don’t rely on them.
Similar to Lockgate diesel stoves, some boats use these fitted as an alternative to the multi-fuel stove. The benefit of a diesel stove is it doesn’t burn solid fuel or coal, reducing smoke, ash, and particles in the atmosphere. There is no need to store and season wood, and buying smokeless coal will be a thing of the past. Now that’s got to be good for the bank balance!
The downside: It burns diesel! This is bad for the environment and drains your diesel tank. As for consumption, you’ll use approximately 0.3 liters per hour. So if you’re running the stove in the dead of winter, 24/7, it could severely dent your diesel tank levels.
Diesel stoves often come with attachments to heat your water, which is excellent, but make sure you seek proper separate heating for the summer months because you’re not going to light the stove in 30-degree heat just to get hot water.
The Most Popular Stoves on the Market
This little stove is by far the most popular make found on narrowboats and has been for over three decades. It comes in various sizes, and is reliable, efficient, and has an air of tradition about the way it looks. The Morso Squirrel was designed by a Danish company to withstand harsh Scandinavian winters; maybe another reason why narrow boaters love it so much.
The Squirrel comes in 3 to 5 kW output, and for its size (significant when you live in a steel tube no wider than 6 ft 10 inches), it is compact.
Small and compact, with a sleek design, the hamlet range of Hardy stoves are ideal for small space living. They have a more modern feel, which is fine if you want a less traditional look for your narrowboat. I know plenty boaters who reject the “Roses and Castles” look, opting for a minimalist, modern style. The Hardy fits this bill perfectly.
They come in sizes and output ranging from 1.5 kW to 5 kW. So keeping warm shouldn’t be a problem.
Everyone is familiar with the Aga brand, right? Well if you’re not, you should be. They are famed for their traditional solid fuel kitchen ranges, so often found in farmhouses across the world. Well, unsurprisingly, Aga has a wide variety of multi-fuel stoves, and the smaller ones are ideal for narrowboats.
Stoves like the Little Wenlock model, for example; compact, traditional in appearance, and it throws out 4.7 kW of heat. Not too shabby for such a small unit.
The Aga range offers various options, so if you’re in the market for a narrowboat stove, check out what they have available.
Whether you’re living on a barge or a narrowboat, the multi-fuel stove is an essential bit of kit, especially if you want to stay warm in winter. I wouldn’t be without mine, that’s for sure. They have multiple uses, and best of all, they create a warm, friendly glow in the boat that’s hard to beat.
I for one cannot wait for the nights to draw in dark and cold.
Bring it on!
Mark Weir lives on a canal boat in the heart of England, with his wife, Julie, and his grumpy dog, Eric. Mark likes to travel the waterways in his wide-beam barge, filming his exploits as he travels. Julie paints the wildlife, and Eric likes to bark, mostly.