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Heating Our Sailboat: Diesel, Electricity or Wood, and What Kind?

Originally published in the C-Tow Newsletter

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed or not, but temperatures have started to drop again. The days are shorter, nights are longer and winter is slowly working its chilly tentacles into our daily lives. For those of us who boat year- round or live onboard, this means that we are already deep into the “what do we need to do to stay warm?” phase of the year.

Keeping warm on a boat is always a balance of many factors. The two big ones are what sources of heat are available and the second is what sources of power are available? Heaters on boats potentially use many different fuel sources from electricity, to diesel, to wood, to numerous other fossil fuels. Each has its positives and negatives. We have lived on three different sailboats and between them we used eight different sources of heat- three space heaters (two boat certified, one not), three different diesel heaters, a wood stove and a forced air heater which uses both electricity and diesel to create heat.

On our current boat we have a Webasto forced air heater, a space heater and a wood stove. Each of those heaters is great in its own way, but also has downfalls. For instance, the Webasto is great when we are at the dock. It is clean, quiet and sends warm air throughout the boat instead of just in the area where the heat is being created. It is quick and easy to turn on and off and safe and simple to run. However, it uses power, the heat from the heater quickly dissipates and it doesn’t do a fantastic job of drying out the boat. Many people absolutely love their forced air heaters and it is our preferred method of heat in the mornings or evenings when at a dock, as well as sometimes at anchor when we don’t have the time to have properly burn a wood fire. During the day while at the dock, we will also keep our space heater plugged in and running at whatever temperature is comfortable for us at the time. It is even easier to turn on and control than the forced air and it only uses one energy source instead of two for creating heat. However, if you don’t have a proper boat heater, space heaters can be extremely dangerous and in the event of a fire won’t be covered under your insurance. They can potentially fall over and cause fires, have overheating cords that cause fires, etc., and they are energy intensive, so they are not the best option for trying cut down on power bills, or for use when running off battery power.

Our third current source of heating on the boat is a wood fire place. This is my personal favourite for many reasons, including the fact that we live in a forest so it’s fairly easy to collect a fuel source. A wood fire doesn’t use any power, so even if we had dead batteries in the middle of nowhere we could stay warm, it dries out the boat quickly and releases ambient heat for hours afterwards. However, it takes a while to get the fire going, has to be stoked once every hour or two and it’s difficult to find an insurer that will insure a boat with a wood stove. Marinas also really don’t want people burning wood while at the dock. Many people also swear by their diesel wall heaters. Out of the three that we have had onboard our boats, only one of them worked as advertised. We found them difficult to light and potentially more dangerous than the other heating sources we have used. Many diesel wall heaters also need power to run their diesel pump and/ or fan, which means you are again depending on two sources of energy to keep warm. However, once they are lit and running correctly they create a lovely heat that nicely warms up a boat, burns efficiently for long periods and creates a lovely ambience.

Regardless of which type of heat you have onboard, being on the water during the winter is amazing when you can stay warm and different heating options work better for different boats and different people. It’s just a matter of figuring out which one will work best for you!

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