... ... Eight years in an un-assuming narrowboat on the waters of the "longest, friendliest village in England"  

Pentargon has a solid fuel central heating system

Pentargon came with a useless cabin heater running off the on-board gas supply but giving no discernible heat ... so it was removed pipes and all and dumped ... presenting an opportunity to go upmarket, eco-friendly and economical with Pentargon's boat-heating arrangements.  The surveyor had recommended solid fuel heating and I agreed ...

The commonest solids fuels on the cut are 'coal' nuggets and wood.  Coal (real or imagined)  is expensive, dirty, heavy, cumbersome and a damn nuisance ... coal and its derivatives generate huge quantities of unusable and non-recyclable ash, ensure a permanently filthy boat and an awful lot of work, storage and stealing problems ... Raw timber has a similar charge-sheet except, I suppose, you could harvest your own if you know what you are at.   Harvesting, seasoning and storing wood is an art-form and totally impractical on a small narrow-boat.  Pentargon is 36' long, with two cabins, separated by a bulkhead and a door. The forward cabin contains bunks, an under-bed water-tank, utility area, wardrobes and storage.  The rear cabin holds the galley and dining area, more storage and, as mentioned, is separated by a bulkhead and door from the sleeping quarters.    

 "How do you keep warm in winter?"  ...  What would be there to keep one warm in bed when a real winter calls by as in 2018  ...

(photo 2012 by Subject  HAMPSHIRE TESTING

I had come across the Hampshire in a canal forum even before I had bought my boat...  The moderator wondered what anyone thought of the idea ... there was no reaction from some 400 members but I was immediately interested.  They burn lumpwood charcoal (2020-05-24 13.10.18) in a steel firing chamber surrounded by a steel jacket.  Hot air trapped between the skins flows upwards by convection and out at the top.  The unit also radiates measurable heat. Precious little escapes up the flue, the bore of which is not much more than an inch.

Charcoal is a solid fuel ...  what was it the surveyor saidl?  AND! ... it is 'carbon neutral' ...

The "start-up procedure" causes only a wisp of [white] smoke (2020-01-19 14.56.28) to be generated for about ten minutes on start-up and after that none at all (2020-01-21 13.04.08)... Hampshires are designed to totally consume the charcoal, leaving potashThey are eco-friendly, efficient, economical, compact, pleasing to look at, totally safe and perfect for a restricted space.  Having experienced at first hand just how cold it was on board with no heat during the vicious cold snap in early 2012, a Hampshire was acquired immediately and trialled at home.  Once acquainted with the published methodology for firing it up and keeping it going, it went to the boat, where it kept hypothermia at bay with outside temps as low as -6ºC on the run-up to Valentine's Day.  All it needed was a slug of meths and a 'handful' of start-up charge.  This was not be added to until red-hot and smoke free and then the hopper could be topped up with about 1kg ...  which would keep it going for hours.  I found that adding a charge over red-hot coals caused very fine dust to be deposited in the proximity of the heater and out into the cabins.  Cleaning up the mess in June was a nightmare.  Every surface the dust could fall on was covered with a thin black coating of "soot" and potash ... During the cold season, this problem had been suspected but not the extent to which the dust and ash permeated every corner.  Charcoal poured onto hot coals produced an updraught while the top was off.  The dust was propelled into the air, up to the roof and carried all over the boat.  Even the spider's webs were black. 

Next 'season' I tried containing the charge within paper bags.  I'd already discovered how to grade the charcoal by nugget size, removing as much dust as possible in the process OUTSIDE the boat without any help from the published instructions.  Grading by size made it possible to decide how hot a charge might burn for or for how long.  by the ned of that year, I could eke out a charge for up to 10hrs.  Going to bed at 8pm and waking for the shipping forecast allowed two birds to be dealt with and I could go back to sleep if I wanted, knowing the cabin would stay warm til mid-day. The sleeping cabin could be maintained at 14º to 18ºC night and day.  


Summer Sailors have no idea how cold it can be inside an unheated steel canal boat on the cut when it is proper cold in the middle of the night in the middle of the island.  It never came to ice inside the windows, but that was down more to the extraordinary dryness of Pentargon rather than any other factor.  The Hampshire kept the front cabin as cosy and warm as an eider duck's rear end and performed admirably on lumpwood but, at first, the cost was considerable.  I'd bought the first few bags £1.70 a kilo in a local garden centre but when I went back in March, the new stock was £2.  I located their wholesalers in Tottenham Hale but they had no 3kg bags in stock and would not have for many weeks ... 3kg.were crucial for storage and use on board. 

Lumpwood charcoal has almost zero water content and should be kept dry, inside a warm cabin really, under my bed?  Safety-wise it's ok to store under the bed.  There's no fire risk.  Charcoal is slow to anger and if you get a fire on board which lights it, that fire has already destroyed the boat and you have already abandoned ship.  Research got me on to a dockyard in Liverpool where I found 200kg in 5kg bags for 90p per kilo including collection, M6 tolls and even a meal break at Norton Canes.  Pentargon now had an assured on-board supply to cover 150 days of exceptional cold.  It is no credit to "rip-off Britain" that the original charcoal (produced in Norfolk) was put on the market at £2 per kg. while the 90p alternative came from Paraguay AND was a better product.  Cleaner-burning, faster-lighting, longer-lasting.  I mean there is no comparison and I'm kinda sad about the ability of home suppliers to price themselves out of my market.  Still, Paraguay is a poor country and GB is [supposed to be] filthy rich, my [euro] pension ekes well and I get to support a needy South American economy.  There was a sequel.  Sainsburys had a pallet of "lumpwood charcoal" in 5kg bags selling at £1kg in 2013.  Hello!  It's over £2 in the garden centre.  There had to be a catch.  There was!  It contained paraffin accelerator, smoked like fcuk, stank the boat and gave me headache! 

During 2013, the boat came south, during which no further huge improvements were made re dirt and dust.  Experimenting with nuggets of different sizes improved heat control, to a stage where I could gauge exactly how much fuel and in what order of nugget size would give high fast heat for heating up the boat when I'd been away for a few days, or long overnight low heat to last for long periods without attention, when I might be aboard for days on end.  My onboard living pattern was quite unlike London live-aboards.  They either went out to work every morning and returned to a cold boat, or they skulked on board all day over their computers.  My pattern tended to follow a 'three days on three days off' sequence, due to domestic responsibilities in muggles-ville and on-going research in distant libraries.  

For 2014, cowling and ducting was added to channel  heat under the bed by convection and act like an non-electric blanket!  Excess heat warmed the large black plastic water tank under the bunk.  No more heat going to the roof and out the mushrooms. The 'cowling' included marble slabs as heat sinks, with an aluminium apron for ducting and a stainless steel tray underneath.  Hard to describe ... but those who've seen it have been intrigued by the simplicity, efficiency and total silence.  The winter of 2014 was not cold anyway; it was a winter of wind and piss ... it was also the winter I discovered a local source of wholesale lumpwood, after befriending a Turkish restaurateur.  80p a kilo has not changed in five years due to market forces, just eat and an explosion of pizza ovens.  2015 brought a eureka moment, when I realised the published instructions were giving bad advice and that advice was the REAL cause of the layers of ash and dust.  Once the "grape" layer was laid down first in the hopper, nuggets the size of lemons and oranges could then almost fill the hopper and a layer of smallest bits (known on board as cornflakes!) could be all stacked in . . . BEFORE the fire was started. The grading process has since been refined so much it can be done INSIDE the rear cabin with almost no carbon dust discernible. 

 EDIT ENDS 2020 09 03


Air vents on the Hampshire are closed progressively once the grape layer is well under way and the flue is warm to the touch at the top where it exits the roof.  2016 and 2017 gave us a much cleaner boat and experiments were on-going into 2019.  This article is also on-going, readers ... I found a wholesale source of restaurant grade lumpwood available from a canal-side wharf at a right price and I buy it in 10x12kg lots at about 80p a kilo).

WIP 20thOct2020 at Bishops Stortford library