Owlpost #2: Heating geekery

Apparently Thomas Jefferson once said “The glow of one warm thought is to me worth more than money.” Well that’s nice for him, but at the risk of being shallow, we might coin that phrase a little differently: the glow of our one warm thought in the last fortnight is potentially worth £3000.

The final hurdle to making our boat habitable for the winter is the diesel boiler that runs the central heating system. This is the beast:


The blue box makes fire a bit like a jet engine, from a spray of diesel. That heats up the red box (the boiler proper) which does the heat exchanging to the water pipes that feed the radiators. Pretty simple… in theory.

Our boiler however (along with the rest of the boat) was left unattended for several years on some lonely mooring in northern Holland and the pipework froze. That caused several pipes to pop around the boat…

broken pipe

…and also resulted in the chimney falling over, causing lots of rain to fall into the boiler chamber. So now it looks like this.

boiler innards

The rusted mouth of hell, no less. So our challenge was to try and resolve all these problems without having to fork out for a new one to the tune of the scary big number above.

Challenge #1: Finding a man to help…

Should be simple. It wasn’t. There are all sorts of regulations about boilers (for good reason) but they’re made much more complicated by being on a boat and the ever encroaching presence of the Boat Safety Scheme which I’ve not yet heard any boaties say a good word about. In this instance, all the heating companies I spoke to said they stopped getting certified for boats because it’s too niche to bother with the cost. A couple of independent guys looked at the photos above and said they wouldn’t take it on as they couldn’t guarantee they could get it to pass the certificate. As I understand it, the two dangers are carbon monoxide poisoning and flue fires. Bought two new alarms the other day and we’ll make sure the chimney is swept. So on that basis we’re ploughing on with getting the beast working.

After some further enquiries we found a marine engineer called Mark Mead who, aside from being a thoroughly nice guy, is very knowledgeable about a hell of a lot of things.

Challenge #2: WATER

Ahead of Mark’s arrival I installed a new diesel line from the temporary fuel tanks and almost fixed the main break in the pipe work. He introduced me to something called Boss White and we pushed on. The next hour or so was spent turning on the feeder tap and running around the boat listening for the sound of water running into the bilges, desperately shouting STOP! every time we heard a drip. (So far) we found two more leaks caused by the freeze – one was another joint which was easily fixed, but the other culprit was the radiator in the captain’s cabin that has cracked. I bought a couple of Speedfit elbows and we bypassed that.

Challenge #3: FIRE

On Mark’s first visit we didn’t manage to get the blue box to do its jet engine routine. To his credit, he has been puzzling over it since, waking up in the night (I like a guy that can’t put a puzzle aside). On his second visit though, he cracked it. The fire is dependent on electricity and there were several points of failure. Despite sourcing a new control unit for the blue burner, the fault finally lay with one of two junction boxes on the back of the boiler. Cleaning a dirty contact enabled electricity to flow from one end to the other and suddenly the engine did its jet-thing. Unfortunately a plastic bucket I’d put over the broken chimney stack to stop the rain became a small sacrifice to the boiler gods in the process.


Challenge #4: WIND (and three other things)

So the final things to do before we are roasty toasty are:

  • Fix the chimney – found the most of the bits in the junk pile at the front of the boat. Just have to do the reading to make sure it’s the right length to “get the correct amount of draw” i.e. so the nasty gases feel compelled to leave and not hang around (looks like it might need a few inches more height).


  • Replace the faulty circulation pump – Mark has a spare (result!)


  • Reconnect the timer (simples)


  • Replace the broken fire bricks


I thought this would be difficult because they’re a specific size and shape for this brand of boiler, so I emailed this snap off to the guy at the boiler manufacturer hoping he sells spares. After a bit more research however, I found out they’re generally made of vermiculite which (aside from being useful in gardens) is sold as large boards and is fairly easily cut and shaped. So I think I’ll just make the replacements (unless Mr ACV comes back with a super-cheap price). This is also good thing to know about if you’re ever building a pizza oven.

So that’s the story of the heating boiler. Hopefully by the next post we’ll be wandering around in our smalls.

This is the Owl. Over and out.


2 thoughts on “Owlpost #2: Heating geekery

  1. Joods says:

    I am in total awe of your accomplishments. I have been trying to find a plumber to fix a shower and to install a water softener thingy and have drawn blanks. How come you fall upon a Mark just like that. It ain’t fair!
    Love to the warm as toasties. Joods

  2. This is an amazing revelation about the reality of living on a boat. Yet it is the nitty gritty of what has to be done. You are showing great talents, Owl, in being able to get your head around what needs to be done. Good luck. May all this machinery hum along soon enough.

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