We never know exactly when it will come. It finds a way into the corner of every conversation, in the back of everyone’s mind. The first falling leaves trigger a countdown and set a series of preparations into motion. One climate model predicts a warmer than average winter, another anticipates record snowfall. Yet regardless of what we lead ourselves to believe, we set a course of action; hope for the best, plan for the worst. The skier within hopes for heavy snowfall, but plans for another year of ice in New England. Paradoxically, as a liveaboard, I hope for moderate temperatures but prepare for the brutal cold.
Living aboard is a decision to face challenges in pursuit of happiness and freedom. These challenges become exaggerated when you live in a harsh northern climate like Maine. Therefore the plan, from day one, was to invest in a reliable and robust heating system. We intend to make this a way of life for years to come, and we want to live in Maine. As you do when you live in cold climates, we regard heat as essential, not a luxury. This puts us in a unique situation as most marine heating systems are designed to extend the summer sailing season, not to make a habitable winter abode. Immediately after bringing the boat home, the process of heating the boat began.
I took to the internet and searched for a way to keep the boat warm. I wanted a permanently installed system that burned diesel. Our previous experience with a 12V forced air diesel heater had been fantastic so I started with the usual suspects, Espar and Webasto. I had concerns about the efficiency of forced hot air and my research confirmed that it was inferior to hydronic heating. Hydronic refers to a system in which loops of hot water are circulated throughout the boat to a series of radiators or fan heaters. These water loops are able to retain their heat much longer and allow the system to heat the boat long after the boiler has stopped firing. The less the boiler runs, the less fuel it uses. As an added bonus, hydronic systems allow you to coordinate the heating efforts of the boiler with your water heater and engine. When tied into your main heating loop the boiler can heat your hot water and pre-warm your engine. Likewise, your engines latent heat can be captured to heat your potable water and heating system.
After weeks of intense research, comparisons, and pricing considerations, I reached out to Sure Marine Services in Seattle. I was impressed by the wealth of information on their website, their recommended kits, and breadth of equipment for cold weather liveaboards. I had my mind set on a 12V Webasto Hydronic system. I should warn you, a heating system like this is a substantial investment. As such, I wanted a system that would perform in brutal cold, be reliable, but not restrict our mobility. The Webasto is a 12V heater, meaning it can be run at a mooring just as easily as the dock, especially with our solar and wind capabilities.
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Sure Marine Services (SMS) offered to calculate the BTU requirements of the boat, help me choose an appropriate boiler, and design a system. Based on the information available on their website, I had run some calculations and was anxious to see how they compared to the companies recommendations. As it turns out, they recommended an Olympia OL-60 Boiler, not a Webasto.
Slightly confused, I scrambled to the website to examine the boiler. How had I missed this option in the hours of poring over the website? Finally, I found it and realized why I had overlooked it. While this was a diesel fired boiler similar in output to the Webasto, it operated on 120V AC power, not the 12V DC power I had been looking for. I immediately got on the phone with SMS and voiced my concern. I do not want to be a liveaboard forever tethered to the dock.
Well, as it turns out, the Olympia boiler does operate on AC power, but it only draws a very small current, an amp or two. It can be run off of an inverter, given a reasonable battery bank and battery charging capabilities. I was skeptical, to say the least, so I took some time to compare the numbers. Not surprisingly, they were correct, the two systems were comparable in terms of electrical consumption. They were also similar in initial cost.
Cost and electrical consumption aside, what are the deciding factors? It essentially comes down to service and reliability. While I have had excellent experiences with an Espar heater in the past, they are known for their mandatory regular service, which can be expensive. These types of heaters are well made, but constructed with specific and hard to acquire parts. The Olympia boilers, however, are constructed with easy to repair and replace parts. They are constructed largely of Honeywell components, making service and repair much easier. SMS also claims a much longer service life for the Olympia boiler.
We picked through the system quote from SMS, made a few changes to accommodate the space available on the boat, and placed our order. Shipping from Seattle required freight trucks and coordinating delivery with the marina; the boiler alone weighs in just shy of 200lbs. We were in for a long wait as the boiler was delayed at the factory. Our installation schedule was severely delayed, at no fault of SMS, as we awaited the boiler which was drop shipped direct from the manufacturer. Like a Christmas come early, we tore into the packages and inventoried the parts. Now for the fun part…