It's not easy being green - unless that is, you live on a boat. Part II.


Boat dwellers often take full advantage of the elements around them, commonly using solar and wind energy to power their 'homes'.

In the second of a series of four blogs Clare Kendall discovers that fuel consumption by boat-dwellers is comparatively low and that energy is often more accessible than it is for those of us who live in buildings.......
It's very satisfying not to be at the mercy of energy providers

Of all the misconceptions people have about living on a houseboat the hardest to dislodge in their minds is that it's cold in the winter. Even those who have never stepped on a boat in their lives are quite unshakeable in this conviction.

The reality is it's far easier to heat a boat than a house partly because the internal space is so much smaller and partly because you have a number of highly economical ways of doing so.

"What I say to people", says narrow boat continuous cruiser, Andy Reed, "is, ‘How often, in the depths of winter when it's five degrees below freezing, do you have the doors and windows of your house open because it's too hot? Well boat-dwellers frequently do' ".

Most narrow boats have two main methods of heating. Central heating, which is powered by batteries charged by the diesel engine, and solid fuel -burning stoves.

Andy doesn't have a car but travels almost permanently on his boat, cycling to a railway station if needs be. He uses approximately 500 litres of diesel a year, however, unlike a car journey, when Andy travels he is powering batteries which will then provide energy for central heating, heating hot water, lighting and other kinds of household power needs.

On top of this his boat has two stoves, one in the saloon and one in the boatman's cabin at the back of the boat where he sleeps. He uses approximately 500 kilos of coal a year and supplements the coal with foraged wood (which accounts for about 30% of his total solid fuel usage). That's a total annual cost of £580 including travel. 

It's very satisfying not to be at the mercy of energy providers

"I have an old Petter engine," explains Andy, "which is quite low in horse power but also incredibly low in fuel consumption".
Indeed, when I visited recently for a long motoring weekend on the idyllic Shropshire Union canal we got through a higher literage of alcohol than diesel!

By definition a boat, (at least one which wants to be on the move) must be self-sufficient in power. For this reason most boat-dwellers have their own renewable energy sources to top up their power supplies. Andy, for instance, has two 50 watt solar panels which, in the summer, provide 100% of his energy requirements.

School teacher Chris Williamson, whose Dutch barge is on a permanent mooring on The Thames has five solar panels giving him a total of 350 watts. In the summer this far exceeds his energy requirements. "It's enormously empowering to be completely in control of your energy bills," he says. "I hear people complaining at work about this or that energy bill going up. It's very satisfying not to be at the mercy of energy providers who nowadays, are really just the same as any other greedy corporation".

Chris uses approximately three 13kg gas cylinders a year for cooking and about half a tonne of solid fuel, a mixture of coal and foraged wood (which carries virtually no carbon footprint as the carbon would be released anyway as the wood rots). He also runs the diesel engine if needs be and does a little bit of travelling. His total annual expenditure is £340.

"My energy use is very low to start with," he says."When you live on a boat you don't waste energy in the way that you don't waste water. This has enabled me to massively reduce my carbon footprint. At school we sometimes do an exercise where I get the children to see what their carbon footprint adds up to. We go through everything - cars, holidays, travel etc. Mine is one tonne per year". This is a tenth of the average UK resident. It puts Chris on a par with the average Guatemalian.

Other renewable sources of power available to boaters include mobile wind turbines, which are now widespread although not so popular as solar panels, and rapidly advancing technologies are opening up new possibilities in biofuels, hydrogen cells and even cycle powerAt the end of the day it's just much easier to control your engery consumption and sourcing if you live on a boat.

Boating enthusiast, Nick Corble, co-author of Living Aboard, explains in this article in the Telegraph; "Everything you need to stay alive and be comfortable is on the boat. So you need to know how much electricity you've got - you can't just plug something in and expect it to work. You also have to know how much fuel, gas, wood and water you've got on board. When you're a liveaboard, the first thing you have to recognise is that your home is literally your mother ship - your life support mechanism".

Boat dwellers know exactly what energy is being spent at any given time and have the freedom to use alternative energy sources not always available to house-dwellers. Journalist Hazel Southam, a ‘greenie' householder explains: 

"I would absolutely love to be energy self-sufficient. But when you live in a house there are limits to what you can achieve. Once you've done things like fitting water saving devices and insulating properly there's little more you can do. The infrastructure of the house and sheer expense of alterations may be limiting too, especially if your house is quite old like mine. I really wanted solar panels but was quoted £7,000 which wouldn't pay me back for another 25 years. That was beyond me. 

Equally, I was keen on having a green roof on the flat roof of my extension. Again, it was unbelievably expensive. Finally, after two horrendous monthly gas bills I paid a large sum for a wood-burning fuel stove. My aim is to be energy sufficient with this by collecting my own firewood: but this all takes time. One of the problems of being a 'green' householder is that it can be very difficult to track your energy usage. You have to wait for a bill to arrive by which time it's virtually impossible to calculate what's going on what. I tried using a device from British Gas but the device was faulty. I'm waiting for a new one. If it works, I suspect that I'll be turning everything off and living in the dark."

Clare Kendall is a multi award-winning photojournalist based in Wiltshire. Her work focuses heavily on ecotourism, environmental and social justice issues. For more visit:

Image courtesy of

 Add to StumbleUpon

It’s not easy being green – unless that is, you live on a boat
In the first of a series of four blogs Clare Kendall examines the interactions between the boat dweller and the substance that keeps them afloat.....
Electricity is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, so reduce your consumption with the OWL Pink Micro
Life on a canal boat - Part III
In the final instalment from Britain’s historic waterways, the Ecologist’s narrowboat correspondent finds a literal and metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel on the Grand Union canal
Life on a canal boat - Part II
In the second communiqué from the canals of Britain, a narrowboat newbie finds the pace of life slowing to the speed of the water, offering time for reflection and a deeper appreciation of the great outdoors
Life on a canal boat - Part I
In the first of a three-part series, a repentant travel writer trades in his longhaul flights and luxury holidays for three months living on a narrowboat

More from this author