Installing a Diesel Heater on Your Boat

When it comes to keeping your boat cosy, you can’t beat a cabin heater.
But installing one isn’t as simple as you might think.

Autumn’s here, nights are getting cooler and northerners are thinking of either cruising south or putting their boat on the hard in preparation for winter. Why? Fall is one of the nicest boating seasons in New England, the Great Lakes, the Pacific Northwest, and in lots of other seasonal climes. Anchorages that were packed during the summer are now almost empty, marinas in trendy waterfront towns have plenty of open slips, and when the leaves turn colour, the shoreline becomes a panorama of red, orange, and gold—nothing beats leaf-peeping from the water. So why miss out on this, just because the temperature’s dropped a few degrees? Install a cabin heater, and spend clear, crisp autumn nights onboard, snug as the proverbial bug in the rug.

For many of us, the easiest and cheapest way to boost the Fahrenheit readings belowdecks is to flip the air conditioner to reverse-cycle; in the fall the water’s still warm enough for that system to work. Or we could plug in a portable electric heater designed for marine use: West Marine sells one for about $100 that they claim puts out 5,200 BTUs per hour at its maximum, 1,500-watt setting. (In general, for an electric heater, watts x 3.41 = BTUs per hour.) Both solutions require 120 volts, and that means running the genset if you’re away from the yellow cord. If you cook with electricity, by the way, you have enough genset muscle to power a portable heater once the galley stove’s shut down.

Light My Fire

Of course, if you’re planning on exploring fjords at Christmas, or live in Alaska, you’ll need a serious heating system. Cold-water voyagers install diesel-fired furnaces in their engine rooms or other machinery spaces to heat the air, and ducts and fans to distribute it to the saloon and staterooms. Some folks prefer hot water piped to radiators in each cabin, just like at home; the upside is, such folks always have plenty of hot water for showers, too. Hot-air and -water systems, however, are both tricky to install, due to the difficulty of retrofitting ducting and/or plumbing. It’s a job best delegated to a skilled technician, one with ABYC certification who will adhere to the appropriate standards.

So make sure you do your research well before committing to one heater. I would say that if your winters are icy get a diesel heaters can be the best solution but otherwise a portable electric heater or the A/C will suffice.

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