Updated:
Original:

DIY: Installing a Solid Fuel Heater

The author basks in the glow of his new “furnace”

The author basks in the glow of his new “furnace”

I was in the café at West Bay Marina in Olympia, Washington, on a damp, chilly fall morning, and my buddies and I were assembled for our morning briefing on what’s going on and what’s not going on. After a few jokes that were funny only to old men, we narrowed the focus to what we were trying to get done on our boats and where we’d like to go before it gets too cold. As we did so I had one thing on my mind: getting a cabin heater installed on the boat without taking all winter to get the work done, at the same time keeping costs to a minimum. I’m happy to say I managed to do both. Here’s how.

HEATED QUESTIONS

Diesel and propane, under pressure, deliver steady heat through a burner, but you give up space on deck for tank racks and lockers. You also have to tap into fuel lines, mount pumps and give up precious space in the cabin. Bottom line: my boat was not going to offer itself up easily to this upgrade. Holes for ducting through five bulkheads and/or cabinets would be required, some achievable only with a right-angle drill deployed while flat out on my tummy. Suddenly, I was rather looking forward to tossing something into the firebox from time to time, like the old days, to keep the fire up.

Given this reality, I chose a Newport/Dickinson solid-fuel unit, which runs on wood or charcoal, and which I would rather refer to as a furnace. It’s less complicated than diesel or propane, and extremely efficient because the firebox is made of stainless steel sheet metal, which radiates dry heat quickly. At about 14lb, it can also be mounted to a bulkhead without heavy bracing or bolting, making it a definite value-add upgrade to the boat.

FLAMING OUT

A wise man will humble himself before the installation manual. I took license where it was necessary and still achieved safe and effective results.

In my boat, the furnace would be bolted to the bulkhead at the forward end of the cabin. There needed to be plenty of clearance for anyone passing by to the head, and it should not be underfoot or too close to the dinette, since I wanted to sit at the table and look across to see the flame in the firebox.

I had to decide where the chimney should exit the deck. I did not want it under the boom or interfering with the vang or jib sheets. It also must not be vulnerable to being hit or used as a place to grab in an emergency. I chose an exit point slightly off centerline and far enough aft of the mast that it wouldn’t get in the way.

Once in position, the furnace and chimney dictate the length and shape of the flue pipe. Of course, the ideal is that the flue pipe is long and straight, but mine must turn to reach the exit point in the deckhead, hence some elbows. The directions call for a 1in clearance all around the flue pipe as it passed up through the deck.

The furnace is made of two parts: The inner part—the fire box—is separated from the outer enclosure, so that air passes in between. Very little heat generated in the firebox reaches the exterior surface of the furnace, so even if you are thrown against it in a seaway you are not likely to injure yourself. The part that does get too hot to touch is the flue pipe, especially the first few inches at the top of the furnace. A 10-gauge custom-cut stainless steel heat shield attaches to the bulkhead to protect the varnish, but I need not have been overly concerned because no significant heat from the fire box reaches it. Nevertheless, it adds a handsome framing feature.

While the Dickinson heater is out-of-the-box bolt-on ready, the deck base for a chimney is not included and may have to be custom made. (The flue pipe, elbows and chimney parts are also not included; plan in advance for what you’ll need.) Before installing, decide upon a reference to vertical—this is important for appearance. Hans, my woodshop friend, glued up some Sapele with a biscuit in the joint using his Old World shop skills to create an easy-looking base with a 12-degree contour.

The straight flue pipe sections and elbows telescope into one another—allow about two extra inches for a tight socket-like fit. A good seal and rigidity at the joints can be had with temperature-resistant flue tape from the hardware store.

BURNING FAN

I use Coghlan’s brand fire starter sticks to get things going. Hikers may be familiar with compressed trioxane, a three-wafer foil pack available for about a buck at Army surplus stores and on the internet. Don’t use barbecue fluid.

Running a solid fuel heater, as with diesel or propane, calls for precautions: not just anyone should be allowed to operate the furnace. Be warned that more fresh air than you imagine must enter the boat to fuel any furnace, more yet if you run your diesel at the same time.

A long, straight flue pipe optimizes the speed (draft) of the exhaust gases and helps overcome down-drafts. Do not overload the firebox. Two or three pieces of charcoal briquettes, or two ladles of pellets, for example, are good to start with.

Do not run the heater with any sort of boat cover in place. Wind working on a boat cover or even a partial tarp causes a bellows-like action that will cause a downdraft. The directions also call for a carbon-monoxide alarm and a barometric damper.

What my wife likes about our furnace is that not too much can go wrong with it. I wouldn’t walk away from the boat with a blazing fire in the box, but there are also no valves or switches to accidentally forget. The fire is safe and will eventually go out by itself.

When we climb down into the cabin on a chilly sun-break morning, pushing off for the weekend, I light the furnace and turn on our overhead cabin fan to improve belowdecks circulation. By the time the “tea and cakes” are ready the cabin is shirtsleeve wonderful.

The range of acceptable

The range of acceptable

What to Burn

The manufacturer lists the following fuels. Always read the cautionary labels on any products that you use.

Charcoal briquettes: A 12lb bag costs about $10.00 and produces a big smoky flame at first but dies down to the long-lasting glow of a July barbecue.

Kindling: A $2.50 bundle gives a romantic yellow flame, but burns away quickly. Saw the sticks down to about 4in. The aroma is reminiscent of a campfire.

Pellets: At about $3.00 for a 25lb bag these make for the cheapest and hottest fire. Start with a soup-ladle-sized pile and add small amounts later. The flat and perforated firebox tray allow the pellets to spread out, but some drop through the holes to the ash drawer. More effective would be a cup-like affair to hold the pellets together. I laid a piece of wire screen down on the fire tray.

Coal: Although not available where I live, a 6lb bag of bituminous bought online at coalforsale.com costs $12.00. (Shipping is free.) Coal burns very hot for a long time, but is reluctant to start, smokes and emits an odor I found unpleasant. It works best when I position a chunk or two on top of an already full-on fire.

Presto logs: I find these impractical to saw into slices or to store onboard.

Peat: Peat is decomposing organic matter that becomes inflammable when dried.Major Peat users are Finland, Ireland, Russia and Sweden.

Another fun alternative not listed by the manufacturer is small tree cuttings. My wife has noticed to her delight that lately the trees around our house are freshly pruned. Cherry saplings, in particular, yield a hot flashy pop and crackle fire and get me a honey-do credit.

We cruise Puget Sound hanging out on charcoal briquettes and cuttings from home. Recently my wife also tried Sterno brand canned alcohol, which provides an instant flame, steady heat and is readily available at $4.50 can. It’s expensive but lasts for more than a couple of hours. No tending-to, no smoke, no ashes, nice bluish yellow flame, no worry about overloading the firebox, no noticeable humidity, no degradation of the fuel in storage. You can also stop this flame at any time by sliding the lid back over the can and then relight later.

Approximate costs:

Dickinson Solid Fuel Heater: $500

Two sections 3in flue pipe: $70

Two elbows: $75

Deck cap: $100

Thru deck pipe fitting: $60

Fasteners/Expendables/flue tape: $40

TOTAL:$845

The cost of the bulkhead heat shield and the wooden deck base were custom to my application and thus not included. For protection, a 1/2in stainless steel rail running across the deck above the chimney was added later.

Skills: Moderate

Installation time: 5 hours.

Photographer/writer John Arrufat sails his 33ft Cape Carib ketch out of Portland, Oregon

Related

ed3b8ae9-b65d-2941-47ec-cd0277bfcbe8

Mirabaud Voting Open to the Public

Photos from the industry's top photographers are in, and the 12th annual Mirabaud Yacht Racing Image competition is underway. An international panel of judges has selected this year's 80 finalists, which have been published online. The panel will also select the winner of the ...read more

P1320232-copy

Annapolis’ Boat Show is Back

After a year off in 2020, the United States Boat Show in Annapolis is back. From the diminutive Areys Pond Cat 14 XFC to the massive Lagoon Sixty 5, many of the SAIL’s 2022 Best Boats Nominees are on display for the public to get a firsthand look at, and SAIL’s Best Boats panel ...read more

05-Squall-in-the-ITCZ

Close-Hauled to Hawaii

The saying “Nothing goes to windward like a 747,” is one of my favorites. I actually once took a 747 upwind, retracing my earlier downwind sailing route across the Pacific. I’ve also done a fair bit of ocean sailing to windward. The 747 was a lot more comfortable. But then ...read more

01-LEAD-IMG-2106

Refurbishing Shirley Rose: Part 3

If you missed the first installment, click here. The hull and deck of Shirley Rose had been repaired, but what kind of sailboat would she be without a sturdy rig? I was told she was ready to sail, and that the owner replaced the standing rigging a few years before. Shirley Rose ...read more

211007MINI_1208-2400x1600

Mini Transat: Bouroullec and Fink Win Leg One

The Mini Transat is a roughly 4000-mile course that comprises two legs— Les Sables D’Olonne, France to Santa Cruz de La Palma in the Canaries, and Santa Cruz de La Palma to the French Caribbean island Guadeloupe. Two fleets of Mini 6.50s compete—the Production class in ...read more

01-LEAD-7-1-Rhiannon-loaded-on-the-truck-with-Clark,-Andre,-and-Louis

Book Excerpt: Taken By The Wind

In 1975, as a senior at Harvard, the question for Chicago-area sailor Mike Jacker became what to do next. The answer, as related in his new book Taken by the Wind, was to make a small-boat voyage to Tahiti with his grade-school friend Louis Gordon and Harvard classmate Clark ...read more

Maserati _Arthur Daniel

The RORC Caribbean 600 is Back

With a start planned for February 21 in Antigua, the famed 600-mile Caribbean race is back. The course circumnavigates 11 Caribbean islands starting from English Harbour, Antigua, and heading north to St Maarten and south to Guadeloupe, passing Barbuda, Nevis, St Kitts, Saba and ...read more

01-LEAD-14_00_210613_TORE03_JRE_4266_16961-3000x3000

The Ocean Race Europe

The fully crewed, round-the-world Ocean Race has experienced tremendous change over the years. From the 1993 transition to a one-design fleet to an ever-shifting route, what began as the amateur Whitbread Round the World Yacht Regatta in 1972 is a very different race today. The ...read more