Living on a narrowboat

Is it cheaper?

We’ve heard that living on a narrowboat is becoming increasingly popular as the cost of living in some areas is rising rapidly. We’ll be honest, this wasn’t the primary reason for us deciding to move aboard. We’ve saved a little bit of money but we’ve also spent a lot on the boat – it needed (and still needs) some TLC which equals spending money.

Is it cold in winter?


Of course it is cold – you are in a steel tube which is half under water. If the air is cold, the water is cold. And in winter, sometimes the canal freezes so you are in a steel tube sitting in a block of ice. Brrrr.

There are a few ways to keep the boat warm – the most common being keeping a multi fuel stove going 24/7. If you don’t keep the fire going, the boat will get cold pretty quickly.

Is there lots of storage?

For us, one of the great things about moving on board was getting rid of a lot of belongings that we thought we needed but in reality, never used.  There isn’t a lot of storage on a narrowboat. On the boats we saw with lots of cupboards, they felt a lot more claustrophobic that the more open plan layouts. Of course, with open plan, there is less storage.

If you really can’t part with that extra pair of shoes or that special kitchen gadget, then living on a narrowboat probably isn’t for you.

What about the toilet?

There are a number of toilet options. The most common that we have seen are pump out or cassette toilet. It is also possible to have an “eco toilet” – or composting loo.

I’ve heard that when living aboard, with an average size holding tank, it can last approximately 3 weeks between pump out sessions. To empty the tank, you have to find a pump out station (often a marina) and part with cash (even when you do the pump out yourself). Also, the tank has to go somewhere on the boat – which reduces your storage as it often will be found under the bed. Chemicals (such as “blue”) are added to the tank to break down the waste.

A porta potti (which also comes in different sizes) can last up to a week between trips to the Elsan point. It’s free to empty most of the time and it can be possible to get spare cassettes. These generally take up less room than a pump out and sometimes can even be moved around! Chemical’s are added to the storage tank to help break down the waste.

A compositing toilet will generally separate the ones and twos into separate compartments. The ones will need to be emptied every few days. In the main compartment, you have to put something like coconut husk in to mix with the twos and some models have a turning handle for mixing after each use. These are rumoured to last up to a month between empties. The main benefit being that you are able to bag up the waste and throw it in the bin rather than hunting down a pump out or an Elsan point. Also, no chemicals!

Where do you get water from?

… the tap.

Part of the boat license fee is supposed to cover the use of the various water points along the canal system. If you moor in a marina, there will commonly be a water point near your mooring.

You fill up the water tank regularly otherwise you run out!

On most modern boats, the water tank will be made out of stainless steel which is supposed to remain rust free forever. Some of the older boats will have a plastic or other steel tank. It is good practice to treat or clean the tank out every now and then. A lot of boaters don’t drink the water from the tank unless it’s been boiled. It is also advisable to fit a water filter in the system to reduce the chance of catching water based deseases.

Water is circulated around the boat using a water pump which is generally located next to the tank and (normally) runs off 12v power. It should only come on when the tap is on.

Grey water waste from the sink and shower exits the boat into the canal. A gulper is used to pump the shower water out because the tray is generally below water level. This will also run on 12v.

Can I run a hairdryer?

If you are plugged into a shore line for power, you can pretty much use any electrical devices that you want, including a hair dryer. The rest of the time you are limited by the power stored in your battery bank and your inverter or your generator.

Basically, I wouldn’t use a high powered hair dryer if not connected to shore line. When we are out on the cut, we have a lower powered hairdryer that I will let Anna use if the engine is running and the batteries are charged.

How do you wash your clothes?

Your options are a launderette (or marina facilities), hand washing or to have a washing machine on board. We haven’t installed a washing machines (yet).

As a general rule, the I don’t think people run the washing machines unless they are running the engine or on a generator. Or shore line.

The other thing about washing machines is that they use a lot of water so be prepared to fill the water tank more regularly.