Living on a narrowboat

Is it cheaper living on a narrowboat?

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. There is a reason that B-O-A-T stands for Bring Out Another Thousand.

For more information on cost, check the cost of owning a narrowboat FAQ page.


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.

Many boats have radiators. These are heated in one of three ways – gas boiler, diesel heating or back burner running on the multi fuel stove.

Electric heaters are a viable alternative if you are connected to shore line power.

The boat’s ability to retain heat depends on the quality of its insulation. This is hard to check without removing the walls.


Is there lots of storage?

For us, one of the great things about moving on board was getting rid of “stuff”. By this, I mean belongings that we thought we needed but in reality, never used.  There isn’t a lot of storage on a narrowboat. Some boats have lots of cupboards – these can be a lot more claustrophobic than 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?

One of the biggest differences between living in a traditional “on grid” house compared with living on a narrowboat is that you have to become a lot more familiar with your waste.

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.

Natures Head Composting Toilet

We put together a YouTube playlist of video’s all about toilets (not all ours) if you are interested in learning more. Click here to open.

Pump out

With an average size holding tank, it can last approximately 3 weeks between pump out sessions when you are living on your narrowboat. To empty the tank, you have to find a pump out station (often a marina) and pay – even when you do the pump out yourself. It is important to remember that the tank will take up storage space – it has to go somewhere!! They are commonly found under the bed. Chemicals (e.g. “blue”) are added to the tank to break down the waste.


A porta potti can last up to a week between trips to the Elsan point. This depends on the size of the cassette. It’s free to empty most of the time and you can buy spare cassettes. These take up less room than a pump out and can even be moved around! Chemicals 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 have 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 will 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.

The use of water points along the canal system is covered by part of the boat license fee. 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 holding 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 diseases.

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 below water level. This will also run on 12v.


Can I run a hairdryer?

If you are plugged into a shore line for power, which usually means you are living on your narrowboat in a marina or on a permanent mooring, you can 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 – 2000w or similar. When we are out on the cut, we have a 1200w hairdryer for emergencies. This is only used when the batteries are charged and the engine is running. There are 12v alternatives (like this one) but they don’t get good reviews.


How do you wash your clothes when living on a narrowboat?

Living on a narrowboat - washing machineWhen you are living on a narrowboat, your options are a launderette (or marina facilities), hand washing or to have a washing machine on board. We installed a 6kg washing machine when we renovated the bathroom. To reduce the power requirement, we only use the eco-cycle. This only takes 20 minutes and uses less water.

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.

Washing machines use a lot of water so be prepared to fill the water tank more regularly.