Emptying the toilet, filling up with water, charging the batteries, going to the laundrette, keeping the fuel stocked up, lighting the stove, trips to recycling points, moving the boat every couple of weeks... Living afloat is not just a high-maintenance lifestyle, it's like adding a part-time job to your life.
If you love living on a boat then the daily jobs feel part of the adventure, but it'll be less than fun if you only want a cheap way to live, especially if you already work full-time. Here are the main things you have to do.
If like most of us you have no hook-up to the mains, then every 1-3 days you'll need to run the engine to keep the batteries charged up. If the batteries are in reasonably good nick and more than 50% charged, as they should be all the time, you needn't run the engine for more than about an hour a day. It's often unneighbourly to run your engine for longer than this.
You can't run an engine (including generators) before 8am or after 8pm. PLEASE don't try to get away with it because you'll only annoy all your neighbours at once, giving all boaters (especially yourself) a bad name.
A laptop will use up your batteries very quickly - you can economise by charging it up while the engine's running.
Unless you have a lovely home mooring with mains water, you'll be taking your boat to a water point to about every two weeks, depending on the size of the tank. Water points are marked in the Nicholson guides. It can take up to an hour to fill up if the tap's slow and your tank's big, but usually takes less than 20 minutes.
You won't be long on a boat before the washing machine makes your list of Top Ten Inventions of All Time, only you won't have one. For about two hours a fortnight, you'll be in the local laundrette gazing catatonically at your spinning smalls, pausing only to put pound coin after pound coin into a hole in the wall to keep the machines going. If you don't mind hauling your wash-wet clothes home and you have space to dry them on board, then you can skip the tumble dryers, but that's about as good as it gets. Some boaters fit washing machines on board but they're so expensive and use so much water and power that it's really not worth it.
It's likely to cost you about £12 to wash and dry a full, large rucksack of clothes each fortnight. If you want a service wash, it'll set you back something like £20 per trip. Your neighbouring boaters will know where the nearest laundrette is.
For most narrowboats, fuel means red diesel (i.e. duty-free) for the engine (and sometimes for heating), logs or smokeless coal and kindling for heating, and Calor gas for cooking and hot water.
The best way to get all these is to have them delivered by the fuel boats roaming the cut. These are usually beautiful, classic working boats, some of them more than a century old. These guys work hard to keep us all going and many are willing to go the extra mile for us so please buy your fuel from them when you can.
They also have to keep track of where we all are and that changes daily. So when ordering, be very specific about:
- Your name.
- Your boat's name (and its description if the name isn't shown).
- Exactly where you're moored.
- Exactly what you want (i.e. not just 'some coal' but '5 bags of Homefire').
Don't expect them to arrive on the day they've told you - it probably won't happen - and they sometimes forget altogether, so place your order at least three weeks before you really need it.
For details of your local fuel boat(s), and which are the most (and least) reliable, ask a local boater.
Each year, reckon to spend about £500 on coal and kindling, £200 on gas and £100 on diesel (or more if you're moving your boat more than once per fortnight).
An advantage of smokeless coal is that it keeps you warm all night long, but you can save a lot of money by sourcing timber offcuts and the like instead.
There are two main systems - a more-or-less ordinary looking toilet that flushes into a holding tank and a cassette-based, all-in-one plastic toilet (usually called an Elsan). Neither is entirely trouble-free.
If your boat has a holding tank then it needs pumping out every few weeks, depending on how prolific you are. You fix the hose from a pump-out machine to the tank and it's all swilled away into the mains sewers. It smells a bit. The pump-out machine usually costs about £10-15 to use.
The Elsan is easier to deal with and less costly but it doesn't hold as much poo. You just take out the cassette and flush it down the nearest Elsan point, preferably without any splashiness. If two of you are contributing, you'll be doing this more or less every week but you can put it off for longer by buying a spare cassette.
Pump-out machines and Elsan points are marked on the Nicholson waterways guide and map for your area, which is available from any good chandlery.
Compost toilets can be made/fitted if you have a fair bit of space, time to fit them and some DIY skill; they are said to work well and not reek.
Bidets - we just struggle on without them.
If you want to know more about toilets - and who doesn't? - hit the ABNB website, which tells you all you'd ever want to know, possibly more.
Recycling, compost, rubbish, used oil
Despite the nationwide introduction of doorstep recycling several years ago, the Canal and River Trust have yet to provide facilities for boaters, which means that many tons of recyclables go to landfill every year. To help get this changed, please contact CRT. So, for now you need to find street recycling bins.
Compost is tricky because you're unlikely to have anywhere to put it, but some local authorities (such as Hackney) now include compost in their street recycling schemes.
Black-bag rubbish can be offloaded in waste bins at facilities points.
The Canal and River Trust don't provide facilities for oil collection. Many boaters do leave their oil next to the waste bins and eventually it's taken away.
In a double-whammy combo of no respect for self or others, a few boaters use the towpath as a dumping ground for oil, bits of carpet, old batteries and anything else they've decided they no longer need. They won't go to heaven.
All the above facilities (apart from laundrette and pump-out) are provided in return for your licence fee, so don't cost you anything.