Coal fireIf boaters had a university it would have a Faculty of Firelighting and we'd duke it out in the corridors on 'how it should be done'. Here's one way of lighting a long-lasting, low-cost fire in a stove using smokeless coal. Other opinions are also available.

You'll need...

  • Four or five dry sheets of newspaper, not-too-tightly scrunched up.
  • Some dry kindling.
  • Good-quality smokeless coal, such as Excel or Homefire - preferably but not necessarily dry.  (Avoid poor-quality smokeless coal - it may be a bit cheaper but it doesn't burn well and it'll take more of your time and money in the long run.)
  • A match.

Every stove is different but here's a general guide...

Getting the fire ready

  1. Clear the grate of ash and empty the ash pan. Any half-burnt bits of fuel can stay on the grate - they help - but not so much that air can't get through easily.  
  2. Your stove should have a bottom draught and a top one. Open both. If there's a flue damper, make sure that's fully open, too.
  3. Build the fire by laying the scrunched-up paper or firelighter on the grate and covering with kindling; criss-cross the sticks.
  4. Add a layer of coal - cover but don't smother the kindling - you should be able to see the paper and kindling through the layer of coal.

Getting the fire going

In a nutshell, you're trying to get the fire to temperature quickly, which means giving the fire a lot of air.

  1. Light the paper and close the door (some stoves are supposed to be started with the door about an inch ajar).
  2. Wait for about 5-10 minutes, when you should hear the fire 'roaring' and showing a strong flame. If the door is open, close it now.
  3. After another 15-30 minutes, depending, you'll feel the fire chucking out heat, the coals will be glowing red on their undersides, and the whole shebang will have more or less stopped smoking, which tells you that the fuel is now burning hot and efficiently.  You should hear the fire quietly roaring away but watch it doesn't overheat (i.e. if it's uncomfortable to stand near it).
  4. If it's cold outside, you can add another layer of coal and repeat step 3.
  5. Now the fire's hot it doesn't need a lot of air any more. Partially close both the bottom draught and the top draught. This will keep the fuel burning slowly and steadily.
  6. Now leave it alone.  Don't poke it about, stoke it up, or worry it with a stick.  If you do, the coal will collapse in on itself and stop the air from flowing through the fire.

Having got the fire going, the coal will then 'bank', which means it'll cover with a layer of ash and burn slowly and steadily for anything between 8 and 18 hours, depending on how efficient your stove is.

So, you can leave the fire going overnight - make sure it's safe to do so. In the morning, you should be left with a little light and fluffy ash in the ash pan. If the fire wasn't burning efficiently you'll find a lot of coarse ash.

Tips:

  • If your fire takes a long time to get the fire to temperature, start it with more kindling.
  • Sluggish fires - which produce little heat but a lot of smoke and ash and burn up a lot of fuel - are often caused by adding too much coal too early. 
  • If your stove is an older make, then never leave the boat or go to sleep with the bottom draught fully open, some of these stoves can turn red-hot and cause a fire.
  • Whatever stove you have, always make sure the door is fully closed before you go to sleep.

Reviving the fire

If you go out during the day then you might as well let the fire slowly die out - it's very expensive to keep running when you're not around.

But if you need to revive the fire:

  1. Poke the fire to shake off the ash and clear the airway.  If necessary, empty the ash pan.
  2. Open the bottom and top draughts (and flue damper if there is one).
  3. Add a small amount of coal and close the door until it catches, then add more coal to create a layer two pieces deep. If the embers look like they're struggling to stay alive, you can first add one or two sticks of kindling.
  4. Continue as if you were making a new fire, as above.

As soon as you stick a poker in to a well-banked fire, the heat rushes out, the half-burnt ash falls into the ash pan, and the coal stops burning efficiently, so it's best to wait as long as possible before interfering with it, but without letting it go out.

Disposing of the ash

Burnt ash can look cold and still be hiding a few hundred degrees of heat.

  • Coal ash is toxic - let it cool in a metal bucket or similar and deal with it as you would household rubbish.
  • Wood ash is ok for plants in small quantities, so can be left in a hedge once it's cooled - better that than send it to the landfill.

Stove-top gadgets

You can get stove-top themometers for about £20. These tell you when the fuel is burning efficiently/inefficiently and also when the fire's burning too hot. Life can still go on without one of these gadgets, though.

Another goodie is an eco-fan. These stove-top fans turn the fire's heat into an electrical charge, which powers a fan to circulate the fire's output around the cabin, increasing the efficiency of the fire. They work very well but cost about £80-£100.

Flues and carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide can't be seen or smelled - it has killed boaters overnight.

Fit a detector. Your gas appliances are more likely than your stove to be a problem, which is why they should be thoroughly checked in the boat safety examination, but in any case fit a carbon-monoxide detector with alarm for about £10-£30.

Clean the flue. Every time you use the fire it leaves sooty grime and tar in your flue, which stops your fire burning well, increases the risk of CO gas puffing out of the fire, and on an unlucky day can catch fire itself. Twice a year, clean it with a flue brush - it's like a great big pipe cleaner. It only takes a couple of minutes and usually you can borrow one from a neighbour.

Keep an eye on the flue seals. If you can see smoke or firelight escaping then your fire is probably leeching deadly carbon monoxide and is not burning efficiently (the stove needs a partial vacuum inside it to work well). Stove cement and flexible heat-resistant stove sealant are available from 'real fire' shops and good chandleries.

Beware CO in ash. Fires give out most carbon monoxide when they're on the wane and turning to ash. Hot ash gives off a lot of CO, so leaving the stove door open to get that last bit of heat and leaving hot ashes in a pan under your fire both belong in the 'living dangerously' column.

But sleep well! If you look after your fire and treat the stove well, you should never have problems with CO.

Down-draught

And finally, all stoves can suffer from down-draught, which is when an evil gust of wind pushes the smoke and gases down your chimney and into your living room. It's caused by a rapid change in wind direction, which increases the air pressure at the top of the flue and reduces it in the boat cabin, so the stove finds it easier to push the gases into the boat than up the flue. The problem is common on very windy days in built-up areas or near trees etc. Boats can be susceptible due to the flues on our stoves being shorter than in a house.

You can cure it by using a taller chimney, which will also help your fire to burn more efficiently. If that isn't possible, then you can reduce it a lot by opening a small window on each side of your boat; this will mean that air sucked out of one side of the boat can be replaced quickly by air coming in from the other side.  Obviously, if it's very cold outside then this isn't ideal, but once the fire is burning at temperature the problem should go away - the high heat in the flue is enough to stop the gases coming back down the pipe.

See also...