Boat Heating Boat Project

Choosing a Boat Heater (Part Two) | The Installation

Monday, February 27, 2017S.V. CAMBRIA

When we arrived in the Pacific Northwest eight years ago, Cambria lacked one vital piece of equipment for cruising the Inside Passage: a heater. So, one of the first things we did was to rectify that. David started researching our options while we were still in California and by the time we rounded Cape Flattery, he’d made a decision.

Like everything else on a boat, heating presents some issues that can be difficult and expensive to overcome – available space for equipment and ducting, access to outside air, multiple cabins to heat (to name just a few). But there are several types of marine heaters on the market and choosing the right one is an important step in overcoming these challenges. Back in January, I wrote a blogpost on some of the choices available to us: bulkhead-mounted diesel heaters, forced air heaters and hydronic heaters.

In the end, we made the decision to purchase a hydronic heating system for several reasons: We wanted the flexibility of being able to heat different zones at different temperatures, something forced-air systems don’t do. We also wanted a way to heat domestic water without running our engine. And finally, Cambria couldn’t accommodate the large duct work forced air heating systems require.

Once the decision to go hydronic was made, we had to decide which brand to buy. The choice wasn’t difficult for us. At the time we were looking, ITR (located in Richmond, British Columbia) was making their Hurricane H2 units to US military grade. Further research showed they were less expensive than Webasto or Espar to maintain. And the latter two have a reputation for being loud. The only problem was that if we wanted the unit to be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty, we had to have it installed by a certified tradesman.

We consulted two parties local to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington where we were moored at the time – Gold Star Marine in Port Townsend and a self-employed installer in Port Orchard. Neither one was able to give us a sound estimates, stating the total cost could be $5K to $10K above the base figure – too big of a gamble as far as we were concerned. And then David found a guy called Lance though Trotec Marine in Victoria, BC who was able to give us a set hourly rate within a range of man hours needed for the job plus equipment costs. The exchange rate was beneficial at the time, so we sailed over to Victoria Harbour and spent a few weeks moored in front of the Empress Hotel during the off-season while Lance when to work installing the heater – not a bad deal.

The installation wasn’t without its share of headaches. Relying on a third party to do work can be frustrating and there were plenty of days we were ready to wring Lance’s neck for being late or not showing up at all. But, to his credit, he knew his stuff and we were very happy with the final result.

To start the project, David made a template of the boiler unit so we could decide where to place it. Ideally, that would have been close to the fuel source in the engine room but Cambria doesn’t have enough space available, so we chose to place it behind our bed in the aft cabin. During our first meeting with Lance, he devised an installation plan and decided where everything would be located and what parts to order for the job. 

The components were sourced through Trotec and included the following: a Hurricane H2D 35,000 btu/hr boiler unit with control panels, five fan coil units, an exhaust muffler (which had to be manufactured according to ITR’s specs), through-hull fittings, ball valves, an anti-scald valve, air bleeds, three digital thermostats, silicone heater hose, a miscellaneous control switch and assorted fastenings.

On the first day of the planned installation, Lance didn’t show up so we went to work on soundproofing the compartment in the aft cabin and then waited five days until we saw him again (I did mention it was a frustrating process, didn’t I?). On the first day, Lance fit the fan coil unit in the galley which required cutting into the cabinetry. The following day he returned with a helper and they installed the thermostats and control switches throughout the boat (one of each in the v-berth, salon and aft cabin along with the main control panel in the galley). 

The next day, Lance and Robert installed the fan coil units in the salon and v-berth. It was then the weekend, so David and I did the electrical work while we waited for them to return on Monday when Lance returned to pull the silicone heater hose through the boat and plumbing them to the fan coil units. He also mounted and plumbed the engine heat exchanger. Work stopped until noon the next day when both he and Robert mounted, plumbed and wired the aft cabin fan coil units. There were three more days of work after that installing the exhaust system and completing the wiring to the main control panel, combining for a total of seven days with an average of six hours of work per day (though sometimes that included two people).  

Apart from wanting the protection of ITR’s warranty, David could have easily handled the installation himself and has been able to maintain and service the unit without any major problems or setbacks. ITR has been a wonderful company to work with, as has Trotec. And every time we’ve had a question about the heater or needed parts, they’ve been quick to respond. The installation was a trying process. Bilges had to be emptied to pull hoses and wiring. Oftentimes, Lance wouldn’t often show up until the afternoon and would work until 8 or 9 at night which made living aboard difficult. But at the end of the day, we got a fully functional central heating system that has made living-aboard and cruising in higher latitudes more comfortable (all within the original estimate), making us very happy with the decision and the end result.

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  1. I wonder what it is about the marine industry that makes it so common for workpeople to just...not show up... on the day they are supposed to work? Seems like that is a common issue. Looking at those photos of Cambria during the refit.. well, we've been living like that recently and it's just not fun. We both say if we ever want to remodel a boat again while living aboard, we are allowed to slap each other out of it. Glad the trouble and money was worth it!

    1. It really isn't any fun, is it? We knew a couple in New Zealand who lived-aboard during a four or five year remodel and then ended up selling the boat -- talk about heartbreaking.

  2. So how long have you continuously run the hydronic system for? Are they meant to be run for days at a time while you are at anchor? And do the fan units need to run constantly while the heater is on? I've never quite understood the day-to-day cycle in a cold climate that these units were intended for.

    1. Our system has three separate zones each with their own thermostat. We generally keep the setting at 68 degrees during the day. If the boat temperature falls below that, the boiler will run and heat water that is pumped throughout the boat to the fan coil units. Once the water reaches a certain temperature, the fans will run and push warm air into the cabin. When the zone reaches the required temperature, they automatically turn off until more heat is needed (the boiler cycles on and off as well to keep the water hot).