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The Practicalities of living on a boat

The high price of housing worldwide has encouraged people to consider other alternatives, and living on the water is an option in many countries. But, if you’re thinking seriously about living in a home that floats, you need to make sure you understand some of the practical problems you will face. It is a complex and evolving subject so this book is an overview rather than a definitive guide. There are many organisations that can help you with your research; this book has an accompanying website www.ahomeafloat.com which has links to a variety of resources including some of the boats featured.


Many people are attracted to the idea of living afloat because they see it as a cheaper way of living compared to bricks and mortar, but that isn’t likely to be the case. A boat, ship or houseboat may be cheaper to buy than a house, but they are much more difficult to finance for the main reason that it is unlikely for a house to sail off into the sunset. Longer term, they are less likely to increase in value and they require more maintenance, some of which can be quite specialised. It helps if you are a practical person who can tackle the day to day maintenance yourself.

Cruising or static?

The vast array of options for floating homes vary from stationary houseboats to vessels capable of crossing oceans. There are trade-offs with all designs, so you need to think about the kind of living arrangements you need. If the merest ripple of movement makes you reach for a bucket, then a houseboat is likely to be more suitable than a fully fledged ocean-going yacht. All floating homes will move to a degree, and this is part of the charm of living on the water, but a large houseboat on a non-tidal waterway would be very stable.


If you plan to stay in one place for any length of time the most important thing to resolve before buying a boat or houseboat is where you are going to moor it. Waterfront land is in great demand for obvious reasons, so you need to be sure you can find somewhere to tie-up the floating home of your dreams, especially if you plan to stay a while

Residential or non-residential?

Moorings fall into two main categories; those that are residential and those that are not. Some of the latter will turn a blind eye to people living afloat, but that doesn’t make for a secure way of life if it is your only home. The definition of what is residential will vary, so you need to check with your mooring operator. But if you are spending more than a few nights every week staying on your boat then you are likely to be classed as residential.

Creature comforts

Imagine all of the things you take for granted in a house – endless hot water, a large kitchen filled with gadgets, sumptuous bathrooms, lots of space – you can have them all in a floating home. Sometimes, however, the systems are just a little bit more complicated to achieve the same result.


A common question non boat dwellers ask is ‘Is it cold in winter?’ In most cases the answer is no. A properly built houseboat or vessel designed to support living aboard is likely to have a smaller air volume than a house and usually better insulation. A common practice with converted barges in northern Europe is to have the hull sprayed with a layer of polyurethane foam insulation that adheres to the steel. Once the interior is constructed inside this hull you end up with a very thermally efficient dwelling. There are downsides to this smaller air volume in that condensation can be more of a problem, particularly in damp or humid climates, so extra thought needs to be given to ensure adequate ventilation and airflow.

Heating systems

Solid fuel stove The simplest system you are likely to find is a solid fuel (coal or wood) burning stove. They produce lots of heat but need lots of attention – such as carrying the fuel, cleaning out the ashes – and they don’t warm your home in the morning without someone getting out of bed to light it. In British narrowboats it is common to see a small stove that has a water jacket inside that allows it to be connected to a series of radiators to distribute the heat round the boat.

Electric fan heaters and radiators

If your floating home is on a mooring with an electricity supply it is quite feasible to use conventional domestic heaters designed for home use. They can be costly to run but are cheap to purchase. Sometimes boat mooring electricity supplies cannot provide enough current to run a large bank of electric heaters.

Gas heaters

You can use on-board gas cylinders to provide heat from small radiators or stove units. They are fine for short term use but they use a lot of gas, and cylinders can be expensive to refill and heavy to transport. If your floating home has a permanent shore connection you may also have a gas supply which could power a conventional domestic heating system.

Diesel heaters

If your floating home is a diesel powered vessel you can use the same fuel to provide heat. There are several types:

  • Blown air : a small furnace generates hot air which is vented around the boat through tubing to small outlets. The furnace unit is usually kept in a machine room near the engine and has an exhaust that exits through the hull. They were originally developed as truck cabin heaters so spare parts are readily available, and many units have timers to allow them to switch on automatically at designated times.
  • Drip feed : a small stove that burns diesel through a drip feed burner. These are very simple and use no electricity so are well suited to a vessel that moves around. The unit is often designed to look like a traditional solid fuel stove and can have a water jacket in the back to run radiators or provide a hot water supply.
  • Diesel furnace : similar to a domestic system with a diesel fired boiler unit that circulates heated water to a series of radiators around the dwelling. Many people use domestic systems as they are usually cheaper to buy than a marine equivalent. Domestic systems usually require mains voltage electricity to operate, and are perhaps the most sophisticated heating systems, with full control of when they turn on and off just as you would have in a house. A properly set up system is likely to provide hot water as well.


In a house you turn on a tap and water comes out. If you live on a boat this may happen too, but the means of achieving it may require a bit more machinery than you’d find in a house. Vessels designed to travel will usually have large tanks of fresh and waste water stored on board. A freshwater tank has to be filled from a water supply, and a pump or a series of pumps will pressurise the sytem to allow you to turn on a tap and have water when you need it. A permanently moored vessel may have a shore connection to mains water, and apart from the occasional pipe freezing in cold climates, the system is the same as a domestic one.

Hot water

Water heating systems fall into two main categories:

  • Instantaneous : a gas powered device to heat water as you need it. This is similar to a domestic system but designed for marine use, using bottled gas instead of mains. As with all gas systems onboard boats, they require proper installation and thorough maintenance to ensure safe operation. They are becoming less popular because of the difficulty in maintaining such systems and keeping them up to scratch with safety inspections.
  • Stored water systems : a large insulated cylinder stores water until you need it. These are used as part of a heating system, and a variety of heat sources can be used to heat the water, from a dedicated boiler or stove to the main propulsion engine. Cruising boats may also have a device called a colorifier that uses cooling water from the engine to heat hot water for domestic use.

There are other water heating devices found on boats including electric heating elements and solar systems through to a simple kettle on a stove, but a long term liveaboard will need a good reliable system to make life comfortable all year round.


Put a group of liveaboard boaters in a room and it won’t be long before they are talking about toilets. It is a complex subject and often not as straightforward as the standard systems you will find in houses worldwide. There are many options to choose from:

  • Small boats built for the sea are likely to have a system known as a sea toilet. All waste discharges directly overboard through an outlet in the hull. They are simple, but prone to blocking up when the wrong things are put into them. You will usually find a notice nearby that says: ‘Please do not flush anything that hasn’t been eaten first’. If you do, expect to be handed a spanner, rubber gloves and some instructions. Sea toilets are only suited to open water; most countries do not allow their use on rivers or harbours for obvious reasons.
  • A permanently moored houseboat is quite likely to have the exact same system as a conventional house: a toilet that is connected to mains sewerage.
  • The next most common system you will find is a holding tank to store the sewage until you are ready to dispose of it. The smallest will be like the systems you find in a caravan, and once full can be removed from the boat by hand and emptied at a dedicated point in a marina. If you are living aboard this could become a fairly regular task, so boats designed for habitation will have a large tank permanently fitted that allows several weeks of storage before being emptied by attaching a special hose on the mooring or by another vessel that pulls up alongside. Larger ships may have a combined system that allows discharge overboard when at sea and storage when moored
  • A relative newcomer to the world of marine toilets is the composting toilet. This is a unit that treats the sewage waste by means of dehydration, moisture evaporation and decomposition reducing the amount of final waste to a soil-like compost that can be disposed of occasionally. Their main advantage is they they use very little water.

Electrical systems

A permanently moored vessel is likely to have its power supplied from an external source, usually a cable connecting it to the shore and to the mains grid. Vessels designed for cruising will often have a combination system that allows connection to the shore when power is available and a bank of batteries for when it is not. A generator running from the same fuel as the main engine may also be present to provide power and charge the house batteries. The main propulsion engine will also provide charge for the house batteries while cruising. Battery power is at a much lower voltage (12v or 24v) and will require a device known as an inverter to allow you to use conventional domestic appliances. The inverter converts the low voltage direct current stored in batteries to mains voltage alternating current required by most appliances. Wind generators and solar panels can be used to supplement the fossil-fuel powered charging systems, but in most cases the onboard power supply will not be able to supply enough current for heavy draw items like air conditioners or electric heaters.


A large houseboat or barge may offer the same space as a conventional house, but if you are making a move to a boat or even a small ship be prepared to dispose of some of your possessions. You can start with the lawnmower as most moorings won’t have any grass to mow. That’s not to say moorings with private gardens are impossible to find, but they are less likely. The same goes for garages, so if yours is packed to the rafters with accumulated junk you’ll need to decide which things you really want to keep and put the rest in storage or sell it.

A lifestyle choice

So far I’ve mentioned some of the cold, hard realities of living afloat, and if you’ve never been inside a floating home you may be thinking it is all a bit daunting so here are some of the positive aspects:

  • Proximity to water – and the nature that that usually brings – makes many people feel content and happy. There is always something to look at out of the window of a boat, whether it’s another boat passing, the ocean, or a family of ducks, it can be more pleasant than the view from many houses or apartments. This can be true even in a large city like London.
  • A collection of floating homes moored together is quite likely to bring a whole bunch of diverse people together with a common interest. A good community spirit is almost guaranteed, and you will probably find the answer to those new questions you never thought you’d ask, like ‘How do I stop this leak?’.
  • Many floating homes give you the option to move around and take all of your belongings with you. Did someone say adventure?
  • The ability to change your view if you get tired of it is a reality in a floating home. Even a large houseboat can be craned on to the back of a truck and taken to a completely new city.

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