Sarah Ann Hall

Reporting on writing in progress or, more probably, not; practising flash fiction.

What a week! A résumé of boat central heating.

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Writing Wednesday went well until I tried to blow us up.

We are often asked if it’s cold in winter on a boat. No, because we have a multi-fuel stove, and the stove has a back boiler that feeds radiators in each of the rooms. Being hardy people (and having small portholes and a surfeit of spray foam insulation) we don’t usually keep a fire in overnight and only light it when it starts to get dark. Last Wednesday was cold and hubby was shopping on the way home from college so I lit the fire. It didn’t do well – having raked the coals and emptied the ash pan in the morning, I forgot the glowing coals would have turned to ash by the afternoon. The fire I lit didn’t have enough air at its base, didn’t take well, and smoked. Once hubby was home he let my inadequate efforts go out and started again. His of course, was perfect.

As with most land-based central heating systems, the water is pushed from the back boiler to the radiators via a pump. However, if the pump runs continuously the water doesn’t spend enough time in the back boiler and doesn’t heat. To address this we have a digital thermostat that switches the pump on and off. For two winters it’s switched on at 50°C and off again at 40°. The hot water is pumped round the system; the cool goes to the back boiler to be heated. This works well until one of us forgets to switch on the thermostat. We could leave it on all the time but it takes 0.5 amp/ hour, which is 12 amps over a day and sometimes we’re lucky to get 5 amps in through the solar panels. To prevent the thermostat acting as a power drain, we switch it on only when the fire is lit. On Wednesday I forgot.

Just as I was serving up a delicious beef stroganoff hubby asked, ‘What’s that noise?’ The extractor fan was on and I couldn’t hear anything until the tapping turned to banging. Realising what I’d not done and switching on the thermostat, it indicated that the water in the back boiler had reached 96°. The little people trying to hammer their way out of the radiators was really the system coping with steam and air being forced through it. The water had escaped via the expansion tank, though our drains to fill the shower tray. (Thankfully due to a moment of forethought in a previous life, the central heating overflows into the drainage system (which itself has to be pumped overboard) instead of into the bilges. On the positive side, the drains have been thoroughly cleaned and I didn’t have to spend an evening upside down sponging water from bilges.)

A back boiler should not be heated when empty. A central heating pump should (probably) not run dry. Panic ensued as hubby undid joints to release the pressure in the back boiler (to stop it exploding – the absolute worst case scenario) and covered the fire with ash to reduce its temperature. I ran back and forth between the kitchen tap and the expansion tank with a small water bottle (the only thing we can get in the limited space) to refill the system.

An hour and a half later all was well. Dinner was cold, but the fire was lit and the radiators warm. As we had pulled up floors – to check we hadn’t blown off a pipe, to check the pump was pumping, to check we didn’t have water-filled bilges – hubby decided it was an opportune moment to plumb in the radiator that has been hanging useless on the workroom wall since Christmas.

Saturday we woke early and started with the easy jobs – capping some unused pipes (we plumbed in for an automatic washing machine but opted for a much lighter and more manoeuvrable twin-tub) and fitting isolating valves to reduce the water pressure to the spare sink. (The water now leaves the tap gracefully instead of soaking the person standing in front of it and half the room.)

We drained the central heating, marked the floor for the pipes and drilled holes. So far so ‘Oh no, why does this always happen to us?’ The radiator fills the wall and can’t be moved, so the pipe holes can’t be moved and we’ve hit a floor bearer. The pipe has to pass through 20mm of oak floorboard, 18mm of plywood subfloor and 400mm of bearer so we can’t bend it at all. And we have managed to hit one of the (hardened) screws holding the subfloor to the bearers. Lady Luck was smiling on us at this stage as none of our drill bits could tackle the screw. None of them managed to damage the head too badly either and, once hubby had chiselled enough wood from the hole, he was able to unscrew it.

After a day kneeling on the floor fitting elbows and t-junctions, and growing increasingly cold, the system was refilled. The fire was lit and the radiators didn’t warm up. With the temperature in the back boiler reaching 75°C we realised there was an airlock in the system and it was back up with the floors to turn up the pressure on the pump (a lucky guess) to push the air through. And so it has gone on ever since.

Hubby read an article that stated back boilers are most efficient running between 60°C and 70°. We tried that. We set the thermostat to switch on the pump at 60°C. The pump pumped and the water temperature dropped to around 30° and took an age to heat up again. We turned the pump down (it has five settings and we’ve been running at number 3 for two years), we turned the temperature down, we turned the pump and temperature up. We’ve had cold radiators, air locks and four days of experimentation over the coldest part of the winter (six inches of snow Sunday morning) and we have settled on the pump at its lowest setting and the thermostat working between 55°C and 45°. The water heats, the pump pumps, the water temperature drops to around 40° before it starts to reheat and so it gets back up to 55° relatively quickly. The boat stays warm, as it did previously, and the workroom is still cold.


Ice on a porthole, 4/2/12 – only the second time this winter.


On the writing front, I realised that, in Chapter 2, I had Dan running to the bus-stop in July with no mention of the weather. Now he’s sweating by the time he gets there and is blinded by the sun at intervals during his journey. Having spent last Wednesday morning re-editing from the beginning, Chapter 2 no longer wants to divide into sections but works as a whole. There is probably too much thinking (from Dan) and not enough action, but it’s fine for now. The next of Pippa’s emails I did I split in two – one to do with business and a second, shorter follow up of Pippa reporting social events.

Up until last week I had always been happy with Chapter 3, but now I’m having doubts. It stands out from the first two. Evelyn (who used to be Annabel but suddenly decided on a name change) sits apart from the other characters. She lives in France, not the UK, and has no one to talk to – her husband is always at work – so we are left to hear her thoughts as she comes to terms with her friend’s dying. I think I need to read the story as a whole in order to see whether the few chapters written from her point of view do fit in. And I’m not sure about Chapter 5 either as it introduces a new character and his thoughts, but I’ll worry about that when I get there.

I gave up editing at the beginning of Chapter 4 last week to type in a long-hand short story. I was halfway done before hubby arrived home and the central heating saga ensued. This week it’s short story first as the deadline approaches, editing after and fire last of all, remembering to switch the thermostat on this time.


Written by Sarah Ann

February 8, 2012 at 9:39 am

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