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Preparing for Maine winters as a liveaboard, part 4

I have written extensively in the past about the selection, preparation, and installation of our Olympia OL-60 heating system, but today I am going to tell you how it performed during its first winter of use. Since the initial installation last fall, the heater ran, on demand, full-time until May. We live aboard in South Portland, Maine, with temperatures regularly below freezing. While our winter was mild in comparison to seasons past, it was still a rigorous test for the system. We have no affiliation with the company that produces and sells these units, paid full price, and are not being compensated for this review. So, having said that, did we stay warm?

Yes! We never once had to worry about being cold, freezing plumbing, or leaving the boat for the weekend. This reliable unit fires up quickly and begins circulating hot water to the radiators within moments. Since the radiators utilize 12v fans to distribute heat, the air in the cabin warms quickly.

With our four different zones, we are able to heat each space to different temperatures when necessary. This is handy, for example, in the forward cabin which we keep at 50 degrees to reduce fuel usage when not in use. The engine room is also a separate zone which I have set to 50 degrees to prevent plumbing from freezing. In reality, this zone was probably unnecessary as the latent heat from the boiler tends to keep the space above 50 degrees already.

Teamwork and some rigging to lower the boiler into place

Teamwork and some rigging to lower the boiler into place

The heat produced is relatively dry and when used in conjunction with our shrink wrap cover we did not experience any condensation in ports and hatches. The only place we found condensation was against the hull around our bed. By moving pillows and blankets away during the day to allow circulation, this moisture was eliminated as well.

Three of the four thermostats have worked flawlessly, turning the heat on and off within the set parameters. The one in the forward cabin seems to have an issue sensing temperature which often caused the heat to stay off. It would read, for example, 70 degrees when the temperature was in fact 45 degrees. I intend to replace this thermostat and I have no doubt that will solve the problem.

While this system uses more electricity than simpler drip feed cabin heaters, it has the distinct ability to manage itself while we are away from the boat. This is great not only during the day but particularly when we leave the boat for a weekend of skiing. We simply set the temperature, close up the boat, and walk away. When we come home at the end of the weekend, despite freezing temperatures and snow-covered docks, our cozy cabin is already warm. This is extremely convenient and keeps us from having to winterize our plumbing.


A Maine Winter at the Marina

While we are on the topic of electrical power, I have been pleased with the electrical consumption. The highest consumption occurs on startup of the burner, peaking around 2 amps AC. However since the system is able to store thermal energy in the coolant, unlike a forced air system, the burner is not running most of the time. It seems that on average we are drawing .5 amps or less. The best test of this came when we hauled the boat in April. Without shore power, I left the heater and refrigeration going as we experienced a surprise winter snow storm. The boat stayed comfortably warm for five days before the batteries dipped below 12V (the inverter automatically shuts off at a minimum voltage). Considering the convenience and reliability of this system, I think that the power usage is reasonable. Our electricity bill for the winter ranged from $15-30 per month.

The primary energy source for the heater is, of course, diesel fuel. Our boat has a 100-gallon fuel tank to which the heater is directly plumbed. Under normal winter conditions, we were burning approximately a gallon per day. During particularly cold periods that increased to nearly 2 gallons per day, but that was rare. To avoid running low on fuel, or having to do a major refueling, we topped off the tank with jerry cans weekly.

All in all, we are extremely pleased with the Olympia OL-60 and the system that supports it. It was a substantial investment in both time and money to install, but it was well worth it. In comparison to neighbors using electric heat, our utility bills are substantially less. I have no doubt that as we continue to use this heater for years to come, it will pay itself off and eventually provide great savings. For our current use (full-time living, summer cruising) the system is exceptional. For larger boats living aboard in a frozen winter climate, you should absolutely consider the Olympia OL-60.

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