Top 15 most useful gadgets for off-gridders

Part One

Top 15 most useful gadgets for off-gridders- don’t set sail without it! Photo by https://unsplash.com/@sseeker

Wondering what you will need to take with you before embarking on an off-grid or narrow boating lifestyle?

Taking a holiday on a boat and need some useful tips?

This live aboard narrow boater spills the goods! Four years of constant cruising has taught me well and I’m ready to share my knowledge with you, so you can set sail well prepared. An occasional boater does not know how to survive off-grid long term. Unique insight comes from living boat life full time.

Don’t find yourself in a dilemma. A little preparation will help you make the most of both your holiday, and your live-aboard lifestyle. Prevent yourself repeating the same mistakes I made, and save yourself many wasted hours, and much wonga.

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No. 1 most useful gadget for off-gridders- Diesel/Petrol Generator

Why do you need a generator?

PHD grinder or last minute book crammer, if you’re un-educated in physics like me, the reality of living afloat soon alerts you to how batteries work- I’m banned from using a toaster on our boat! So much power it consumed when toasting a slice of bread one day, that the battery got suddenly rather hot as its power drained too quickly, which then damaged the battery’s holding capacity.

A welder for example, will need substantially more power than your usual power tools. The short grey days of Winter leave battery banks depleted and struggling to keep up with a power thirsty mains fridge/freezer.

So generators run tools, household appliances and quickly top up battery banks.

So generators run tools, household appliances and quickly top up battery banks. Your boat engine charges your batteries, but it takes ages. When this battery bank dies you’re in trouble, as you can’t then start the engine to charge anything. The engine won’t power a washing machine or keep up with the consumption of other mains electrical appliances.

Petrol generators are small and compact which makes them light, and so, easy to move around the canal tow-path. But cost of petrol to red diesel is substantially more. And yes, boats do use red diesel to run home appliances and hot water- it’s totally legal. Diesel generators tend to be much heavier and so need a dedicated position.

A more powerful generator is both heavy and expensive but while running, it will work ovens, washing machines and greedy power tools. They’re also noisy and smelly and need a silencer and an exhaust- just like a car engine.

No. 2- Powerful Battery Bank & a Pure Sinewave Invertor

Battery banks are leisure batteries and come in banks of four, at a cost of about £800. A lithium battery would power all your boat needs inside the cabin- a washing machine, cooker, fridge/freezer, however, they are expensive at £1000 for one, but one is all you need and it should last many more years than leisure battery banks. You need a separate starter battery for starting your boat.

The Pure Sinewave invertor takes 12 volts and ‘efficiently’ converts it to mains electricity. Some products- such as laptops, will not charge up without this type of invertor.

No. 3 most useful gadget for off-gridders- Wind Generator

Wind generators are tricky because they can vibrate and make the most horrendous noise- hammering on your steel boat roof. We found using an insulating sponge material to pad the windmill where it meets the mounting pole, solved the problem. Thin taught stainless-steel adjustable ropes support the pole.

These windmills come into their own during those grey, short days during the winter months, when solar dies. They work away, turning our ample windy winters into free electricity, and topping up the batteries all night long.

Only in a gale, does the noise become annoying. Don’t try taking it down then, you’ll likely lose some fingers. Some turbines have a remote control to stop them turning- very handy. Padlock the turbine up there for security. A turbine alone, is not sufficient for all your Winter electrical needs.

No. 4- Solar Panels

‘Go stick it where the sun don’t shine?’- This is no place for clichés! Solar is all or nothing! When the sun shines all is well. When it doesn’t shine, watch your batteries deplete faster than an outgoing tide. Of course, you can run your boat engine or a generator for an hour each day, to top up waning batteries.

Summer with three solar panels is sufficient for our power needs when the sunny days keep coming. Mount panels to pivot, to gain the sun’s best position. Again, bolt solar panels down well or some bugger will nick ’em.

No. 5- Head Torch

Ever strolled down the tow-path on a pitch night, through swaying trees, when the celestial bodies are shrouded in cloud? You will likely plunge into the canal, march on a frog, or scare yourself illogical listening to your own pounding heart as you pass under the old creaking branches!

In Winter time in Britain, it grows dark early- 4pm! So prepare in advance. Buy spare batteries. We have two head torches, and they’re hands free and well used.

No. 6- Bucket and a Water Pump

A strong plastic bucket will serve you well- their usefulness is- diverse! You’ll find out. Don’t set sail without one!

Water pumps- there are the good, the bad and the ugly! A plastic hand squeegee in a sinking boat- will go to the bottom with you.

Most canal boats have an automatic electric bilge which is absolutely essential- it should sense the depth of water and begin expelling it, even when you are away from your boat. Many boats (especially old ones) take in canal water in the engine bay.

Keep up with engine maintenance- check your prop shaft is well seated and packed, fill the stern gland with grease and tighten it a 1/4 turn each journey, and watch out for rainwater inlets; all this will help keep water out. Your engine room should be mostly dry.

No. 7 most useful gadget for off-gridders- Tool Kits

Pretty pink gizmos- simple toolkits for girls- yes we’ve all seen them, and they’re despicable!

Household toolkits are useful for everyday jobs- to hang a picture, change a plug… but heavy duty, specialised tools are needed for engines, plumbing, water pipes, gas pipes and boat maintenance. You can call someone to do these tasks but it’s much cheaper to do it yourself. Ask other liveaboard boat owner’s for contacts and advice- their knowledge is very helpful.

An axe is great for splitting wood- a chainsaw or an electric saw are even better, but take care with chainsaws- you don’t want to amputate a limb. Loose trousers may help jam the saw, before it reaches your leg with luck. Leg protection is a good idea. Axes can be sharpened, and check the metal blade isn’t loose.

No. 8- Water Carrier on Wheels

Circumvolution? Yes, wheels! They’re a must have if you don’t want to damage your back in time. Granny’s wheelie bag might not be cool, but having a back like the curved spine of an old goat is really no fun! Full water carriers, and portable toilets too, are heavy.

Boaters use an array of water carriers- I’ve seen wheelbarrows, three wheeled bikes with a shopper basket, bikes with trailers, and wheeled or rolling barrel water canisters. They are the most back saving gadgets for off-gridder’s.

Top 15 most useful gadgets for off-gridders- the trike. Photo by Aleksandr Kadykov on Unsplash

We use plastic refillable water bottles because they are easy to put in a wheelie bag and they are light to pick up and use. Plastic deteriorates, and it can be bad for your health if dissolved plastics pollute your drinking water. So hard plastics might be better for water containers. A water filter could be the answer.

Don’t forget when you go to fill up, you’ll need a water tap key (services keys are available from The Canal & Riverway Trust with your annual licence), and an attachment for the tap that simply twists on which enables you to connect a hose and stops it spraying water all over you.

The sustainable and frugal use of water on a boat, is admirable. The best part is no water bill, as access to clean drinking water is part of your Canal and Riverway licence fee. I’ve yet to see a boat that can recycle rainwater into shower or drinking water- that would be true off-grid alliance.

No. 9- Long, Heavy Duty, Ropes, Mooring Pins & Mallet.

Chandlers, the mariner’s shopping hub- a kind of boater’s community tool café, have become few and far between, many struggling suppliers finished off by Government’s lockdowns. These shops, if you can find one, often sell different kinds of rope for marine purposes. Some ropes last longer than others.

Four ropes on a narrowboat are ideal, one at the stern, one up front, and one for each side of the middle. We make one middle rope do, but have to swing it to the opposite side when needed which can be tricky.

A word of advice

A word of advice- never leave your boat running in gear then drop your rear rope into the water. The propeller draws the rope in, where it winds around it which can be pull the prop out. The prop can let water in and then you will likely sink your boat. I have heard that a rope ripped someone’s engine right off its mountings.

It’s amazing at how many seasoned skippers fall foul to this accident, even us! Believe me, it’s a massive headache! Breakdown insurance, we found out, won’t tow you either. It took six weeks and cost £100, to get a tow half a mile to the nearest marina, from the Canal & Riverway Trust- our steering was unusable.

When there are no loops to tie up to you will need chains which loop around the canal edging, or mooring pins. Pick strong, heavy duty, long pins. A good mallet for driving pins in to dry ground is a must.

Top 15 most useful gadgets for off-gridders- Learn a few mariner’s knots. Photo by Pasi Marttinen on Unsplash

Tying up

When tying up, learn a few basic mariner’s knots that can’t pull undone, but are quick to undo if needed. Next, leave a little slack in case the water level drops or rises suddenly- this is more of an issue on tidal river links.

Ropes will need to be longer to reach the top of deep locks too, however, never tie up your boat in a full lock as the water goes down. Let the water out slowly, firstly, opening the paddles only part way, or you’ll bash your boat around, and maybe someone else’s too. Keep your boat well clear of the lock sill with someone holding the middle rope!

You need an anchor for navigating some places, as canals sometimes link to rivers, and lochs in Scotland. If you plan to navigate through tunnels you’ll also need a good spot lamp at the front. An air horn is a warning to oncoming boats, but seldom used- the canal is best kept a quiet, tranquil place to be. That goes for car horns when crossing canal bridges too!

No. 10 most useful gadget for off-gridders- Mobile Internet Router

“Major Tom to ground control… can you hear us Major Tom?” Mobile network and WWW connection is the vain of my life! Don’t learn the hard way.

Second-hand routers often have dodgy batteries. New ones are expensive. But a good quality mobile router is a must if you want decent internet while travelling, and don’t want to waste money. Some people claim to get away with linking to their phone internet instead.

Internet can be dreadful, or super fast

Internet can be dreadful, or super fast, dependent on location. If you constantly cruise, then at times you will have infuriating connection problems. Canal boats frequent rural areas. If you are work dependent on the internet, then prepare to have to up and move quickly.

A family or friend’s house, an internet café, a quiet pub corner, flexi work time or an understanding boss are possible work arounds. The good news is that unlimited internet packages have now become quite cheap.

No. 11- Mobile Phone with Sat. Navigation

Loitering on the canal bank in the rain, walking this way and that while waving your phone in the air, intermittent speech and re-dialling- GRrrrr! In other words, mobile signals are often poor inside a canal boat due to the lowdown position of boats sat in the cut. On the canal bank the signal is better. Different phones can give various signal strengths too. I chose my phone because the battery was huge, but alas the signal is terrible.

A nearby quarry can block the signal altogether. But a mobile phone is key to keeping in touch with friends and family. More so, it’s a lifeline to emergency services. Check bridge numbers close by to tell people your location. The mobile smartphone is a handy canal satellite navigation tool too. It’s a must have gadgets for off-gridders.

No. 12- Waterproof Walking Boots & Waterproof clothes

Winter on the canal can be muddy and wet. Therefore, a sturdy pair of boots will see you through. Climbing around narrowboats in winter is a little hazardous- banks are slippery, gunnels and decks too. Walking boots are one of the most sensible off-gridder’s apparel.

Look for breathable, waterproof comfort with a good tread. Use waterproofing spray to keep them watertight. Wellingtons are not warm enough and can be cumbersome or slip prone. Watch out for brambles that leave you with holes in your soles that the water gets into. A good brand will pay off.

A waterproof coat and trousers will keep you dry and warm, however, go for quality- flimsy thin waterproofs don’t always work.

No. 13- Stove, Firelighters & Fuel

The future of solid fuel seems uncertain due to climate change concerns, even so, the stove serves duel purposes on a wintering boat. Check out your own gas boiler emissions, radioactive waste from power stations, petrol consumption and air miles; and you’d be a giant hypocrite not to drop your objections of the few who depend on these fires.

Small stoves like the Squirrel are great at keeping narrowboats cozy, infact you will need to open the windows to let out some heat. Seasoned wood and ovoids are best for burning. Buy your fuel in summer when it’s cheapest and collect it as needed from a coal supplier. That way you free up storage space and protect your buy from theft.

Buy a good brand of stove, as leaking smoke and poor temperature control make life on a boat very difficult, and unhealthy. A spinning cowl added on the chimney top really helps to stop smoke blowing back through the short chimney on windy days. Gusty days can cause havoc!

Top 15 most useful gadgets for off-gridders- gusty days can cause havoc. Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

A stove with an oven is a great idea, saving on gas in winter. Further, a multifuel burner with a back boiler can heat up water for radiators or showers too. Bolt stoves down securely and surround them with fire resistant insulation and walls- a safety inspection and is every three years. You can’t beat a winter of stew and dumplings, slow cooking on a stove top.

Take care which windows you open. They cause the pressure inside the boat to change and will suck smoke out of your stove or push it into the stove, depending which side the wind is blowing from.

A carbon monoxide alarm is essential

A carbon monoxide alarm is essential when using any stove, but more so in the tiny boat cabin. Ours has woken us in the middle of the night to alert us to throw open windows- it can save your life! Get stove installations checked by an expert if worried. Stove cement when newly applied and heating up, can also give off carbon monoxide.

Firelighters save time and the discomfort of trying to get the fire going in a freezing cabin, and having it go out three times is very annoying! Keep your coat on until the cabin warms, but stay with the fire until it’s up to temperature. Ours has a small magnetic temperature gage stuck to the chimney.

Once the fire is at optimum temp, close down the air vents but not quite fully. Then it will burn efficiently and slowly. Don’t use wet fuel or unseasoned wood for optimum and clean burning.

Never leave the fire doors or vents open and fall asleep- wood stoves get very hot, and one or two drunken sailors have burned their boats down to the ground!

No. 14- Long Handled Lighter

Come on baby, light my fire! Long handled lighters are great for reaching into the gas cooker or a fire, to locate that firelighter you hid in there somewhere. They are refillable and last an age, so that makes them one of the most useful gadgets for off-gridders.

No. 15 most useful gadget for off-gridders – A Life Ring- and a Large Magnet?

Kayaking and canoeing has become popular on canals however you will need a licence for a small annual fee. Boats should be given a wide berth and the quiet, live-aboard life and wildlife should be respected. Canals can be dangerous places to play and people have lost their life.

If you have children, above all, get a life ring and invest in some swim vests. If anyone falls into cold icy water, it can quickly cramp muscles or affect breathing. Cold water can cause shock too. Panicked swimmers may grab you and drown you too. Use a life ring or even a barge pole they can grab onto and be pulled to the side.

Shiatsu, Pomeranian, or Labradoodle?

Shiatsu, Pomeranian, or Labradoodle, they too can wear a life jacket. Make sure you have a floating tyre, a netting or ladder they can climb up and cling to. Canal banks can be difficult to reach from the water and are often edged with tall weeds, reeds and grasses. Animals may swim, but only for a short time before they become exhausted.

Top 15 most useful gadgets for off-gridders- dog wearing a life jacket. Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

The water level is much deeper in the middle, sides slope and much debris sits on the bottom- bikes, shopping trolleys, fisherman’s hooks…

Folks have enjoyed magnet fishing for lucky finds such as guns and even an odd bomb or hand-grenade! As a result, magnet fishing in canals is now banned. But a heavy magnet is very useful at times, for fishing out a set of keys or a phone you might drop.

The Aqua Pura in the cut is not good for swimming!

The Aqua Pura in the cut is not good for swimming! It’s a flowing stream often fed by a reservoir, processing cow and farm effluents carried by rainfall. Boat engine’s bilge, sink and shower drainage, leaked oil and even the odd unsociable canal boater’s loo has been emptied into the canal, with fines for excessive pollution, if they’re caught.

Responsible boat owners use eco friendly soaps and detergents for washing up, and take their loos and rubbish to the appropriate sanitation services.

Finally, locks are dangerous places to swim with rapid changes in water levels and depths can be over five metres. Keep well way from boat propellers when in the water as they pull you in and can catch up clothing, arms and legs- we don’t want to end this blog with a gruesome and detailed account of clearing the prop. Let’s leave it till Halloween!

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