The Self-balancing Holding Tank
This was an original thought of mine, but I've since learnt that one or two other people have had the same idea! Ah well...
The problem with toilet holding tanks is that they fill up over a period of time, altering the trim of the boat as they do so. This is all very well if you can position the tank on or near the centre-line of the boat - lateral trim is most affected, longitudinal trim less so. Many boats that I know of have offset holding tanks for all sorts of practical reasons, and the tank size is limited as a result of the trim problem. Even so, 40 - 50 gallons of effluent can have a disquieting effect on the handling of a narrowboat. We wanted a much larger holding tank on Whisper to maximise time between pump-outs (it's not a particularly enjoyable job, and expensive too!) and get value for money from the pump-out procedure. Consequently, the tank is 90 gallons (the largest we could squeeze in) but there was no way it could be positioned on the centre-line. A tank that size would normally adversely affect the trim as it filled up and be completely impractical.
The solution was to provide a separate flushing water tank on the same side of the boat to balance the holding tank. As the holding tank fills the flushing tank empties, and the trim is unaffected (the flushing tank is slightly smaller than the holding tank to allow for the additional volume added by the humans on board!). The toilet flush is plumbed to this tank exclusively, at the cost of an extra water pump. This arrangement allows complete freedom of positioning, allowing us to utilise the space to one side of the engine, right up under the gunwale, to a height of 2 - 3 feet, which would otherwise have been dead space or at best, not-very-accessible storage. If you do this, make sure the boat is trimmed initially with a full flushing tank!
The beauty of this system is that it is completely self-correcting - at pump-out time the holding tank is completely emptied, and the flushing tank completely filled. This puts the system back in balance, no matter what might have happened in the mean time. And if you do run out of domestic water the toilet is not affected, and vice-versa. Also, at a push, you can squeeze a couple more gallons of water into the system with a bucket from the domestic supply (or a water point) into the flushing tank to allow you to make it comfortably (!) to the nearest pump-out in an emergency (a couple of gallons equals about four flushes).
An additional benefit was that because flushing water had been taken care of, we could get away with a smaller domestic water tank, allowing us to have a stainless steel tank (low to zero maintenance :-), which is, of necessity, smaller than an integral tank in the same location (under the front deck). Consequently, the 85 gallon domestic tank is not a problem (we effectively have 160 gallons capacity on board).
Postscript: when the holding tank is pumped out, and before the flushing tank is filled, Whisper heels over at about 15 degrees, proving that a tank that big and in that location WITHOUT the balancing flushing tank would be a non-starter.
The Hinged Cratch Top Plank
I'd seen this idea in a magazine picture, but not in practice...
With a normal front well-deck the floor level (with a water tank underneath, say) is raised about 18-20 inches above the floor level inside the boat. If you're over 6ft (as I am) it can be a bit cramped in there if there's also a fixed top plank to help support the cratch board. We wanted a cratch board and top plank to support a cratch cover in winter to make best use of the well-deck space, but in the summer you could really do without it. However, a demountable cratch presents storage difficulties if, like us, you want a fully glazed cratch board so you can see forward from the saloon.
The answer, for us, is a fixed, fully glazed cratch board, and a top plank that is hinged at the roof end and engages soundly with the top of the cratch board. This provides the rigidity needed for a cratch cover in winter, and the openness and headroom in summer when the cover is not needed. The top plank hinges back through 180 degrees to lie upside-down on the roof (ensuring there are no obstructions such as mushroom vents and the like), resting on the rolled up cratch cover, which is thus neatly stored out of the way. It can be restored to its normal position in a matter of seconds and the cover rolled down if necessary, quickly thereafter.
The fixed cratch board is not a problem in practice - had we had gas on-board then it might have been an impediment to changing gas bottles, but as it is, access to the front storage locker is still possible with a bit of care.
The Coal Drawer
We stole this idea from a boat at a show...
For winter we consider a coal/wood burning stove an essential item on board. However, there is always the problem of where to put the coal that is waiting to go on the fire. You don't really want to go outside for it, and keeping it in a scuttle or bucket is messy and takes up precious floor space. So, why not utilise the space under the stove? By raising the stove up about 8-10 inches you don't lose any floor space and can still keep the top of the stove at or below gunwale level (and closer to eye level :-). If the plinth is designed to be correctly proportioned you can accommodate a (metal-lined) drawer which will just take a full 25Kg bag of coal. This can be brought in from the outside, still sealed, and positioned snugly in the drawer. The top surface of the plastic bag can then be cut open with a knife or scissors, keeping mess and dust to a minimum.
In addition, with the front door of the stove open, coal can be shovelled directly in from the open drawer below, without creating any mess on the floor at all. When the bag is depleted, it and all the residual coal dust can be folded up and disposed of. The drawer also acts as a useful ash repository when cleaning out the stove.
The Full Width Bed
Not seen this one before, but I'm sure it's not entirely original...
The problem with narrowboat beds is that they tend to be narrow! A fixed double bed aligned lengthways (the most common configuration) with room to get past it can only be about 4ft 1in or 4ft 2ins wide at most, and must be fairly low to gain from the extra width below the gunwales, thus reducing storage space below (or holding tank space). A cross double bed, that is one aligned across the boat can be as wide as you like, but is difficult for someone over 6ft to get comfortable in - it has to be very low and sitting up in bed is made difficult by the gunwale protruding in at about neck height! Above the gunwale, there is less than 6ft width to play with. Cross beds must also be fold-away, so that daytime access along the companionway is unobstructed.
I have heard of lengthways beds with extensions that make a 4ft 6in standard width, but since that largely obstructs the companionway anyway you might as well go the whole hog and utilise the full width of the boat. This is what we did, but with a twist!
The Beta PropGen engine/generator fitted to Whisper is fully cocooned and thus lends itself to being hidden below the bed! However, the PropGen cocoon is quite high, necessitating the bed base being positioned at just below gunwale height. However, with a lengthways bed, this is not a problem because you still have about 5ft 10in of width to play with, and the PropGen is just the right length at a little over 5ft 6in to hide under a 6ft 6in bed base.
This is all very well, but how do you get past it? Well, during the day there is a companionway down one side, allowing access through the boat, and at the rear of the bedroom/engine-room there is a bulkhead with a companionway door. Two 2ft 11in mattresses, zip-linked together, lay on top of the bed base, making a (soft!) day bed for a single person. At night, the companionway door is closed and two boards are slid out from under the mattresses to extend the bed base sideways across the entire width of the boat. The mattresses (with fitted sheet already attached, are unfolded (using the zip link as a hinge) and you have an instant 6ft 6in by 5ft 10in double bed - luxury! The rear bulkhead and companionway door form the bed head, and contain a recessed shelf, a car radio/CD player and central heating controls. Since the companionway door has to open inwards for other reasons the door is split so that in emergencies access to the rear cabin and rear exit can still be effected.
The height of the bed is not a problem, though shorter individuals than us might need a step up for convenience. Even so, lying down I cannot touch the ceiling with my arm fully extended, so there is still plenty of room and it is not at all claustrophobic.
Access to the PropGen has been maintained by allowing the bed base to hinge upwards out of the way taking the mattresses and bedding with it, and side panels to hinge open like cupboard doors. The bedroom thus becomes an engine room in an instant, with good access to the cocoon and hence to the engine, and excellent lighting too! There is also easy access to the toilet water pump, holding tank and flushing tank, and a little space left over for loose storage.
The Steerers Companion Seat
I think this may be original....
The rear-end design of a narrowboat is often a compromise amongst competing aims and desires. Predominantly summer users prefer the cruiser-style rear deck which is usually open, save for a rail, and can accommodate several people comfortably. Most hire boats are configured this way. Traditionalists, and those concerned with winter cruising (as well), including the old working boatmen, prefer the "trad" style with an enclosed steering position in a small hatchway suitable for one, or two at a push. The rear doors can be closed behind the steerer and the hatchway slide pulled tight in to protect the lower half from the weather.
Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes is the "semi-trad" back end. It combines the external look of the trad with the sociability of the cruiser style, but for me it falls badly between these two stools, largely because the steerer is still not properly protected in bad, or just cold, weather. A triumph of style over substance!
So, not wanting to be anti-social, but at the same time wanting the looks and practicality of a "trad" back end, we had a bit of a re-think. Since Whisper is a two-person boat by and large, we needed to find a means of accommodating the steerer and one other, preferably seated, for comfort. What we came up with is a "trad" back end, but with a larger (deeper and wider) hatch, and a fold-up, upholstered companion seat placed sideways in the hatchway. When not in use it is folded up and the hatchway is no narrower than a normal trad. When in use it is far enough forward in the enlarged hatchway that the steerer can still stand inside the hatchway and pull the rear doors to behind him. It enables two people to converse in comfort (especially as the PropGen is so quiet that conversation in a normal voice is entirely possible!) whilst cruising, even on cold or windy days, and provides a comfortable perch for the non-steerer. And, apart from the larger than usual slide, Whisper looks entirely "trad" from the outside!
The "Safety" Hob
Not so much an innovation as an appropriate use of technology...
Because Whisper is powered by a Beta PropGen engine, which also provides 11.3KVa of electrical power, the choice of cooking technology is broadened to the entire range of domestic electric appliances. Aside from choosing a fairly standard double electric oven we considered a number of options for the hob. A major factor here was the design of the galley - an almost-straight-through galley is most efficient in terms of space utilisation, but it does put the cooking surface of the hob perilously close to the gangway and stray hands. To minimise the risk of accidents we decided to opt for a type of electric hob which is rare even in domestic kitchens - induction hobs do not get hot directly, they induce (as their name suggests) an electric current (via large electro-magnets) in the base of the steel or iron pans that you must use. The resistance of the pan material to this current generates heat directly in the pan base. The ceramic surface of the hob itself is not heated by this process, only by conduction from the pans themselves (and the ceramic is not a good conductor of heat). Consequently, the hob surface gets warm but never very hot. A stray hand might get hot but is unlikely to burn. Electric hobs with conventional rings do get very hot and would be extremely dangerous in such circumstances. Even halogen elements could impart a nasty burn at full power.
A secondary advantage of induction hobs is that they only consume power when the pan is actually on the hob - take it off and the sensors cut the current (and anyway there is nothing to induce a current in any more). This makes them somewhat more efficient than other forms of electric hob coupled with the fact that nearly all the energy turned into heat gets into the pan (and therefore the food).
The big bonus for the cook is that an induction hob is as controllable, if not more so, than gas, which is usually regarded as the best form of cooking in this respect.
The big drawback? The price :-(
2 + 2 Layout
Organising the internal layout to accommodate the odd visitor or two...
Whisper is predominantly a two-person boat. However, there are occasions when you need to entertain and accommodate guests overnight, and the layout of the boat has to be designed with this in mind. The principal requirements are beds (obviously) and equal access to the "facilities" (the bathroom and toilet mainly).
With space at a premium extra fixed beds are not practical, and in any case the only suitable location is the saloon. We took the decision to provide comfortable but temporary beds in the form of single or double air mattresses (not beach air-beds!) placed on the floor of the saloon. There is adequate space for two singles or one double mattress. The placement of the "facilities" is therefore all-important.
We have organised Whisper's internal layout as follows (from the front): saloon, galley, bathroom, main bedroom, office. Thus access to the bathroom (including the toilet) can be made from either the saloon or the main bedroom. This was very deliberate, as was the locking door at either end of the bathroom(the forward one doubling as the utility cupboard door during the day), allowing a degree of privacy and forming a full width bathroom. The toilet occupies its own separate compartment inside the bathroom so that there is a) more sound insulation and b) the possibility of using the toilet either at night or during the day without blocking off the boat with the full width bathroom. The bathroom (actually a basin and shower) only really gets used like that at night or in the morning, when blocking the thoroughfare is not really a problem.
The other advantage of a separate toilet compartment in an otherwise full-width bathroom is that the unsightly toilet bowl itself is not on permanent display to all and sundry (as happens with some other walk-through bathrooms...).
The Security Zone
Some more practical ideas about internal layout...
Having been the custodians of a friend's boat when it was broken in to we are only too aware of the vulnerabilities of an unattended narrowboat and extremely security conscious. Whisper has been designed with security in mind. All window and porthole glass is high security laminated, and all external locks are 5-lever, set in steel doors. However, windows of any substantial size are not going to stop the determined boat-breaker, so Whisper has an extra level of security: the rear section (office and wet-locker/steering position) only has 10in portholes and an internal security door with a 5 lever lock. If we have to leave the boat somewhere inhospitable we can at least put valuable items (TV, hi-fi, boat equipment, etc) in this "security zone" for added protection.
Mobile Phone Connectivity
Use the right technology for the job...
Steel narrowboats are quite effective faraday cages - that is, they shield electromagnetic signals from the interior, especially the weak signals associated with cellular mobile phones. It is often necessary to step outside the boat to make or receive calls in marginal areas. This can be quite inconvenient if it is cold or raining, and impossible if you are trying to use the mobile with a computer to connect to the 'net.
The solution is an external aerial, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find external aerials for mobile phones. Some newer models are not even made with the external connectors any more, and even when you do find a model with an external connector, finding the right external aerial is not easy. The most common type (designed for temporary use in cars, vans and trucks) is the "mag-mount" type, which can be placed on any metal surface with the aid of the magnet in the base. The metal surface can assist in the reception of the signal (ground plane effect, or so I'm told!) but the aerial is temporary, so it can be stolen quite easily, and there's always a trailing lead to worry about poking through a window or other opening.
The best alternative, but increasingly rare, is the "body mount" aerial. These used to be common for cars, but are becoming difficult to find. However, a permanent installation on the centre of the roof is ideal, using the (nearly) flat expanse of steel to good effect. Whisper has a body mount aerial permanently installed directly above the office to keep the cable run to a minimum (this can be a significant loss of signal if the cable is too long).