Water and Narrow Boats

Jillian Mitchell | Project Logistics

I recently enjoyed a week’s holiday on a narrow boat.  There’s something about pootling around at 3 miles an hour, spending time in the great outdoors, which slows the mind and gives time to think, or better still, time to simply be – a rare treat, these days.

This blog isn’t about my holidays, although of course that would be fascinating.  This is actually about water consumption.  (I won’t cover the wonders of civil engineering and water conservation on the canal network, but look simply within the vessel itself.)

We have been enjoying the inland waterways for over twenty years now, and the annual event has become something of a habit, by which I mean I take much of it for granted.  This time, we travelled with friends new to the world of the narrow boat, and I suppose it was their behaviour which prompted my thinking.  We had stopped at a water-point, to fill the tank, and someone asked how we knew how much water we had left.

That question and our Autumnal exploration of the Warwickshire countryside (beautiful) started me thinking about how the boat functions as a floating domestic entity, off-grid and almost entirely self-sufficient.  

On our regular trips at Easter, stopping for water has always been a source of tension; with a large group – there are usually about 15 of us on two boats – there are those who want to go furthest and fastest (why?), who complain if we suggest a water stop, and who seem quite happy to run out of water, with the next water point half a day ahead.  And then there is me.  I will stop at every water point, just to make sure we never run out.  (It has happened several times, and is never pleasant!).

Narrow boats, and particularly hire boats, rarely have gauges for the water or sewage tanks, and yet these inexpensive, readily available devices would save so much wasted emotion on our Easter trip.  But back to rural Warwickshire.  The capacity question started me thinking about how I automatically alter my water-consuming behaviour as soon as I step down into the boat.  Whether washing my teeth or washing the dishes, I am careful to only use the water I actually require, and have developed systems and strategies for re-using water where appropriate, such as rinsing out the coffee pot after washing the dishes.  Watching my friends running the tap whilst preparing food had me wincing, even though the chances of us actually running out of water on this trip were non-existent, given that I was in charge of water stops and we were refilling every other day. 

On dry land, the ambition to have us all consume under 125 litres of water, per person per day (AD G) has always perplexed me, as an architect.  What does that amount of water look like?  In another blog on a site far far away I waxed lyrical about bath capacities and provider opaqueness, so I won’t repeat it here.  Suffice it to say that behaviour change is much more difficult when you don’t know what your current behaviour looks like, and cannot easily translate the numbers into how you are expected to behave in the future; simply saying ‘use less water’ isn’t enough.  

Back on board our hire boat, I take a shower.  The boats are 7’ wide, so bathroom facilities are mostly compact; this is the first 500mm square shower tray I have come across, and to make matters worse, there is a shower curtain on two sides.  Brilliant!  If ever you want to encourage miserly water consumption in a shower, make it as small and unpleasant as you possibly can – it worked a treat for us!  Comparing notes with my husband after the holiday, we had both developed a technique of ‘splash and dash’; the shower curtain was deployed for wetting and rinsing, and pushed aside during washing and shampooing.  

Whilst I don’t know the capacity of the water tank on a narrow boat, I do know what it feels like to run out of water, so I have learned to adapt my consumption behaviour to minimise the likelihood of drought.  

Maybe there are lessons to be learned here; clinging shower curtain, anyone?


Very interesting blog from Jillian Mitchell. In answer to some of her questions :

1) 1000 litres is equivalent to 1 cubic meter. or 220 gallons.
2) 125 litres is equivalent to 0.125 cu.metres, or 125,000 ccs. or 220 pints.
3) A one gallon petrol can equals 5.5 litres
4) Boat tanks vary greatly and depend if they are moulded to fit in the bows or are rectangular tanks; A tank :550 x 390 x 290 will hold 57 litres. 1050 x 390 x 200 71 litres 1050 x 390 x 290 107 litres 1000 x 1000 x 1000 1000 litres
5) 1 litre of fresh water weighs 1 kg or 2.2 lbs so a medium weight man would equate to about 80 litres, not a weight that would bother a 6/7 person narrow boat !
6) An average domestic bath 1700 x 700 will hold 175 – 210 litres of water to the overflow ( without any displacement ). Modern eco baths around 115 litres.

I hope this might be of some interest to her, though probably not as interesting as a week on a narrow boat, I agree. John Caddy

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