What's Hot In Onboard Heating Systems

A reliable heating system is crucial when cruising the local waters in the colder months. I recently upgraded my heating system and wanted to share my experience.  If you are looking for some general information on the different heating system options available, feel free to read an earlier Tech Talk Article in Pacific Yachting Magazine entitled, “Heating System Options” (available on our website). 

When I purchased my boat 12 years ago, the previous owner had installed a very popular diesel, hydronic heating system (i.e. coolant based system).  It worked well most of the time however it was smoky and quite noisy.  It started to become unreliable and I was having a difficult time troubleshooting and servicing the unit myself as the system was tailored to a trained tech and not a do-it-yourself’er.  The product was built overseas and the service manual was not all that informative so it was impossible to troubleshoot most issues on my own.  As is with most boat systems, they rarely fail at the dock so it was important for me to be able to access useful service diagnostics information in a manual, online, or even reaching a helpful manufacturer over the phone or email.

The original heating system was designed primarily as a light duty system for trucks or RV’s and many of the parts didn’t seem durable or robust enough for a marine application.  Over time, some parts of the heating system were starting to fail or corrode.  After replacing them a few times it was showing its age and, finally, it was time for the heating system to be replaced.

Pacific Yacht Systems has installed a number of different diesel heating systems, both forced air and hydronic. Here’s a little refresher on the two main types of heating systems for boats. Hydronic central heating systems have a boiler, warmed with diesel, with heat exchangers installed and plumbed throughout the boat to distribute the heat.  Hydronic coolant water systems incorporate an air-to-water heat exchanger to extract the heat from the coolant and move it throughout the boat. Forced air systems consist of a heater with a fan that runs on diesel with air ducts that run throughout the boat to distribute the heat. Both forced air and hydronic systems use electric power to start and to distribute heat throughout the boat. 

The most popular brands are Eberspacher (Esbar), Hurricane, and Webasto.   After much research, our company’s own experience installing many heater systems, and speaking with fellow boaters who had installed systems, I chose the 33,000 BTU Hurricane Zephyr for the following reasons:

  1. The previous heating system had smaller, light duty components but the Hurricane system components are substantial. Everything about the Hurricane system is beefy and is meant for continuous use. For example, the old fuel filter was plastic, 2 centimeters in diameter and would clog regularly after being in heavy seas but the fuel filter on the Hurricane is much larger and almost the same size as the one on the engine. The exhaust piping and muffler are made of stainless steel and built to withstand the marine environment. 
  2. Unlike the competitors, right out of the box the Hurricane system offers four separate heating zones, which can be individually controlled via different thermostats throughout the boat. Allowing individual cabins to be warmer or cooler depending on personal preference.
  3. One of the biggest benefits is the noise reduction while the system is operating as well as a decrease in the amount of exhaust fumes. 
  4. The fibreglass, on my boat, had been severely discoloured from the old system but the new exhaust is double-walled and almost three times the size. Allowing the fiberglass around the exhaust not to overheat and discolour over time.
  5. The Hurricane has a convenient remote control interface that uses an intuitive, touchscreen operating pad. The panel provides useful diagnostic information without the need to lookup error codes. The older heating system offered a cryptic and non-friendly user interface.  
  6. The Hurricane also includes a small, 1500W or 5,000 BTU, electric element that can provide a modest amount of heat or water while connected to shore power so you don’t have to run the diesel portion of the heater at the dock.
  7. The air intake is designed to take air from the outside to avoid recycling internal air.  This addressed my concerns about carbon monoxide being recycled in the cabin, as there is always a supply of fresh air to the heater. 

However, the number one reason I chose the Hurricane Zephyr heating system is the fact that it also provides hot water, on demand. I can now create instant hot water for showers or dishes without having to run the diesel heater half an hour before-hand to warm the water via the coolant supply on the marine water heater. At a flick of switch, the Hurricane system instantly provides a continuous supply of hot water. I can finally offer warm showers to everyone onboard without worrying about draining the hot water tank and be left taking a cold shower.

This on-demand hot water system is a revolutionary upgrade to a marine heating system.  It will heat to 48 degrees Celsius at a flow rate of 4 litres per minute and has an internal mixing valve to set temperature preferences. This allowed me to actually remove my older, leaky hot water tank and dated heating element from the boat.

The company that invented the system, International Thermal Research, is a local BC Company that is recognized world-wide as a premier heating specialist for high-end yachts and motorhomes.

It would not be possible to boat year-round without a reliable and safe heating system. The Hurricane Zephyr is a compact all-in-one heater that provides space heating and on-demand potable hot water. It is designed for vessels up to 14 meters long and is ideal for boats with limited space.  It is roughly double the cost of its nearest competitor but the quality components, ease of service in the field, and instant hot water makes it worth it.

 Lowest cost is rarely the best value and you get what you pay for. Yes it was more money but in terms of benefit, it is worth it.

About the author: Jeff Cote is the owner of Pacific Yacht Systems, a full service shop delivering marine electrical and navigation solutions for recreational boats. Visit their website and blog for info and articles on marine electrical systems, projects and more: www.pysystems.ca