In order to enjoy our narrow boats we need to keep them in a safe and seaworthy state. Here we will cover some of the basic narrow boat maintenance tasks that owners may wish to do themselves.

On-going maintenance costs need to be factored in to living costs on a narrow boat
Engine controls on a narrowboat
Protective equipment is vital when undertaking any maintenance on narrow boat batteries

Maintenance… An Introduction!

Our narrow boats live in a harsh environment.

It’s easy to forget this when we are chugging along at 3 miles per hour on a balmy summers afternoon but in order for us to enjoy our time on the water, our narrowboats need looking after. In previous sections we’ve discussed breakdown and recovery services. It’s a good idea to subscribe to such organisations for those situations that can’t be resolved without the help of a professional engineer. However, many minor breakdowns can certainly be avoided by the application of a very basic maintenance programme.

Some of you may not wish to get involved in engine servicing. That’s totally understandable and our goal here a the FitOutPontoon is not to turn everyone into a marine engineer! A lot of time, money, practice and experience is invested by all those engineers who service our narrowboats and for many owners the peace of mind of a professional job is worth paying for. Many marinas and boat yards will have resident engineers who can be used for an annual service. There are many mobile marine engineers and of course there is no substitute for word of mouth so ask around.

Even if you are not mechanically inclined, there are still many narrow boat related tasks that need to be performed to protect the longevity of your investment. There’s plenty of polishing, protecting and greasing that can be done without the need to employ a professional and all of which will provide you with the satisfaction of feeling more intimately involved with your narrow boat.

Maintenance… A Basic Toolkit

Most of us carry one, but what do we really need on our narrowboats?

Over the years, you’ll realise that there is really no substitute for quality. With regards to tools, that can be especially important. A poor quality tool can do more damage to a fitting or component than can be easily repaired so our advice is to buy the best quality you can afford.

An ill-fitting spanner will quickly round off a tight nut which can result in the nut or bolt having to be drilled out and re-tapped. Likewise a poor quality screwdriver of the incorrect type will destroy screw heads, again necessitating the use of a drill to remove.

Before you all rush out and spend thousands on tools, it’s important to think about what you are going to undertake and to also relate those tool purchases to your own boat.

Have a good look around to see what type and size screws are most commonly used. Be aware that with those cross-head screws, there is a difference between Phillips style and Pozidriv. With an old, stubborn and rusty screw, the application of the correct driver may just be the difference in extracting the fixing or completely rounding off the head.

Likewise with spanners. If you are going to attempt any narrow boat mechanical maintenance then check what gauge tools you require. For example, as a general rule BMC based engines will use the old imperial AF gauge. A Lister JP will probably be Whitworth (for which BSF will also fit) and most modern engines will require a metric tool kit, including metric Allen keys.

At a push, metric sets can be used on AF and vice versa but this is not good practise as there are differences, and on a tight bolt a 15mm spanner could round off a 9/16ths AF nut head.

A sharp knife, perhaps carving size, is also a good addition to the basic kit. Ideal for cutting rope and clothing off the prop. Add a Stanley knife and blades, a junior hacksaw, wire brush and a small metric socket set and you’re nearly done. The small socket set, sized from 5mm to 13mm, plus a rachet and extension bar is essential for checking the tightness of hose clips. Not only those on the engine but also those for the domestic water plumbing, where fitted. Pliers and possibly adjustable grips of a good quality are also useful additions.

Learn how to use a basic multimeter. They are not expensive and can be used to check narrowboat battery voltage, bulbs and cable breaks.

Whilst on the subject of electrics, consider some cable connectors of the common sizes used on your wiring and a set of good quality crimping pliers. Cable ties can be used for a multitude of repairs and strong ones can be used to strap mooring ropes when mooring on bollards in city centre locations. They just make it a bit harder for those jokers who like to undo narrow boaters ropes!

For those who are planning to maintain their own engines, you can start to add feeler gauges and filter wrenches to the kit and if you have to turn over the engine by hand to adjust valve clearances, you will need a suitable crank nut socket and bar.

The bottom line is that we don’t have to fill our storage lockers with loads and loads of tools. A well chosen, quality set of tools will fit into a small tool box and give you the peace of mind that basic tasks could be completed in an emergency. Don’t let your holiday or cruise be spoilt by a broken fan belt or loose engine hose. If you know what you’re looking at and have a tool for the job, you can fix it yourself!

Maintenance… Carrying Spares?

Even if you don’t intend to replace a broken narrowboat drive belt yourself it’s good practise to carry one, or two if your engine has them. There are so many different types of engines with different pulley sizes for alternators and pumps etc. that the call-out engineer may not have your type on his van. It makes sense to carry a small selection of parts that are unique to your set-up.

Start with some latex gloves and a small pot of hand cleaner.

For the spares kit then, as discussed, there are drive belts. Then filters, both for engine oil and diesel oh and don’t forget the one for the water trap. It’s amazing how often the water trap filter gets overlooked at service time and eventually it will stop the flow of diesel to the engine if neglected. Check to see if your narrow boat engine has one between the diesel tank and the main fuel filter!

If you have a replaceable air filter, then why not pop one of those in the spares kit.

Whilst on the subject of filters, some manufacturers include a filter in the inlet side of forced air combustion heaters such as the Erberspacher units. There are also filter units available for fitting to other types including Webasto and Propex so check to see if your burner has consumable spares fitted. Carry a set, even if it will be an engineer who fits them.

A selection of hose clips are useful and we mentioned above including some electrical connectors and cable ties in the kit.

Perhaps consider a tube of good quality marine grade silicon. This can be used to seal leaks round windows or even as a replacement gasket if an engineer has to break into the water coolant system to replace a thermostat or water pump. You can even stick dislodged ceramic tiles back on with it. Buying household quality sealants is a false economy. Our environment will break down standard silicon so buy high grade marine spec and do the job once.

Some consider it worth carrying a couple of meters of weed hatch seal. You’ll probably never need it but….10 visits down the weed hatch in a mile on a weedy section of cut and the seal rips?

A small length, a couple of metres or so, of electrical flex and a couple of choc-bloc connectors can get you out of trouble with a broken wire. Add some insulating or duct tape and you can fix almost anything.

Maintenance Introduction

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crick boat show 2024

(Saturday 25 to Monday 27 May 2024)


Britain's biggest inland waterways show.

Advance tickets can be ordered by phone and online until 12midday on Friday 17 May 2024. If you are planning to purchase advance tickets, we recommend that you do so well before this deadline to allow time for postal delivery.
Children 16 and under – free entry Saturday, Sunday, Monday

Trade & Preview Day – Friday 24 May 2024
Get ahead and visit The Fit Out Pontoon before everyone else on Preview Day!
Preview Day tickets are strictly limited to a maximum of 1,000 pre-booked visitors and give entry to the Show from 10am – 6pm on Friday 24 May.