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Clean air policies

A whistle stop tour of what clean air policies could mean for boaters in the future.

Boats plugged into electric hook-up points

Air pollution is not a new problem, it's been around for years and seriously affects people's health, especially the very young, the old and those with health conditions such as respiratory and heart problems.

Globally there is a desire to improve air quality by reducing the use of “dirty” diesel engines for all kinds of transport, as well as addressing the problem of poor air quality caused by burning solid fuels.

Diesel engines are the most common type of engine used by inland waterway boaters, and most boats used residentially are heated by solid fuel stoves. So how are proposed clean air policies likely to affect boaters?

Clean Air Policies

The government has already proposed to ban the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040.

Many British cities suffering from poor air quality are pressing for the government to bring this forward to 2030. London already has an Ultra Low Emission zone which will extend to include the whole the capital inside the North and South Circular Roads by 2019.

The Department for Transport in partnership with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have committed to spend over £2.7 billion investing in improved air quality and cleaner transport including working with many local authorities outside of the capital.

Clean air policies will affect boating in the medium to longer term, and we need to be prepared for those changes.

Whilst inland boating contributes only a tiny fraction of harmful emissions compared to other forms of transport such as road, air and shipping, all of us who love boating on the inland waterways need to start thinking about how our boating affects air quality, especially in urban areas already suffering from high levels of road transport pollution.

By all of us, we mean leisure boaters, live-aboard boaters, would-be new boaters, the marine industry from boat builders to boat equipment and engine makers, and not least the navigation authorities including the Trust.

We all need to be ready for, and plan for changes that might limit our use of diesel engines and solid fuel stoves.

What can boaters do now?

Poor air quality generated by boats, affects boaters' health more than anyone else, so it's in our own interests to make things as good as they can be.

Indoor air quality has a significant impact on our lifetime exposure to pollutants. As with many things, changes for the better start with small changes in the home or boat.

The main sources of indoor air pollution come from heating and cooking, in particular solid fuel stoves. Solid fuel stoves also have an impact on outdoor air pollution and smoky boater's stoves are the source of many a complaint to the Trust during the winter months, particularly in urban areas which are already likely to be suffering from poor air quality.

Find tips on dealing with indoor air pollution and don't forget that running your solid fuel stove as efficiently as possible and keeping your fuel dry make a massive difference to the amount of smoke you produce from your chimney.

Another thing we can all do now is to look at how we can reduce our reliance on running engines or generators whilst static to power all our electrical devices, from essential water pumps and lights, to luxuries like large flat screen televisions, dishwashers, washing machines, microwaves, hot water immersion heaters and more.

The array and quantity of electrical goods on boats has increased dramatically in recent years, and in most cases having a single domestic battery to power everything just doesn't cut the mustard anymore.

The higher your electrical demand, the more batteries you are going to need and the longer you're going to need to charge them if you are not underway.

Plug into the grid and turn your engine off?

Solar power and heating solutions obviously work best during the summer months so they are not a complete solution. Wind power isn't such a popular solution for inland boating but does have some merits.

Buying energy efficient electrical goods, and remembering that a boat isn't like having land-based accommodation also helps.

Medium to longer term we would hope that boats are fitted out with the most energy efficient appliances maximising gains from newer battery and green power generator technologies including hybrid engines (it's complicated but have a look at this site for starters), and even all electric boats.

Battery technology is moving on all the time, whilst expensive to purchase, Lithium batteries have advantages over lead acid batteries, but present an increased risk in terms of fire safety. Methanol fuel cells are also increasing in popularity for marine use, especially in yachting.

The Trust and other navigation authorities, in partnership with local authorities and other public bodies, will also have to look at the feasibility of installing electricity charging points in areas that suffer from particularly poor air quality.

Boaters will need to be prepared to take advantage of these facilities, which you can only do if you have a 240v electric system as well as a 12 or 24v system, and boaters will almost certainly need to consider any costs associated with adapting to a greener future.

Green or low emission visitor moorings will almost certainly be part of an urban boating future.

What of the future?

Longer term we could see the phasing out or scrapping of older more polluting diesel engines on boats, but retro fitting hybrid or electric solutions isn't often economically viable or feasible due to space and weight distribution considerations.

So where does this leave inland boating in terms of attracting new and young boaters if cheaper vessels aren't readily available on the market? What effect could this have to those with vintage engines and preserving our boating heritage? And will electric engines ever be able to replace the reliable workhorse that is the diesel engine for river cruising?

With the longevity of most craft on the waterways, and the costs of retrofitting the equipment and technology required for boats to be less polluting, there is going to be no easy or quick fix, in fact it will probably take decades. Equally, relying on the existing exemption in the Clean Air Act 1954 isn't helpful in our polluted urban centres where air quality is an issue for everyone, including boaters.

Many questions are still to be answered, and improvements still need to be made in technology and boat building. Less polluting solutions need to be found for boating power generation, heating and propulsion to benefit everyone. One thing is certain, the future must be greener, and whilst our waterways help create a greener environment where people walk and cycle and improve their wellbeing, boating needs to play an active part in creating that cleaner air solution, especially in urban areas.

Boaters: Please share your stories and tips for making your boating life greener and less polluting with the boating team on Facebook and Twitter or send us an e-mail. We'd love to hear from you.

Last Edited: 25 October 2022

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