Fixing our diesel heater

Blue Tale came with a Fab-All-120 cabin diesel heater located in the main cabin that is the precursor of Sigma Marine-120 diesel heaters.  It has worked very well in the last three years in owning the boat but we have had some problems with back drafts this summer and had to make a decision on whether we wanted to repair it or replace it with a newer model. When we spoke with the company, they suggested replacing the chimney with a longer pipe, as our short chimney might have been the problem.  This was good news as this would save us some money and of course we also wanted to replace the chimney as it was made out of galvanized pipe.  Galvanized pipe will release toxic fumes/vapours when heated to high temperatures, usually in wood burning stoves but this is not usually the case in diesel burning stoves, as the temperature is generally much lower – but we were still concerned!

Original pipe and heater

Original pipe and heater – photo taken when we moved in in May

After removing the stove, piping and crappy heat shield we took the opportunity to paint the area behind the heater and replace the heat shield with something fancier than a piece of sheet metal.

We decided to go with ceramic tiles as these would help reflect the heat as well as add some décor to the interior of the boat. We built a wooden backer using ½ inch plywood with vertical strips of wood glued/screwed to the back to promote air flow between the shield and bulkhead (wall). A metal frame was attached to the wooden backer to help support the tiles once in place. The tiles were arranged and re-arranged until we were happy with our design and then attached to the plywood using tile cement and the seams grouted. The project was pretty straightforward but the end result weighed a tonne. All of this work was done using the wood shop at the Cowichan Bay Wooden Boat Society-awesome facilities! Once everything was in place and attached to the bulkhead, we used a ceramic drill bit to drill holes through the tiles for the stove attachment, and the fuel/overflow lines.

To increase circulation of the heat in the cabin, Rob installed a 12V computer fan approximately 18” above the heater. Rob built a wooden box around the fan out of scrap African padauk wood, a beautiful light-dark orange wood. The installation of the fan took about ½ a day, the most complicated part being the rerouting and adding additional wire to the fan.

Tiles, fan and heater attached to bulkhead

Tiles, fan and heater attached to bulkhead

Once we had all the miscellaneous parts attached to bulkhead, the fun part began of re-installing the heater and attaching the new piping and cover on the coach roof (cabin top). To accommodate the angle of the coach roof and to ensure the deck fitting was level, Rob designed a round teak base that is angled on one side to take up the space and was glued to the coach roof using 3M 5200 glue. We had to drill holes through the coach roof to install the deck fitting and flue (this was not done with the original deck fittng). Once this was complete, the rest of the project was to attach the heater to the tile backing, line the fuel lines up, install the flue pipe, etc.

Overall, we are very happy with the results of the project. The pipe looks great, we have had no back drafts into the cabin and it heats the cabin nicely. The only tiny problem is that we occasionally get a leak through one of the holes but have not been able to track it down, yet! ~Sophia & Rob



7 responses to “Fixing our diesel heater

  1. Who knew you were both so handy? Rob cutting wood…kind of scary.
    No, seriously, it looks great. I really like the tiles – next time you guys come down, I might have Rob do some grout work for us…lol. 🙂

  2. Read this post with much interest—we want to do pretty much exactly the same project with our heater. Our chimney is fine, but we’d love to make a tile panel to protect our bulkhead a bit more and radiate the heat back out into the cabin. Did you think the weight was a problem or are you completely happy with it? It looks beautiful—another reason we’d like to do the same on Celeste. For us every project involves some learning, so any specific tips you have on this one we’d love to hear!
    -Ellen and Seth

    • Hey Guys, The project was straight forward. The hardest part was finding tiles we liked and that weren’t crazy expensive and were the right size. The shield does weigh a bit and when you’re putting it in place it does seem really heavy but it’s all relative. We used #10 size screws and spaced them from each corner about roughly every 10inches; about 14 screws. There were also 4 screws that went through pre-drilled holes in the tiles that secured the stove to the bulkhead. We used 1/2in plywood as a backer and then four 1/2inch(d) x 1 1/2(w)inch strips of plywood to stiffen the backer (vertically). The strips were evenly spaced for air flow between the backer/stove and the bulkhead. The strips were glued in place using Gorilla glue (I love this stuff!). The whole project size is 14in x 39in.
      I forgot to mention in the blog that I also include a clay wine bottle pot to the chimney. I got one from a Thrift store and drilled the bottom out. I then slipped it over the chimney; it sits on top of the stove around the chimney and helps retain the heat in the cabin. I can’t take credit for this b/c I read it in another blog somewhere. It is important to get ceramic drill bits, and use a bit of water. Also put masking tape on the tile where you’re going to drill, this helps prevent the bit from sliding around. – R

      • Thanks very much for all this information—super helpful! It sounds manageable if we can find a shop as good as you did! We talked about doing it all last summer and somehow never made the time, but hopefully in 2015. We’ll have to start looking around for tiles—it hadn’t occurred to me that it would be tough to find ones that fit right, but of course that makes sense. Thanks again—we’ll be referring back to this page!

      • The size of the tiles aren’t really important; it’s just taking in consideration the weight. For our stove we just needed to cover the immediate area for the stove and chimney; there’s probably about 2.5 inches of exposed tile on each side of the stove, 3inches below and 12-14 inches above the stove.The whole job can be done on the boat with a cordless drill, wood saw and hack saw; we got everything minus the tiles from Home Depot and it took about 2 days and wasn’t very messy.

      • Cool—sounds good! There’s no Home Depot in Dutch Harbor, but we’ll certainly have a look in Alaska Ship Supply when we get back to Celeste!

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