by Ron Mueller
Brrr, it’s a chilly morning and there’s frost in the cabin. Do I really want that early start? I reach out of my sleeping bag to start the Portable Buddy heater and snuggle back in the sack for another 10 minutes. It’s soon a lot warmer and a pleasure to get out of bed to get dressed. Time for breakfast—when it gets too warm, I’ll turn the heater off.
The Portable Buddy, a radiant infrared propane heater from Mr. Heater, is a practical way to extend the boating season. It’s not a 24/7 solution that will take you to Alaska, but I’ve used it for winter weekend outings aboard JUST ENUF, my Kohler-designed catamaran outboard cruiser, to warm the cabin, especially just before turning in. I usually turn the heater to the middle setting for 10 minutes, then turn it off another 10 minutes—it doesn’t take much to warm the cabin.
The Buddy puts out 4,000 Btu with a six-hour burn time on its low setting, and 9,000 Btu with a three-hour burn time on the high setting. I rarely use the high setting; a 1-lb propane cylinder lasts about three days of 30- to 40-degree mornings and evenings. The Buddy can be operated with an accessory hose, sold separately, that you can connect to larger refillable tanks, but storing those bulky cylinders isn’t practical for most small boats.
The Buddy has a stable base with a 14.5″ x 9″ footprint and keyhole slots in the back for wall mounting. It must have 6″ clearance to the sides and 30″ above. When I use the heater in the enclosed space of a cabin, I feel most of the warmth as radiant heat focused at me. But when I use the Buddy in a cold garage where I’m building a lapstrake sail-and-oar boat, I felt a little heat focused on my legs but a tremendous amount of heat rising from the top of the heater. I’ve not had problems using the heater in a boat cabin, but I’d advise respecting the 30″ overhead clearance recommendation.
Is using a propane-burning heater in an enclosed space safe? Mr. Heater writes “The Portable Buddy incorporates an Oxygen Depletion Sensor (ODS), which shuts off the heater if the oxygen in the room gets below a certain point. This allows for the heater to be safely used while camping, ice fishing, working in a garage or workshop, or for emergency home use in the event of a power outage.” It is important to read the instructions about providing adequate ventilation: a minimum vent of 9 sq in is required. For most boats, sliding a hatch back or cracking a window about 1″ will suffice. The oxygen sensor does work, both shutting down the heater if triggered while running or preventing it from being lighted if the sensor detects the ambient oxygen to be low before starting. The heater is very stable, but needs to be moved carefully when it is burning, or the tip-over sensor will turn it off; that’s good. The Buddy has a certification from CSA (formerly Canadian Standards Association) an international organization that sets safety standards.
What’s not to like? Well, burning propane creates moisture and the Portable Buddy doesn’t vent to the outside, so it releases that moisture into the cabin where it can condense on cold walls and windows. It’s just part of the package and not any more of a problem than we already deal with by cracking hatches and using vent fans to keep the interior free of the condensation created by breathing.
With lovely spring days coming, now’s the time to get out and enjoy the boat more. The Portable Buddy will make you look forward to waking up to a warm cabin.
Ron Mueller recently sold JUST ENUF and is now building a François Vivier-designed Ilur that he will sail in the 2018 Barefoot Raid. He continues to design and build small boats and still rows most days in Bellingham, Washington. He started whitewater kayaking in the late ’60s, sailing in mid-’80s, and rowing in the ’90s when he founded Wayland Marine. Ron designed the Merry Wherry, for which he also built kits, and he was the Northwest dealer for Alden Ocean Shells and Echo Rowing until retiring in 2010.
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