Thames Solar Electric nightmare

Why we’d never buy Thames Solar Electric again

When we first thought about moving onto a boat we were worried about a lot of things; the smaller space, living off-grid, having to top up the water and empty the toilet. Fortunately none of these things were a problem, the problem was the boat builder.

Image of the side of a boat with a vent at the top and a tape measure showing the distance from the water line is 15cm.
The open vent-hole in the side of the boat which is 15cm above the waterline; a Category D vessel needs to be able to withstand 30cm waves.

The short story is that the boat builder was apparently completely unqualified to build boats. The marine surveyor put it succinctly;

“The level of workmanship in all areas including electrical, plumbing, joinery and general fit-out is that of someone without the requisite skills, experience and understanding.”

― Marine Surveyor

The story starts when we found Thames Solar Electric whose boats were “powered only by the sun’s energy which is converted to electricity”.

We found out the hard way that it’s not possible to live using only solar power in the UK, because there’s not enough sun in the winter months in this part of the northern hemisphere (unless you have your own solar farm).

Completely unaware of this, and mainly because they were the only company making a fossil fuel free boat, we decided we had to give it a shot. We asked questions about how the boat worked, whether there would be Brexit related supply chain risks, and what the delivery timescales would be. Satisfied with their answers (and taking them at their word) we decided to put down a deposit. Undoubtedly this was the biggest and most expensive mistake we’ve ever made.

Build time

The Thames Solar Electric website says “a fully fitted build takes 6 months”. We put down a deposit mid-September 2020, and the boat was finally delivered, unfinished, just over a year later at the end of September 2021. The delays were continuous with the delivery date slipping from May 2021 to July to the final date at the end of September 2021. That was a hard deadline because the flat we were renting was being sold, so we had nowhere to live if the boat wasn’t ready!

Specification

Knowing that clear specification is critical to the build process we were very clear about our requirements, and provided details promptly whenever we were asked. This appeared to have limited impact on the end product, with deviations from the specification including;

  • Our daughter’s bedroom where instead of a single size bunk bed we got a pull down custom small bunk bed and a single sized bed below it, but with the bunk down there was barely room to fit even a child on the bed below, so the bunk bed was never used.
  • Our bedroom storage. The wardrobe is too short to hang shirts in, and you can’t open the cupboard because the bed frame is too short for the mattress so it overhangs by 10cm.
  • In the kitchen they fitted the wrong cabinet doors, the wrong taps and sink, and the worktop was 100mm too short.

Unfinished business

In the last three months of the build we were becoming more and more concerned as the timelines kept extending and there was more and more deviation from the specification. When the boat was finally delivered it even looked unfinished. As the boat was craned in we could see the nuts which held the anodes on were loose, and the bolts holding the gates for the bow thruster hadn’t been cut to size.

In the first 24 hours on our new home we found more issues;

  • there was no running hot water (at all), so we couldn’t shower or wash up,
  • there was no charger for the bow thruster batteries, so once the battery ran out we’d have no bow thruster, and
  • there was no thermostatic switch on pump to the wood burner back boiler, which meant if we didn’t manually turn the pump on it would boil and eventually super-heated water would try and escape from whichever joint was weakest.

Build quality

We headed into winter discovering new problems almost every day including functionality issues, safety defects, and deviation from regulation. The full horror we’ll save for Part 2, but the biggest defects were;

  • The underfloor heating doesn’t work, it doesn’t heat the boat at all, it just cools the water in the hot water tank. The overnight temperature in the boat has been as low as 7°C, which is categorised by Public Health England as ‘Risk of hypothermia’.
  • We only get 40 seconds of hot water, then it’s lukewarm. If our shower worked that would make showers difficult, and we have to boil the kettle to do washing up.
  • Electrical wiring. For the first 2 months we couldn’t plug in to shore power (critical in the winter as the sun doesn’t provide enough energy to recharge the batteries). After the boat builder failed to find the problem (let alone fix it) a local electrician found and isolated a wiring defect at the bow thruster charger, allowing us to finally plug into shore power.
  • The rainwater tank (which stores rainwater collected from the roof) is the wrong model. The tank is supposed to be vertically mounted and has a vent on the opening which allows any gas build up to escape. When it’s laid on it’s side it leaks if its more than half full.

The impact

The impact on us as a family has been pretty devastating. Instead of the sustainable living dream we’d been searching for since 2018, we were faced with stress and anxiety. We’re worried that our daughter is living on a boat where the electrics could cause a fire and the damp and cold would impact her health.

The full list of defects and the boat builders failed attempts to fix them we’ll put in part 2, otherwise this post will be too long to read (and too depressing to write!)

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