Innovation on Lake Powell

March 2012 Feature Brandon Barrus

Marty Zwisler is a rare individual, a man who lives to find ways to do things no one has done before. In fact, when faced with a task he wants to complete, he'll insist on finishing it on his own, sometimes to his own detriment.

"I'm definitely a 'do it myself'-er," Zwisler says.

Today, you can find Zwisler and his wife, Jane, on their houseboat, Beach House, on the scenic waters of Lake Powell. Despite its rather normal external appearance, Beach House is far from typical. Its roots are seen in a home almost 250 miles to the east, near Durango, Colo. The Zwislers built the home back in 1978, and designed it to be 90 percent powered by solar panels. It was a long and educational experience, and they took the lessons they had learned and applied them to Beach House.

The Houseboat

Because Zwisler doesn't live on the boat 365 days of the year, he designed the solar power system around the fact that his visits to Lake Powell usually run no longer than two weeks.

While the boat sits in the buoy field, the solar panels are charging a bank of batteries Zwisler has installed. When he arrives at Lake Powell to spend some time on the water, the boat is powered half on the battery reserve and half on the power being drawn by the solar panels as he boats. And when the fun is over, the panels go back to a full-time job of recharging the batteries.

"As a general rule of thumb, if I'm there 10 days, I wait 10 days to go back," Zwisler explains. "If I go for a week to 10 days, it'll take me at least that long to go back again, thanks to commitments to work and other obligations."

Despite being moored away from shore power, Beach House welcomes the Zwislers with a refrigerator filled with cold drinks and 250 pounds of ice in the freezer, a bonus any houseboater can appreciate.

This system works mostly because of the innovative design features the Zwislers built into the boat to reduce energy costs.

Using the information and experience they'd gained while building their home in Colorado, Zwisler did all the necessary calculations to determine exactly how much power they would need to fit his plans.

"A comparably equipped boat probably uses two to four times the electricity we use because of the components and electrical devices on board," Zwisler describes. "The light fixtures, the fridge, the cooler, the pumps, everything we use on that boat were purchased and selected based on their energy efficiency."

In short, the Zwislers decided what energy consuming conveniences they wanted to have on the boat and then purchased the most efficient appliances and devices available to meet that goal. By way of comparison, most houseboat builders will choose a refrigerator or washing machine based on capacity and appearance, then buy generators based on the amount of power needed after the fact.

"The fridge in my house is a 15-year-old version of the same one I have in the houseboat," Zwisler says. "They are pretty expensive, but they use about 10 percent of the energy of a comparably-sized fridge. You can spend 50 or 100 percent more on the fridge, but you've reduced the solar panel requirements. You end up netting refrigeration at a lot lower cost in the end."

Zwisler also figured that if the houseboat is floating in millions of gallons of fresh water, why haul water in a tank? Beach House's unique system provides an endless supply of domestic water at high flow rates and minimal filtering costs. There is never a need to go to the docks for water, and the Zwislers never run out. In the winter this means there are no water storage tanks to be filled upon arrival, or drained at the end of the trip. The system also allows the Zwislers to go 20 days or more of low-to-no-odor usage between pump-outs.

Cost Savings
Despite the up-front cost of buying solar panels and more expensive, yet more energy efficient appliances, Zwisler states that in the end, they saved money overall by not having to buy, fuel and maintain a generator.

And really, a big reason the Zwislers built this boat was in an effort to keep the cost of using the boat to a minimum.

"There is little we can do about the cost of ownership, with buoy fees, insurance, registration, etc.," Zwisler complains. "But we could keep the remainder of our costs down by incorporating products and components that would hold up to the harsh desert/marine environment and cost less to operate."

Cool on the Cheap

Another feature of the boat that contributes to its low energy costs is the evaporative cooler on the upper deck. The cooler moves enough air through the boat's cabin for a complete air exchange every minute. This humidified air is also beneficial in keeping skin from drying out, and by keeping the aft deck door open, the cool air significantly lowers the temperature on the deck while maintaining an interior connection to the outdoors.

"I drive by houseboats that have their doors closed, blinds closed and the generator going," Zwisler laughs.

In addition, the windows are designed to reflect 90 percent of the sun's ultraviolet rays, and the exterior of the boat is reflective to the point that it can be difficult to look directly at it in the sunlight. Yet Zwisler explained that it is cool to the touch, even on the hottest of days.

"Insulation is another key," Zwisler says. "The evaporative cooler would not get the job done if I didn't use the right glass or insulation. All of the factors play off each other."

An added benefit to the custom, insulated design is all-season boating. The Zwislers can visit Lake Powell at any time of year, because the same components that keep heat out in the summer also keep the heat in the winter. Beach House has a furnace that runs off the solar power, and the rear deck cover can be easily removed to allow in extra sunlight when it gets especially cold outside.

Reverse Floor Plan?

The Zwislers also wanted Beach House to have the focus be on the lake when moored. To that end, they designed the floor plan to concentrate the best living area towards the water. Other features of the unique floor plan include an interior hallway that allows access to both decks without requiring passage through bedrooms, solid-core doors and soundproofing in the walls to isolate bedrooms from external noise and an open, recessed swim deck that allows easy access to the water.

The Zwislers enjoy extra storage in multiple pontoon chambers that are accessed through hatches above.

Another benefit of the floor plan is that Beach House has fuel capacity for cruises of up to 400 miles on its twin 115hp Mercury four-strokes, as well as the ability to fuel companion boats on the fly, thanks to a metered fuel nozzle that is conveniently stored out of sight.

An Efficient Relationship

To Zwisler's estimation, most of the aspects of Beach House have performed better than he expected when he undertook this great project. Most days the hair dryers are going, the toaster is popping out toast and the microwave is heating up a bowl of oatmeal like in a normal houseboat, but without the noise and vibration commonly found with generators.

"Our boat is absolutely silent, and I just love that," Zwisler boasts. "I can tell when there's another boat in the canyon when their generator's on, even when I can't see it, because I can hear it. They've done a lot to make them quieter and safer, but to me it's an evil."

The Zwislers also enjoy satellite voice and internet communication even in the more remote regions of Lake Powell.

Zwisler is always happy to share the knowledge he has gained in the area of environmentally- and economically-friendly houseboating, though he is quick to warn that most of the methods he uses cannot just be quickly applied to existing houseboats. The best way to make it all work is to build from the ground up.

And build from the ground up is exactly what Zwisler did, and does, throughout his life. Who knows? Maybe the innovations we see in this boat may one day be standard on all houseboats around the world.


  • Like what you read?

    Want to know when we have important news, updates or interviews?

  • Join our newsletter today!

    Sign Up
You Might Also Be Interested In...

Send to your friends!