Lessons Learned – by Pat Carson
Engine Room Check
It has been several years since I wrote about the importance of conducting a prestart engine room check. During this unusual time, many of our boats have gone unused for an extended period. These circumstances make this important check even more crucial. I never start up a boat until I have checked the fluid levels and rubber parts, looked around the engine room, especially under the engines and have satisfied myself that nothing unusual has been going on down there since the last time I ran the boat. For boats that we own and know well, the engine room check can usually be completed in five minutes or less. If done at the same time the crew is preparing lines, starting up the navigation electronics and checking the interior of the boat, having a look around the engine room does not cause any delay in departure.
Check The Propulsion System
On some vessels, access to the engine room is easy and the space is large enough to move around in, but on others the access can be difficult and the space cramped. The more difficult the access, such as having to move furniture to get to that hatch in the saloon sole, the less often we tend to go down there and look around. However, remember there is an abundance of stuff in that machinery space, whose failure can cause problems regular visual checks could help to avoid.
If it is your boat and there is a history of trouble-free operation, then the engine room check will generally take no more than five minutes once you have gained access to the space. If the boat is new to you, plan on spending more time down there to familiarize yourself with the layout and operation of each of the critical components. To start, I will generally take a quick check of the engines and generator, lubricant oil, transmission fluid and coolant, and top them off as necessary. Do not simply check the level of the fluids, but also look to see if the oil is clean, dirty, and whether it smells like diesel or gasoline. You should also rub it between your fingers. It should feel slippery, and you should not feel any grit. Does the transmission fluid smell burnt? Is it clean and slippery? When checking the transmission fluid levels, be certain that you are looking at the level indicator when the oil is cold and the transmission not running. There are some transmissions that should be checked for full while the engine is running with the transmission in neutral, while others are measured with the engine stopped and warm. Check your manufacturer’s recommendations or, if you are really lucky, it is printed on your dipstick. Get this wrong and you will have either an under or overfilled transmission. Neither of these are good for long trouble-free service. Does the coolant appear to be the right color, and are the recovery tanks at the proper level? For more on engine coolants, see my article in the May 2017 Bay & Delta Yachtsman. If this is your boat, are any of the fluids different since the last time you checked?
After I am satisfied that the fluid levels are within the appropriate limits, I take a quick look around for anything that does not belong down there such as water, coolant, oil or fuel. Use your nose; a gasoline smell means trouble that should be addressed immediately. The smell of sewage requires further investigation to determine the source. The source of oil found under the engines, transmissions or generator needs to be identified and repaired. Most boats have an oil containment pan under the engines and transmissions, which is designed to contain any drips or spills. The use of absorbent diapers helps to locate the source of drips, and makes cleaning up as easy as changing the diaper. Look in the corners and clean up any drippings before they start to smell.
Other Important Equipment
You are not done yet. What about all that other stuff down there? Usually prior to starting the engines, I check the other systems in the engine room for proper operation. When doing so, I always wear proper hearing protection, and carefully move around to avoid all of those rotating parts. The other systems can be checked while the engines are warming. Take a look at all of the other machinery and equipment in the engine room. For every hole we put in the bottom of the boat to bring water to a system, we will add a seacock and usually a water strainer. One for each main engine cooling water, one for the generator cooling, air conditioning water, water maker if you have one, heads if they flush with raw water and the holding tank overboard discharge (closed and locked of course.) To keep these valves operating easily, they should be exercised at least monthly or they can, and often will freeze up. Remember, the seacocks are there primarily for safety. If a system, hose, fitting, or clamp downstream fails, we can stop the water intrusion by closing the seacock. If it is frozen in the open position and will not move when something fails, we will have to find another way to stop the flooding. Open and close each of them a few times every time you do your checks. If they are stiff now, over time they will free up and get easier to move if you open and close them every time you do an engine room check. If they are frozen, put that on your repair list for the next time the boat is hauled.
Downstream from each of these seacocks (except the overboard discharge) there will be a raw water strainer. Shine your flashlight into the glass to see if there is any debris. If you can see anything other than the metal screen, it is time to clean it.
Check the bilges and corresponding pumps. Most boats have at least one bilge pump in the engine room. Some have several, and it is becoming more common to have a high water alarm and high capacity pump. Simply lift the float switch on each of the pumps, and listen for the pump to activate. Lifting the float switch on the high water alarm should not only activate the associated pump, but also sound an audible alarm. Each of the bilge pumps should have an indicator light at the helm that illuminates when they automatically activate. Have your first mate observe whether these indicators work as you lift the float switch. Checking the bilge pumps is a good time to become familiar with any specialized emergency pumps on board. Not able to find enough information on bilge pumps? Check the December 2012 issue of Bay & Delta Yachtsman magazine.
If the primary fuel filters have vacuum gauges, check and reset the vacuum telltale. As the filters start to plug with debris, the vacuum will increase. The telltale on the gauge will indicate the highest reading, and will alert you that the filters need servicing. Take your flashlight and shine it into the clear bowls on the bottom of the filter. Any water that has been removed from the fuel will be obvious, and the filter should be drained.
If you have fuel valves or a fuel manifold, now is a good time to look and see which tanks are selected for the mains and generator. You may want to change tanks to use fuel from different tanks to improve vessel balance and performance. Even if I intend to leave them in the same position, I will twist each valve to be sure that they turn freely and do not leak.
Take one last look around, and shine your flashlight into the back corners, under the engines, behind the batteries and anywhere you can. I have found all sorts of things out of place or needing attention, including the engine room being used as a storage locker for all sorts of necessary gear. Try to resist storing your extra deck chairs and folding plastic tables between the engines, or have plastic boxes full of spare parts laying on top of the transmissions. Not only can this be unsafe, but gear has a tendency to shift around while underway. And if there is an emergency, you may lose precious minutes removing gear to gain access to a system that needs attention.
Start ‘Em Up
After I am satisfied that the engines have the proper amount of fluids and nothing requires my immediate attention, I will start them and take one last look around before closing the hatches. This last step can be very important; I have seen belts coming off a running engine pulley, water spewing from a hole in an exhaust riser, fuel dripping from a pinhole in a line and exhaust leaking from a defective flange. These are all things that you might not notice if the engines are not running. Do the same for the generator. Inspect the belt, look for cooling water leaks and any fluid drips before putting the sound shield cover back on.
Now that the main engines are running, it is time to check the transmission fluid levels if the transmission manufacturer recommends checking the level with the engines running. So, there it is. In about five minutes we have made a check of all the important systems down in the engine room. Now you have done a little preventative maintenance, gained a little more knowledge on how the various systems are performing their tasks and have more confidence that your yacht’s systems are operating as they are designed.
In addition to our prestart engine room checks, we have system checks that should be done on a regular basis, generally monthly. Do you have flooded electrolyte batteries that need to have water added regularly? If you do, they should be opened, checked and the battery water topped off. Ignoring batteries for even a short period of time, could leave you with no reserve to start the engines when preparing for a day on the water.
Missing caps, water on the top of the battery, corroded terminals and bulging sides are all signs of either overcharging or a defective battery. Making a quick visual inspection of all the batteries will provide advanced warning that there are new batteries in your future. For more information on the care and feeding of marine batteries, check out the November 2012 issue of Bay & Delta Yachtsman magazine.
Take a quick look at the steering system pressure gauge, and see if the pressure has changed. Many of these systems have slow air leaks, and over time will lose all the pressure and make the steering vague and unresponsive. Nice to know before you pull away from the berth and try to make a turn.
Take a quick look at the large red cylinder conspicuously hiding in the engine room. That is the fixed fire extinguishing system, and most of them have a pressure gauge with green/yellow/red indicators. You already know that green is good, red is bad and yellow is caution. These systems can, and do lose pressure over time. Since there is no requirement for recreational boats to have these systems inspected annually like commercial boats, keep an eye on the pressure gauge and have the system serviced if not well into the green.
As the engines get more running hours, you may start to see signs of consistent leaks. If you keep wiping fluid leaks and every few hours they keep coming back, then you know it is time to schedule a repair. Carefully inspect around the area of the leak, because it might just be a loose or missing fastener which is an easy fix.
Just a final thought as I get ready to kick back and enjoy a good port and cigar, secure with the knowledge that all those pumps, wires, engines, plumbing and seacocks are working as expected, and my bilges are clean and dry. Always have a clean rag in hand when doing the engine room checks to wipe off any dust accumulation, those irritating oil spots or just a general wipe down of the equipment since you are already in there. Make it a habit to do the checks every time you prepare to go out. Take a few minutes to clean a small area each time, and you will have an engine room of which to be proud.
Until next month, please keep those letters coming. Even the ones where you slam me for my oversights. Remember, I love a good story. Have a good story to tell, send me an email. Have good photos of right and wrong, please send them and I will include them in next year’s edition of Is It Right or Is It Wrong. firstname.lastname@example.org