The Holy Place - Engine Room Maintenance Underway

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We usually think of engine room maintenance as specific jobs performed while at the dock. Sometimes these tasks are accomplished by a local mechanic or the yard, but more often we perform them ourselves in our spare time. During a long passage, these jobs must still be done. You may be crossing an ocean or running non-stop up the coast. You may be in a thirty-foot trawler or a hundred-foot mega yacht, but engine room maintenance still needs to be performed, especially while under way.

Before the Passage

Much can be done before the cruise to prepare. Sufficient quantities of lube oil, filters, and coolant should be brought on board. Spares should be checked and stowed. Engine oil and filters can be changed before departure, and the watch list items for the engine room should be established and posted in the log (see chart on page 22).

By identifying the engine room tasks as part of the watch list, you can ensure that these jobs are regularly done and that you have a record of them. Frequently checking the engine gauges and engine room environment and then logging the results will help you identify and correct problems early. You will provide your crew with a broader base of understanding and experience, and have a more pleasurable and trouble-free passage.

What to Include

On the Watch List

Each skipper must decide what to include on the watch task list and how frequently the crew should be instructed to perform the identified duties. These checks and jobs should be logged, and any unusual results investigated immediately.

There are many watch systems. Some of these systems are quite extraordinary in detail and others can be quite simple. Whether detailed or elemental, the engine room portion of the log should include anything the skipper feels is necessary, but at least the following checks should be included, in order of frequency.

First, and most often, schedule a complete visual check of the engine room. I have seen this check performed as frequently as twice an hour on new boats or after major engine room work has been performed. The visual check can often be accomplished with a flash light through an open hatch. Each item to be checked should be listed as an individual task in the log and marked off by the person on watch as the task is completed. The visual check should include the following:

• A look at belt tension. Correct tension can only be estimated on a rotating belt. It should not have a floppy, loose appearance.

• Signs of belt wear. Black powder on the inside of belt guards and around pulleys indicates excessive belt wear.

• Oil or water leaks from engines, pumps, or filters.

• High bilge water.

• Smoke or a haze in the air.

• A check for loose gear.

• Stuffing boxes. Check that the stuffing box is not so loose as to stream water or so tight as to feel hot to the touch.

• Sea strainers, fuel filter vacuum gauges.

Engine checks are next on the watch list. These tasks include checking lube oil, coolant levels, and transmission fluid levels. These checks should be performed on both propulsion engines and generators. Of course, checking oil levels will require the engine to be shut down for a short time. In the case of twin main engines, shut down one engine at a time to keep way on. In small engine rooms, this may be the best time to check sea strainers, stuffing boxes, battery electrolyte levels, and hydraulic fluid levels for steering or stabilizers. This gear is often located in spaces too close to belts for safe checking otherwise.

Last on the watch list are the least frequent jobs such as changing the engine lube oil, the lube oil filter, and fuel filters. It is not uncommon to perform these tasks while under way on a long passage. Anything we can do to make these jobs easier will pay dividends in saved time and effort.

Ideas to Simplify

Maintenance Under Way

A vacuum gauge on the fuel filter, for example, will indicate when it is necessary to change filter elements. If a manifolded dual filter system is used as well (see photo), the clogged filter can be turned off, and the clean filter turned on, with no interruption of fuel to the engine. The clogged element can then be changed when it is convenient.

Lube oil changes are most easily performed using a permanently mounted pump. Some systems use electric pumps and manifolds, and can be plumbed into multiple engines. Hand pumps work well too, and may also incorporate manifolds. Be sure to have containers or a dedicated tank available for used oil storage.

Oil filter changes can be messy. One method to minimize the mess is to slip a zipper-style plastic storage bag over the filter before it is loosened enough to spill oil. When the filter is completely removed, the bag is zipped closed, containing the filter and the oily mess. It can then be stored for proper disposal when you return to port.

Engine coolant checks can be made easier by adding an automotive style plastic expansion tank to the system. Tubing from the engine’s overflow nipple just under the pressure cap is routed to the bottom of the plastic tank. The coolant level can be seen through the plastic container and coolant can be added to it, eliminating the need to remove the pressure cap on the engine. The pressure cap should never be removed on a hot engine. The plastic tank can be conveniently mounted for easy access.

Using the Watch List

The watch person is usually at the helm and has the instrument panel in view. The basic instruments to check are engine cooling temperature, oil pressure, and engine RPMs. For ease of identifying deviations, you can apply a small piece of white tape to the face of each dial, marking normal readings. This will provide even new crew with immediate recognition of correct values. If any variation is observed, it should be brought to the attention of the skipper.

At the other end of the spectrum, larger trawlers may have a Vessel Information System (VIS). With a VIS, readouts of the main indicators are fed to a personal computer for continuous display in the pilot house. These readouts include the engine temperature, oil pressure, and RPMs, as well as additional engine measurements and other readings such as bilge water, fire, and intrusion alarms.

A Word on Safety

Personal safety while making these checks and performing jobs in the engine room should always be emphasized to the crew.

Hearing protection should be worn, and loose clothing should be avoided in engine spaces. All loose gear should be stowed, and all belts should have guards in place. Be sure there is sufficient lighting available.

A good supply of paper towels and oil absorbing pads should be on board and stored for easy access.

A Final Note

By developing a log, setting up a watch list of items to be checked, and frequently checking them, the mysterious abyss under the deck we call the engine room can provide trouble-free low-stress cruising.