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Thinking Systems With Cummins MerCruiser Diesel

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A recent Cummins MerCruiser Diesel press event in Charleston, South Carolina, afforded me another opportunity to experience the new Zeus propulsion drive on open water. It also provided an excellent venue for holding a meaningful discussion with boatbuilders and engine manufacturers about systems integration.

Let me say at the outset that the Zeus marine propulsion system is an exceptional new way to operate a boat. It takes only a minute or two to comprehend the enormous benefits of the system, which is similar in concept to Volvo's IPS system, but different in many ways. With the finger-touch control of a joystick, the Zeus drive can maneuver a boat so effortlessly and so precisely, it is simply amazing. As an integrated propulsion and control system, it is awesome.

Before it was my turn to try out the system, I watched from the dock as a Zeus-driven Maxum powered by a pair of 550hp QSC 8.3 diesels danced in front of us, forward and back, side to side, always under control and even with grace. I was reminded of the great Lipizzaner stallions performing at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, just as I had been when I'd seen an IPSequipped Island Pilot perform at Trawler Fest in Mystic, Connecticut. The boat seemed alive in many respects. Around 400 B.C. the Greek military officer Xenophon, creator of the art of dressage, stated that a horse that is trained to display its natural beauty and assume a stately carriage appears joyous, magnificent, and proud for having been ridden. So seemed the Maxum sport yacht as she maneuvered around the docks.

The presentations leading up to our boat rides were all about fault tolerance design, finely tuned integration of all components, and the simplicity that comes from outstanding engineering. I was quite impressed with the result. Frankly, I love well-engineered systems, be they mechanical, electronic, or procedural.


In the evening at the hotel, I eagerly awaited the arrival of the rest of the buses from several Charleston restaurants. I had set up a post-dinner meeting with Ted Varner, global communications manager for Cummins MerCruiser Diesel (CMD), and Neil McCurdy of Grand Banks. Neil was in town for an expanded version of the CMD press program, and his presence provided an opportunity I could not possibly resist.

As we continue to investigate modern fuel filtration and question many established but antiquated views, I was intrigued by getting an engine manufacturer and a boatbuilder together to talk about issues surrounding common-rail diesel engines and their absolute requirement for clean fuel. Many of you have reached a level of enlightenment on all that we have put forth on this subject, yet the information gap among engine and boat companies leaves everyone wondering where the disconnect is.

Folks wandered into the hotel lobby, and before long a small crowd had gathered. In addition to Ted Varner and Neil McCurdy, I was joined by Dick Newman, whose responsibilities as CMD's global OEM development manager made him an ideal and experienced professional to speak accurately on the subjects under discussion. Art McClellan of Cummins Power Systems stood nearby, as did Grand Banks' Tucker West.

After briefly reviewing what PMM has published in the last six months, from significant increases in injector pressures to abrasive particulate damage caused by less-than-adequate filtration, I asked why we seem to be the only ones in the industry talking about these issues. (What I was looking for, of course, was an agreement that the points we've been making repeatedly in PMM are in line with the understanding of these professionals-corporate philosophies and agendas aside.)

Dick Newman spoke up first, commenting that the requirements of common-rail diesel engines are precisely why today's Cummins on-engine fuel filters come with a 2-micron element. The Cummins technical guys all agreed that 2-micron filtration is absolutely necessary, yet they maintain that the filter on the engine is sufficient and that 10-micron primaries are good for the fuel delivery system up line of the onengine filter.

This is precisely how Grand Banks sets up the fuel system on its boats, with either one Racor per engine or dual switchable Racors. Neil McCurdy added that Grand Banks takes its lead from the installation guidelines of the engine manufacturers and that this is what Cummins recommends.

When I brought up the many concerns of relying on an on-engine filter, no one seemed to share my real-world worries. After much discussion, however, those in attendance agreed that "our" boats could benefit from additional (and more expensive) filter installations. Everyone also seemed to agree that moving the 2-micron filter off the engine and putting it in a friendlier location is a good idea, as long as restrictions are not increased.

From an engineering view, this modification is unnecessary. From an operational view, however, I maintain that it is critical.

We did not resolve anything that evening, nor did I really expect to, but everyone was in agreement that today's common-rail engines are not the forgiving mechanical engines of the past. (Dick laughed as he recalled that it seemed only yesterday the Cummins on-engine filter contained a 30-micron element.)

The meeting absolutely confirmed to me that our industry should take another look at itself in terms of systems. When a manufacturer supplies an engine to be installed by a boatbuilder, it is a perfect opportunity to look not just at installation matters, but at operational ones as well, including ease of access and maintenance. After all, that engine becomes part of a propulsion system that must fit the safety needs and ease-of-use requirements of the boat owner. Such an analysis might easily translate into changes in how it all gets assembled and where equipment is located, and it might identify the need for optional equipment, such as fuel polishing systems or multistage fuel filtration, requirements that savvy buyers will fully understand.


I had also come to Charleston armed with a question from Howard Brooks, owner of Lunar Lady, the Selene 40 that graced the cover of our September issue. Howard has a single Cummins QSB 5.9 diesel engine on his boat, and he was frustrated during her commissioning by the inability to interface data from either the engine or its SmartCraft electronics to the Raymarine E-120 multifunction display on the flybridge. The Raymarine display supports SeaTalk and the NMEA 2000 standard, yet it can't talk to the CMD products.

It seemed logical to ask these guys why standardsbased electronics such as those from Raymarine can't interface with the Cummins data or the SmartCraft network. From a consumer standpoint, it just doesn't make sense. Especially when you consider that the big word for 2007, according to NMMA's Thom Dammrich, is integration. Everyone is doing it: linking weather, positioning, engine, navigational, security, and communications data. Connectivity is king.

I spoke with CMD's Jonathan James, and he said that this topic had been debated at Cummins, but ultimately the decision to keep the information proprietary was made at Brunswick's electronics company, MotoTron, which develops many of the control systems for the companies under the Brunswick umbrella. So the SmartCraft network does not talk to other devices and/or networks, even those that follow the NMEA 2000 standard.

I was then introduced to Spencer Lewis, manager for vessel integration controls and electronics at CMD. He confirmed that the decision was made to keep the information proprietary-and secure. He also said integration could be achieved, but only if it is offered in a way that ensures the integrity of the information.

We discussed the fact that consumers have come to expect the ability of components to share information and show engine data, such as rpm and engine hours, oil pressure, engine coolant temperature, fuel levels and burn rate, and alternator output. With the growing cottage industry of control and monitoring systems, it seems an understandable expectation among today's boat owners, and restricting the flow of data seems counterproductive.

There is no change on the horizon, I'm sad to say, but I think it is clear that if consumers make a big stink about it, the folks who made this decision may rethink their current position. With all this talk of systems, this limitation seems a glaring faux pas that stands in the way of creating optimal information systems on one's boat. Wanting to have engine data shown on one's flybridge on a multifunction display is not unreasonable. That was the point of the NMEA 2000 standard.

I enjoyed spending time with the many enthusiastic folks at Cummins MerCruiser Diesel in Charleston, and the venue was much better suited for an open discussion than fleeting moments at a boat show. Such was the purpose of the Cummins event.

The brilliance of the Zeus drive stems from fully understanding the various elements of a complete propulsion and control system and designing it to meet the many criteria in its mission statement. But it is vital that the propulsion system and all other systems integrate properly with the rest of the boat. Taking a systems view of the entire vessel, including all electronic, mechanical, and operational elements, will move us a long way toward safer, more reliable, easier-to-use boats.