On Powerboats - Systems accessibility and installation

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Proper care is vital to a boat’s components, and their location can make maintenance much easier

Proper care is vital to a boat’s components, and their location can make maintenance much easier

You bought your boat to have fun, and it was one of the happiest days of your life. But if you want all systems go, weekend after weekend, you have to take care of business below deck.

This means doing maintenance and generally keeping tabs on all the hardware and machinery that you have come to rely on in your pursuit of happiness afloat. If the boat’s systems don’t get the attention they need, they become less reliable and, in the long term, less durable. That’s no fun. And then there’s the matter of resale value. A boat that’s been taken care of commands a better price on the other happiest day of your life — the day you sell it.

Read the other story in this package: On Powerboats – Systems accessibility

Long-term durability and day-to-day reliability depend first of all on the builder’s selection and installation of quality components. Assuming all of that hardware — bilge pumps, genset, inverter, salt- and freshwater pumps, batteries, hoses and fittings, hose clamps, fuel filters, seacocks and so on — is robustly and intelligently made for the saltwater environment and has a proven track record for reliability and longevity, their location below is just as important. That’s because if it’s hard to get to, the equipment just won’t get as much attention — at least if you’re like me.

Location matters for another reason besides human nature. If you have a genset or anything else made of metal that will corrode, it obviously needs to stay dry. This means if it’s located below a hatch perimeter, it will be susceptible to getting wet if the hatch leaks. And hatches can and do leak because of poor seals, too-shallow gutters and too-small, easily plugged gutter drains. (Look for at least 3/4-inch drain lines — bigger is better.) A genset in a splash-proof fiberglass sound shield is ideal, as it keeps deck water off the generator while reducing sound levels when it’s running.

Staying dry also means staying clear of bilge water. If a metal component is in range of splashing seawater, it’s in trouble. This includes the bottom of aluminum fuel tanks, but that’s a story for another day.

In addition to staying dry, which is largely a design issue, systems components should be easy for the owner to get to not only so they last, but so they work when you need them. Consider seacocks. They should be cycled open and closed at least weekly so they’ll close when a hose fails or a clamp lets go. Leave a bronze seacock open long enough, and it’ll freeze that way.

Seacock manufacturers also tend to equip these through-hull fittings with very short handles, which means you can’t get much leverage on them in the first place. Then if the builder makes them hard to reach, the difficulty is compounded. And since everyone I know is fundamentally lazy when doing things they’d rather avoid, components that are hard or uncomfortable to get to will be neglected.

Engine access

When it comes to engine access, the easiest to get to obviously is an outboard. It’s also the easiest to replace, of course, since it’s out in the open. In the case of an inboard, there are two important design elements to consider. The first is short term: Is it easy to get down into the engine room, are all the daily maintenance points (lube oil and cooling water checks and fills) easily accessible, and can you get outboard of the engines when needed? The second is long-term (or it can be short-term if a new engine fries): How easy, time-consuming and expensive will it be to pull the old engine and replace it? If you have to cut decks, bulkheads or hull sides to remove an inboard, it’s nice to know that when you buy the boat.

This matter of engine accessibility is, to some extent, a function of where the engines are located. With a convertible or express boat, they’re usually under the pilothouse or saloon. If the engine room overhead/pilothouse deck is a cored composite part — which is most likely to provide a clear span across the boat and to help seal radiated engine noise out of the people compartment — it will have to be cut for engine removal. The furniture modules also will have to be removed, of course, so just getting to the engines and then putting everything back together will be a big project.

If you find a boat with engine removal hatches, then engine replacement will be a lot simpler, of course. The easiest possible scenario for an inboard is having the engine room in the stern, under the cockpit and below a hatch, where they basically can be unbolted and lifted out with little fuss. The new pod-powered boats are marvels for a number of reasons, and an unsung advantage of this propulsion is the ease with which units can be replaced.

Wherever the inboards are situated, having a hatch that’s big enough for unencumbered all-around access (it’s sure great to be able to stand up all around the engine) and allows the engine to be lifted straight up and out is the ideal design. And, of course, the great non-performance advantage of single-engine power is its accessibility.

One a related note, also make a note of wiring runs. They should be bundled, secured at regular intervals and protected in looming or PVC conduits out of the way, where you won’t be stepping on them. Plumbing also should be neatly and unobtrusively routed and marked with labels that won’t fall off after a few months. You should be able to quickly and easily get to fuel valves, battery switches and seacocks. Bigger hatches mean easier, more comfortable access to the bilge and out-of-the-way places below deck. Deep hatch gutters and large drain lines help keep things dry below.

Let’s look at a few real-world examples of mechanical systems access.

Conclusions

Systems quality and accessibility really do matter. They impact your boat’s reliability, longevity, durability, resale value and your family’s safety and enjoyment. Look for a boat that makes life easy for you and your mechanic, and you’ll be a happy camper.

Eric Sorensen was the founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance.” A longtime licensed captain, he can be reached at eric@sorensensguide.com .