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A Little Prepare – Not A Lot Of Repair!
Keeping Repair Costs at Bay with Preventative Maintenance

The following article by Jim Kalvin was published in the March 2009 issue of “Waves.”

As we all begin to assess how the current economy is affecting us personally, we are taking long looks at the items in our lives that bear a price. Not just a purchase price - but a price to own, maintain, and keep whatever that item might be in working order. We are all looking for a way to cut back on monthly overhead and maintenance costs.

Personally, I am mowing my own grass once again and shopping for my cold beverages in bulk and on sale.

And... I'm using my boat less, mostly because the cost of fuel last summer got me out of the habit of going out each week. It made me realize that there were other things I could do in my spare time that did not cost nearly as much. Now that the cost of fuel has come back down, my weekends are booked with other things, so I still use the boat less.

However, one fact remains the same whether I use the boat or not: I have to keep the maintenance up.

While I'm saving the cost of the fuel by doing other activities, the cost of letting the maintenance go on a saltwater vessel would be much higher than just keeping the maintenance going – even if the boat just sits there.

This might be a hard concept for some to understand, but it is true nonetheless, whether you own an outboard, a sailboat, a twin diesel sport-fishing yacht, or a long-range cruiser. And the larger the vessel, the truer this statement will prove to be.

To begin, mechanical systems in all applications are designed to run or to be used. They were not designed to sit idle while the ravages of time, heat, moisture, salt, and oxidation take their toll. Seal surfaces become pitted; rubber impellors lose their flexibility and shape; hoses and belts harden; wires corrode; fuel gets stale.

Corrosion will build up in your heat exchangers, risers or oil coolers if the system is not worked periodically. Fresh water (or "closed") cooling systems are not as susceptible, but they, too, will be negatively affected by a lack of use. All of the above can lead to over-heating of your engine, and internal damage that will be very costly to repair.

If your vessel is inactive, please consider running the boat periodically to keep things moving within your mechanical spaces. If need be, contract with a marine service professional to perform bimonthly systems checks which will include running the engines, visually inspecting your mechanical compartments, and manually checking all hoses, clamps, belts, and filters.

Fuel tanks should be topped-off and kept full, as the exposed inner surfaces of your tank will allow water to condense as daily temperatures rise and fall. Water in your fuel tank can be an expensive problem to resolve, and it's more cost efficient to keep the boat running and maintain a full tank. Fuel stabilizers with algaecides are a good idea for diesel systems.

The part of your vessel that likely gets the least attention includes the workings referred to as the "shipside systems". This would include your fresh water system (drinking, shower, galley sink, etc.), head & sanitation, DC lighting, audio-visual systems, and all 12 or 24 volt items found on your breaker panel. Items in this category will include trim tabs, running lights, all interior plumbing, refrigeration, inverters, blowers, bilge pumps, windshield wipers, and other necessary but often neglected components.

These working electrical systems will develop corrosion at the contact points due to humidity, moisture, and condensation. Using or working the systems periodically keeps them dry and loose. Items in this category that are located below decks, in the machinery compartments, will actually last longer if your engines are run on a regular basis. Why? The heat from the engines dehumidifies the spaces, and damage due to humidity and condensation is kept in check.

Cosmetically, Southwest Florida is among the most extreme locations in the world when it comes to ultraviolet damage to fiberglass gelcoat or painted and varnished surfaces. Our tropical sun will damage all surfaces over time.

And these surfaces must be maintained even if the boat is not used. Once a well-maintained surface is compromised, it costs a lot more to bring it back to a healthy finish than it would have cost to maintain the integrity of the surface before it was damaged due to neglect.

Below the waterline, you are also developing problems even if you never leave the dock. Your biggest threats here include damage from electrolysis and damage to your bottom and drive systems due to marine growth.

Your zinc anode protection will diffuse until you are inadequately protected and you are faced with metal loss, from your propellers, shafts, rudders, trim tabs, or - even worse - your through-hull fittings. Once a through-hull fitting is breached, you are in danger of sinking.

Your bottom paint is a classic example of "pay the man now, or pay the man more later." Annual bottom service (which would include anti-fouling paint and replacement of your zinc anode protection) is not really an option. At least, it is not an option if you are trying to save money. Sure, stroking the yearly check to the boatyard hurts. But are you really saving anything by going two years between haul-outs? No, you're not.

Today's bottom paints are designed to give you a good year’s worth of protection from anti-fouling organisms. The biocides in the paint are much more environmentally friendly than they used to be, which means that they are not as toxic. In and of itself, that fact alone makes trying to extend the life of a "bottom job" a gamble. If you go past the life of your anti-fouling protection, you will pay more in the long run.

Fuel consumption will be the first place that you'll pay. A fouled bottom will increase your fuel consumption significantly.

Next, when you do finally get the boat to the marina, your yard labor will likely be at least double what it would have been had you come in on your regular schedule.

There is also a risk that you may find damage to your underwater metal, caulking, fairing, and fasteners. Your antifouling paints, and the applicable primers, are moisture barriers, and they also serve as insulators from the effects of electrolysis. Go beyond the life of your anti-fouling paint, and you are risking damage to your wetted hull surfaces.

You can keep the marine growth in check by utilizing a diving service. However, you still run the risk of damage to caulking and/or faired surfaces at through-hull junctures. Corrosion of metal due to the lack of insulating primers is a serious concern. Swim platform bolts are a prime example of where you may see a serious problem develop. If they lose their primer coating, they are susceptible to electrolysis and salt corrosion.

Your vessel is an investment, and it must be treated as such. If you are planning on not using your boat for some time, there are ways to "pickle" your craft, or set it up for long-term storage without compromising everyday systems. These methods depend on the type of vessel you have, and these procedures have some cost in themselves.

Call your marine service professional to discuss your options, and make a plan to preserve the integrity of your asset. Keeping up with the regular service on your craft will maintain value and make the resale of your investment much more feasible should you decide to lean in that direction.

So...keep your boat up as you have in the past, as nobody wants their favorite toy to depreciate. Who knows? You might even want to go boating again. Having a current maintenance log will keep that possibility open for you.

Jim Kalvin is a native Floridian and a career mariner with 25 years in the Marine industry in Southwest Florida. He has been a contributing editor for Scripps-Howard, Southern Boating Magazine, and Marine Business Journal. He is currently the General Manager of Diversified Yacht Services, Inc.

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