Boat Buyers Beware Grimy Engines and Bilges

If you’re looking at a used boat, pay close attention to the outward appearance of the engine. Is it clean or grimy with oil? Are there rusty areas under the exhaust outlet or heat exchanger? How about the pan underneath, the surrounding compartment, and the bilge space under the pan?

Is there evidence of an oil or fuel leak? What about black dust from belts that run the alternator and water pumps?

This diesel engine was not leaking fuel or oil, but dust residue from a loose alternator and water-pump belt coated the front of the engine and created a black mess in the catch-pan underneath.

This diesel engine was not leaking fuel or oil, but dust residue from a loose alternator and water-pump belt coated the front of the engine and created a black mess in the catch-pan underneath.

Aside from the sorry look of a grimy engine, there are at least three very good reasons for keeping an engine and engine compartment as clean as possible.

  • First comes safety. Accumulated minor fuel and oil spills and leaks create fumes, toxic sheens, and flammable conditions. These things can lead to anything from a queasy, miserable crew to a serious fire. (Any fire on a boat that’s not contained to cook something is serious.) Also, oil in the bilge attracts and clumps with dust, dirt, sawdust, hair, you name it – and that can easily clog a bilge pump.
  • Second, a grimy engine hides its secrets: It will be that much harder to spot a new leak if it just blends in with the remains of an old one.
  • Third, assuming the bilge pump can operate in a grimy bilge, it will just throw all that oil and grunge overboard, which is highly illegal, and for good reason.

It’s simple: A clean engine and bilge are indications of a conscientious owner; a grubby engine and bilge are signs of…well, a slob. And there are plenty of levels in between.

It's a lot easier to maintain a clean engine than a grimy one hiding its woeful secrets.

It’s a lot easier to maintain a clean engine than a grimy one hiding its woeful secrets.

Grime and rust levels that are acceptable or that are deal-breakers depend on a lot of factors, a couple of which are your own engine know-how and your gut instinct about how bad things might be. Often, an engine will have received good basic service from a boatyard or dealer, but the owner won’t have bothered to clean up all the little accumulated drips and drops – and pretty soon a good engine takes on the appearance of a bad one.

One thing’s for sure: It’s a lot easier to maintain an engine that’s in good shape to begin with than to bring one back from a state of serious disrepair.

Good hunting.

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