Rhymes with "Generator"

A larger and considerably cleaner generator than ours.

So does anyone have a good phrase for me that rhymes with “Generator Oil Leak” because I’m thinking Bad Poetry in the Epic format may be the only way to make this entertaining.

One of the reason that our blog posts have slowed over the last few weeks is we’ve been involved in some distinctly not-fun and not-exciting activities.  These generally also make for what I would think of as not-interesting blog posts.  I find it challenging to right about some gruesome and expensive technical problem we are facing in a way that is entertaining, engaging and light.  So bear with me because this probably won’t be.

Before leaving on this epic journey we had the “Mother of All To Do Lists” which was a six page document (now down to only three!) of things we Must Do Before We Go, Want To Do, Would Like to Do, and Hope to Do Someday, if Time and Money Permit.  Somewhere on this list was the item “Verify Generator Oil Leak.”  There was suspicion of an oil leak because there were small amounts of oil around the base of the engine.  But I wasn’t sure if it was old oil from the last oil leak we had fixed or something new.

Well, I sort of pawed at this item.  The engine room isn’t the neatest place in the boat, and although it IS technically a room it’s not the sort of place you’d want to put your feet up in and watch a movie.  The ceiling is less than five feet high and the floor space is a narrow catwalk between the propulsion engine (a Volvo Penta TAMD 41 H-A, which is a 145 HP Turbo Diesel for the intensely curious) and the generator (a Westerbeke 6.0 BTD).  When one or the other of these engines has been in use it’s a warm place, and there are other various pumps, drains, tanks, compressors and systems scattered around making various buzzes and hisses.  Prior to my replacing all the hoses on the aft holding tank (where the ick from the aft toilet is stored) it also didn’t smell so awesome.  So as we went through the list I sort of wiped some oil and dirt off, Kathy cleaned the engine, and I vaguely sniffed around looking for a leak.  We were in a slip, and we weren’t running it as we were plugged in to shore power.

A brief digression into boat-owner technospeak is important here for some of our non boating (or non LARGE boating) audience that may be wondering “What the heck does he need another engine for?” or “That doesn’t look anything like the generator in Grandpa’s old Corvair.”  If you know all about marine generators I encourage you to skip ahead a paragraph or three.

A large boat like Evenstar has some really big batteries (Eight of a size called “4D”, made of a higher tech construction than a car battery called AGM, the meaning of which I will spare you in this post – suffice it to say they weigh about 135 lbs each).  These batteries run most of our house systems – refrigeration, instruments, lights, watermaker, and the like.  There are also some boat systems that require far more power than batteries can reasonably provide such as the hot water maker and the air conditioning/heating system, these only work with A/C power.  To charge batteries one could drive the boat around and rely on the alternator (much like your car, but bigger) on the primary engine to charge batteries; this is how most smaller keelboats do this.  Also one can plug into shore power, but this really only works if you are at a dock.  We only go to docks when we are getting something fixed.

There are a couple of problems with using the engine and driving the boat around to charge batteries, not the least of which is you might not want to move the boat and idling the engine at anchor makes hardly any power so you need to take it out and rev it up.  Secondly, the batteries are huge – their capacity is such that the alternator just doesn’t make enough power to charge them in a reasonable amount of time.  Finally the engine uses about 2.5 gallons of diesel per hour of operation at cruising speeds, which would mean I’d need to motor around and burn 16-20 gallons of fuel to charge the batteries every other day.

So the solution is to install a smaller diesel engine on the boat.  It’s not a belt driven “generator” like they used to put in cars before alternators took over, it’s a completely separate full-on diesel engine.  It runs at a single constant speed and uses less than one gallon per hour.  This engine primarily produces A/C energy like you have in your house, except in our case it’s 220V power so it’s A/C energy like you’d have in your house if you live in Sweden.  Ours makes about six Kilowatts of power per hour.  This power can then be used to charge the batteries much faster than the engine, as well as running those pesky high demand systems.  We don’t use those much except for the hot water, but every other day for about four hours we need to run this second engine in order to charge our batteries up to run the boat systems.

Fast forward a month from our leaving the dock.  We’ve been living at anchor for this month, and running the generator every couple of days to charge the batteries.  As I go in to the engine room to check the oil periodically, it finally reaches the dim recesses of my brain that I can check off “Verify Generator Oil Leak” off my list as there is clearly oil all over the place.  This wasn’t actually a fast leak, I only added a quart of oil in this time but it was enough to be concerned about.  The generator failing in a remote location could be very time consuming and expensive.

Oil leaks can be tough to track down.  As a liquid it runs down hill, it sprays and it spatters; as any fan of Dexter can tell you tracking its source is a science unto itself.  I didn’t have much luck trying to sort this myself so we decided to take the boat in to a boat yard while we were up in Maine.  After a couple of diagnostic visits, which mostly involved cleaning the engine much more thoroughly than I seemed capable of so we could look for new spatters, it was determined to the the “front seal” on the engine, and this was replaced.  A new fluffy white oil pad was put under the engine and we agreed to “watch for any more leaks”.  That didn’t take long, in short order the clean pad had new oil stains on it.

By this time we were approaching our time to head back South to Rhode Island.  We hoped to continue the oil leak fixing process with the Maine yard’s affiliate in R.I., but schedules and missed communications made that a miss.  So we finally caught up with their affiliate in Annapolis.

Our initial diagnosis was that maybe this was the oil pan, which would pose a huge problem.  The oil pan is at the very bottom of the engine, and requires access to it to remove it and re-seat with with a new gasket.  This would involve lifting the engine up off it’s mounts which is no mean feat in a tight space with only about 18″ of clearance above the engine.  We decided to put some fluorescent dye into the oil and check with an ultraviolet light, which showed the leak appeared to be in the timing cover rather than the oil pan which was really good news.  Or so we thought.

We moved the boat to another facility with the same company and they came and took the timing cover off.  There we got the bad news – the crankshaft itself has some scoring and wear on it (see picture).  This part is supposed to be mirror smooth, and the roughness and damage was what was causing the seal in the “front seal” to leak since it couldn’t make a clean seal any more.

A damaged crankshaft is bad, m’kay?  For those of you that haven’t every disassembled an engine down to a block and a bucket of oily parts it really is the central core of the engine.  To get it out…you basically have to disassemble the engine down to a block and a bucket of oily parts.  To make it smooth again you have to pull it out and send it to a machine shop to be rotated and ground, then you can use a new oversized seal to fix the old leak.  If you do that then you start looking at all the pieces of metal that come in touch with that, then you probably see other wear and before you know it you might as well do a full rebuild on the engine.  Removing the engine and sending it to a Westerbeke shop for a rebuild would take a month or more to do – not an option when we’re planning to sail for the Caribbean on November 4th.

Alternatively you could just…put in a new generator!  Of course, you have to take the old one out first.  Which, in a boat with some nice wood finishes that don’t like oil or being whacked with heavy chunks of metal, takes some careful work.  You can either strip the engine down to a block and a bucket of oily parts and bring it out in small bits, or you can find some way to disassemble the boat without damaging the finish and breaking things.  Apparently Hallberg-Rassy builds their cockpit floor (which is also the engine room ceiling) with bolts to hold it on so it can be removed with relative ease.  Relative being the key word, it’s still a major operation.  With even a small generator costing more than $10,000, once you add in the labor charges this is a very unattractive and painful option.

Putting a band-aid on it would be cleaning up the shaft a little and replacing the front seal.  Then we just keep checking the oil and adding, crossing our fingers and hoping the whole thing doesn’t give out on us at an inopportune moment.

So our options range from the untenable, the insanely expensive, and the unreliable.  So I did what I often do – I asked my friends over in the Cruising subforum over at Sailing Anarchy.  The collection of sailors there have an incredible range of experience and can almost always be counted on to come up with at least one more way to skin any particular cat.  In this case they came through with a solution for us.

Apparently it’s an old mechanic’s trick to use a sleeve of hard, thin, steel to fix problems like this.  This sleeve is slid over the damaged area and pressed on with great force (and some Loctite) to hold it on the shaft.  Done properly it should not change the shaft’s diameter, and the original front seal can be used.  The sleeve restores the smooth surface and allows the seal to mate properly, solving the leak.  This fix can last for years and is no band aid.

So now we are waiting in Oxford, MD for our sleeve to arrive and be pressed on the shaft.  With luck it will arrive today and we will be on our way with the tide in the morning.  Even if we slide into next week though, it seems we will be able to leave with our some confidence in our generator and most of our Repair budget intact!

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5 Comments

  1. Tillerman says:

    Well done. I love reading article about gruesome boat maintenance issues in exotic locations. Makes me glad I sail a Laser. Thank you.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Nice up date…it good to hear the the cruiser forum on SA is still a good place for information…I enjoy following your blog.

    WD

  3. B.J. Porter says:

    Tillerman, you know I was thinking of you when I addressed the “non LARGE boating audience”, right?

    My biggest worry working on my old Laser was it seemed so delicate. One or two good whacks with a deadblow hammer and things start breaking; on the big boat that’s just getting warmed up for a project!

  4. O Docker says:

    I think you are challenging the fundamental laws of nature by having more than one diesel engine on your boat.

    Man evolved with opposable thumbs mainly in response to the demands of maintaining a diesel engine on a boat and, so far, most of us have managed to grow only two such thumbs.

    Maintaining two diesel engines on the same boat would require at least four thumbs, I would think, so that is likely the real source of your problem.

    Having just one diesel engine on my boat consumes enough of my time that I don’t sail at all any more.

  5. B.J. Porter says:

    You might be on to something O Docker. From late July to the end of September we sailed over 1,200 miles. I think I’ve sailed 57 miles since then, mostly to and from boat yards to get work done.

    Though we technically have eight thumbs on board we can’t fit all of them in the engine room at once.

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