Surveying An Engine Room

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Most people looking to buy a trawler or cruising motorboat do not have sufficient diesel engine experience to properly survey the engine room of a boat they are looking at. And at some point in the buying process, it is common to hire a boat surveyor to judge the quality and condition of the rest of a particular boat and its systems.

Unfortunately, the boat surveyor is not typically experienced enough to properly survey the diesel engine(s) and generator, because that requires a different specialty, usually experience gained with a brand of engine. So hiring an experienced mechanic to inspect one’s engine room as part of a pre-purchase survey is important and well worth the cost.

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Chuck Grice of Virginia Yacht Brokers told me he believes it is extremely important as a broker to insist that buyers hire an engine surveyor, as it is such a big part of a cruising powerboat. Unlike the small auxiliary engines in sailboats, the main engine(s) are the heart of a trawler.

Virginia Yacht Brokers uses a group of individual engine surveyors with experience in various engine brands, so he has the ability to match an engine surveyor with specific engines. Typically, for a trawler with two engines and a genset, an engine survey costs $800 to $1,000, and Chuck says it is money well spent. The survey can identify the condition of the engine and perhaps highlight needed service work to bring it up to perfect condition. Electronic engines make this even easier as the surveyor can plug his laptop into an engine’s electronic control unit and view all of the data of an engine over its lifetime, from how many times it has overheated to its normal cruising speed.

Older engines, especially those that get more rare as the years go by, such as Detroit Diesels and Perkins, often require expertise not available locally. People with experience with these mechanical engines routinely travel long distance to perform engine surveys that may take a couple of days. And Chuck told me that on some of the bigger engine surveys, such as the huge MAN engines found in sportfishing yachts, it can take up to three days, require bench time back at the shop, and can cost $10,000.

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After speaking with Chuck, I think it prudent to perhaps consider what engines a boat has before falling in love.

I must admit to one really silly thing I did when I bought a boat a long time ago. While I followed the boat surveyor around as he did his work, the selling broker suggested we go to lunch with the selling couple, his treat. I didn’t think of it at the time, but I should have politely declined and stayed onboard with the surveyor. I felt really foolish when that occurred to me later. To consciously miss the unfolding details and comments of a survey being conducted on a boat I am planning to buy is just plain stupid, in my opinion. It never happened again.

In that same vein, if you hire an engine surveyor, it is an ideal time to carefully follow what he is looking at, and what he is trying to determine. He can’t see inside the engine, of course, but when he starts up a cold engine, for example, a trained ear will hear if a cylinder doesn’t fire as the engine begins cranking, indicating injector problems. Or when cold pistons are loose in their cylinders, he might sense how worn the engine is. An oil analysis also can highlight trends and changes over time.

As the mechanic checks out the various engine room components, such as engine and gear controls, parts of the cooling systems of the engines and generator, the intake and exhaust parts (such as air cleaners, manifolds, injection elbows, mufflers, and hoses), you can ask lots of questions and see first hand what he considers important. That information should help you form a regular routine of your own inspection moving forward. This is so valuable, you might even consider hiring him again several years later. It is a way to find out problems before they become real issues, before they leave you stranded somewhere.

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Even simple observations can speak volumes as to the previous care shown by the owners and their service techs. How clean and well lit is the engine room? If it is filthy with oil stains and rags and engine stuff everywhere, you can be sure the care given this engine space was not great, and perhaps you should take a pass. Same with the cans of engine oil you find stowed on a shelf. Are they budget oil products from Walmart, or the right stuff, such as synthetic oil from Mobil 1?

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Does the boat have any maintenance records? Most boat owners do not take the time to keep great records, but if you luck out, you won’t need to guess the age of the starting batteries, or filter/zinc changes, when hoses and belts were replaced, or when the valves were last adjusted. Good maintenance records showcase proper service and the attention to detail which is what you want to see. (That is why we called the engine room the Holy Place at PassageMaker, as it is so important to be religious about following service schedules and having all maintenance done regularly. Forget wing engines and get-home solutions. If you perform all service with an almost reverent approach to your engine room, you will not likely have issues that ruin your day and cost a fortune to fix.)

Older engines were not manufactured with the tight tolerances we see today, and it is common for older engines to consume oil. This is not necessarily a problem, and having maintenance logs will note this oil consumption, which can be extremely helpful as you learn your new boat.  

But that does remind me of when I heard guys talk about replacing diesel engines when they consider buying a used trawler. Bob Smith of American Diesel used to say that his naturally aspirated Lehman diesels were just finding their sweet spot after 5,000 to 8,000 hours, and they should easily run 20,000 hours or more in a conservatively-run boat like a trawler. Given the annual amount of typical recreational boat usage, that is 100 years of boating!

High engine hours, especially with maintenance records, is often a better situation than a boat with really low hours on its engine(s). If you find a boat that has low hours, no maintenance records, and which has had multiple owners, that is likely a red flag. Same with finding cans of ether in the engine room, a sure sign of starting troubles.

Apart from the newer ECU/computer connections, an engine surveyor does not rely on any one thing but rather the big picture, from the cleanliness of the engine space, what kind of documentation is available, the color and amount of smoke when the engine is running, an oil analysis, feeling for hot spots on the engine, looking for leaks in cooling circuits or oil dripping from the engine, to many other things. It is the sum of many things, and while it is no guarantee that you won’t have issues a couple of years down the road, it is still the way to go.

And by being personally part of the survey, you will learn what he thinks is important, which hopefully translates into what you now think is important.

Another great suggestion from Bob Smith, especially for an engine with low hours, is to throw out all normal maintenance schedules and pay for a major engine service, such as is required at 5,000 hours. Doing so ensures that components that routinely wear out are simply replaced when you buy the boat. Belts, filters, zincs, impellers, pump seals, whatever. Done. That makes a ton of sense.

A reliable engine is the key to successful cruising on a trawler or any cruising motorboat. The same can be said for cruising sailboats, as many sailors motor a lot. It comes down to this: The value of the engine survey is two fold. You get a sense of the state of health of your engine(s) and identify what may be needed to service before you head off into the horizon. And secondly, you come away with way more technical information, and now you can use that knowledge to keep your engine room humming along.

That’s the Holy Place you want to have.