Can Your Boat Make You Green?
Environmentally friendly products are sprouting up everywhere in the marine industry. Practical Sailor looks at painting and cleaning products that can turn you green
It’s that time of year again—when marine maintenance duties take center stage. With the recent surge of eco-friendly products flooding the market, spring cleaning is a good time to delve into the subject of green cleaners and ways we can lessen our impact on the environment.
Practical Sailor’s seat on the environmental bandwagon is well-worn. Longtime subscribers will recall—with a chuckle no doubt—the composting marine heads test (Practical Sailor Nov. 15, 2002) and former Practical Sailor Editor Doug Logan’s battery-charging experiments using a human-propelled stationary bike connected to an alternator (Practical Sailor Nov. 1, 2002).
This article, the first in a series of evaluations highlighting eco-friendly products, will recap what we’ve learned so far about how to handle the outside of the boat: from hull cleaners to bottom paint.
The Why and How
Take a bird’s eye view of America’s coastlines, lakes, and big rivers, and it’s clear that the most popular harbors and inlets are becoming crammed with pleasure boats—so crammed in many places that water access is getting to be a real issue.
According to 2004 statistics by the National Marine Manufacturers’ Association (NMMA) and the U.S. Coast Guard, there are about 17.61 million boats in the U.S., including sail, power, personal watercraft, and others. Of those, about 1.58 million are sailboats, and it’s a safe bet that many sailors also own another kind of boat—an outboard-powered inflatable, for example.
Rare is the boat that contributes nothing to pollution and/or global warming. We use fossil fuel at least for auxiliary power. We use copper bottom paint. We use noxious chemicals for cleaning and maintenance. Maybe sailors are more aware, more careful than those other millions of boaters, but we can always do better.
The contrarian arguments are numerous: One cruise ship can do more damage with one bilge discharge than a thousand pleasure craft can do in a summer; a sewage-treatment plant spill can put more bacteria in the water than all the head-pumping for 50 miles around—and so on. Some arguments may be true, but they don’t absolve us of responsibility.
There are three big ways that we can help the environment: Make it a personal habit—the more we do, the more we realize we can do; support wise government legislation; and press for institutional involvement (whether we’re at General Electric or the corner deli).
One way we can make it a personal habit is by using eco-friendly products on and off the water. These types of products are increasingly becoming an important part of the fight to reduce our carbon footprint and limit global warming—and it only makes sense that sailors should be at the forefront of this fight.
This and upcoming "Practically Green" articles won’t have to do with power-generating or power-saving equipment like solar panels, wind turbines, or electric outboards—all of which we cover separately. Instead, they will focus on pollution, waste, and proactive measures that reduce the impact of the foul things that are sluiced, rinsed, or sanded off our boats, or pumped out of them.
Copper-free Offers an Antifouling Alternative
Practical Sailor has been covering copper-free bottom paint since 2002, when we first tested E-Paint’s zinc-based EP-2000. Since then, E-Paint has brought EP-21, ZO, and several other no-copper antifouling products to market. Other paint makers offer their own copper-free blends: Sea Hawk with its ablative Mission Bay CF and Mission Bay CSF, Pettit with Alumacoat SR (now also branded as Vivid Free), and Interlux, with its new Pacifica.
Most Practical Sailor testing with these paints has been done on brand-new, carefully prepared fiberglass panels, but many brands have also been tested in the field. We also have collected a number of reports from readers, ranging from enthusiastic to negative. Generally, the conclusion regarding these paints is that the 12-month protection is as good as many of the copper paints. While we’ve yet to find a copper-free paint that offers the long-lasting protection of the top multi-season copper paints, the copper-free formulas are steadily improving.
In our tests, E-Paint usually has one or two top finishers among copper-free varieties. Initially, the company’s offerings used to mirror that of Henry Ford’s color palette—you could have any color you wanted, as long as it was white. Today, the color range is expanded for some of the products. Check www.epaint.com for details.
While E-Paint’s’ antifouling properties have been good, we’ve seen them develop tan and brown stains occasionally. Attention with a sponge would probably help prevent this. These paints are expensive, especially the hard EP 2000.
Pettit’s Alumacoat SR (now also available as Vivid Free) was created as an underwater metal coating, but it does well on fiberglass, too. It generally rates at least at the Fair level in our tests. (The ratings are relative to the field.) Vivid Free is available in white, blue, or black.
Sea Hawk’s Mission Bay CF and solvent-free CSF are available in red, blue, green, black, and white. We don’t have years of experience with Sea Hawk’s copper-free paints yet, but the last two sets of Practical Sailor panel tests have certainly established them as worthy paints.
In short, we can recommend all of these copper-free paints for boat owners who either must go copper-free or want to go copper-free. The downsides are that the paints without cuprous oxide tend to be more expensive, and they don’t protect as long as multi-season paints. One year of good service is about all you can expect.
As a middle ground between copper and copper-free paints, consider water-based copper paints like Pettit’s Hydrocoat, Flexdel’s Aquagard, and Interlux’s Fiberglass Bottomkote Aqua, among others. They spare the world the noxious solvents used in other copper paints and have proven themselves many times, even in multi-season use. Just don’t let them freeze in your garage over the winter.
Notwithstanding Sea Hawk’s statement that its Mission Bay paints "can be used over most competitive antifoulants after a light sanding," we would assume a more paranoid attitude when it comes to switching from one type of paint to another. If you have a copper paint on the bottom now, be very circumspect about applying a new copper-free paint over it. Visit the paint makers’ websites, call their tech support, and get the real skinny on how to make the switch. In many cases, the best plan of attack will be to strip or soda-blast the bottom, prime it correctly, and start over.
Gentle Strippers a Success
What goes on must come off. In the November 2006 issue, we looked at bottom-paint strippers, several of which, including Back-to-Nature’s Ready Strip and Aqua Strip, and Pettit’s Bio-Blast, claim to be biodegradable. The one that worked best for us in that test was Franmar’s Soy Strip, with a relatively simple active ingredient list of soy methyl ester and N-Methyl-2-Pyrrolidone (NMP).
NMP, an ingredient in several other bottom-paint removers, including Bio-Blast, is a powerful organic solvent, common among paint strippers. It’s water-soluble and has a low toxicity compared to other solvents. However, relatively low doesn’t mean safe. Human studies, including one at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, have shown that NMP is readily absorbed by the body. What it does there, after repeated exposure over the long haul, is not known.
After the 2006 report, we received several letters from readers with mixed reviews on the Soy Strip. From the manufacturer, we learned the product, as well as others on the market, can be affected by ambient temperature and the temperature of the hull, and it removes some paints better than others.
About the same time, we caught wind of a new product touted as biodegrabable and free of VOCs: Peel Away Smart Strip, made by Dumond Chemicals. A follow-up test was in order. After several go-arounds on our test boat, the Smart Strip held a slight edge over the Soy Strip in performance. The test was published in the April issue.
We have not tested all the eco-friendly paint strippers that are on the market, but two that are in our sights are the water-based products from EcoSolve (www.ecosolveamericas.com) and CitriStrip (www.citristrip.com).
Remember that even an eco-friendly stripper becomes toxic glop after taking off copper paint. Put down adequate drop cloths before scraping and peeling, and make sure to dispose of the glop according to local rules.
Eco-safe Descalers Get the Job Done
Over the years, Practical Sailor has reviewed several eco-friendly products that do a good job of descaling heat exchangers and removing barnacles. Barnacle Buster from Trac Ecological (Practical Sailor May 2007) and Rydlyme Marine from Apex Engineering (Practical Sailor March 2008) both dissolve calcium carbonate, the main ingredient in lime scale and shell. Both products are biodegradable and can be released safely into the environment. Barnacle Buster contains phosphoric acid, while Rydlyme uses a less caustic proprietary recipe with the active ingredient hydrogen chloride.
Other products like Star brite Zebra Mussel and Barnacle Remover or MaryKate On & Off deal with shell and scale well, but they contain ferocious chemicals like hydrochloric acid that give off toxic fumes, are beastly to work with, and pollute whatever ground or water they fall on when they’re rinsed off. No matter what the instructions say about disposing of these chemicals responsibly, few people bother to corral these liquids, get them back into containers, and take them to the local HazMat station. They end up in the ground, the air, the water, or us—often all four.
Trading in Acids for Green Cleaners
The trouble with brown-yellow waterline stains is that they’re often made up of more than one problem—a combination, for instance, of algae stain, pollen, and tannic acid stains, and oil stain, all in a matrix of salt and strange oxides. Attack them with a gritty cleaner like Ajax, and you’re liable to damage the gelcoat.
In the November 2007 issue, Practical Sailor reported on no fewer than 22 waterline stain removers. All but one contained oxalic, hydrochloric, sulfuric, or other acids, or some mixture of them, and all were rated Good or Excellent. This is not chemical rocket science. The overall Best Choice and Budget Buy was Spray Nine’s Boat Bottom Cleaner, a gel containing "multiple acids." It was still more pleasant to work with than most of the other products.
The most eco-friendly product tested was Captain John’s Boat Brite Algae and Waterline Stain Remover, which earned a Good with just a little rubbing.
In our report on the descaler Rydlyme in March, we noted that it removed waterline stains from a fiberglass dinghy, but not as completely as the acid-rich hull cleaner MaryKate On & Off.
Another eco-friendly stain remover is Prime Filters’ Mineral-O-Magic. It’s designed to remove rust stains and calcium/lime stains. Its active ingredients are "organic urea salts and mild surfactants." It contains "no phosphates, no abrasives, no solvents, and no harsh chemicals." In November 2006, Practical Sailor reported that it effectively removed rust from the stainless rails and plastic steps of a swim ladder. Until we can test it more on gelcoat, our recommendation is tentative.
While we wouldn’t presume to advise readers on how clean their waterlines should be, in the interest of the environment, we plan to take a three-step approach to ours. We’ll try to stay ahead of stains by more regular sponging of the boot-top and waterline, and a good hull wax goes a long way toward keeping the waterline clean. Second, we’ll use Captain John’s, Rydlyme, Barnacle Buster, Mineral-O-Magic, or any other responsible formula suggested to us. (Reader Bob Kramer of Callao, Va., advocates using concentrated lemon juice for stains not yet deeply set in.) Third, if there’s still some stain, we’ll live with it longer. There’s always the occasional acid-based cleaner if it really becomes an issue.
Elbow Grease is Key to Keeping Your Boat and Waterways Clean
Between waterline and gunwale is that expanse of gelcoat whose condition can be a source or pride or shame. For most of us, the essential maintenance of that acreage involves only a couple of moves. Once a season, we give it a good cleaning and a coat of wax. If there’s some oxidation, maybe we’ll use a mild rubbing compound or a one-step cleaner/wax (Practical Sailor March 2007). In the course of the sailing season, we might rinse the hull if we have access to a freshwater hose. Otherwise, the rain handles matters.
However, things develop to mar the sheen. The rain carries pollen, dirt, guano, and settled air pollution out through the scuppers, leaving streaks on the topsides. The engine exhaust leaves an oily, smutty gray beard. The fenders leave dirty vinyl scuffs and skid marks. The rubrail, like the rest of us, slowly deteriorates and weeps darkly.
In a test of black-streak removers (Practical Sailor May 2006), Nautical Ease Nonskid Deck Cleaner and Black Streak Remover handily beat nine other cleaners on the gnarly transom of a Morgan Out Island 41. According to its maker, this "non-toxic, biodegradable, and non-petroleum- based cleaner almost instantly penetrates and dissolves the toughest problem dirt and grime." We found this claim to be true. The company makes a line of environmentally friendly marine cleaning products, most of which—with the exceptions of their bottom cleaner, aluminum cleaner, and teak cleaner—are acid-free.
However, as with most challenges, it pays to start with the simplest possible solutions first. As long as we don’t let topsides blemishes get so far ahead of us that we have to resort to harsh means, plain old washing works fine. Use a mild, non-gritty biodegradable soap and fresh water. If stains are set in a bit, follow the directions set forth by Editor-at-Large Nick Nicholson, as persnickety a boat maintainer as you’re likely to find: "Hands down, the thing that works best is straight white vinegar. It is cheaper and more effective than any mineral-deposit remover you can buy. Wash the topsides with vinegar, rubbing hard with a sponge. You can spray it on from a spray bottle, or simply sponge it on out of a bucket. In either case, a lot of rubbing is called for, and you may have to go over some areas several times. Vinegar is cheap. Use plenty. Rinse off with clean water when finished, and hand dry with a towel. By this time, you will smell like a large Greek salad unless you’ve worn a good pair of rubber gloves." (Offshore Log, Practical Sailor June 2003)
Elbow grease is a key word here. If you have a choice between burning an extra 50 calories and rinsing a gallon of hydrochloric acid into the bay or the boatyard grounds, go for the workout.
Of course, there’s much more to discuss. In upcoming articles, we’ll cover bilgewater, batteries, paints and varnishes, metal cleaning, engine fluids, trash and recycling aboard; and moves we can all make on the water to take the lead in environmental responsibility. As always, we solicit and welcome ideas and comments from our readers, who extend our collective experience far and wide.