Bilge Pump Basics to Keep Your Boat Afloat

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Our research into bilge pumps and associated equipment stretches back several decades with the most recent bilge pump tests taking place in 2010 (See PS September 2010, and October 2010 online). When selecting a pump, keep in mind that sailboats rarely meet the ideal flow rate.

1. Test the operation of all bilge pump systems at regular intervals-twice annually at a minimum. Testing should verify the actual pumping of water overboard, rather than (in the case of electric pumps) simply switching the pump on and listening for motor operation.

2. Make sure all bilge pumps not only have intake strainers or strum boxes installed, but that they can be easily reached and cleared of debris. As a marine surveyor I often see centrifugal style pumps mounted beneath engines and completely inaccessible, even to simply clean the strainer-if your boat has similarly inaccessible pumps, relocate them for better access.

3. Larger capacity back-up pumps and their associated float switch should be mounted 4 to 6 inches higher than the primary pump. This lets the smallest pump take care of normal accumulations of water (with less battery drain) while allowing the larger ones to kick in only when needed. It also prevents the back-up pump from resting in the normal accumulation of bilge water, where it can become clogged with sludge and debris or seized from disuse.

4. List bilge pump by type, location and size for future reference and make sure there are spare parts or complete rebuild kits onboard for each. If you really want to go the extra mile, pack a complete spare pump assembly. Being able to swap out a defective pump lets you quickly bring the system back up, while giving you the option of repairing the damaged pump later at your convenience.

For a more detailed discussion of bilge pump installation and maintenance see Bilge Pump Maintenance and Installation Tips, at the Inside Practical Sailor blog at www.practical-sailor.com/blog. – FKL

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

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