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

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on marine products for serious sailors for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising or any form of compensation from manufacturers whose products we test. Testing is carried out by a team of experts from a wide range of fields including marine electronics, marine safety, marine surveying, sailboat rigging, sailmaking, engineering, ocean sailing, sailboat racing, and sailboat construction and design. This diversity of expertise allows us to carry out in-depth, objective evaluation of virtually every product available to serious sailors. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser with more than three decades of experience as a marine writer, photographer, boat captain, and product tester. 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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