By Steve Shupert
The weather people are forecasting up to 20 named storms this season. While the high winds and hurricanes are bad enough, the storm surge with its deadly flooding is a big challenge too. There will not be enough boats to do the work that will be left behind in the storms’ wake, so firefighters cannot afford to have any downtime when it comes to this valuable resource. This article will cover many inspection and maintenance points to help ensure your water response to your community and keep you from needing to be rescued yourself.
Inspection of Outboard Motor
- The cowling is the outer cover for the powerhead, and it is designed to let air in to cool the engine and keep water out. Look at the general condition of the gaskets located on the bottom of the cowling.
- Make sure the cowling is free of cracks and securely latched.
- Check the fuel system, including the fuel filter. Look for cracked or corroded fuel tanks, leaking fuel-line fittings, cracked fuel primer bulbs, and rusted clamps on the fuel lines. Keep at least 10 percent headspace in the fuel cell. Ethanol fuels should be avoided, as they can soften rubber parts.
- Check for water in the fuel.
- Check throttle and shift controls for free movement.
- Look at the transom and mounting brackets for integrity. Check the propeller. Grease the prop shaft.
- Be aware that the engine can either be 4 or 2-cycle. Check oil as needed.
- Flush engine cooling system after use with clean water.
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Getting the Outboard Motor Ready
Using a sturdy stock tank/barrel, run the engine in clean water.
- Flush out the engine. This applies both to saltwater and freshwater, as well.
- Start the engine and let the water pump do the rest.
- Assess the functioning of the engine and any necessary repairs/adjustments.
- While you’re flushing the motor, check the water pump to make sure it has good output.
- After flushing the engine, disconnect the fuel line and allow the engine to burn all the fuel in the carburetor. Once you’ve finished the flushing and run the engine out of fuel, be sure to turn off the key and, if you have a battery switch, turn it off.
- Take the engine cowling off and check for fuel or water leaks.
- Wipe everything down and spray with an anti-corrosive lubricant. Lubricate all the moving parts, such as the shift, throttle cables, carburetor valves, etc.
- Replace the cowling and wipe it down. Keep a canvas or plastic cover over the engine between uses.
- Always use fresh fuel. Boat motor maintenance should include draining your tanks.
- Remove and inspect prop. Clean and grease prop shaft.
- Drain and refill lower unit oil.
- Stock up on spare parts, spark plugs, and props. Even an entire spare lower unit is not out of the question when lives are on the line.
Earmuff/garden hose attachments are used to cover the water inlets for test running and flushing the motor (1). The earmuff method may not provide enough water flow to keep the engine cool. Please check with the manufacturer of your engine. Use an over-pack drum, large stock tank to immerse the lower unit into for test running/flushing.
Many teams operate in shallow water and protect their prop and scab with a river runner prop protector (2). This style will keep the prop off the bottom and has little effect on normal operations. Some prop protectors can limit horsepower. Research and test carefully for your motor/prop/guard combination.
Overheating is the number one reason outboard motors fail. We use our boat motors in the worst possible places—dirty, murky, debris-filled floodwater. Basing your maintenance cycle on how you take care of your recreational boat is not enough. Most motor companies recommend visiting a service technician every 100 hours. This is not based on dirty flood waters and emergency response.
Outboard motors rely on continuous flow of water through the engine to keep cool. Feel the water flowing from the outlet. It should be warm but not hot. When there is not enough water flowing through the engine, overheating occurs. To troubleshoot this, turn the engine off and check for any blockage in the water inlets, such as weeds or other foreign objects. Another possible cause of overheating is a broken water pump impeller. The water pump impeller is a round disc with blades that circulate water through the outboard motor. When this is broken, it cuts off the water supply to the engine and causes the engine to overheat.
If the output is not strong, you may have some debris stuck in the outflow tube. If it is hot, then you may still have a partial blockage. Immediately shut down the engine to prevent overheating and damage. Insert a small piece of wire into the flow tube and work it back and forth. Start the engine again and check the output. If that doesn’t solve the problem, you may need a new water pump. It is extremely easy to replace this vital part. Start each flood season with a new one in place and a spare in the toolbox.
Air-Cooled Outboard Engine Overheating
Some outboards are air-cooled, however there are parts of the engine that still rely on water cooling, such as the exhaust manifold or clutch. Therefore, you must still inspect and maintain your cooling system. Check your engine’s manual.
The small water impeller flowing the cooling water will be damaged in just a couple seconds running dry. Inspect before flood season, and keep a spare ready.
Excessive Vibration: Check Your Prop and Prop Shaft
The most common cause of excessive vibration is a damaged or loose propeller. The first step in troubleshooting this problem is to visually inspect and check if the propeller is damaged and is attached securely. Examine the blades for any breaks, bends, or cracks. If the propeller seems loose, tighten the components. After replacing/repairing, run the prop to make sure you found the source of the vibration. Operating a motor with excessive vibration will cause severe damage and could leave you stranded and in need of rescue yourself.
Another cause of engine vibration is worn-out rubber isolation mounts. These absorb engine vibration and prevent it from being felt by the user. To fix this problem, remove the cover plates of the engine. Inspect the rubber isolation mounts and tighten or replace as needed.
Some debris cannot be observed until you remove the propeller. Pull the propeller to check the prop shaft for debris. Items discarded in the water can become wrapped around the shaft and will eventually damage the prop shaft seal, allowing water to enter the gearcase. This can lead to failure and an expensive repair bill. Regrease and replace.
Loss of Power and Sputtering
If your engine is sputtering, it will rob you of your engine power. If your engine surges and dies or sputters and spurts, you most likely have a problem with the fuel delivery system or a compression issue. It could also be that you’re just low on gas, but if not, it could be a clogged fuel line, filter, or carburetor problem. Another cause could be low engine compression.
Getting the Inflatable Rubber Boat (IRB) Ready
Cleaning the IRB isn’t the same process as with a traditional boat, mainly because of the inflatable siding material. There are cleaning chemicals that could harm your inflatable vessel. Check your manual.
These agents are known to damage IRBs. Avoid using them.
- Abrasives like steel wool
- Ammonia cleaner
- High-alkaline cleaner
If you use soap or detergent, employ it in sparing quantities and thoroughly rinse it after use, as excess can leave a soapy scum layer or cause mildew. After a thorough cleaning/scrubbing, wipe down with towels, air dry completely, and cover.
- Keep your IRB inflated: They are easily damaged when they are low on air, have creases, and have cracks from weak spots.
- Keep it covered: Store out of the sun and keep covered with a simple tarp for added protection.
- Don’t store fuel: Drain fuel tanks.
- Check/inspect the hull: Repair as needed.
- Avoid heated areas: Direct heat can damage the inflatable siding.
- Inflation valves: If the tubes lose air quickly, check the valves. Spray soapy water on them and look for bubbles; this works for finding air leaks anywhere. There are more than a dozen designs used in the industry, but most have a threaded base attached inside the tube. The valve itself screws on from the outside, so it’s easy to remove, clean and, if necessary, replace. Keep spares in stock.
Make sure the ball hitch matches up with your trailer. Inspect the chains and emergency brake connection cable. Test the taillight/brake connector and repair as needed. Get a spare tire and grease the wheel bearings. Of course, ensure proper tread and inflation on the tires. If the boat tie downs are suspect, get new ones.
Spare oars throw bags and proper water personal protective equipment are also among the many items you will need. Get your equipment and staff ready to operate; the water rarely gives second chances. Don’t put your crew in a position to say: “We should have known.”
Steve Shupert has 37 years public service. He retired from Miami Valley Fire District in Montgomery County, Ohio, and serves as a rescue team manager for Ohio Task Force #1 Federal Urban Search and Rescue. Shupert is also the chair of the FEMA Rescue Sub Group and the director of training for 501c3 Crash Course Village in Kettering, Ohio.