Air as a Tool

By Tom Neale, 9/30/2010


There are so many things that we should “always have” on a boat that I groan when I hear somebody tell me about something else. So get ready to groan. Do you have a good source of compressed air aboard? (Other than the obvious?) Compressed air can solve more problems than you’d ever want to think about.

For example, we can use it to blow out dirty starters or alternators. We can use it to quickly and forcefully dry parts. We can use it (not with too much force) to clean out onboard electronic equipment, not to mention computer keyboards and mother boards. If you have a desk top aboard, you’ll probably be amazed at the dust it’s collected inside. That may not be too bad in a house, but on a boat that dust is likely to be salty, more easily allowing transmission of electricity and more likely causing corrosion and malfunction. To go to another extreme, your engine also collects dust in all those little nooks and crannies that you can’t reach and barely even see. That dust promotes rust over the years. It’s probably not going to be damaging rust, but any rust impairs resale value and just looks bad. It’s easy to keep those remote little nooks and crannies free of dust with compressed air. Sometimes you can even use compressed air to retrieve a tiny part that you’ve dropped into one of the millions of inaccessible places on the motor or elsewhere. If you are careful with the amount and direction of force, you can perhaps coax that part along a ledge or ridge until it gets to a location where you can retrieve it with a magnetic wand or claw gripper. It’s a stretch, but I’ve seen it done.

Compressed air is also great for unplugging all those little orifices of every type and description of which boats have so many. For example, the breathing vent hose to the fuel or water tank often gets clogged with bug remnants and other debris. A drain for a porthole or hatch can clog resulting in leaking, but can usually easily be cleared with a good shot of air. And compressed air can be indispensible for clearing clogged jets in a carburetor. I could go on for a long time with possible uses for this “tool,” as I’m sure could you as you think about it. But many feel that it’s too impractical to have on a boat.

Air tank and fittings for shore shop.
Obviously the larger the boat you have, the easier it is to carry compressed air. Large yachts often carry electric shop compressors capable of filling large tanks. You can buy compressors at any auto parts store, home supply stores, Wal-Mart and other retail centers but probably they won’t be designed to meet the standards for use on a boat. If you have a scuba tank, you can tap some of the air from this if you have the right connectors and a regulator. But this takes a lot of care and is potentially dangerous. To use the air coming out full force can be dangerous to you and whatever you’re working on. The pressure in a scuba tank will normally be much higher than pressures used in shop applications and regular shop tools, such as a nozzle, may not be built for that high pressure. But if you buy the hardware to connect a suitable air gun to the tank, and a suitable regulator and are very careful, this can be a plentiful source of air for a big emergency job. But remember, you may need the air in that tank for an important dive. Be thoroughly familiar with all the issues before doing this. Such is beyond the scope of this article. 

Many boats can carry a small shop tank that’s much easier to stow. Campbell Hausfeld (and others) makes them in various sizes, as well as shop compressors and fittings, hoses and various types of nozzles. When thinking of size of the tank, remember that a small tank with, for example, 120 PSI won’t have anywhere near as much volume of air as a large tank with the same PSI. These tanks are usually steel and must be not be allowed to rust. This could result in a dangerous sudden breach, but they come painted and it’s easy to protect them. Usually it takes only a tiny squirt of air to clean a carburetor jet. Several well placed squirts will normally take care of a piece of electronics. It takes quite a bit to “dust off” an engine. A stopped air vent may not only take a lot of air it may take a significant amount of pressure. If you’re trying to clear a tube, such as a vent tube, it’s important to not over pressurize the tube. It may cause it to split which could result in leakage at the time or later. I wouldn’t ever want to spray into a fuel vent for gasoline or any other explosive material. There are too many things that can go dangerously wrong. 

A shop air compressor, such as those mentioned above, will probably serve good purpose at home and can also help for your boat by enabling you to fill an air tank to take to the boat when needed. The size will depend on the storage capability of your boat, what else you may need to take and what you expect to use it for. I prefer no less than a 7 gallon size tank, but this will depend on the circumstances. Some find that a computer cleaner can of “air” satisfies their need and storage issues. But these are comparatively costly for the amount of air they contain. Also, the cans are thin and will rust through quickly in a marine environment. As with any equipment, thoroughly read and understand the instructions and warnings. 

Obviously there are dangers to consider. For example, air from a scuba tank should be quite clean and free of oil, but, as noted, will be under potentially dangerous pressure. Air from a shop compressor is normally at much lower pressure and more appropriate to the uses we’re discussing. But it should never be used for diving as it will probably contain oil and other dangerous impurities. These compressors aren’t built to compress air for inhalation. Computer cleaning air in the cans which you buy from office supply sections of stores (usually around 12 ounces or 340 grams) may contain chemicals which can be hazardous if used improperly. Any air sprayed, particularly if it contains oil or chemicals, could result in arcing or electrical conductivity. Whatever you use, it’s important to follow instructions, learn fully about the product and how to use it and always have plenty of ventilation.

Even though the manufacturer says that the tank and/or equipment is good to 120 or whatever PSI, it’s best to never push it to that limit. For example, I never put more than 100 PSI into a tank that’s rated for 120, and that would only be for a new unblemished tank. Obviously the pressure gauge is important and should be carefully protected and replaced with a good quality gauge if there’s a hint of any issue. Going for cheap can be dangerous for any of this gear. Explosions from overpressure can send shrapnel through the air and into you. There are various grades of hose. There are lighter “self coiling” hoses that are less expensive and easy to use, but much more likely to breach. You can also go to the other extreme and get heavy duty industrial hoses that will take a lot more abuse.

You may never have used compressed air in your boat work, but at least keep it in mind. You never know when it could really save the day. Even if you don’t have the equipment, it’s readily available when the need arises, because it’s so widely used ashore.

I could tell maybe a hundred more stories of being surprised by what is or isn’t on the bottom. If you anchor enough, you’re going to get these surprises. Usually you’ll be in waters where you can’t see the bottom from your deck, and frequently diving will be out of the question and very unsafe. If you have question as to what’s going on down there, feel and watch your rode, feel how your anchor sets, if it does, and feel how it’s dragging if it is. Always have more than one type of anchor to work different types of bottoms and circumstances. Our favorites are the original patented CQR and the Fortress. Others may have their favorites. If something’s unusual, generally the best course of action is to pull it up and check for what may be on the anchor. If you can’t figure out what’s happening, move over a bit. You may have lowered it down on the one and only prehistoric oyster shell for miles around.


Tom’s Tips About Using Air

1. Even air can cause injury. Obviously don't squirt it in your eye, etc. Also be on guard for dust or small particles of debris becoming airborne.
2. Quick connect devices make it much easier and quicker to change tools. These are readily available and not too expensive. Be sure you get...

Click Here for More Tips

I could tell maybe a hundred more stories of being surprised by what is or isn’t on the bottom. If you anchor enough, you’re going to get these surprises. Usually you’ll be in waters where you can’t see the bottom from your deck, and frequently diving will be out of the question and very unsafe. If you have question as to what’s going on down there, feel and watch your rode, feel how your anchor sets, if it does, and feel how it’s dragging if it is. Always have more than one type of anchor to work different types of bottoms and circumstances. Our favorites are the original patented CQR and the Fortress. Others may have their favorites. If something’s unusual, generally the best course of action is to pull it up and check for what may be on the anchor. If you can’t figure out what’s happening, move over a bit. You may have lowered it down on the one and only prehistoric oyster shell for miles around.

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Copyright 2004-2010 Tom Neale