By Tom Neale, 11/11/2010


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There are some things that you can’t help dropping on a boat. One of the things I drop the most is the oil filter. I don’t mean the new clean one that I’m getting ready to put on. Yeah, I do manage to drop that one in the bilge sometimes, but that’s not a biggie. I’m talking about the old one that I just took off. The one that’s full of old black oil. There are all sorts of things I do to keep it from slipping out of my hands and to minimize the damage when it does. But none of them work. I wear nitrile gloves to hopefully protect my hands. First I stuff expensive balled up layers of oil absorbent pads below the filter area of the engine. This is to fill in the hole where the filter will crash in the bilge, spewing its contents on the way down. Next I place the flat layers of oil absorbent stuff over the balled up layers and then I spread more out under the job site. The idea is to trap any oil that spills out when I drop the filter--assuming I drop it somewhere reasonably near the job site. Which I seldom manage to do. But I don’t let that bother me too much because even if the filter plummets right into the thickest layer of absorbency, it usual blasts through anyway. If it doesn’t blast through, the oil finds a path down to the bilge no matter how carefully I’d tried to stop up crevices. There’s only one fool proof method (well, almost fool proof) of keeping the oil out of the bilge.

Prepping for the Operation
If I drop the filter on me first, usually all the oil soaks into my clothes before it gets to the bilge. These days I wear Dickies coveralls with lots of absorbent clothing underneath to help soak up as much oil as possible before it reaches my skin. This is especially helpful when the oil is still hot from running the engine. The main variable with dropping the filter on me has to do with whether I drop it in my lap or on my stomach or on my chest. Obviously it’s much better to drop the thing on my chest. That way, as it rolls down my chest and bounces down my stomach before coming to rest (hopefully) in my lap, it spews out oil over a much wider area of Dickies and absorbent undergarments. (No, in case you’re wondering, I don’t wear diapers—but maybe I should. Old engine oil is a known carcinogen.) The good thing about wearing Dickies coveralls is that all you have to do is unzip one zipper and you can drop them to the deck before the oil does too much damage. Of course, when I do this, the coveralls usually slither into the bilge anyway, being extra slippery from all the black lubricant covering them. (Anytime I spill oil or drop oily waste material in the bilge, I turn off the bilge pump and immediately thoroughly clean up the mess with other absorbent material. So far, I’ve never forgotten to turn the bilge pump back on.)

The next thing that comes to mind is a close cousin to the first. It’s the fuel filter element. I use Racors so this should be pretty easy. You just unscrew a big T handle on the lid, lift off the lid, lift out the element by the handy handle, drop it into the little bucket you have in position next to the bowl and viola…..Not so fast. I pull it out of the bowl slowly so that as a lot of the fuel in the filter has an opportunity to drain in the bowl as I lift it up. I do try to make the transfer to the bucket fast, because that element is usually still capable of spewing forth dirty diesel fuel like the Rockefeller Square fountain. Diesel fuel does a much better job of soaking through rags and riches than oil, so I have to do it fast.

I do pad the area, around the filter and below it, with volumes of absorbent pads. But there’s just no way you can stop diesel fuel from getting where it wants to go if gravity’s involved. And gravity is always involved when it comes to my bilge. But if I do it too fast, the escaping fuel slings around all over the place. If I make the transfer from the filter bowl to the bucket too slowly, I find myself standing in a diesel soaked puddle of pads. So I have to compromise and I’m not at all good at compromising. I pull the filter out with one hand, put another hand under it (said hand being full of paper towels) and move it to the bucket. Now I know what you are thinking.

Zero Tolerance Spill Removal
You are thinking, “Aha, he’s so obsessed with the compromise that the drops the element into the bilge.”

Well, you’re entirely wrong. I’ve never dropped an old element except neatly into the bucket. I just drop the bucket. And usually I wait until a bunch of the dirty diesel has run out of the element, making a pool of an inch or so in the bottom of the bucket. That way, the spill is much more concentrated, although it’s never on the padding and the additional concentration helps it to trickle into the bilge at a much more rapid rate of flow. Lately I’ve been putting two layers of good quality small plastic garbage bags in the bucket and dropping a lot of paper towels in the bottom of those. The idea is that by the time I drop the bucket most of the oil from the element will be absorbed in the paper towels down inside the bags and thus, less spillage. That’s the idea, but usually the tops of the plastic bags, which I’ve carefully spread open, collapse and the filter collapses the bag, landing on top of the pile of plastic, fully able to empty its contents into the bilge when I drop the bucket.

I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t dropped while aboard. But to carry on with this theme, I’ll have to mention gallon oil jugs filled with old oil and dirty diesel. You should dump old oil and diesel into these jugs, they say, so that you can dutifully carry them ashore to “properly dispose of the contents.” The problem is that any old gallon oil jug is going to be slippery. And you’ve first got to carry them out of the engine space, through the main salon, up the companionway, across the deck, step over to the dock, down the dock and across the premises to the place of “proper disposal.” You don’t need much of an imagination to figure out the numerous opportunities for dropping a jug or two, most of which opportunities I’ve exercised.

There’s a little known fact about used oil jugs. When you drop them from a sufficient height (knee height will do nicely) they have a tendency to burst when they hit the bottom. When they burst it isn’t like you’ve got an oil spill. It’s more like you’ve got an oil star burst. If you’re very lucky when they slip, they may hit a sharp edge—or even a very dull edge—on the way down. This sometimes allows the oil to escape in a more controlled manner, but escape it will. So I carefully load the jugs into a dock cart, never holding more than two at a time (since that’s all the hands I’ve got). I then take them to the big tank with the funnel on top to do the proper disposal. Usually, as soon as I start pouring, the funnel falls out of the hole in the tank, so I wear gloves to hold the funnel and take rags. Fortunately, most disposal areas also have an oil waste disposal barrel for used absorbent pads, oil rags, drained old filters and related debris. I drop them in.

Tom’s Tips About Dropping Things

1. Never drop over your outboard while it’s running. Shut it down first.
2. Whenever you pick up a wrench to work in the engine room or near the water, first look at it to see what size it is so that you can go buy another one when you drop that one…

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