November 15, 2004
Solenoid on Ice
By Douglas Bernon
One of the biggest differences between living on land and living on a boat is the consciousness of mechanical expectations—how much you take for granted, on land, that things will work. In our homes I always assumed the fridge would chill, the toilets would flush, the car would start, hot and cold water would gush from the faucet on demand, and electricity—in never-ending supply—would flow through a socket without spilling on the floor.
A boat, however, is more like a municipality than a house. You have to collect or generate, and then store, finite and precious amounts of power and water. Waste management is a chore that demands unrelenting vigilance and, all-too-frequently, hands-on involvement. As for engines, one cannot assume they’ll always start. Which brings us to solenoids.
Until last Tuesday -- when we were anchored in North Carolina’s Pungo River, and our diesel refused to start -- I knew nothing about solenoids. Without looking at a diagram of the engine I could not have told you where to find it or describe its mission in life. But now, having forged an intimate relationship with ours, I can speak coherently about their nature. Solenoids are powerful switches—electrically operated magnetic switches—that allow you to channel, block, and release rivers of power without running massive wires everywhere. Send these muscular guys the big juice on big wires, and they’ll stand sentry, letting it flow when instructed, permitting you to run teenier wires from them to whatever you’ve got going—such as a starter on your motor. Solenoids are simple but elegant creatures and, according to my more mechanically sophisticated friends, they’re generally pretty rugged. Sometimes, though, even the mighty will fall.
We were in Pungo Creek, North Carolina. We’d taken the “inside” Intracoastal Waterway route south through this neck of the woods to avoid this week’s miserable weather in the Atlantic, around Cape Hatteras. Unlike many stretches of the ICW, this portion is pretty and offers some open sailing in the Pamlico River and Albemarle Sound. However, between Norfolk, Virginia, and Beaufort, North Carolina (which is the route that avoids Hatteras), there are relatively long distances to cover every day in order to reach good anchorages. This is no problem for a powerboat, but sailboats, with their baby engines, usually don’t putt along any faster than five or six knots under power alone.
At dawn last Sunday, with a long day of motoring ahead, Bernadette and I prepared to leave our anchorage at Pungo – one of our favorite spots on the ICW. Bernadette turned the key and pressed the starter button, but, save for the rustling of the trees on shore, there was no sound in our universe, except for my grousing. No familiar click followed by the tentative and then stronger growl that the Yanmar usually emits when he rumbles to life. Just silence. I thought of what my friend Walt, who is the maintenance director of a large factory, and who can repair anything, offered me as a premier maxim to keep in mind when diagnosing a problem: “Last Disturbed, Most Perturbed.” Translated into action, this suggests that you should check first whatever you last touched, even if seemingly unrelated, because whatever it was that you fiddled with is the most likely source of your current headache.
He’s right. For example, last year I replaced the filter in our air cleaner, after which the engine wouldn’t start because I had inadvertently nudged the fuse holder, thereby loosening that connection and interrupting the flow of electricity to the starter. Figuring that out took me a full and frustrating day. Our friend Jack on Kitty Hawk, a master mechanic and trained engineer, recently told me that he’d been doing some work in his engine compartment and unknowingly had dropped a rivet that landed somewhere near his air intake. Several days later, sucked into the engine, it ended its travels, lodging on top of and -- with repeated powerful smashing -- embedding itself into the upper surface of his number-three piston. This made a cacophonous racket, worrying him that disaster had broken loose in the engine. It took three days of searching, and finally, desperately, he tore apart the engine—removing the cylinder head altogether—and found a rivet jammed into steel. Once extracted, it took another day to get everything back together, re-torque the bolts, and call the case closed.
All that’s good and well, but when Ithaka’s engine wouldn’t start the other day, the only thing I’d recently done was check the oil and add a cup. For a change, “Last Disturbed, Most Perturbed” didn’t seem to apply.
After several turnings of the key and mashing of the starter button, I bowed to reality, and went below to start searching for the cause. First, I checked the digital read-out to see if the start battery was dead, but the numbers blinked a hearty 12.65 volts. To be sure, I got out my multi-meter and checked the battery directly. Same reading. Maybe, I hoped, there was just some loose or corroded connection that was keeping the juice from flowing.
We opened the engine compartment. I wiggled every wire within sight, and nothing was loose. In these situations, when the obvious fails to offer relief, when I have no idea what to consider, we turn to our on-board technical bible, Nigel Calder’s Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual—How to Maintain, Repair and Improve Your Boat’s Essential Systems. My knowledge is so scant and Calder is so thorough and precise that when reviewing his detailed explanations, I must repeatedly refer to a glossary just to define the words I’m glossing over. Inevitably I end up reading the same paragraphs many times until the concepts penetrate. It’s worth it, though, because his photographs, drawings and troubleshooting trees are 24 karat.
Bernadette found his chart on “Starting Circuit Problems: Engine Fails to Crank,” which begins with the practical admonition not to blow yourself all to hell by making sparks around a poorly vented gasoline engine. While never intentionally droll in his writing style, Calder seems to have stumbled onto the intuition that solving the problem by self-immolation is unsatisfactory if temporarily appealing.
Bernadette read Calder’s first question: “‘When you turn on some lights and try to start the engine, does the solenoid’ – it’s the gizmo that rides piggy-back on the starter – ‘make a clicking sound.’ If so, he suggests we’ve probably got a dead battery.” We tried the lights and the engine. No clicking sound emerged. So far so good.
She continued: “‘When cranking, do the lights go out or dim?’ If so, he says we’ve probably got a loose connection and ought to check them all, starting with the battery lugs and working our way to the starter.” Our lights weren’t flickering. Onward.
“Calder says it’s either the ignition switch or the solenoid,” Bernadette pronounced. To determine which one was the culprit, Calder suggests taking a screwdriver — I’d urge you to choose one to which you feel no major emotional attachment — and use it to make a bridge across the two heavy-duty terminals on the outside of the magnetic switch atop the starter, touching both of them simultaneously. In this way you and the screwdriver constitute a starting system independent of the key and button. If you use this method and the puppy kicks over, the problem is with the solenoid. I bridged the terminals with the screwdriver. The engine roared to life, and we were back in business
His step-by-step hand-holding is why we rely on Calder. In a million years I never thought this book would be something I’d just pick up and thumb through on occasion, but I often do, and each time I come away daunted but rewarded.
With the engine fired up, we raised the anchor and set out on our way. That night we made it to Adams Creek; the next morning I opened up the engine compartment, carefully removed the air filter cover so not to jar the fuse holder, reached down below it with my now slightly dented screwdriver, bridged the terminals, fired her up, and we rolled right out of there. However, open engine compartments and screwdriver-starts are not an ideal system to get a diesel humming, especially if there’s an emergency that’s screaming for quick action, but until we reached Beaufort, this was how it was. Not a major emergency, just an inconvenience.
Later that day we puttered into Beaufort, North Carolina, and dropped anchor near our friends on Kitty Hawk. It was nice to be back to this town, and we looked forward to a few days of wandering around with Jack and Elizabeth and their kids. Jack, who can fix anything under the sun, dinghied over to Ithaka straight away and offered, in addition to good company, some adult supervision while I swapped out the old solenoid with a new one. He’d predicted from the outset, when we’d chatted on the radio, that the problem was the solenoid, as did another helpful guy on a boat somewhere on the waterway who just happened to be eavesdropping on our VHF conversation. In all things mechanical, Jack has both excellent intuition and hard-won experience. For years the man single-handedly used to fix his own airplane, which to me is the essence of confidence.
Later on, in talking with another friend who’s seen this same movie on his own boat, he told me that what he didn’t like about the screwdriver method is that you have to be down below to effect the start. He figures that if one solenoid blows, another one could too (And why not?). So, he put together a long-distance version of the screwdriver, and now I’ve done the same. We took two large alligator clips, soldered them to two #10 wires, and soldered the other ends to an electric switch from Radio Shack. The wires are 12 feet long, which makes it possible to connect the alligators to the two terminals you’d press the screwdriver against, stand away in the cockpit, click the switch, and complete the circuit that way.
The switch-with-clips makes a nifty solution that can bypass dead solenoids and bad ignition switches. Plus, it has an added advantage: On a windy afternoon like today, when we’re anchored and waiting for 25-knot winds to let up so we can feel sufficiently confident about our anchor holding (and those of the boats anchored nearby) to dinghy ashore and run errands, it gives us a constructive project, and steers us away from mischief.
As always during fire drills like this solenoid failure, we come out of it having learned something valuable about the workings of our boat and ourselves. I’m also reminded, when I’m immersed in a mechanical project and a friend comes over to lend a hand, or vice versa, that doing a repair with another guy—pulling things apart, getting our hands dirty, making a mess, being gross, swearing, belching, and getting it all to work is one of the greatest joys of cruising.