Preventive Maintenance

You know the saying – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. However, even the best maintained engines will show the tell tale signs of age and hard labor. Hydraulic leaks from steering cables, drips from the last oil change, or fuel from leaky fittings can all be a potential problem for the boater and the environment. Here are a few tips to take help make boat work and the environment a little cleaner.

Changing Engine Oil and Other Fluids

Regardless of engine size, routine inspections can alert you to potential problems.

Changing engine oil, checking fluid levels and routine inspections are the best way to keep your machinery running smoothly. Refer to your manual for recommended intervals for changing the fluids that help keep your boat running in tip top condition.

“Clean” Tips for Changing Oil:

  • Use a self-contained spill-proof oil extractor to remove fluids. Manual and electric pumps can be found at most marine retail supply stores.
  • Temporarily disable your bilge pump so that it doesn’t cycle on in the case of a spill.
  • Use an oil-only absorbent pad under the engine and in the bilge to absorb spills.
  • Place a plastic bag around the filter before removing to catch drips.
  • Top off your fluids, wipe up any spills, and reconnect your bilge pump.
  • Recycle your filter and used oil at a recycling location and dispose of used absorbent pads and rags properly.

For more information on changing engine oil, click here.

Changing Fuel Filters

Having an absorbent pad handy is the best way to prevent drips from entering the bilge.

Inspecting and changing fuel filters should be part of your routine maintenance plan. Unfortunately, fuel can become contaminated or can separate and clog filters if it sits in a fuel tank for too long. Changing your fuel filter is especially important if you boat in an area that has recently switched to ethanol formulated gasoline. Ethanol has a tendency to clean out fuel systems, resulting in the need to change your fuel filter more frequently with the first few tanks of ethanol formulated fuel.

Changing spin-on or in-line primary fuel filters is relatively easy. However, changing some secondary filters (the one that tends to be mounted out of the way or internally in the engine) can be more difficult than your average oil change and tends to be overlooked by many do-it-yourselfers. When it doubt, refer to your engine manual or let a professional handle it. Proper fuel flow and filtration is essential to smooth operation.

“Clean” Tips for Changing Fuel Filters:

  • Clean off any dirt from around the old filter and filter housing.
  • Temporarily disable your bilge pump so that it doesn’t cycle in the case of a spill.
  • Use an oil-only absorbent pad under the engine and in the bilge to absorb spills.
  • Use a bucket or cut the top off of a plastic soda bottle to catch fuel overflow.
  • Empty the bowl into the bucket and dispose of in a waste fuel bin at your marina.
  • Clean the bowl or housing with an oil-only absorbent rag before replacing element.
  • Lubricate “O” rings and prime the filter and fuel line as necessary.

For more information on fuel system maintenance, click here.  

Bilge Maintenance

Engine lubricants are meant to coat engine parts – not the inside of the bilge. But invariably, even a careful boater can experience drips from an oil change or leaks from a fitting, which could become major problems for the boat owner and the environment. Discharging any amount of fuel, oil, grease, and even soaps or detergent is illegal and can bring a hefty fine.

Here are some tips to prevent petroleum products from mixing with bilge water:

  • Keep your engine tuned to minimize oil leaks.
  • Check that clamps and filters are seated properly.
  • Inspect hoses and belts for peeling or cracking.
  • Place an oil-absorbent pad under your engine.
  • Use an oil-absorbent bilge sock near your pump.
  • Wipe up spills, drips and splatters immediately.

An absorbent bilge sock placed next to the bilge pump can filter out pollutants.

There are many oil-only absorbent products on the market that can help make bilge maintenance easier. Some are oil-only absorbents that absorb oil and leave the water behind, others contain microbes that “eat” the oil over several days or weeks making disposal easier. Please remember to dispose of oil-soaked products properly.

Another alternative in dealing with dirty bilge water is an inline bilge filter. This device is designed to remove petroleum products from your bilge water without restricting bilge pump performance, allowing for a clean discharge. You must periodically check these products for oil saturation and replace filters as needed.

If absorbent pads and filters haven’t done the trick, a few marinas now offer a bilge pump-out service. It’s still a new concept, so check with your local marine facilities for pricing and availability.

The Clean Routine – “Green” Cleaners

Choosing cleaning products for your boat can be an overwhelming process. It seems like there are a million different products out there, each for a specific purpose. Cleaning products vary greatly in their contents, toxicity levels and purposes. How do you choose?

  • Vinegar and water cleans most surfaces.
    Be sure to read the labels on the products that you use. Many products are labeled “biodegradable.” This just means that the product will break down in the marine environment overtime. While, this is good, you can do better!
  • Look for products that are non-toxic, phosphate-free and chlorine-free. Phosphates act as a fertilizer promoting algae growth, and chlorine, while alright for a swimming pool, is harmful to the marine environment.
  • Try to reduce the use of toxic cleaners and use all cleaning agents sparingly. Allowing cleaning products to spill into the water, even just rinsing them off into the water is a violation of the Clean Water Act.
  • When possible, complete major cleaning projects on land.

Below are some less harmful cleaning product suggestions that may require a bit more elbow grease, but a lot less cash, to get the job done.

Fiberglass Stains

Make a paste of Baking Soda and Water. (Be careful because Baking Soda is an abrasive.) Use lemon or lime juice to rinse.


Use Apple Cider Vinegar and a soft cloth, then use a dab of baby oil to restore the shine.

Window and Mirrors

Mix one cup vinegar, with 1 quart water, put in a spray bottle, rinse and squeegee.


Use Worchester sauce, or a paste made of equal amounts of vinegar, salt and water.

Copper Fittings

Use a solution of lemon juice and water.


Use a mixture of 1 part white vinegar to 8 parts warm water.

Stainless Steel

Clean with a cloth and undiluted white vinegar.


Clean with a solution of 2 tbsp. Cream of Tartar and 1 quart of hot water on a soft cloth.


Use mild powder soap and bronze wool.

Interior Woods

Clean with Olive or Almond Oil. Only use these on interior woods as they do not hold up to direct sunlight.


Clean with a solution of one part vinegar to 2 parts water.

**As with all cleaning products, test on a small area before using on entire boat.

©2010-2011, BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water