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Your Engine is Shot ... Now What?

Breathe deeply, stay calm, and check out your options ...

Two summers ago, the owner of 38' Sportfisherman in New Jersey got some bad news: both of his boat's 350 Chevy engines needed to be replaced. The owner consulted his marina manager who thumbed through some books and reported that replacing the new engines would cost $6,000 — apiece. The owner looked faint.

In an attempt to bring back his pinkish hue , the marina manger glanced back down at the book and announced, triumphantly, that since he was replacing two engines the cost would be less — $11,400 for both.

Even when a boat owner has followed a rigorous maintenance schedule, a marine engine won't last forever. Quite the contrary; shelling out thousands of dollars to replace a marine engine after only a few seasons of hard use (or neglect) isn't unusual. Pushing a prop through water is much tougher on an engine than pushing tires on a highway. Winter is also tougher, since most marine engines must be idle for several months.

The cost of replacing a worn-out engine isn't covered by an insurance policy. Boat owners typically take a careful look at other options — rebuilds and partial rebuilds — before shelling out thousands of dollars for a spanking new engine. When an owner finds a replacement engine that costs only a small fraction of what a new engine costs, should a light go off in his or her head?

The answer depends on whether the shop that did the work has a good reputation; whether the rebuilt engine is backed by a warranty, and how many parts will be replaced with new.

Remanufactured Engines

The most fundamental component of an engine is its block; a heavy, one-piece casting. Internal parts like pistons and crankshafts are likely to need replacement along with the block itself, so assembly is best done in a clean, well-equipped shop. There are large, state-of-the-art shops that specialize in "remanufacturing" most makes and models. PMC of Largo, Florida, has a huge inventory of engines it supplies to repairers and dealers. Jasper Engines and Transmissions in Jasper, Indiana, sells remanufactured engines to individual boaters at its 32 locations.

According to most experts, one of these remanufactured engines is comparable to a factory-new engine and they may even have similar warranties. Several degrees of remanufacture are available.

Short Blocks. Very few engines that need to be replaced are completely shot. Components such as the carburetor, manifolds, starter, head, alternator, etc. — called "bolt-ons" by mechanics — may be usable or at least capable of being reconditioned. Your mechanic or a marine surveyor can help you decide which parts from your old engine can be bolted on to your new engine. The more bolt-ons you use, the more money you'll save. A "short block" includes most of the critical moving parts and is a good choice when some internal parts failed, but the rest of the engine is relatively new. One note of caution: using heads, manifolds, etc. from your old engine makes it more likely that there could be a warranty dispute, should the engine fail.

Long Blocks. The next step up the spending scale is the "long block," which is a short block with the addition of the head and intake manifold. Installation includes bolting on a few parts like carburetor, starter, and alternator from your old engine. A boat can have a new engine relatively quickly with less skilled labor. And since most critical parts have already been installed on a long block, there is less chance of a warranty dispute, should the engine fail.

If the old engine has considerable hours and wear, the valves sound like a troupe of tap dancers, oil is weeping here and there, the manifolds have not been changed in years, and the pumps and carburetor are shot, it may be wise to opt for a new engine. This includes all major external components, ready to hook up and run, but without a transmission. (There is seldom need to replace a transmission.) Be sure to get a "marinized" — marine — engine. There are differences, including significant safety differences, and while a non-marinized engine might seem like a bargain, it may not be up to the more hostile marine environment.

Prices on new engines vary, and one former dealer told us that dealers work on a 20 to 30% margin. Don't be afraid to shop around for the best price.

Replacing an outboard engine presents somewhat more limited choices. Outboards are more difficult to rebuild, requiring special training and tools. However, factory authorized remanufactured "powerheads" (the outboard equivalent of a short block with heads) are available through some remanufacturers and most outboard dealers at a substantial savings over the new unit. Prices on new outboards can vary widely, especially on larger models. One BoatUS Member in Florida, to cite one example, reported paying $8,900 for a 150 HP outboard after being quoted $10,500 for exactly the same model by her marina. Smart lady.