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Boat Bilge Pumps Explained |

Boat Bilge Pumps Explained

Boat Bilge Pumps ExplainedBilge pumps are essential safety equipment for any boat, whatever the size, but too many boat owners neglect this simple hardware. An automatic bilge pump is easily installed and can help to avert easily avoidable disasters. Even installing only one pump borders upon irresponsible, because a mechanical malfunction will leave you with no defense against taking on water, in heavy rain or raging seas.

There really is no excuse for failing to install a boat bilge pump with adequate pumping capacity, because they are cheap to purchase and simple to install and use. When a boat hits trouble, you are not only risking the lives of the passenger and crew, but also the lives of potential rescuers.

If a ship is foundering, the coastguard must mount an extensive rescue operation, all because the skipper was too miserly to invest a few dollars on installing a bilge pumping system. To add insult to injury, if your vessel lacks basic safety equipment, you may find yourself liable for all of the rescue costs, which will run into tens of thousands of dollars.

Even if the boat is safely tied up in a port, heavy rains or slow leaks can cause it to founder. Against this eventuality, you can install float switches, which automatically turn the pumps on when the water rises to a certain level. These simple devices would prevent most of the thousands of annual quayside founderings.

What Type of Boat Bilge Pump Should I Buy?

Without an effective bilge pump, even a small leak or minor squall can quickly overwhelm a boat. Many boat owners pay only lip service, and rely upon manual pumps for draining the bilge. Manual pumping is a physically demanding undertaking, and manual bilge pumps rarely offer enough pumping capacity.

Motorized bilge pumps are the only efficient method for pumping out larger quantities of water efficiently. There are many models, styles and brands available, so choosing the best option can be a little overwhelming. Fortunately, there are only two major distinctions, between impeller and diaphragm pumps.

The Technical Side of Bilge Pumps – Assessing Your Needs

There are some technical details that you must be aware of, when planning to purchase a pumping system. Boats come in a huge variety of designs, sizes and number of compartments, so you need to estimate the capacity that you will need. Whatever figure you arrive at, err on the side of caution and double it, because paying a little extra for a slightly larger pump will pay for itself.

If you own a large or medium boat, you should hire a professional to offer advice, because the number of pumps and their location is critical. Most models specify a gallons or liters per hour’ capacity, but this only applies to horizontal pumping. If you need to raise the water vertically, you will need to lower this estimated rate accordingly.

Electric Impeller Bilge Pumps – The Simple Option

Electric impeller bilge pumps are the most popular type, and consist of an electric pump that floats freely in the bilge. This simple setup then pumps out the water, using a high-speed plastic or brass impeller. For engineless boats, electric impeller pumps are a very cheap and effective option; they are easy to install and simple to operate. Electric pumps are portable, making them invaluable in an emergency, where they can be moved to where they are most needed.

Impeller pumps do have a few disadvantages, so buying high quality, durable models is imperative. Cheaper options can be extremely fragile, and floating debris and dirt can block the pump, unless a pre-filter is fitted. Impeller systems float freely in the bilge, so they are prone to damage from floating objects, and can cause a considerable amount of damage themselves. If the outer casing is cracked or damaged, water seeping inside the housing will destroy the electric motor and short out the ship’s electrics.

Electric bilge pumps are extremely quiet in their operation, which may appear to be an advantage, but this means that it is easy to forgot about them. If they are left to run dry, the motor may burn out, or the impeller can fall apart. The final problem is that electric impeller pumps never completely empty the bilge, always leaving a few inches of water sloshing about.

Electric Diaphragm Bilge Pumps – The Robust Option

Electric diaphragm bilge pumps are more complex than the electric impeller type, and are a little more expensive to buy and fit. However, they are much more effective, reliable and robust. The beauty of these pumps is that they use diaphragm valves, and will still work even if the wires are connected to the wrong polarity. Impeller pumps, under the same circumstances, will work backwards!

Electric diaphragm pumps are easy to maintain and are much more resistant to debris and oily gunge, although a pre-filter is still advisable. These bilge pumps are mounted above the water line, giving easy access for maintenance and cleaning, and avoiding the problems of leaking and shorting. Diaphragm pumps will happily run dry without suffering any damage, so are a great option if the boat will be left unattended, especially when fitted with a float valve.

Diaphragm systems are a little more expensive than their impeller driven counterparts, and are very noisy and intrusive. They also need to be fixed into position, so each compartment will need its own bilge pump, and they cannot be moved to critical areas in an emergency.

Other Types of Bilge Pump

For larger boats, fitted with inboard engines, engine driven bilge pumps have huge pumping capacities, and they are used to move large volumes of water very quickly. Engine driven bilge pumps are an excellent option for large vessels, but they may prove to be a little obtrusive for smaller boats. Any boat fitted with this type of pump should always carry a back up pump for situations where the engine breaks down.

Manual bilge pumps, operated by a handle, are a poor option, except for small boats and dinghies. Manual pumps have a very low pumping capacity and are difficult operate for long periods, even for a fit operator.

Be Safe and Back Up Your Bilge Pumping System

All of the automatic bilge pumps possess their own advantages and disadvantages, depending upon the size and model of vessel. One pump is rarely enough, and employing back ups is always wise, preferably of differing types with automatic floating valves. Setting out without a decent bilge pumping system is the height of insanity.




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Shoreline Marine Bilge Pump 600 GPH Price: $16.99
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Seaflo Automatic Submersible Boat Bilge Water Pump 12v 750gph Auto with Float Switch Price: $24.50
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  • Article by Martyn Shuttleworth

    avatar Martyn Shuttleworth is a professional freelance writer living amongst the olive groves of the Peloponnese, a spear throw away from Ancient Sparta, the home of long-haired heroes. He covers a range of styles, from academic writing to sales letters, and loves writing about home improvement, freelance writing, and all things Greek. If you want to hire a master wordsmith, please feel free to visit Freelance Writer Editor
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