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How-to keep your bilge odor-free


That Gloomy Little Secret

After the glory days of new-boat smell, come the sorry days of old-boat smell?


Let's investigate a seldom-explored phenomenon that most likely arises from things unseen or at least unobserved. The Frenchies call it une odeur de vieux bateau (which translates as “the smell of an old boat”); here we just say, “old-boat smell.” Either way it occasions embarrassment on some vessels, discomfort on others, and downright trouble on more still. Given the name, you'd expect old-boat smell would be the scourge of older boats exclusively. But even today, in our sanitized times, newer boats are subject to the malady too!

Why? The reason's simple enough, according to Al Baurley, an inventor I bumped into at a Florida boat show. Smelliness onboard, he maintains, arises primarily from the dank waters that lie fallow and foul in a boat's bilges, untouched by the pickups of most bilge pumps, and teeming with bacteria, fungus, mold, and other gloomy possibilities. Even relatively new boats with dripless shaft logs, watertight topsides, and sophisticated air-scrubbers have problems, he says, due to condensate drainage from air-conditioners, leaks in freshwater or sanitary systems, and condensation in the bilge itself.

How serious is this last little detail? Imagine a poorly vented compartment in the bilge of a boat during a hot summer in the sunny South. Daytime here jacks the mercury to 120ºF, with the humidity-boosting evaporation of whatever water's present. In the evenings, once the dew point is passed, condensation drenches everything, engendering a wet stinkiness and corroding metal.

Baurley's got a fix however, a patented device he calls “The Dry Bilge Machine.” Sold and installed by Arid Bilge Systems, a company he founded, it uses microprocessor technology, along with small-diameter lengths of plastic tubing and a variety of ultrasensitive pickups, to periodically, automatically, and thoroughly drain all water from one or more bilge compartments. “We're not talking about a substitute for a bilge pump though,” he explains. “The point of my system is simply to deal with water your bilge pump or pumps fail to remove.”

Baurley's customers tend to be believers. President of Merritt's Marine Supply of Pompano Beach, Allen Pinnell installed the Dry Bilge Machine on his 1998 34-foot fiberglass Merritt sportfisherman two years ago (at left) and cured a pesky odeur with finality. The system dried up his lazarette so well that he refurbished it with fresh paint. “And the paint hasn't peeled or blistered since,” he enthuses. “In fact, the system's worked so well that my uncle Roy [Roy Merritt of Merritt's Boat & Engine Works] put one on his own boat Caliban.”

Everything has a drawback, and the Dry Bilge Machine's is cost: Retail prices range from $1,880 to $6,960 for a unit capable of handling nine bilge compartments. The install is an easy DIY project, at least for a small, uncomplicated boat. Simply mount the unit on a bulkhead, route plastic tubing to selected compartment(s), tap into an overboard drain hose, and connect it to a 12-volt power source.

So how does the unit compare with air-handling odor eaters? “Some of the onboard-air-quality technology on the market is great,” he says, “but it doesn't address the root of the problem: bilge water.”

Arid Bilge Systems
(954) 328-9705.

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.