Kemah, Texas
Watts Up! Marine Services has gone offshore and no longer provides local service. I have left this blog in tact for those that might find the information useful. I still monitor questions but only when internet is available.

Thanks for checking out our blog.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Stainless Steel, Does it corrode?

A metal that is very near and dear to most boaters hearts, is the boater bling, stainless steel.  Someone had asked me today why his stainless steel hardware had rust stains, my answer was, stainless steel corrodes.  He was shocked to here this.  Many believe that this metal does not corrode.  While it does not corrode like it's softer cousin, carbon steel, it still has the ability to discolor and also corrode. 

So, if you have been asking "Why are my zincs disappearing?",  the next topic on Corrosion will help you find out why but also how to help protect your precious boat from many of the different threats.

Stainless Steel (here comes the blah, blah, blah) is defined as a steel alloy with a minimum of 10.5 - 11% chromium content by mass.  Stainless steel does not stain, corrode, or rust as easily as ordinary steel, but it is not stain-proof.  It is also called corrosion-resistant steel.  Stainless steels contain sufficient chromium to form a passive film of chromium oxide, which prevents further surface corrosion and blocks corrosion from spreading into the metal's internal structure.
The stainless steel alloys with AISI (American Iron and Steel Institute) numbers of 300 or above contain more nickel than those with numbers below 300, and have better seawater resistance. These 300-series alloys are very corrosion resistant, and are used for architectural applications, boat topside fittings, and household goods such as sinks and silverware. The 300-series alloys will usually show no appreciable corrosion in fresh water or sea water atmosphere (this does not include saltwater submersion).

Stainless steels get its corrosion resistance by the formation of a very thin surface film, called the passive film, which forms on the surface in the presence of oxygen. Therefore, stainless steel usually has poor corrosion resistance in low-oxygen environments, such as under water, in mud, or in tight places, called crevices.  This is particularly true in seawater, where the chlorides from the salt will attack and destroy the passive film faster than it can reform without oxygen present.  All of the stainless steels except the best of the specialty alloys will suffer from pitting or crevice corrosion when immersed in seawater.  

As a sailor, I can give numerous examples of stainless steel corroding in crevices or places that oxygen cannot reach.  After removing numerous chain plates that penetrate the hull or decks of sailboats in every instance, there was corrosion on the surface that goes through the deck.  Often the corrosion was to the point of cracking or breaking the fitting.  All other parts of the chain plate were shiny and clean with the exception of the small section just below the top of the deck, where oxygen had been depleted. 
When a stainless steel component is exposed to salt water, it becomes susceptible to corrosion due to the lack of oxygen and the addition of chlorides in the water.  In most cases, stainless steel will be destroyed from the inside out.  This is because the corrosion starts inside the crevice where it can’t be seen, then proceeds inside the metal where there is no oxygen, sometimes hollowing out the part or giving it the appearance of Swiss cheese.
One of the best 300-series stainless steels is type 316. Even this alloy will, if unprotected,  will start corroding if located in moist saltwater areas or any tight crevice, starved for oxygen.  If water flows fast past stainless steel, more oxygen is delivered to the stainless steel and it corrodes less. For this reason, stainless steels have been successfully used for impeller blades and propellers. These need to be protected from corrosion when there is no flow.

Passivation is the spontaneous formation of a hard non-reactive surface film that inhibits further corrosion.  When stainless steel is passivated, it is put into a bath of an oxidizing acid, such as nitric acid.  It was observed that when stainless steels were first treated with an oxidizing acid, they would later appear to corrode less than if they had not been treated. It was thought that the oxidizing acid somehow thickened the passive film on the stainless steel to make the steel more corrosion resistant. Therefore, the treatment was called passivation. We now know that this treatment doesn’t affect the passive film in a way that lasts very long in water. 

Why does stainless steels appear to corrode less after passivation?  The oxidizing acid treatment is essentially a cleaning process that removes small particles of iron and other impurities that have gotten on the surface of the stainless steel during the rolling process, or are in the structure of the stainless steel itself and happen to be protruding from the surface. These particles corrode in waters that normally don’t corrode stainless steels, leaving behind rust or other corrosion products that are readily visible.  It looks like the stainless steel is corroding when, in fact, it is only the surface particles that corrode.  Cleaning these particles off with the acid treatment means that they will not later corrode and leave behind ugly rust spots.  It therefore seems that the stainless steel is corroding less. Some people believe that surface particle corrosion can start pitting corrosion, but controlled tests show that pitting will still happen even if all of these particles are removed.

The reason for the passivation treatment now becomes clear. It makes the stainless steel look prettier after it has been exposed to the water for a while. It actually doesn’t affect the corrosion of the stainless steel itself, however. The treatment is fairly cheap, and usually doesn’t hurt anything, so manufacturers usually go ahead and do it, just to avoid later questions about "rust" spots forming on their stainless steel.

Knowing all this, the stains that we see on the exposed  areas of our 316 stainless steel boat jewelry will most likely be surface stains, however if the stains appear to be spreading from a connection, bolt or weld, the problem is likely more severe.  The areas that we should be more concerned with are the ones that we cannot see, like the back sides of chain plates, under washers or places that fiberglass might cover, that is where you will find the real degradation.

Hopefully this will be help you find the problem areas before it becomes serious.

Corrosion - What has been happening above and below the waterline?

As boaters, we often get out on the water after a long week at the office, relishing the moments that we can spend floating with friends and family.  We untie the dock lines, motor our boats away from their comfortable slips, and feel the thrill as the boat increases speed.  As we head out to the open water, we are probably thinking of the fishing, water sports or sailing we’re about to do.  We almost certainly are not thinking, "What has been happening above and below the waterline?"

Corrosion is a process that affects the metal parts of every single boat, without exception, all the time.  Some corrosion occurs naturally by the elements: sea water, salty, moist air, and even animal waste, for example.  Other vessels and structures that share the boat’s environment can also contribute to corrosion.   We often see corrosion as it occurs above the waterline. But plenty is happening where we can’t see it:  on underwater thru-hulls, struts and prop shafts.  I personally have had a thru-hull break while underway due to the effects of corrosion, leaving me in a highly dangerous situation.  Corrosion can be prevented or minimized. Understanding corrosion can help to combat the problem before it spoils our weekend.

I have always studied or worked closely with electricity, both AC and DC circuits, but never realized the close relationship that it has with corrosion.  While studying and researching this topic I am able to see the depth and vast amounts of information that is needed to fully understand all of the aspects that this topic covers.  For this reason I will try to break this down into several posts, hoping to make it easier on both you and me.

Corrosion is the disintegration of metals due to a mechanical or electro-chemical reaction.  Many structural alloys corrode merely from exposure to oxygen and moisture in the air, but the process can be strongly affected by exposure to certain substances.  Corrosion can be concentrated locally to form a pit or crack, or it can extend across a wide area more or less uniformly corroding the surface. Corrosion occurs on exposed surfaces, as a result, methods to reduce the activity of the exposed surface, such as passivization or chromate conversion (chromic acid bath), can increase a material's corrosion resistance.  The types of corrosion that we experience in our boats can be listed as:
Cavitation of a Propeller
  •  Mechanical corrosion is corrosion caused by cavitation.  There are two types of cavitation that might be seen, inertial and non-inertial.  
    • Inertial cavitation is the sudden formation and collapse of low-pressure bubbles in liquids by means of mechanical forces, such as those resulting from rotation of a marine propeller or the impeller of a centrifugal pump.  In the following example, I will use a propeller to help explain this theory.  As a propeller spins, it creates a negative pressure on some spots of the propeller blade.  If this pressure is lower than the fluid vapor pressure, the water will vaporize and will cause bubbles to be created along the propeller.  As these bubbles move along the metal surface, they will eventually collapse, causing miniature implosions on the surface of the blade which can pit or damage the metal.     Speed and pitch of the prop cause the cavitation; therefore, correct control of these factors can eliminate this type of corrosion.   Believe it or not, dolphins and tuna are adversely affected by this type of cavitation and some types of shrimp use it to assist them in hunting and feeding.
    • Non-inertial cavitation is the process in which a bubble in a fluid is forced to oscillate in size or shape due to some form of energy input, such as an acoustic field.  When these cavitation bubbles collapse, they force compressed liquid into very small volumes, thereby creating spots of high temperature and emitting shock waves.  Diesel engines suffer from cavitation due to high compression and undersized cylinder walls. Vibrations of the cylinder wall induce alternating low and high pressure in the coolant against the cylinder wall. The result is pitting of the cylinder wall, which will eventually let cooling fluid leak into the cylinder and combustion gases to leak into the coolant.  Mechanical corrosion is a selective erosion and will only attack the surface that the cavitation contacts.

  • Chemical corrosion is due to presence of an electrolyte. An electrolyte is a solution that conducts electricity via electrically charged atoms, called ions. An ion is an atom that has either picked up an extra electron (negative ion) or has lost an electron (positive ion). Both mechanical and chemical corrosion occur at the surface of the metal, where it can interact with the surrounding electrolyte such as sea water.  Metals have an inherent electrical charge, which serves to hold the molecules intact. The charge can vary a little; it can have a differing potential according to temperature, salinity, aeration, and pollution of the water.  For most metals in sea water, the charge is negative. Graphite, Platinum, and Gold for example have a positive charge in ordinary sea water.  There is a progression of differing potentials (voltages) from the less noble metals (more negative), through to the more noble metals (less negative).  When two metals of a different potential are connected to each other, and immersed in an electrolyte like sea water, the metals have their charges equalized.  The less noble metal, stripped of its inherent protective charge, is unable to prevent the chloride ions in the sea water from pulling metal away. This is electrochemical corrosion.  Less noble type metals are anodic, or negative, and if connected, will sacrifice themselves to any more noble metal they are electrically in contact with while immersed in an electrolyte. The more noble metal is cathodic (either positive, or just less negative).  Like in baseball, the less noble metal is the pitcher, and the more noble metal, the catcher.

  • Galvanic corrosion is what happens when two dissimilar metals are immersed in an electrolyte, and are both electrically connected and an ionic conductive path is available.  In this case, a galvanic cell is created. Essentially, this is creating a battery and the current it produces can be measured or even used. Corrosion of the more noble metal will be reduced at the expense of the less noble metal, which will corrode more rapidly.  Two dissimilar metals immersed in an electrolyte, and not connected to each other, will corrode at their own inherent natural rate. In this case, there will be no battery, and no enhanced level of either corrosion or protection.
  • Stray current corrosion is when electric current escapes from its intended path, and uses our boat or our underwater fittings as its new path: a stray current.  This is a much more severe kind of corrosion. Stray currents can cause very rapid metal loss, which is limited only by the amount of current available. If there is a direct short, the corrosion rate will be extraordinary.

  •  Electrolysis describes all of the electro-chemical processes, including galvanic corrosion, stray current corrosion, and also is used to refer to electro-plating, removing hair from our legs, etc.  Electrolysis is often used incorrectly to refer specifically to stray current corrosion where in fact, it can properly be used to refer to any kind of corrosion involving an electric current.  Strictly speaking, electrolysis means that chemical changes are being produced in an electrolyte, by an electric current passing through the electrolyte. In the case of galvanic corrosion there is also an electric current, one that is created by the differing inherent charges of the dissimilar metals.  Areas of a metal fitting which are actively suffering from corrosion by one form or another of electrolysis will appear brightly eroded, as though freshly sandblasted. Steel and aluminum will be a bright silvery color, for example. The same appearance will be the case for areas suffering from cavitation corrosion.
Galvanic series
The following is the galvanic series for stagnant (that is, low oxygen content) seawater. The order may change in different environments.  The metals at the bottom of this scale will deteriorate quickly if exposed to metals from the top of the scale, the greater the difference on the scale, the greater the potential that is created.  For an example, when platinum is exposed to aluminum, the aluminum will deteriorate very quickly because it is less noble than platinum.
1.       Graphite
2.       Platinum
3.       Gold
4.       Silver
5.       Titanium
6.       Stainless steel 316 (passive)
7.       Stainless Steel 304 (passive)
8.       Silicon bronze
9.       Stainless Steel 316 (active)
10.    Monel 400
11.    Phosphor bronze
12.    Admiralty brass
13.    Red brass
14.    Brass plating
15.    Yellow brass
16.    Naval brass 464
17.    Tungsten
18.    Stainless Steel 304 (active)
19.    Chromium plating
20.    Nickel (passive)
21.    Copper
22.    Nickel (active)
23.    Cast iron
24.    Steel
25.    Lead
26.    Tin
27.    Aluminum
28.    Zinc
29.    Magnesium

The table below reports the corrosion potentials or galvanic series of metals in flowing sea water at ambient temperature.  The unshaded symbols show ranges exhibited by stainless steels in acidic water, as may exist in crevices or in stagnant or low velocity or poorly aerated water where stainless steel becomes active, while the shaded areas show the potentials of stainless steel when is in passive state.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Marine Reverse Cycle AC/Heat

Marine Reverse Cycle AC/Heat - How does it work?
Cooling and heating with a reverse cycle marine heat pump is a simple process of moving heat from one place to another, by using a refrigerant and a mechanical method.  The heat is either removed from the boats interior air and disposed into the seawater or removed from the seawater and circulated into the boats living area.  Refrigerant reacts easily to temperature and pressure, while changing states similarly easy (liquid to gas, gas to liquid).  When a change occurs in the state of a refrigerant, heat is either absorbed or released; we use compression or a change of pressure to make this happen.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

NMEA 2000 - Important stuff to know

NMEA 2000, a simple and effective communication for your boat.  One concern with this communication system is on a boat. 

Visualize this, you are on a boat in a shipping channel, that has a NMEA 2000 network controlling the navigation, tankage and even the engine throttle and shifting, the network goes down, you are dead in the water.  Knowing how the NMEA 2000 network is assembled suddenly becomes very important.

Every boat owner that has NMEA 2000 controlling the engine systems or relies on a NMEA 2000 navigation system, should know how the network is assembled and what it would take to troubleshoot a problem.  Taking a few hours to learn this simple system could turn around a very upsetting weekend.  They say that a "little knowledge is dangerous", I say that a whole lot of ignorance can mess your day up!  You don't have to be a "MacGyver" to get the system back up and moving in the right direction.

To learn more, visit our Tech Locker at

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

RCDs - How do we protect an entire circuit?

In conjunction with the previous blog posts, I wanted to answer a question that was raised; How do I protect my outlet circuits without having to change my current outlets?  Many boats have special cover plates made of teak, replacing the outlet to go to GFCI would require replacement of the cover plate and change the look of the boat.  RCDs are the solution to this problem.

Residual Current Devices (RCDs) respond to leakage of electrical current outside of the intended circuit path. When the RCD function is combined with overload and short circuit protection, the device is often referred to as an RCBO. A device that trips on leakages of nominally 5mA, and meets certain standards, is called a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI). A device meeting the same standards but with a trip level of 30mA is called an Electrical Leakage Circuit Interrupter (ELCI). The device to the right provides GFCI or ELCI functions and circuit protection in panel mounted breakers.  RCDs come in various sizes from 15 amp to 30 or 50 amp and can be used with 120 or 240 volt systems.  Make note, the size of the RCD can vary and the spaces that will be consumed in your electrical panel will increase with the size of the RCD.  As an example, a single circuit RCD will fill two positions in your electrical panel.

RCDs operate just like the GFCI you would find in your home or boat, they simply will protect the entire circuit to include the wiring that runs throughout your boat.  This is very important on a boat due to the flex and vibration that are an everyday occurrence, that will eventually take a toll on the the  electrical wiring.  Wire chafe is often found when removing old wiring, this chafe produced from wiring passing through bulkheads or under metal objects.  

In most cases, RCDs can replace the existing main A/C breaker (used as an ELCI), an individual circuit breaker or be added to an existing circuit depending on the existing circuitry.  It becomes an inexpensive solution that can be added to any boat.

To summarize the last couple blog posts, ELCIs will cover an entire boat, RCDs can protect an entire boat or each individual circuit and GFCIs offer protection to the individual outlet or string of outlets (if connected properly).  I hope that this sheds some light on electrical safety devices that can protect our boats and crew.

Monday, January 17, 2011

What is an ELCI? - Current protection for the entire boat!

When digging around the internet to check on any new ABYC regulations I came across some great information provided by Blue Sea Systems.  I wanted to pass this information on to anyone that is asking a question that many boaters ask; How do I detect or prevent "Stray Current"?  An ELCI, Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter, can do that and more.

There are two potential failures in a boat′s electrical system that can put people on or around the boat at risk of lethal electric shock.  In a properly functioning marine electrical system, the same amount of AC current flows in the hot and neutral wires.

Properly Functioning Marine Electrical System
However, if electricity “leaks” from this intended path in these two wires to ground, this condition is called a ground fault. A good example of this is an insulation failure in the wiring of an appliance.
Ground Fault
In addition, a faulty ground can occur when the grounding path is broken through a loose connection or broken wire. For instance, a shore power cord ground wire may fail due to constant motion and stress.
Faulty Ground
Faulty grounds can be undetectable; a simple continuity test will not necessarily reveal a problem.
When these two conditions occur at the same time, the results may be tragic. The combination of a ground fault and a faulty ground can result in metal parts in the boat and under water becoming energized.
In addition to the hazard to people on the vessel, there is a larger danger to swimmers near the boat. While people on board are likely to receive a shock from touching energized metal parts, nearby swimmers could receive a paralyzing dose of electricity and drown due to involuntary loss of muscle control. A Coast Guard sponsored study showed numerous instances of electrical leakage causing drowning or potential drowning even though the shock did not directly cause electrocution.
Given the seriousness of the problem, ABYC requirements now include specific measures for avoiding this danger.
ABYC regulation E–13.3.5 states:
    If installed in a head, galley, machinery space, or on a weather deck, the receptacle shall be protected by a Type A (nominal 5 milliamperes) Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI).
ABYC regulation E–11.11.1 states:
    An Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter (ELCI) shall be installed with or in addition to the main shore power disconnect circuit breaker(s) or at the additional overcurrent protection as required by E11. whichever is closer to the shore power connection.
ELCIs, and the more familiar GFCIs, are part of a larger family of devices that measure current flow in the hot and neutral wires and immediately switch the electricity off if an imbalance of current flow is detected. ELCIs and GFCIs that are also Residual Current Circuit Breakers (RCBO) provide overcurrent tripping protection characteristic of a normal circuit breaker.
GFCIs are used as branch circuit ground fault protection at the 5mA threshold in potentially wet environments. GFCIs protect against flaws in devices plugged into them, but offer no protection from the danger of a failing hard-wired appliance, such as a water heater or cooktop.
In contrast, an ELCI provides additional whole-boat protection. Installed as required within 10' of the shore power inlet, an ELCI provides 30mA ground fault protection for the entire AC shore power system beyond the ELCI. ABYC regulations still require the use of GFCIs in environments described above.
ELCI Placement
Although ABYC regulations apply only to new boat construction, the dangers and liabilities exist for any boat owner with a shore power connection. Retrofitting an ELCI to an existing AC system can be worthwhile “insurance” against risk. Since an ELCI/RCBO can serve as the main shore power circuit breaker, it can replace a standard circuit breaker in this application. Alternatively, an ELCI/RCBO can be added between the shore power inlet and the existing main shore power circuit breaker.
Safety ground system failures on boats are safety and liability disasters waiting to happen. ELCI protection on each shore power line, combined with protection afforded by GFCIs, will reduce risk to those on the boat, the dock, and in the water surrounding the boat.

GFCIs are great at protecting the devices that are plugged into them and the individuals that might be using it, they do not protect anything that is upstream on the electrical circuit.  Standard circuit breakers protect the circuit and everything downstream, yet sometimes they do not act quick enough to avoid fire or shock.  ELCI/RCBOs fill the gap that the others miss.

We hope that this information can answer some questions and make your boating experience a safer one.  Add your questions or comments if you like, we welcome the chance to discuss this valuable topic.

Friday, January 14, 2011

GFCI Danger! Something we all need to know!

In this past week, I was called out to a boat for an "electrical glitch" and found this, a little more than a glitch:
What the photo does not show is the fire and smoke that had also filled the boat.  This boat owner was extremely lucky, we were able to extinguish the fire in a matter of minutes and save the boat.  It would have otherwise surely destroyed the boat.

A Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) is an important part of our house and boat. It protects us against electrical shock.  A GFCI monitors the amount of current flowing from hot to neutral.  A GFCI can detect how much current is flowing to the receptacle on the "hot," or black wire, and then looks for the exact same amount flowing back on the "neutral," or white wire.  If there is any imbalance, it trips the circuit.  It is able to sense a mismatch as small as 4 or 5 milliamps, and it can react as quickly as one-thirtieth of a second.  This is great for protecting us against electrical shock, however what happens when we add saltwater or humid saltwater-rich air?  Corrosion and potential for fire.

In the photos above, the GFCI outlet was installed from the factory and installed on the vessel's exterior.  The manufacturer is a very prestigious, high-end producer of motor yachts known for building some of the best yachts in the world.  There were three outlets on the outside of the boat; each was installed in the same manner.  The manufacturer used a water-resistant cover that was spring loaded to help keep the elements out of the circuit; however, a number of errors were made in the installation.  First: they used a household approved outlet, something that can be obtained from a hardware store, NOT a marine-grade outlet.  The second is that the outlet was installed without using an electrical box.  Third, they installed this outlet exterior of the ship's cabin.  I would like to take a moment to explain each of these errors and hope to show you why these were bad decisions:
  1. Marine grade GFCI - All of the copper connections inside this device are tinned to help stop corrosion.  The household grade GFCIs will corrode, giving the potential for electrical arching.  When this arching occurs, it creates enough heat to start a fire.
  2. Electrical boxes have three functions: 1.) to prevent accidental electrical shock 2.) to keep the elements out and 3.) to minimize the amount of oxygen should a fire occur.  Without an electrical box, salt air was able to attack the GFCI and when the fire occurred, it gave the fire unlimited amounts of oxygen to allow it to expand unchecked.  If a fire occurs inside an electrical box, it will be starved for oxygen, extinguishing itself rather quickly.
  3. Using a GFCI on an external circuit is simply asking for trouble.  The elements will get to the device easier and more rapidly.  It would be better to install the GFCI in a location inside the cabin and protect the exterior outlet downstream.  By doing so, not only do you take the GFCI out of the elements but you also protect all of the wiring that goes to the outlet.
In the case above, we had contacted the manufacturer to discuss the problem and they  agreed that this is not the first case brought to their attention.  They advised us that all of the exterior GFCIs must be removed and protected from inside the ship's cabin, preferably near the electrical panel where the power begins.

I am a firm believer in GFCI circuits, they save lives!  Caution needs to be taken where they are used and how they are wired.  No boater wants to hear of this happening to any boat.  Post any of your questions here, I would be glad to answer them.