An Electric Bilge Pump For The Ages

Chapter 5 of 6 in the Online Book Watertight Integrity

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In the last chapter in this Online Book, in reaction to a members’s tale of frustration, I recommended a bilge pump switch. But what about the bilge pump itself?

When we bought Morgan’s Cloud she had a Jabsco 36600 bilge pump that was installed when she was built 27 years ago. And we still have that pump!

Despite that impressive life, I can’t claim that the pump has been as reliable as the switch. To keep it running, we rebuild it with all new rubber parts every five years using Jabsco’s obscenely priced rebuild kits. We also keep a complete spare pump aboard. After all, this is a mission critical system and, anyway we use the same pump model for grey water, so the spare does double duty.

Pros and Cons

One of the reasons we like the Jabsco pump is that it’s mounted out of the bilge. The advantages being:

  • Easier access for service.
  • Not subjected to the constant wet of the bilges.
  • No need to mount an electrical device, with the attendant risk of stray current, in the bilges, particularly important in an aluminium boat.
  • Can run dry without damage.

However, there are also disadvantages to this type of pump:

  • It has a much lower flow rate than pumps that can be bought for far less money. Having said that, I don’t think any yacht bilge pump will have much of a chance against a hull breach of any significance, so I’m not sure that the fixation on flow rate so beloved of testers is really that important.
  • The Jabsco has proved to be remarkably tolerant of debris; for example, the grey water pump has handled all the hair that goes down the shower drain for 20 years without a hiccup. However, the bilge pump, even though we have a strum box (strainer) on the intake and keep our bilges scrupulously clean, has failed twice when we were cleaning the bilges because a small piece of debris jammed one of the valves open. And when this happens there is nothing for it but to disassemble the whole thing to clear it. The bright side is this is not a frequent occurrence and only seems to happen when the pump sucks air, not something that’s going to happen in a real emergency.

Ain’t Cheap

At this point, I’m sure your eyebrows are climbing at the amount of money we are throwing around here. Let’s just add this up:

Yikes! Yes, you got it, we have spent just shy of US$1500 to perform a function that can be handled for less than $100. Thinking and spending like this is how we have (touch wood) managed to compile a pretty unusual reliability record for a yacht. But only you can decide if this kind of approach is right for you.

Another option would be to pair a less expensive high capacity impeller pump with the same switch and alarm we use. Add in a spare pump, as I think any yacht venturing far from yacht gear stores should, and the whole works will come in at a still substantial, but more manageable, $560. Of course if you are not venturing far, even that is probably overkill.

Other Recommendations, or Not

By the way, we do not recommend Jabsco’s smaller pumps.

And if you are thinking about crash pumps, this is a good and simple solution that beats the heck out of cluttering your engine up by mounting a pump on it.

Comments

I’m pretty comfortable that with our bilge pump switch we have found the best possible solution. On the pump discussed in this post…not so much. So if you have found a pump that works, and works reliably for years, please leave a comment. And if there is a pump that has given you grief, go ahead, name and shame. First hand experience over a period of years with pumps in service only, please. 

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{ 28 comments… add one }

  • Travis C July 10, 2014, 1:13 am

    John,
    With respect to pumps, we’ve had good results with changing the mounting configuration; small centrifugal pump deep in the bilge, and a larger dewatering pump mounted above to mitigate constant/frequent immersion. That said, your comment about flow rate is spot on. I’ve had two sailboats that flooded; one due to a hull breech at the rudder tube and another due to slow in-leakage from a failed shaft bearing. In both cases the most effective pump had two hands and a 5 gallon bucket: this guy. Our bilge pump helped slow the water rise in the first case, but stopping the leak is the only effective solution. I’d rather have extra repair material than a larger pump.

    Reply
  • Dick Stevenson July 10, 2014, 9:19 am

    Travis,
    Many use the over/under method as you describe and feel like it is a good solution to the compromises most boats find necessary in this area. I agree completely that stopping the leak is the first and only priority till it comes to abandoning ship. I write about this in an article on managing a flooding situation, which can be found at (https://cruisingclub.org/sites/default/files/items/Alchemy%20Flooding%20Formatted_0.pdf) and also on Steve D’Antonio’s ezine collection.
    Safe sailing (and may you never have need of the article), Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
  • Robert Bartlett July 10, 2014, 9:31 am

    John .. I agree with your thoughts on this completely and for all the same reasons. Of course I also have two of these pumps ( both thirty years of age ) rebuilt from spares kits that are still available. The spare pump and kit are tucked away in the locker and I sleep very soundly! It is probably a case of getting what you pay for ! Best regards … Bob B.

    Reply
  • Wilson Fitt July 10, 2014, 9:36 am

    Hi John

    Way back when, I held with the theory that my boat should not leak any significant amount in normal use, moved on to thinking that I wanted to know for sure if it did start to leak, and finally to the realization that a smallish electric pump was not going to do much in the event of a major breach.

    So far I have been right on counts one and two, and thankfully have never encountered number three.

    In spite of being made of wood, our boat does not leak much, if at all, so we have two manual pumps but no electric bilge pump. My concern with an electric pump would be that if the boat did start to leak, it would keep the bilge more or less dry when I was not around and perhaps obscure the fact that I had a problem until the battery went dead. Once a week or so I give the manual pump a few strokes and hear the satisfying sound of sucking air that indicates all is as per normal down there in the dark. The few times that there has been pumpable water were due to a stern gland that needed attention, a hawse pipe that was not properly secured or something similar.

    I realize that I’m out on the fringe (lunatic some might say) with my old fashioned ideas about boats and their equipment, but I am regularly surprised by the fact that many newish fiberglass boats seem to leak quite a bit and their owners feel obliged to check the bilges daily or more often when underway. My time will come I suppose, but after 15 years of fairly hard use, leaks are not a concern and I feel no urge to fit an electric bilge pump, expensive or otherwise.

    Reply
  • Matthew Pitchon July 10, 2014, 10:11 am

    I had one of these pumps. The motor on mine (a 2011 unit) was not thermally protected. After about 45 minutes of continuous use the motor overhead, then burned out, then stopped. The pump was under warranty so I got another one, which proceeded to burn up again, after about 45 minutes. Jabsco confirmed that the motor is not thermally protected. For intermittent use it works well. For a serious flooding situation, this pump did not meet my needs. What happened? The boat was at the dock, and developed a fresh water leak. Fortunately the boat had second 4000 gph conventional pump with an independent float switch that kicks in at a higher bilge water level.

    Reply
    • John July 10, 2014, 2:09 pm

      Hi Matthew,

      That’s certainly worth knowing and a very sobering piece of information, thank you.

      Reply
  • Steven Schapera July 10, 2014, 10:29 am

    I have had 12 years of reliable service here from a Whale Gulper 220, mounted about 800mm above the bilge so well out of harms way.

    Reply
    • Mark July 10, 2014, 7:44 pm

      I have 2 of the Whale Gulper 220 for shower and sump pumps. They work great.

      Reply
  • scott flanders July 10, 2014, 11:00 am

    Have the same 36600 Par. It has worked for 12+ years without fail except for a leaking diaphragm which was a quick fix. Carry the same spare and kits. It is also very tolerant of solvents (diesel or hydraulic fluid) in the bilge. We ditched the Par air switch from the beginning and use a Shur Bail float switch. Had only one fail in all the years. Its ten times better than the Rule girl switch with cheapie joe wires that give up with a sniff of salt.

    S.

    Reply
  • Steven Schapera July 10, 2014, 11:02 am

    BTW, the “emergency” article referred to by Dick Stevenson (above) is great.

    Reply
    • John July 10, 2014, 2:09 pm

      Hi Steven,

      I heartily second your endorsement.

      Reply
  • Eric Klem July 10, 2014, 2:00 pm

    Hi John,

    Thank you for the review, it might be another option to consider whenever the time comes to replace our existing pump.

    On our last boat, it came with a similar setup of a pump mounted remotely from the bilge which seemed great to me at the time. The pump was a smaller Jabsco impeller type. After launching for the first time, I filled the water tanks unaware that there was a leaking fitting. While up the rig attaching the triatic, I smelled something burning and rushed down to find the pump smoking and apparently stalled (the fuse did not blow despite being the recommended size). After tearing it down, I determined that their recommended mounting configuration was bad because there was a single seal keeping saltwater from trying to drip down into the motor by gravity. Thinking that I had the problem solved, I replaced it with a new one mounted upside down. Rowing out to our mooring a few months later, I smelled the same burning smell and suspect that the motor had been in this weird stalled condition again for a while again. Luckily, I learned this time and went to a totally different setup. After tearing the second pump down, I am pretty sure that the problem was that the pump was unable to start at a point in its rotation where the brushes made poor contact. I actually measured the current into the second pump in the stalled condition and it was significantly below the stall current and quite variable. Once I manually rotated the impeller a few degrees, it ran beautifully again. Needless to say, I won’t be using another one of their small impeller pumps until I know that this issue has been solved as I lost enough years off my life just smelling that smell. The idea of a non submersible pump is quite appealing to me though and a diaphragm pump seems like it might be great.

    Eric

    Reply
  • Victor Raymond July 10, 2014, 3:15 pm

    Hello John et al,
    Greetings from Alaska. It is funny that you mention the Jabsco PAR 36xxxx series as I just had to rebuild mine that serves as the shower pan drain and bilge below that.
    After rebuild it worked for a few days, then stopped pumping again and is now working again. Arghhhhh. There has to be something more reliable ou there. I am thinking of a sturdy macerator pump that could chew up hair and other bits of debris that fall down beneath the teak grate.
    Any thoughts anyone? Price is less of a concern than reliability.
    Thank you

    Reply
  • Dick Stevenson July 10, 2014, 5:24 pm

    Dear Victor,
    I am sure a macerator would work, but may be a bit of overkill. I pump my galley sink drain out (having grease etc fall & float/sit on cold salt water caused awful smells over time) and have used a Whale Gusher pump. My understanding is it was designed for fish circulation tanks and needed to deal with fish scales etc. In my sink it encounters all kinds of small stuff and has worked without problem for years.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
    • Victor July 12, 2014, 6:49 pm

      Thanks Dick. I will look into the Whale Gusher. You are right about overkill on the macerator pump but I just want the job done and fast. The PAR pumps are absurdly slow.

      Reply
  • Dick Stevenson July 10, 2014, 5:34 pm

    John and all,
    It was mentioned that a fuse did not blow when a bilge pump motor stalled. It is my understanding that fuses are not meant for that kind of problem. Fuses are usually sized (and intended) to protect wiring and the kind of currents generated when wires short. A stalled motor is a different kind of problem and much harder to protect against as the heat can build up with smaller currents (not enough to blow the fuse) over time. I believe this to be a common mis-perception of the role of fuses. This clearly happened with the motors discussed, but also happens with things like fans. My habit is to mount a fuse close to the unit and size it as close as possible for the actual current draw (and not for the wiring which usually calls for much higher fuse sizes). Please, those with real electrical experience/knowledge, wade in here.
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
    • Laurent July 10, 2014, 8:48 pm

      Electric motor overheating can only be prevented by thermal switches bolted on the motor (or, if you don’t mind about weight and costs, by a large or very large oversising of the the motor…). Thermal switches are simple and cheap devices made of a blade of two different metals plus an electrical contact. Their main drawbacks are that, when they switch off, you will need to wait “some” time for the whole stuff to cool down , and, in marine atmosphere, the electric contact can get oxided and become a cause of failure whatever the temperature.
      Those switches need to be mechanically protected and in close thermal contact with motor windings. It looks not very realistic to try to retrofit them if not already integrated by the manufacturer.

      Reply
  • Svein Lamark July 10, 2014, 6:51 pm

    Hi John, I have had two of this pumps. They both failed often and were very expensive to repair. Also, they can not be used in arctic conditions as they are destroyed by temperatures below zero Celsius. I would prefer any pump before this. They simply were a nightmare to me.

    Reply
  • John July 11, 2014, 8:32 am

    Hi All,

    Thanks for all the input on bilge pumps. It does seem that AAC users have had very mixed results with these pumps and Matthew’s point about the lack of thermal cut out, together with Erik’s experience with a smaller par pump is worrying. It does seem that the marine industry is just not producing a really good high capacity remote (from bilge) mounted bilge pump, although we do have some good recommendations of the Whale Gulper.

    Reply
  • Dan July 11, 2014, 1:43 pm

    Hi John

    I’ve got to share this save. I have also suffered the obscene pricing on the Jabsco rebuild. We have a smaller model for the domestic as well. I was provisioning for a 2 week family trip on the 3rd of July. The diaphragm went on the on the fresh water pump. I’m picking the wife and kids up in two days with no water and here’s no getting parts on the 3rd or 4th of July. This is ugly, I’ll take a northeaster over no water on a family trip any day. I went to the grocery store looking for parts? I found a pair of dish washing gloves, nice ones, with cloth backing and tacky in the wrist part. I laminated that part of the glove to the diaphragm with a gasket making adhesive (the red stuff). I rebuilt the pump and let it cure till I picked everyone up. It was do or die time. It not only worked but ran for the entire 2 weeks at a land lovers pace. I now carry the rebuild kit and a spare pair of gloves too.

    Reply
  • David Nutt July 12, 2014, 10:27 pm

    On Danza, our 60′ steel ketch, I use a Rule 3700 and 3 Rule 2000. The 3700 is mounted as deep as possible but as the boat is dry most of the time it is seldom in the water. The 2000′s are mounted higher and are situated to handle water when healed. In 14 years of sailing the 2000′s have never turned on due to water but have always come on during testing. Many boats do not have significant water in the bilge so I do not feel the remote pump is that much of an issue which sends the issue back to the switch. I have a manual bilge pump that draws from a sump so I can deep the bilge really dry if there is a small leak at some point. There is also a huge engine driven pump that has only seen service in test mode. So far this works for us.

    Reply
  • Dick Stevenson July 13, 2014, 2:29 am

    Victor, As you have likely figured out, I suffered a senior moment and called my Whale pump Gusher rather than Gulper. It is the Gulper 220, an electric pump, that I use on my sink that tolerates food bits. I believe the Gusher is my foot operated pump. Sorry if this caused confusion.
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
  • Matthew Pitchon July 16, 2014, 10:35 am

    I checked with Whale and they replied that none of their pumps are thermally protected. They suggested running their pumps carefully so they don’t over heat. Thus the Gulper series has no thermal protection. Not a great solution for a bilge pump. The Shuroflo Pro Baitmaster 2 heavy duty is listed as having thermal protection.

    Reply
    • John July 16, 2014, 11:49 am

      Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for doing that very useful research. I looked at the Pro Baitmaster and there is no indication that it can be used as a bilge pump. But then again I can’t see anything to prevent that either. I guess one would just have to try it and see. I can say that we have generally had very good service from Shuroflo pumps.

      Reply
  • Matthew Pitchon July 16, 2014, 4:57 pm

    John:
    I am using the Sureflo Baitmaster 2 as my first line bilge pump. It is remotely mounted, self priming, can run dry, and has thermal protection ( I tested it). I have a screen filter on the inlet side to prevent large debris from entering the pump. I don’t know if this is absolutely necessary, but makes me feel better.
    I still have a Rule 4000 mounted higher in the bilge for higher volume pumping.

    Reply
    • John July 16, 2014, 6:30 pm

      Hi Matthew,

      Sounds like a great system, thank you.

      Reply
  • Steve A July 28, 2014, 5:41 pm

    I recently refit a 30 year old heavily built aluminum workboat. Underneath the submersible Rule 2000 pump the 5086 plating was severely pitted. The rest of the bilge was fine, for what that is worth.
    Last year I had a new Johnson Viking 16 diaphram pump quit pumping. Not wanting to stop and disassemble it I tried backflushing it with a garden hose in the discharge thru hull for a couple of seconds…..it has been working fine ever since. I love “miracle cures”. It seems that most recreational marine pumps are marginally engineered, I always try to upgrade to a real commercial product when possible.

    Reply
    • John July 29, 2014, 8:34 am

      Hi Steve,

      Sounds like my concern about installing an electric bilge pump in the bilge of an aluminium boat is justified by your real world experience, thank very much for the confirmation.

      I agree on your thoughts about recreational marine pumps. I think I may have found a partial solution. More in a future post.

      Reply

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