Tracking Down a Fuel Problem

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2015 • all rights reserved

Tracking Down a Fuel Problem in a Boat: A DIY project that doesn't take any special skills except a lot of persistence.How we went about it.

For two months, we worked to solve a fuel problem on our diesel engine. Several times, we thought perhaps we’d solved the problem and then when we’d try to motor, we’d find we still had a problem. I wrote a bit on the ups and downs of this.

Finally, our last fix seems to have done it. We’ve run the engine over 20 hours since then without even a hiccup.

A bit of symptoms and how we tracked it down. I know, taking two months to figure it out isn’t setting any speed records. Part of that was being pinned in the harbor for days at a time by high winds, where we couldn’t go out to test. Other delays occurred as we researched — in books and online — and waited for parts. And we had some guests and a few other projects.

The engine would run fine, then lose RPMs . . . and then come right back . . . and then would lose more . . . and so on, eventually dying. The Westerbeke has an electric fuel pump on it, and if we did the bleed procedure — 30 to 60 seconds of pumping the fuel — it would start again and run well . . . for a while. Then the ups and downs would start again.

Everyone we talked to and all the books we read agreed that the basic problem was fuel starvation. But why? It could be dirty fuel and a plugged filter, a problem in the fuel pickup tube in the tank, water in the fuel that was getting past the Racor, an air leak or even a kinked or collapsed fuel hose.

I’ll write in more detail about some of the things we did to test each of these, but do a quick recap here.

  • Our Racor hadn’t seemed dirty, but we started by changing all the fuel filters. No improvement.
  • We had no water whatsoever in the Racor, so ruled that out.
  • We then pumped all the diesel out of one tank, pulled the tank out and cleaned the inside of it, reinstalled it, then ran the fuel back into it through a Baja filter (no significant water or crud). We knew we had clean fuel and a clean tank. The pickup tube was permanently installed (we called the tank manufacturer to confirm this) so we did not remove it to check it for blockages or cracks. Our fuel polishing made no difference.

Tracking Down a Fuel Problem in a Boat: A DIY project that doesn't take any special skills except a lot of persistence.How we went about it.

  • Some Westerbeke literature said we should use a 2 micron Racor, others a 30 micron. We called Westerbeke tech support and they said to use a 30 micron if we were having fuel starvation issues. We got one. Initial testing showed that the engine was now running well, so we went ahead and made a trip to Key West to visit friends vacationing there. Just as we got into the big ship channel there, we had some RPM dips. The problems got much worse on the return to Marathon with the engine dying several times.
  • Since we’d had more problems as the trip had progressed and thus there was less fuel in the tank, we suspected maybe there was a crack in the tank pickup. We did some more reading on the Tempo fuel tanks that we have, and found that (a) a crack in the pickup tube is a semi-common problem and (b) someone had cut off the “permanent” fitting, fixed the cracked pickup and then reinstalled it. Dave again pumped all the fuel out of the tank and pulled it. He discovered he could get the fitting off by heating the plastic with a hair dryer. Our pickup tube was not cracked or blocked. He replaced the tank.
  • Looking at our fuel hoses, it seemed impossible that there was a collapsed or kinked hose. Thus we decided to concentrate on an air leak.
  • We knew that the leak had to be somewhere between the tank and the fuel pump. This is where the fuel is being sucked and air can be sucked in anywhere that isn’t tightly sealed off. After the fuel pump, the fuel is under pressure and will seep out any unsealed areas as a fuel leak. That’s also a problem, but won’t produce the symptoms we had of an engine losing RPMs and dying.
  • We’d already ruled out a crack in the pickup tube in the tank.
  • Nigel Calder recommended using the clear bottom of the Racor bowl as a sight glass to see if a leak was before/in the Racor system or after it. Simply put, any bubbles in the bowl as fuel is pumped (either through a bleed procedure or as the engine is running) means the leak is before or in the Racor, and no bubbles means the leak is after. I practically stood on my head to look at the Racor bowl while Dave ran the electric fuel pump: every once in a while (30 seconds, maybe?) I’d see a tiny, tiny bubble. About half the size of the head of a pin, but all three diesel books said that even the slightest bit of air would cause problems. Ah-ha! We had a leak somewhere between the tank and the Racor exit.
  • Dave traced the fuel hose and looked at all the components. He tried to tighten every hose clamp. We have two fuel tanks and valves that determine which tank is being used and returned to. The valve stems seemed a little wobbly and we called the company’s tech support to see if this would let air in. They said yes, so we bought two new valves. When Dave replaced them, the new ones seemed to have as much play as the old ones. Sigh.
  • In changing the valves, Dave had to remove our dual Racor assembly. He checked it over thoroughly for any loose connections and — lo and behold! — found that one of the unused port plugs had never been screwed in all the way, let alone had any thread sealant used on it. He fixed that, and we were confident that we had the problem licked.

Tracking Down a Fuel Problem in a Boat: A DIY project that doesn't take any special skills except a lot of persistence.How we went about it.

  • We bled the fuel system and started the engine up while still on the mooring, and it died almost immediately. Big sigh.
  • I looked at the Racor bowl some more and did not see any bubbles when Dave ran the fuel pump. So now we figured that we had another air leak between the Racor and the fuel pump. There are two fittings, two hose clamps and one hose between the two.
  • I started looking at the hose very, very closely, lying on the deck with my head inside the engine compartment. I ran my fingers down the hose and could feel just a tiny “imperfection” next to the hose clamp by the fuel pump.
  • It really didn’t seem to be anything, but as it was the only thing we could find, Dave decided to remove the hose and replace it.
  • When he took the old hose out, we could spot a tiny crack in it. And I do mean tiny. It was easier to see when I bent the hose a bit.

Tracking Down a Fuel Problem in a Boat: A DIY project that doesn't take any special skills except a lot of persistence.How we went about it.

Tracking Down a Fuel Problem in a Boat: A DIY project that doesn't take any special skills except a lot of persistence.How we went about it.

Finally, when we started the engine it ran well. We took the boat out and motored for over 3 hours in 2 to 3 foot waves. We toasted finally tracking the problem down.

Tracking Down a Fuel Problem in a Boat: A DIY project that doesn't take any special skills except a lot of persistence.How we went about it.

The next day, we went out sailing “just for fun.” Not testing anything. Just having a wonderful time.

And as we started up the engine to come back in the harbor, it died. But it started right up again . . . and hasn’t quit again (or had even the tiniest RPM drop) in over 20 hours of motoring.  All we can figure is that there was one last bit of air, maybe trapped in a high spot, that dislodged. We’re now declaring the problem solved.

The lessons that we took away from the experience:

  • Tracking down air leaks is tough and can take a long time. If you hire someone, it’s going to be expensive. It really doesn’t take any special skills, just patience.
  • Using the Racor bowl as a sight glass is a great way to figure out if the air leak is before (or in) the Racor or after.
  • There may be more than one leak.
  • If someone else on board has better close-up vision or more sensitive fingers for finding imperfections, get them involved. No mechanical knowledge needed. Sometimes, it’s someone who isn’t familiar with the system who says “is this supposed to be like this?”
  • Check all fittings and connections . . . including the “dead ends” as in our Racor.
  • The problem area(s) are likely to appear almost insignificant. And they may be on the “hidden” side of hoses.
  • Perseverence.

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Comments

  1. Having recently played this game myself…and met with only semi-success…I can really appreciate what you went through. And patience IS a skill. 😉 Good job on tracking it down.

    -Mike
    ThisRatSailed

  2. Jan Pieter Eskens

  3. The cute dog looks like she is very interested in those tools!

  4. Kim zimmer says:

    thanks so much for posting the details of your troubleshooting. I’m pinning this for future ref
    Drench!

  5. I chased a fuel delivery problem from Mobile all the way to Nassau. It would only show up on the starboard tank after motoring for five or more hours at 2400 rpms or more. Turned out to be a restriction in the stainless screen at the top of the pick up tube. It was hidden from view and I only found it by accident.
    It certainly is a relief to figure these kind of things out after so long a time.

  6. Mike McCollough says:

    Very methodical work! If everything around you looks true, you checked more than once, then the problem is in any earlier assumption.
    There was a guy whose Porsche would not start intermittently. The problem took over a year to determine the source. His girlfriend would top off the oil, certain Porsches would leak, with a detergent oil. When enough detergent oil was in the system it would foam up and foul the injectors. By the time the car was taken to the shop the foam would subside and the engine would start.
    In older cars cracked hoses were a common source for vacuum leaks, cracks as fine as the one you have.
    Congratulations on a job well worked.

  7. For seeing what is going on in really hard to get to places, we use a USB web cam and watch via the lap top screen. This also has the advantage of allowing zoom. I have actually done work on hard to reach items using this approach.

    Glad you got past this.

    Also one completely different item — what is your mast head clearance?

  8. Glad you solved it!

  9. Dave Holzknecht

  10. Thanks! Useful information!

  11. I would have replaced the fuel lines first. All of them. After owning 11 boats, one thing I learned is if there is a hint of fuel problems I replace all the lines.

  12. Perseverance pays off. Good for you! 🙂 Did I miss why you are back on the hard?

  13. Thankyou for posting this – we were just about to start trying to diagnose a similar issue. We thought we had a fuel blockage, but after reading this rushed to check our racor for bubbles. We had bubbles galore! Found a loose hoseclamp and no more bubbles ☺ and engine is running like a dream. Now just hope that was the only problem, fingers crossed.

  14. thanks for the informative and detailed article. This publication is right there in the trenches (bilges?) with the rest of us boaters, and has many good tips and explanations.

  15. 🙂

  16. Hello guys,
    I just bought a 97 baja hammer and it seem to be having the same issue.
    Runs for 15mins and loses RPM then later dies.
    I will wait for a few mins and retart engine, then have to go thru the issue again.
    Changed duel filter no luck, I’m not a very handy a person. So I will need someone to walk me through the diagnosis steps. Very frustrated.
    Thanks

    • I totally understand the frustration — we had it in spades. It takes a lot of patience to track down the source of this type of problem, and the prroblem will probably turn out to be something really tiny and hard to see.

  17. Just wondering if someone can walk me thru how to remove pickup tube from my gas tank.
    This is the second step of my fuel problem diagnostics.
    Thanks

    • Ours supposedly couldn’t be taken apart. We found some stories of people cutting them and all sorts of stuff. The answer was much simpler: use a hair dryer to warm the fitting up, then pull with Visegrips (NOTE: ours was diesel, not gas, so far less risk of an explosion with a hair dryer and heat. Not sure if I’d use a hair dryer around gas — find a non-sparky way to heat it.)

      It’s hard to see the pickup tube in the photo as it’s black, but it’s attached to that metal piece that the Visegrips are pulling out.

      Pulling out the fuel pickup

  18. Great article….thanks for sharing…air leaks like that can be unbelievably frustrating! I KNOW you guys must be relieved!!

  19. Brian Liddy

  20. Just read your shutting off the water pump while traveling article and then last time out – – case of the missing water. 250 gallons and we never saw it leave the boat. Luckily we were planning to go home that day anyway. Still it’s a mystery. We’ve been checking for leaks.

  21. Good post!

  22. On gas engines you can use WD 40 to find leaks. If there is a leak the engine will speed up. Question where do you purchase parts. I just purchase a zine pencil and two switches one for the glow plug and starter switch. Anyway I purchase the parts from a local Westerbeke dealer. The shipping was $ 48. I’m in the same state has the dealer. The dealer tack on the shipping cost Westerbeke charge the dealer. So I would like to find another source

  23. Just wanted to thank you for writing this post last year.

    When we were struggling with a hard to diagnose fuel problem on our new-to-us boat, I read this carefully. It convinced us to hunker down and replace all the fuel line before setting off rather than to spend months trying to spot something that could be as tiny as your cracked hose was.

    It worked and we’ve had no problems since. So thanks!

  24. Wish I had this to read two years ago when I had a similar problem.

  25. Bob Ellett says:

    The easiest way to isolate an air leak is to place segments of clear plastic flue line segments in the line between tank and the engine fuel pump. Run the engine fast, look for air bubbles in the areas of line. Clear fuel lines are available for gasoline engines and diesel does not seem to affect the lines for short term, investigative use.

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