Turn It Off . . .

This post arises out of a “Voice of Experience” article in SAIL magazine (read it here).  In brief, it’s the story of a fresh water hose clamp that came loose while underway from Florida to the Bahamas.  With the clamp loose, the pressure switch on the freshwater pump kept the pump on — pumping all the water from the tank into the bilge and threatening the batteries and engine.

The engine noise — and then the bilge pump noise — obscured what was happening, so that the owners didn’t initially realize what the problem was.

So, three basic tips from this:

  • Turn off the fresh water pump when you’re not using it.  You might leave it on as you’re preparing a meal and doing dishes, but turn it off afterwards.  Particularly if you’re leaving the boat (even just for a few minutes to visit another boat, running errands, a walk on the beach, whatever).  And underway when you may be in the cockpit and regular boat noises can make it hard to hear the pump running.
  • A bilge alarm or noise that goes off when the bilge pump runs (we had a very obnoxious “whooper” wired into the big pump) costs little and can alert you to a problem before you’d notice it otherwise. See our bilge alarm here.
  • If you have unexpected amounts of water in the bilge, the first thing to do is check if it’s salt or fresh if you’re in salt water.  Even in fresh water, you can often tell if it’s tank water or lake/river water from the taste.

When motoring, you may get a little water in the bilge from the packing gland.  For us, it meant that if we didn’t run the “little” bilge pump (we had two — one large capacity that was mounted higher in the bilge and wired with a float switch and alarm, and one smaller one with only a manual switch and no alarm, with the intake in the very bottom of the bilge) every few hours, the big pump would go off after about 4 hours of motoring.

We learned that if we were motoring, we should run the little bilge pump every hour when we made our log entries and at the end of a trip.  That took care of the packing gland drip. And that made it so that when the whooper went off, we knew we had a problem.

Twice it did go off in the middle of the night.  And yes, we woke in an absolute panic.  The fact that the pump turned off after about 30 seconds calmed us slightly — obviously the pump could keep up.  With one, the taste test revealed it was fresh water and we discovered a pinhole leak in our freshwater tank.  The other was salt water and turned out to be a problem when the stuffing box (which contains the packing gland) had been removed and reinstalled on a haul out — we had just relaunched.

Turning off the freshwater pump when you’re not using it reduces the possibilities of a problem occurring.  And if you only turn it on when you need it, you’ll immediately realize that you have a problem if you turn it on — without a faucet open — and it starts running and doesn’t quickly stop (often, it’ll run a few seconds when you first turn it on).

Yes, we had that happen too.  And we were able to find the problem fairly quickly — a faulty pressure switch in the pump — as we were able to verify that no water was flowing into the bilge.  That meant that there wasn’t a loose connection or hole/crack in a hose.  We could easily see that there wasn’t a leaking faucet.  Changing out the pump — we had a duplicate in our spares — took only about 30 minutes and solved the problem.

Okay, that last part was a bit of a digression from the main point of this post — a good “standard operating procedure” in the galley — but it’s a good example of how you can troubleshoot a problem such as this.

  • JayTami Klassen on Facebook
    Posted at 22 December 2012 Reply

    Always. Actually, no matter what it is, it’s turned off when not in use…

  • Candy Ann Williams on Facebook
    Posted at 22 December 2012 Reply

    Good reminder!!

  • Carolyn
    Posted at 18 August 2013 Reply

    Thanks for sharing this Carolyn. I almost always turn off my fresh water pressure pump after I’m done using it. I hate being work up in the middle of the night wondering “what that noise is?” only to realize I left the pump on. Saves on the life of the pump as well. Fair winds and following Seas!

  • Michael Guelker-Cone
    Posted at 06 July 2014 Reply

    Speaking of turning things off, I recently realized that I had left some recharging plugs in live outlets. I hadn’t turned off the outlets on the main panel. Though your iphone or ipad, hand held VHF radio or your c-pap machine may not be plugged into that recharger/adaptor, those recharger cords are still drawing power and can be a silent drain on your battery system. So unplug them completely when not in use or kill those switches on the panel.

  • Jim O'Dell
    Posted at 06 July 2014 Reply

    We had a hose come loose once filling the bilge

  • Cruisingrunner
    Posted at 06 July 2014 Reply

    Thanks for the reminder

  • Cindy Balfour
    Posted at 06 July 2014 Reply

    We chase pump noises all the time. Checking clamps often really helps…I also read it helps to add on your extra clamps and let them ride on the hose making the switch easier should it be needed. Thanks for the info.

  • George Mack
    Posted at 07 July 2014 Reply

    Good Idea

  • Mystic Knotwork
    Posted at 07 July 2014 Reply

    especially after recommissioning your boat in the Spring….feel free to learn from my mistake. 70 gallons is a bit excessive to rinse a cabin sole

  • Matt
    Posted at 06 July 2014 Reply

    We made the mistake recommissioning our boat (our first year with a pressure water system) and we ended up emptying our tank onto the sole because we had BOTH a crack in a pipe and a rubber sealed pressure fitting break. (btw, 1970’s era rubber bits for your marine sink MIGHT be found in those faucet repair multipacks in the home stores. Ours repaired with a Moen sink repair kit)…

  • Elizabeth Aristeguieta
    Posted at 07 July 2014 Reply

    Good advice. Actually had this happen on a charter where the leak was stemming from the outside shower hose. We were in between islands in the Caribbean and in water to our ankles once it was discovered. No alarm and everyone was on deck. It was discovered when someone had to go to the head thankfully. We had just filled the water tanks to capacity in St. Lucia and 100% of it was not in the tank any more.

  • Candy Ann Williams
    Posted at 08 July 2014 Reply

    A very good habit that we have had (after a few mishaps!) ….

  • Ann Snider
    Posted at 16 March 2016 Reply


  • Dave Tew
    Posted at 16 March 2016 Reply

    The same goes for your washing machine at home when not in use.

  • Cory Nickerson
    Posted at 16 March 2016 Reply

    Almost found this out the hard way when I can home to a running pump after and 8 hour shift. A slow leak in the head sink was to blame and when pump kicked on the tank was to low. Eek. Fortunately it must have only happened less than an hour ago based on amp usage! Could have been bad.

  • Dave Skolnick
    Posted at 16 March 2016 Reply

    First I fully agree with the practice of leaving the fresh water pump off when not being used. We have both fresh and sea water foot pumps at the galley sink.

    The Sail article is well written. I do find it odd that just 100 gallons of fresh water would rise above the cabin sole. I would also be concerned if automatic bilge pumps (much less a big manual pump like a Whale) can’t keep up with the freshwater pressure pump. There is more than one problem on the boat.

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