Note to the reader. This is one of my long, “this is what I learned to today, everything you ever wanted to know about” blog posts. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you’re interested in the process of solving a problem on a cruising boat, and in state of the art biochemical technology, then this post is for you.
I woke up with one mission: to develop that day a cost and time effective plan to address our fuel tank problem. In order to develop a plan, I would need information, options. I usually do this by consulting with as many experienced yachtsmen and professionals as possible. From our cockpit I could see thunderclouds and the rain they carried, drifting off San Diego’s southern horizon. After breakfast, my father-in-law, Ron, who was staying at a nearby motel, visiting us, opted to join me in my quest. Together we headed off to one of the west coast’s revered marine chandleries: Downwind Marine.
Having the day before docked Kandu at the prestigious San Diego Yacht Club, we were only blocks away from this venerable vendor. Having previously visited West Marine, the US yachting industries largest (perhaps only) chain marine hardware store, didn’t carry fuel bladders. A fuel bladder is a sturdy bag capable of holding diesel or gasoline. Some boats have them to extend their range of travel (the more fuel, the further your engine can take you), but I wanted to use one to temporarily store the diesel within Kandu’s tanks, allowing me to clean the emptied tank without having to throw the diesel away. I had hoped that this privately owned shop would carry them, and true to their reputation, they did. I wanted a 50-gallon bladder, but the largest he had, held 25 gal. When I saw the price, $440, I realized a bladder was not cost-effective. I described to the clerk my intentions for the bladder. He then recommended a used plastic 55-gal. drum, sometimes free on Craig’s list. A second later, he explained that the fuel may be old and possibly contaminated. He suggested we consider having all 200 gal. of fuel pumped out and dumped by a qualified fuel dock, like Pearson’s down the street, then pump back in fresh diesel. At about $4/gal, $800 and maybe 4 hours to swap fuel, it didn’t seem crazy. I asked about cleaning the tanks. He recommended inquiring with Pearson’s for that as well, and provided directions to two marine diesel mechanic shops in case Pearson’s didn’t offer the service or have a recommendation.
Driving the four blocks down the street to Pearson’s, I was intrigued by this new option. It seemed viable, especially if our fuel were contaminated.
Exiting the car from Pearson’s parking lot, it started to sprinkle, so I pulled out a small black spring-loaded umbrella. Walking through the center opening of the beige and brown A-frame office structure to the fuel docks, I peek into their small offices but didn’t see any managers or clerks, so I continued on down the docks to the fuel pump area. A young attendant was casting off a cruising sailboat, presumably one which he’d topped up with diesel. As he walked back up the ramp I had just descended, I told him briefly about my fuel problem. He pointed to a guy walking from the parking lot to the structure and said; “See that guy in the red hat? His name is Jim. That’s the guy you want to talk to.”
Jim is an old salt: cynical, amused by the experience that others lack, and willing to help plebes like me. I told him my problem, that I had an engine with a fuel problem, about 200 gallons of two-year-old diesel in three tanks, and that I suspected algae had populated my tanks. He said, “A forest, and it’s more like 3 years instead of 2. I’ve been doing this too long. What type of boat?” When I told him a Tayana 42, he winced. I asked him why the look. He explained that Tayana’s have filters at the end of their fuel tank drawtubes, buried inside the tank, an unnecessary and annoying feature. He said that fuel filtering should be left to external fuel filters that can be easily replaced. He suggested I shock the tanks with a special additive engineered to address our problem, and added, “Hopefully you didn’t add BioBor?” “Just yesterday,” I replied. He winced again. “That stuff turns algae into tar, making it really tough to get it out of your tanks. You better talk to Tom. He’ll know best how to solve your problem.”
“Do I need to have my fuel pumped out and polished?”
“Talk to Tom.”
“Do I need to get my tanks opened up and cleaned?”
“Talk to Tom. He’s across the street at the yard, second floor, ‘Oceanview.’ Tom’s the guy . . . be sure to tell him about the BioBor.”
“I’ll tell him you sent me.”
“No need. He knows it’s me.”
I thanked Jim, and in the now pouring rain, searched out his highly recommended diesel fuel tank expert.
Finding Tom’s office wasn’t easy. Eventually we made our way to a boatyard’s receptionist. Wanting Tom’s best advice, I asked if she knew of the ‘legendary’ diesel fuel tank expert named Tom. She smiled and said, “So he’s a legend, is he?” and picked up her phone and dialed. “I’ve got two gentlemen in my office looking for the ‘legendary’ Tom?” The receptionist pulled the phone receiver away from her face and chuckled, “Did you see his name and picture at the Post Office?” She told Tom to come and get us.
Walking into Tom’s cramped office, Tom preceded to give us a thorough education on diesel fuel. It turns out Tom, former Navy, “loves” diesel, owns four diesel vehicles and four diesel vessels. He cleans tanks, polishes fuel, etc. His main business is salvaging boats. But more than anything, he likes solving diesel problems with simple solutions. He explained that we have a bacteria problem, not algae. That the bacteria grow in colonies between the accumulated water and the fuel at the bottom of the tank (water being more dense, sinks in diesel). The water comes from condensation that accumulates at the top of the tank from moist air by way of the tank’s air vent. Topping the tank minimizes this effect, but best practice is to burn through your fuel regularly. That’s why sailboats have problems with their diesel. They store it instead of burning through it like a powerboat does.
Tom explained that although the bacteria are small, about 1 micron, and could easily pass through filters to be burned up in the engine’s combustion process, they are unfortunately wrapped in a slimy coat of sugars that they feed off. This coating allows the colonies to stick together and accumulate on the surface of the tank, which makes them large enough to clog fuel filters. Their waste product (a.k.a. poop) creates a carbon like substance that aggressively adheres to the surface of the tank and offs acetic acid, the by-product that contaminates diesel. “If you don’t smell vinegar, then the fuel is fine. It takes 7-8, more like 10 years before diesel goes bad, so you’re probably fine to keep your diesel.”
Tom pulls open a file-cabinet drawer, reaches in, and lifts out a clear quart-size bottle of golden elixir. “This is what you need. This stuff came on the market only about three years ago. It dissolves the slimy coat that surrounds the bacteria, making them vulnerable. Dead or alive, they now pass through the filters and easily burn up through your engine. The elixir even eats up the by-product, ridding the tank of the hard dark-grey coating.”
“What about the BioBor that I added,” I ask.
“BioBor kills the bacteria, but leaves the dead bacteria and coating debris in the tank to clog fuel filters. This stuff,” holding the bottle up, “eats that dead coating debris too. It just takes longer. In about 4-5 days after a shock dose (2.5 regular doses) of this stuff and mixing it with your fuel polishing system, your tanks should be good to go. Remember to pour directly into your tanks, not the pour spout opening where it could sit in a down-hose bend. This stuff is putting my tank cleaning business out of business, but I have other things I can do that are more fun than cleaning tanks.” He showed us before and after pictures of a 500-gallon tank he cleaned using this product. “When I saw this,” he said, “I knew had to become a distributor.”
I inquired about the buried filter at the end of the drawtube on Tayana’s that Jim previously mentioned. Tom said it’s a two-edge sword. “Yes, it is a weak point, but it prevents larger stuff from getting stuck up and inside the tube, a bigger problem.” He explained that all sorts of stuff find its way into a fuel tank, from silicone remnants to candy wrappers. “You won’t believe what you can find in there,” shaking his head. He suggested getting a small fish net to try and capture whatever may be down there or paddle it up to see what floats up to view, and recommended trying to clean the drawtube filter if we can reach it, not often the case in an older boat.
Tom said one bottle should last me at least three years. Ron said, “We’ll take two,” and plopped down the cash. “My daughter and grandsons are on the boat. This chemical seems hard to get and I don’t want him to have this fuel problem any more.”
Tom reiterated the value of this new product and said before it, there was another product he raved more about: it burns off the carbon that accumulates around the top of the cylinders and injectors. But now he mostly sells this tank cleaning solution (which happens to be three times more expensive than his carbon cleaning solution). I told him that I’d heard that to burn off the excess carbon build up it’s supposedly good practice to run a marine diesel close to its top end, throttling up to its higher range of supported rpms, for the last 5-10 minutes of operation. He agreed and I bought the carbon burning solution as well.
Our lesson from the diesel ‘legend’ came to a close, our plan of attack formulated: add miracle solution to dissolve micro biotic sugars, check the bottom of tank for “God-knows-what-debris,” clean drawtube filters, and burn off the carbon build up.
As Ron and I left Tom’s office with our two bottles of elixir, I picked up and folded my umbrella. The rain had subsided and blue sky peeked out from around the billowy cloud-tops.
“Wasn’t that great?” I asked Ron.
“Unreal,” he said. “You should write what just happened in your blog . . . .”