This tech tip is focused on the causes of fuel-related shutdowns, with a few suggestions for troubleshooting and remediation.
A good friend of ours from across the Chesapeake Bay had been experiencing regular engine shutdowns after motoring approximately 45 minutes to an hour, virtually every time he took his boat out. Finally, after much head-scratching, he discovered a pinhole in the canister of his primary fuel filter. It was not a RACOR filter, but it was of the same size and type as the RACOR filter and water separator shown in our online catalog. He replaced the fuel filter, and the shutdowns ceased.
The pin hole, though never manifesting as a fuel leak until my friend pressurized the filter, was apparently allowing enough air to be drawn into the fuel stream to form an air bubble which eventually reached the fuel pump and caused it to cavitate.
Around the same time that my friend had been sorting through his difficulties, Brenda and I acquired a small fishing boat to scoot around the tributary of the Chesapeake Bay that extends near our house. The boat has a small four-cylinder inboard gasoline engine, and incredibly enough, it was regularly shutting down every 20 minutes or so from what appeared to be fuel starvation, in much the same way that my friend’s engine had been shutting off just a few weeks earlier.
I installed one of our new RACOR fuel filters soon after acquiring our little motor boat, and I had also installed a small rubber priming bulb between the tank (which is located lower than the engine on this boat) and the RACOR. The basic reason for the priming bulb is to prime the filter after replacing an element, without having to fill the canister with fuel and have it spill all over the engine compartment while I’m reinstalling the canister.
Much to my surprise, the first time I pressurized the RACOR and the rest of the fuel system with the priming bulb, two small pre-existing leaks showed up in fittings between the filter and the engine mounted mechanical fuel pump. The leaks were so small that I was never aware of their existence during normal operation, but they apparently allowed enough air to enter the fuel line under suction to shut down the engine for lack of fuel. The engine has never shut down since fixing the leaks.
I’ve been eagerly sharing these experiences with folks who have called in with fuel-related shutdowns over the past several weeks, and we’ve already had a few folks call back to report their own success stories in correcting small suction leaks in their fuel supply systems.
I’ll try to consolidate and amplify a few key points:
1) Small leaks can apparently exist within a fuel supply system that will not manifest as fuel leaks, but which will allow enough air to be drawn into the lines to cavitate fuel pumps by the suction created during normal operation.
2) The high vapor pressure of gasoline exacerbates the problem of suction leaks by causing the air bubbles to enlarge somewhat after they form.
3) Electrical pumps seem to be somewhat more sensitive to the effects of air in lines than do mechanical pumps, although we have one recent case of fuel starvation caused by a leak above the sediment bowl in a mechanical pump.
4) Boats with tanks located lower than the top of the engine and at distances greater than 5 or 6 feet are more at risk of shutdowns from fuel starvation from small leaks in the system, due to the fact that more suction is created within their systems. Leaks in the fuel supply systems of boats with tanks higher and very close to the engine would probably manifest as fuel leaks and quickly be detected.
5) Air can be also be introduced into fuel supply systems while changing filter elements, and/or other maintenance, which will cavitate pumps, usually after a few minutes of running. Again, electric pumps are more at risk than mechanical pumps, since electric pumps make very poor air compressors. It’s sometimes possible to prime filters after an element change by working the priming lever of a well maintained mechanical pump, but electric pumps will frequently never prime until the air is removed in some other manner.
6) Installation of a rubber priming bulb between the tank and the primary fuel filter will enable you to prime the system after replacing a filter element (or other maintenance), as well as to pressurize the system to check for leaks. The bulb also provides a nice diagnostic tool when troubleshooting fuel problems in general, by providing a second method of producing fuel pressure. In normal operation, the fuel pump is able to draw fuel through the priming bulb with little or no measurable head loss being added.
These priming bulbs (commonly used in outboard fuel supplies) are available from West Marine for 1/4″, 5/16″ and 3/8″ fuel hose. At approximately $12, they may represent the best value you’ll ever encounter in terms of enhancing engine reliability.
7) Many boats still have small screens over the ends of their pickup tubes which become clogged quite easily, and are really unnecessary after the installation of a proper primary fuel/water separating type of primary filter.
8) Lastly, spring-loaded check valves used as anti-siphon devices sometimes cause or at least exacerbate problems. These valves are usually installed where the pickup tube leaves the top of the tank and function by adding more head loss (approximately 2 psi) than the weight of the fuel in the line downstream of the tank. In this way, if you leave your manual shut-off valve open while leaving the boat unattended and a major leak develops, fuel will not flow from the tank. These valves are OK in principle, but the “controlled restriction” that they introduce, does have the potential of creating problems in some fuel systems. For example, I think they would be really troublesome in the Catalina 30 fleet, with fuel tanks so low and far from the engine.
Hopefully, these suggestions might help to identify a few latent problems that may be lurking in other fuel systems before the onset of frustrating shutdowns related to fuel supply problems.