Category Archives: Boat DC Topics

Metal Corrosion and Zinc Wasting

INTRODUCTION:

On the long list of complex technical topics that boat owners face, corrosion of underwater metals is one of the most complicated, potentially most expensive and least well understood.  While it is not possible to ease the complexity or terminology of the topic, I can at least describe several related “stray current” metal corrosion phenomena in this one place.

Some readers may feel this topic is “beyond their pay grade.”  Like it or not, we all have a stake in understanding the basics.   At some time in boat ownership, most owners will face one or more corrosion issues.  Even for those for whom the topic is both uninteresting and obscure, all boaters should know how these phenomena are similar and how they are different.  Some familiarity will allow the affected owner to hire the right expert, understand remediation recommendations, and possibly avoid problems in the first place.

AC and DC “stray” electric currents flow in the water.  Because these currents flow outside their normal electrical conductors and devices, they are referred to as “stray currents.”  Worst case, all types of fault currents can be present at the same time.  Boaters should consider all electrical currents that flow in the water as a bad thing.

FUNDAMENTAL CONCEPT OF CORROSION:

The basic concept in all corrosion is always the same: there is a voltage difference between two or more different metals, or alloys of metal, which are a) connected together electrically and b) immersed in an electrically active liquid.

The three major “stray currents” flowing in water (or in the earth’s crust) are:

  1. AC “ground fault” currents, resulting mostly from wiring errors aboard boats and occasionally from inadequate equipment design, incorrect equipment selection or AC appliance/equipment malfunction,
  2. DC “Galvanic” currents, resulting from the natural behavior of dissimilar metals in mineral-containing ground water, fresh surface water or sea water, and
  3. DC “Electrolysis” currents, a DC “ground fault” current, resulting from wiring errors, equipment faults, and improper equipment use.

While the basic electro-chemical processes and terminology of corrosion are always the same, the cause is context-specific.  Understanding the context (AC fault current, DC galvanic current, or DC Electrolysis current) is essential to avoiding confusion caused by the shared terminology.

“Electrolysis,” or “Electrolytic corrosion,” is  frequently confused with, but very different from, “Galvanic corrosion.”  To repeat, the concepts and terminology are shared and common to both phenomena; it is the “cause and origin” of the driving voltage that is different.  

No matter the terminology, corrosion currents are a silent attack on every boat, and can cost many hundreds or thousands of dollars for those who don’t mount an appropriate and effective defense.

AC FAULT CURRENTS:

AC fault currents flowing in the water are often dangerous to people, pets and wildlife.

Worst case, AC fault currents can lead to death by “Electric Shock Drowning:” (ref: https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/boat-technical-topics/electrical-topics/boat-ac-topics/electric-shock-drowning/).  Children and pets must never swim in a marina’s basin.  Boat owners and professional divers performing in-water maintenance on boats must be alert to the causes and consequences of AC electric currents in the water.

In general, AC fault currents DO NOT deteriorate the underwater metals of boats and do not cause rapid zinc wasting.   There is a great deal of technical understanding about environmental AC ground fault currents that comes from the utility and transportation industries (power transmission, buried utilities, pipeline and railroad).   The 60 Hz AC power found across North America changes polarity 120 times per second.   Whatever molecular metal material that might be removed from a metal in one half-cycle is re-deposited in the second-half cycle.  (Cit: “DC Currents in the Bilge – Not AC – Is the Culprit When Metal Fittings Corrode,” Robert Loeser, Seaworthy Magazine, October, 1996).   AC fault currents must be very large before metal corrosion results.   The AC voltages found around pleasure craft docks (less than 600V) DO NOT cause zinc wasting.

Aluminum can be an exception.  Aluminum can be damaged by AC stray currents IF the density of the fault current is greater than 40 Amps per square meter of aluminum surface area (40A/M2).  What that means in English is: a relatively high AC fault current in the water will cause erosion to a relatively small chunk of underwater aluminum.  This combination would be unusual, but not impossible, in pleasure craft marinas.  One m2 is equal to about 10.75 ft2, so it would only take 3.7 amps of AC stray current to cause corrosion damage to a 1 ft2 aluminum part.  This is not an extraordinary leakage current, but 1 ft2 is a small piece of aluminum.  So trim tabs and outdrives may be “relatively” “safe” at levels that would waste aluminum anodes installed for galvanic protection.  On boats without other aluminum parts, aluminum anodes can waste quite rapidly in proportion to the size of a moderate in-water AC fault current.

Readers can find information on testing for AC ground and leakage fault currents in layman’s language on this website, here:  https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/boat-technical-topics/electrical-topics/boat-ac-topics/ac-safety-tests-for-boats/.   The reference article helps owners bring their boat into compatibility with National Electric Code (NEC) standards that require ground fault sensors on docks, and it also dovetails well with identifying and eliminating corrosion issues.

Be aware that some in-water AC stray currents can originate from sources on land.  In that case, the fault current will flow on the green AC safety ground wire (a component of the boat’s bonding system), originating in the basin water and flowing back into the shore power infrastructure.  This situation is not caused by a problem on the boat, and in general, is not something a boat owner can fix.  Always report this finding to marina management.

WHAT THE BOAT OWNER CAN DO: AC FAULT CURRENTS:

  1. Assess the boat for AC ground fault and leakage fault conditions.  (ref: https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/boat-technical-topics/electrical-topics/boat-ac-topics/ac-safety-tests-for-boats/)
  2. Correct all issues in order to establish a defect-free starting-point baseline.
  3. Consider installing Equipment Leakage Current Interrupter (ELCI) sensors on boat shore power AC service circuits.  (ref: ABYC E-11, 11.11.1 and  https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/boat-technical-topics/electrical-topics/boat-ac-topics/elci-primer/)
  4. Where automatic ELCI sensors are not installed, perform frequent manual monitoring of AC shore power cords with a decent-quality clamp-on Ammeter.  (ref: https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/boat-technical-topics/electrical-topics/boat-ac-topics/ac-safety-tests-for-boats/)
  5. Correct any newly discovered issues as soon as they present themselves.

DC GALVANIC CURRENT TERMS AND CONCEPTS:

  1. DC galvanic currents are associated with small voltage potentials that are a naturally-occurring characteristic of all metals.  The specific voltage is determined by the atomic structure of the individual metal (or metal alloy).
  2. Different metals have different naturally-occurring electro-potentials.
  3. A “Galvanic Series” is a list of metals sorted by their naturally-occurring characteristic electro-potentials.  Different “references” can be used for ordering a “galvanic series.”  The best reference for salt water is a silver/silver chloride cell.
  4. A “galvanic couple” is any combination of two or more dissimilar metals or metal alloys connected together electrically and immersed in an electrolyte.
  5. An “electrolyte” is an electrically conductive liquid (generally) medium.
  6. Dry Corrosion” is the direct attack on a metal by dry gasses (air, oxygen) through chemical reactions which result in surface oxidation.
  7. Wet Corrosion” is the direct attack on a metal by an aqueous solution (strong or dilute, acidic or alkaline) through electro-chemical reaction.  Moisture and oxygen can act by themselves.

DC GALVANIC CURRENTS:

The underwater metal alloys on a boat together with the minerals in the surface water in which the boat is floating create the elements of a “galvanic cell” (a battery).  Galvanic currents will always be generated when a boat with dis-similar metals occupies water containing dissolved minerals.  A zinc/copper galvanic couple (common “dry cell” flashlight battery) is a “galvanic cell.”  A “lead/acid” automotive or boat battery (wet cells, AGM or Gel) are examples of “galvanic cells.”

When the metals making up the galvanic cell (battery) are actually the underwater component parts of a boat (bronze, aluminum, stainless steel), the naturally-occurring galvanic currents result in corrosion of some of the underwater metal.   The mineral concentration of sodium, calcium and magnesium salts and many others in the surface water affect the speed at which galvanic corrosion proceeds.

The flow of electrons in a DC galvanic current is always from a more active metal (anode) to a less active metal (cathode) on a Galvanic Series.   All environmental surface water, whether fresh or salt, acts as an electrolyte.  Salt water carries more mineral ions than fresh water, so is more “efficient.”

Galvanic corrosion is a slow process that occurs over many months.  Since it’s the anode in a galvanic cell that dissolves, the point of avoidance/remediation is to artificially force the metal(s) to be protected relatively more cathodic compared to a sacrificial metal present in the electrolyte (water).  This is done by adding a “sacrificial anode” made of a very active metal (aluminum, magnesium, zinc) to the mix of less active but more valuable underwater metals on a boat.

Perhaps a ”before” and ”after” view:

unprotected_couple

Figure 1 shows a ”before view” of a galvanic couple lying in seawater.  The stainless steel (SS) is the anodic alloy, so it erodes due to the natural galvanic voltage between it and it’s cathodic bronze couple-mate.

protected_couple

Figure 2 shows an ”after view” of the same galvanic couple with the addition of a sacrificial zinc anode.  The zinc forces the SS relatively  more cathodic (relative to the zinc), so the SS part is now protected from corrosion.  The zinc is the most active (anodic) metal in this new couple.  By corroding, the zinc acts to protect all of the more “valuable” metals.

Ongoing zinc maintenance is required to provide continuing protection of the more important components of the couple.  Additional valuable corrosion control techniques include the installation of galvanic isolation devices in shore power ground conductors, cable TV coax ground sheathes, and the ground conductors of (now pretty much obsolete) wired telephone and wired Ethernet connections.

ENGINE COOLING SYSTEMS AND GALVANIC CORROSION:

The propulsion and genset drive engines on most cruising-sized pleasure craft are fit with two-stage engine cooling systems.  In diesel cooling systems, a coolant (“fresh water”) circulates through the engine block, heads, oil-cooler, turbo-charger, and intercooler.  A heat exchanger transfers waste heat from the fresh water coolant to environmental raw water, where it is eliminated via the raw water exhaust.  Commonly, a second heat exchanger transfers waste heat from transmission fluid into exhausted raw water.

Electro-chemically, the raw water passing through the heat exchanger is an electrolyte.   Heat exchangers contain several different alloys of copper and nickel.  The alloys used in heat exchangers are designed to have galvanic voltage potentials that are close to one another on the salt-water galvanic series.  That greatly slows, but does not stop, the galvanic corrosion which occurs within heat exchangers.  The dissimilar metals of the heat exchanger act as the galvanic couple and the raw water is the electrolyte.

If galvanic corrosion in heat exchangers is allowed to continue uninterrupted, pinpoint leaks will develop in the shell or tubes of the exchanger.  Similarly, pinpoint leaks can develop in raw-water cooled oil coolers, transmission coolers and intercoolers.   The result over time is damage to expensive heat exchangers, as well as the possibility of secondary damage to the engine itself.   Boat owners  must be aware that there are zincs located within the raw water channels in engines and heat exchangers.

Boats with wood, steel and aluminum hulls require special anti-corrosion techniques.  Many sacrificial anodes are required to protect the surface area of metal hulls.  Too many anodes can cause paint to peel from a metal hull, and cause damage to the woods of a wooden hull.  Alternatively, systems such as Electro-Guard (http://electro-guard.com/index.html) apply a voltage to a metal hull.   These “Impressed Current Cathodic Protection” (ICCP) systems protect the hull plates and welded joints from galvanic attack by making the hull cathodic to its surrounding environment.   This is one of many areas that are “different” for owners of metal-hulled boats vs hulls of fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP).

SINGLE-METAL GALVANIC CORROSION:

SS, bronze, brass and galvanized steel are metallic alloys that contain several elemental  metals within their compounding mix.   Dissimilar metals within the alloy can experience galvanic corrosion.  “Single metal” corrosion results in micro-fractures in the material’s structure, and often results in surface pitting.  The process can proceed to structural failure.

Anodic and cathodic areas form on the surface of alloys due to surface imperfections in the alloy mix, lack of oxygen and/or other environmental factors.  The anodic areas in the matrix give up electron(s).  The ions left behind form into the visible hydroxyl oxidation residue that is shed.  Corrosion currents flow at the expense of the anodic metal of the circuit, which corrodes continuously.

SS shaft logs and propeller shafts, SS rudders and rudder posts, SS fasteners that attach swim platform brackets to an FRP hull, SS keel bolts, SS exhaust port fasteners, etc, etc, are all candidates for a form of single metal galvanic corrosion called “crevice corrosion.”

In brass that contains more than 15% zinc, like the manganese bronze alloy often used in propellors,  unprotected fittings can undergo a single metal galvanic corrosion process called “dezincafication.”  Zinc within the brass alloy erodes away, leaving behind a weak matrix of copper and small percentages of other metals (such as nickel, chromium, manganese) of the original casting.  What’s left is structurally weak and can fail catastrophically.  “Dezincification” leaves a characteristic “pinkish” color to what once had a golden bronze color; particularly so in broken, exposed areas of a part.

In stainless steel, this process is called “CREVICE CORROSION.”  In aluminum, the analogous process is called “POULTICE CORROSION.”  When stale water lies against stainless steel for long periods or time, the water looses it’s content of dissolved oxygen.  Oxygen-depleted water in prolonged contact with stainless steel promotes crevice corrosion, leading to possible structural failure in stainless steel parts and fittings.  Similarly, water that lies in contact with aluminum for long periods of time promotes poultice corrosion.  Poultice corrosion can result in pinpoint leaks in aluminum fuel tanks.

For thruhulls especially, boaters should use fittings of bronze or Marelon; BRASS FITTINGS SHOULD NEVER BE USED UNDERWATER.

For those interested, I have more details on Galvanic Corrosion and the Galvanic Series for salt water on this website, here: https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/boat-technical-topics/electrical-topics/boat-dc-topics/zincs-and-galvanic-corrosion/.

BoatUS has a good article on electrochemical corrosion on their website, here: http://www.boatus.com/boattech/articles/marine-corrosion.asp.

David Pascoe has a good article on electro-chemical corrosion on his website, here: http://www.yachtsurvey.com/corrosion.htm.

WHAT THE BOAT OWNER CAN DO: DC GALVANIC CURRENTS:

  1. Install a complete bonding system if one is not currently present.
  2. Install zincs to protect bonded underwater metals.
  3. Perform routine maintenance of zincs on underwater metals: propellor shaft, rudder, and other underwater metal structures.
  4. Maintain the “master” zinc that protects the boat’s bonding system.
  5. Maintain zincs protecting engine and transmission cooling system components.
  6. Use deck fill screw-on covers that are galvanically compatible with under-deck fittings to avoid galvanic corrosion and hidden fuel leaks.
  7. Install an appropriately rated Galvanic Isolator in the shore power safety ground if one is not already present.
  8. Install galvanic isolators to telephone, Ethernet and TV Cable feeds that come onto a boat from shore.

DC ELECTROLYSIS CURRENTS:

The source of the voltage that drives the process is what distinguishes a “Galvanic current” from “Electrolysis,” or an “Electrolytic” current.  Recall that galvanic voltages are a function of the natural atomic electro-potential of the metals of a galvanic couple.  The voltages which cause electrolysis are man-made, not naturally-occurring.  The voltages that drive electrolytic corrosion are often significantly larger than galvanic voltages, and the destructive impact of a DC fault causing electrolytic damage is much faster and more aggressive than galvanic currents.

In Figure 3, the metallic actors (SS and bronze alloys) are the same as shown in Figure 1.  In this case, the elemental voltage polarity of the couple has been reversed by the application of an outside source of DC voltage.  This is a DC fault scenario.  The bronze thruhull in this example will disintegrate, freely giving up it’s copper content into the surrounding sea water.

electrolysis

Figure 3: A DC Fault Injecting Power to the Bonding Buss Resulting in Corrosion of Important Underwater Metal Alloys

Electrolysis voltages originate with an externally- supplied DC source; i.e., a battery or its equivalent.  Causes can be a wiring error, chafed/frayed DC conductor, defect or age-deteriorated insulation on a bilge pump B+ wire lying in bilge water, a defect in a DC power supply or a DC generator, a failed piece of DC equipment or misapplication of use of DC equipment.   A common wiring error that can lead to electrolysis currents results from incorrectly wiring the neutral return circuit of a DC device to the boat’s bonding system.  NEVER USE THE DC BONDING SYSTEM FOR THE ELECTRICAL RETURN PATH FOR DC CIRCUITS.

DC electrolysis currents are equivalent to the industrial process called “electroplating.”   In a marina, failed DC equipment can deliver a DC voltage into the basin water.  On a boat, wiring error or a failed piece of equipment can apply a DC fault voltage to the boat’s ground buss.  Electrolysis current flows IN ONE DIRECTION through the ground path and into the surrounding basin water.  The anode literally dissolves.  The fault can be on the same boat as the failed equipment, on a neighboring boat or in nearby land based equipment.  Or it can be, simply, in between a source point and a return point.  The fault can be located in shore-side infrastructure wiring, or it can be because of misuse of equipment by a contractor, such as a welder or a DC motor on a marine railway or travel lift.

It is a law of physics that electric current always seeks the path of least-resistance back to their source.  Scenario: imagine three adjacent slips on a dock.  In slip #1 is a boat with a fault and dumping a DC electrolysis current into the basin water.  Slip #2 is empty.  In slip #3 is a boat providing a path to ground for the fault current via it’s shore power cord.  So far, only boat #1, the boat with the fault, has a corrosion problem.

Now a transient boat comes into slip #2.  The fault current previously passed through slip #2 on the way to ground, but when the transient arrived, that boat’s protective electrical system (Bonding System) becomes inserted into the path of the fault current.  The transient’s bonding system has a lower resistance than the surrounding basin water.  The fault current passes into the transient via one or more underwater metals, passes on through the transient’s bonding system, and exits back into the basin “on the other side” of the transient.  The fitting(s) where the current exits the transient will corrode.  That fault current is now causing damage to boat #1 and boat #2.  Boat #2 is a true victim, safe if plugged into shore power, potentially damaged if not.

All fault currents are always opportunistic.  They simply follow the rules of physics to find the “path of least resistance” back home.

The rate at which metal loss occurs is proportional to the voltage involved and to the many Ohms Law factors that determine the magnitude of accompanying current flow.  At its worst case, this process can sink a boat astonishingly quickly (a matter of hours/days), because with large uni-directional electrolytic currents (electroplating), metal mass can erode away from the anodic terminal(s) very quickly.   The part that gives up metal mass will ultimately suffer structural failure if the process is not interrupted.  If it happens to a thruhull on a boat in the water, the boat will sink.   All underwater metals – propellors, rudders, struts, trim tabs and radio ground planes – can be effectively “dissolved” by these stray electrolysis currents.

The best articles I know of for an understanding of this topic are by Capt. David Rifkin, who has good reference articles on his website, here: http://www.qualitymarineservices.net/corrosion.html.

Nigel Calder, Ed Sherman of ABYC and Steve d’Antonio have also written about these phenomena,  mostly in fee-based subscription publications like Professional Boatbuilder and Passagmaker Magazine, or in their own for-fee publications.

RAPID ZINC WASTING:

Like all metal corrosion, zinc wasting is a form of electro-chemical corrosion, always due to DC currents.  Electrical measurements of the basin occupied by the boat would be necessary to determine which mix of stray currents are present at any given time, but zinc wasting is a DC phenomena, and by far most commonly, a galvanic phenomena.

Boat owners can do their own basin-water testing, but it is not a process I would recommend for the electrical layman.   An understanding of the theory of these types of faults, understanding the probes and tools that are necessary, and the skills to correctly interpret test results are necessary.  This can be quite confounding, even to experts.

Boat owners that experience corrosion issues would be better served to hire an ABYC CORROSION-CERTIFIED MARINE ELECTRICIAN.  That said, skilled and knowledgeable boat owners can do their own DC testing with a silver/silver chloride half-cell.  High quality Digital Voltmeters (DVM) can detect AC ground fault currents, DC galvanic currents and electrolysis currents, but detection and evaluation is highly specific and sensitive to the placement of the measurement electrodes, quality of the test equipment, and conductivity of the surrounding basin water.

By the time a layman has bought the tools, learned to use them, and learned to interpret the results, said layman would be better off financially in hiring a professional who could provide the diagnosis and remediation recommendations as a one-time service.

WHAT THE BOAT OWNER CAN DO: DC ELECTROLYSIS CURRENTS:

  1. Diligently avoid having DC wiring wetted or submerged in bilge water.
  2. Never use the boat’s bonding system as a B- “neutral” return circuit for DC attachments.
  3. Avoid facilities (marinas, municipal or private docks, boatyards, etc) where the infrastructure appears to be poorly maintained.
  4. Be alert in marinas located in industrial neighborhoods where ground fault currents from shore sources may be more likely; check with the dockmaster for known issues in the basin.
  5. Avoid facilities with numerous boats that are in a poor state of maintenance and repair.

CHEMISTRY OF GALVANIC COUPLES:

CHEMICAL REACTION AT THE ANODE:

Oxidation occurs with the release of electrons and the simultaneous shedding of positively charged metal atoms which detach from the surface of the metal.  These particles enter the electrolyte solution as positively charged ions.  Chemically:

Fe → Fe++ + 2e (example with Iron);

Zn → Zn++ + 2e (example with Zinc);

Pb → Pb++ + 2e (example with lead).

CHEMICAL REACTION AT THE CATHODE:

Free electrons reach the cathode and react with hydrogen ions in the electrolyte.  Hydrogen bubbles will often form on the cathode; clearly visible in lead/acid batteries.  Chemically:

2H+ + 2e → 2H

CHEMICAL REACTION IN THE ELECTROLYTE:

If acid is not available, water itself will break down (dissociate) to generate hydrogen ions (H+).  The specific chemistry here depends on the composition of the electrolyte.  Assuming water, water dissociates, forming free hydrogen and hydroxyl ions:

H2O ⇌ H+ + OH

Then, metal ions combine to form metallic oxide, which is the corrosion product:

Fe++ + 2(OH) → Fe(OH)2, or

Zn++ + 2(OH) → Zn(OH)2, or

Pb++ + 2(OH) → Pb(OH)2

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Galvanic Currents and “Zincs”

Galvanic Corrosion” is a normal, predictable and definitely unwanted electro-chemical phenomenon. However, it does not have to be inevitable!  The science of Galvanic Corrosion spans chemistry, physics and electricity.  There is an entire body of specialty engineering knowledge on the subject arising from the electrical utility, railroad, shipping and pipeline industries.  For boater’s, there are at least four ABYC Standards that relate to it:

  1. A28, “Galvanic Isolators,” July, 2008,
  2. E2, “Cathodic Protection,” July, 2013,
  3. E11, “AC and DC Electrical Systems on Boats,” July, 2012, and
  4. TE4, “Lightening Protection.” July, 2006.

This post is written as an introduction to the key terms and concepts of Galvanic Corrosion.  It is written for boaters and others who have little or no prior electrical background.  In struggling with the technical concepts and unfamiliar terminology used to describe them, one may find that skilled people slip almost casually from one contextual use of terms to another.  For beginners and bystanders, that can be confusing, confounding and frustrating.  My hope is this post will wrap some perspective and understanding around the topic.

There is enormous confusion about corrosion among boaters.  There are two very different causes of corrosion that boaters face: 1) galvanic corrosion and 2) “electrolysis,” or “stray current” corrosion.  Galvanic corrosion is virtually universal – by far the most common – and is the subject of this article.  However, many of the technical concepts, terminology and materials are the same between the two.  The big difference between Galvanic Corrosion and Electrolytic Corrosion are their very different cause.  Symptoms of the two can be the same, but can be very different.  Galvanic corrosion always happens slowly, over the course of months.  “Electrolytic” (DC stray current” corrosion) can happen astoundingly fast, with catastrophic failures in a matter of hours.  The techniques that slow and stop galvanic corrosion may or may not work with stray current corrosion.

For boats, of course, galvanic corrosion is a real and ever-present concern simply because boats float in environmental surface water which contains varying degrees of impurities (dissolved minerals, salts, organic materials and chemical pollutants).  Residential electricians have little to no familiarity with galvanic corrosion issues.  Corrosion is a complex and challenging electrical sub-specialty.

If experiencing corrosion on boat metals, or if corrosion symptoms have noticeably changed in recent days/weeks, boat owner/operators are advised to engage a “certified” marine corrosion expert.  Do not, under any circumstances, rely on a residential electrician to diagnose this phenomenon.  For non-professionals, galvanic corrosion is a somewhat obscure topic.  It is generally not familiar to people who live in – or provide professional services to – residential single family homes or multi-family buildings.  Electrochemical corrosion is generally beyond the experience of the general public.

In any discussion of “Galvanic Corrosion,” there are several inescapable and frequently-encountered terms one must know and understand.

  1. “Galvanic Table,” or “Galvanic Series.”  Because of the atomic structure of metals, every metal has a natural electrochemical ‘static charge,’ or “electrical potential.”  The magnitude of this electrical potential is unique to the particular metal.  Each metal’s electrical potential is different from every other metal.  The electrochemical “galvanic potential” of metals is determined by measurement against a “reference cell.”  Reference cells of different chemical composition can be used for different purposes.  The reference cell most commonly used for marine purposes in surface water containing varying amounts of dissolved minerals is a silver/silver chloride (Ag/AgCl) half-cell.  The “galvanic series” is a table sorted based on the electro-physical charge potentials of metals against the reference half-cell.  Alloys of metals also carry unique electro-potentials.  The proportions of metals that make up an alloy will affect the absolute magnitude of the electrical potential of the resulting alloy.
  2. “Galvanic Couple.”  Any two of the different metals and alloys in the galvanic series are referred to as a “galvanic couple.”  The difference in electro-chemical potentials between any two metals in the galvanic series represents a voltage that can be measured with a high quality Digital Multimeter (DMM).  When several metals are all joined together in an electrical network – as is the case of props, prop shafts, trim tabs, thru hulls all bonded together – they are referred to as a “galvanic collection.”
  3. “Anode,” “cathode,” “anodic” and “cathodic.”  These terms are always used in a particular context.  The context will either be a description of:
    • the position of a specific metal in the galvanic series; that is, reference to the “Galvanic Potential” of a specific metal or alloy, or
    • the relative relationship of one metal to another on a “Galvanic Series of Metals,” or a “Nobility Scale.”  For example, “zinc is anodic referenced to bronze,” and “bronze is cathodic referenced to zinc.”
    • In all electrically connected galvanic couples and galvanic collections, one metal will be “anodic” to the other(s).  Electrically, the anode gives up electrons to the galvanic system.  More importantly, the anode also sheds positive ions of its metallic structure into the surrounding electrolyte solution (surface water containing dissolved minerals).  That shedding is the galvanic corrosion we observe as boaters.

The concepts these terms represent are fundamental to understanding galvanic corrosion.  Relative to any “Galvanic Series,” or “Nobility Scale:”

  • “cathodic” metals are highly “noble,” or considered “passive” metals.  Compared to an Ag/AgCl half-cell, their natural electrochemical potential is more positive with respect to other metals in the galvanic series.  They are naturally more resistant to galvanic corrosion.  Examples include titanium, gold and graphite.
  • “anodic” metals are “less noble,” or considered “active” metals. Compared to an Ag/AgCl half-cell, their natural electrochemical potential is more negative with respect to other metals in the galvanic series. They are moderately to highly subject to galvanic corrosion. Examples with which all boaters are familiar include magnesium, aluminum and zinc, all used as “sacrificial anodes” on boats.

So, context is critical to understanding.

Metals incur galvanic corrosion only when they are in electrical contact with other metals. Therefore, galvanic corrosion should always be thought of as involving two or more dissimilar metals; that is, a “couple” or a “collection.”

For “Galvanic Corrosion” to occur, three conditions are necessary:

  1. Metals must be “well separated” – moderately or greatly – on the “Galvanic Series:”

The larger the galvanic potential difference between the metals involved, the greater the probability of galvanic corrosion, and the faster that corrosion will progress.

  1. The metals must be electrically connected together:

The metals can be wired together, or pressed, riveted, bolted, welded, clamped, or even piled-upon each other.  Normally on boats, galvanic corrosion occurs when metals that are bonded together, so the path connecting them is low resistance.  However, galvanic currents can and do flow when only high resistance paths connect two dissimilar metals.

  1. Both metals must be simultaneously immersed in an “electrolyte:”

An electrolyte is an electrically conductive medium.  The electrolytic medium acts to complete the electrical circuit. If the conductivity of the medium is high, the metal-to-metal corrosion of the less noble metal will be dispersed over a larger area. If the conductivity of the electrolytic medium is low, the corrosion will be localized to the part of the less noble metal nearest to the mechanical connection between the metals. Sea water is an excellent electrolyte, brackish water, less, fresh water, not so much.

When all of the above conditions are met, a difference in “galvanic potential” (a voltage) exists between the different metals in the electrolyte solution. That voltage is the driving force for electrons to flow from one metal to the other metal through the electrolyte. This current results in positive charged ions of the anodic metal of the couple being shed into the electrolyte. Inside a carbon/zinc dry cell battery, when the anode (zinc) is fully depleted, the battery is thought of as “dead.”  Between metals in any mechanical system, this process is thought of as “destructive galvanic corrosion.”  Be aware, “in any mechanical system” in a boat IS NOT limited to prop shafts and propellors.  This deterioration can and does occur inside engines and transmissions, and in metallic structures like potable water and fuel tanks, thru hulls, seachests and strainers, etc.

SILVER/SLIVER CHLORIDE GALVANIC SERIES:

The following table shows galvanic potentials of many common marine metals in free-flowing sea water as measured with a silver/silver chloride reference cell:

TABLE I – GALVANIC SERIES OF METALS IN SEA WATER WITH REFERENCE TO SILVER/SILVER CHLORIDE REFERENCE CELL [Sea water flowing at 8 to 13 ft./sec. (except as noted), temperature range 50°F (10°C) to 80°F (26.7°C)]
(ANODIC OR LEAST NOBLE) CORROSION-POTENTIAL RANGE IN MILLIVOLTS
Magnesium and Magnesium Alloys -1600 to –1630
Zinc -980 to –1030
Aluminum Alloys -760 to –1000
Cadmium -700 to –730
Mild Steel -600 to –710
Wrought Iron -600 to –710
Cast Iron -600 to –710
13% Chromium Stainless Steel, Type 410 (active in still water) -460 to –580
18-8 Stainless Steel, Type 304 (active in still water) -460 to –580
Ni-Resist -460 to –580
18-8, 3% Mo Stainless Steel, Type 316 (active in still water) -430 to –540
Inconel (78%Ni, 13.5%Cr, 6%Fe) (active in still water) -350 to -460
Aluminum Bronze (92% Cu, 8% Al) -310 to -420
Nibral (81.2% Cu, 4% Fe, 4.5% Ni, 9% Al, 1.3% Mg) -310 to –420
Naval Brass (60% Cu, 39% Zn) -300 to –400
Yellow Brass (65% Cu, 35% Zn) -300 to –400
Red Brass (85% Cu, 15% Zn)  -300 to –400
Muntz Metal (60% Cu, 40% Zn) -300 to –400
Tin -310 to –330
Copper  -300 to –570
50-50 Lead- Tin Solder -280 to –370
Admiralty Brass (71% Cu, 28% Zn, 1% Sn) -280 to –360
Aluminum Brass (76% Cu, 22% Zn, 2% Al) -280 to –360
Manganese Bronze (58.8% Cu,39%Zn,1%Sn, 1%Fe, 0.3%Mn) -270 to –340
Silicone Bronze (96% Cu Max, 0.80% Fe, 1.50%Zn, 2.00% Si, 0.75% Mn, 1.60% Sn) -260 to –290
Bronze-Composition G (88% Cu, 2% Zn, 10% Sn -240 to –310
Bronze ASTM B62 (thru-hull)(85%Cu, 5%Pb, 5%Sn, 5%Zn) -240 to –310
Bronze Composition M (88% Cu, 3% Zn, 6.5% Sn, 1.5% Pb) -240 to –310
13% Chromium Stainless Steel, Type 410 (passive) -260 to –350
Copper Nickel (90% Cu, 10% Ni) -210 to –280
Copper Nickel (75% Cu, 20% Ni, 5% Zn) -190 to –250
Lead -190 to –250
Copper Nickel (70% Cu, 30% Ni) -180 to –230
Inconell (78% Ni, 13.5% Cr, 6% Fe) (passive) -140 to –170
Nickel 200 -100 to –200
18-8 Stainless Steel, Type 304 (passive) -50 to –100
Monel 400, K-500 (70% Ni, 30% Cu) -40 to –140
Stainless Steel Propeller Shaft (ASTM 630:#17 & ASTM 564: # 19) -30 to +130
18-8 Stainless Steel, Type 316 (passive) 3% Mo 0.0 to –100
Titanium -50 to +60
Hastelloy C -30 to +80
Stainless Steel Shafting (Bar) (UNS 20910) -250 to +60
>Platimium +190 to +250
Graphite +200 to +300
(CATHODIC OR MOST NOBLE)
†The range shown does not include sacrificial aluminum anodes. Aluminum alloy sacrificial anodes are available that have a maximum corrosion potential of -1100 mV.
NOTES:
1. Metals and metal alloys are listed in the order of their potential in flowing sea water as determined in tests conducted by a nationally-recognized corrosion research laboratory.
2. The galvanic series may be used to predict whether galvanic actions are likely between two metals. Other factors (e.g., area of the material, flow rate, composition of the electrolyte, crevices, the coupling of copper alloys with aluminum, etc.) affect the relative corrosion rates in seawater.

Source: American Boat and Yacht Council, Standard E-2, July, 2013, Page 10.

A boat with underwater metal fittings in the water is a natural battery (a “galvanic cell”). That natural battery produces a very small DC voltage between the under-water “cathodic” and “anodic” metals of the couple/collection. The water in which the boat is floating is the necessary “electrolyte” in this natural battery, and the dissimilar metals of the propeller, drive shaft, reduction gear/transmission, rudder, thruster components, outdrives, trim tabs, thru-hulls, radio ground plane, speed and sounder sensor bodies, etc., etc., etc., are the relatively anodic (+) and relatively cathodic (-) terminals of the battery.

Electrons carry a negative electrical charge.  Galvanic electric currents consist of a “flow of electrons” out of, and back into, the galvanic cell created by your boat. In a common galvanic corrosion scenario, the flow of electrons that make up a galvanic current originate in the under-water anodic (+) metals of the boat, flow through the electrolyte (water), and return to the  under-water cathodic (-) metals of the boat.  Part of the mechanism of these small DC currents is the shedding of positive ions of the metal, with the ultimate destruction of the anode, the least “noble” metal of the galvanic collection. Hopefully, that anode will be a sacrificial anodes (zinc) and not the more noble metals of bronze props, aluminum outdrives, steel transmissions, SS rudders, steel thrusters, etc.  This flow of galvanic current can be interrupted, and anode wasting (corrosion) stopped, by installing a “Galvanic Isolator” or an “Isolation Transformer.”

The galvanic potential (voltage) that causes the above flow of electrons is determined by the position of the specific cathodic and anodic metals involved in the galvanic series, and a variety of other factors related to metal mass and the physical characteristics of the electrolyte.  The flow of electrons from an anodic metal leaves behind a positive ionic charge.  To balance that charge, anodic metal ions are shed into the electrolyte.  That shedding is the corrosive deterioration we see with sacrificial anodes (zincs).

There are very subtle factors that affect the rate at which anode wasting occurs. These factors vary greatly from place-to-place.  Boaters will fit into all of the affected subcategories, so there is simply no “one size fits all” formula. Examples:

  1. Galvanic currents increase with water circulation over the hull. The protection requirement can be several times that required in still water. Zincs do not have the capability to automatically respond to changing needs as water velocity increases, as active protection devices (“impressed current devices”) do. So a boat in the Beaufort River in Beaufort, SC, or the Ashley or Cooper Rivers in Charleston, SC, may need more protection than the same boat would need in Marblehead, MA, or Miami, FL, or Marsh Harbour, BS.
  2. The ratio of cathode/anode surface area. The larger the relative surface area of the anode, the lower the galvanic current density on the anode, so the lesser the attack.  The amount of galvanic corrosion may be considered as proportional to the ratio of Cathode/Anode surface area.
  3. Boat use.  More frequently-operated boats (cruisers) require more cathodic protection than vessels infrequently used (floating condos, dock mavens). Relates to item 7, following.
  4. The conductivity of the water.  As conductivity increases, the rate of galvanic activity increases. Related to item 5, following.
  5. Water salinity.  Proportionally more protection is required on a given boat in salt water than in fresh water.
  6. pH of the water.  As pH decreases (acid rain fresh water lakes), the cathodic corrosion rate increases.
  7. Condition of bottom paint.  Deteriorating bottom paint increases exposed cathodic surface area, which increases anodic protection requirements.

Furthermore, when connected to shore power, your boat is part of a electrical network of boats – a collection of metals – that are electrically interconnected by the shore power safety ground system. The underwater metals on the collection can dramatically alter the cathodic potential (the amount of protection) of your boat. This is particularly true if your neighbor has aluminum (outdrives, trim tabs) and you do not.

A very common rapid zinc wasting condition occurs when a nearby neighboring boat is poorly maintained.  If you have good, well maintained zincs on your boat, but your dock neighbor does not, you will be glad to know that the noble metals of the neighboring boat are protected.  Your neighbor’s boat is being protected by your zincs, through your generosity, via the shore power network of shared safety ground connections.  Since your zincs are the sacrificial metals in this system, they are likely to deteriorate at a faster-than-normal rate. You may or may not consider this generosity to be a good thing.  This is a particularly common situation at marinas where a high number of absentee owners reside.

Occasionally we hear that we need to be careful not to “over-zinc” a boat. It is possible to “over-zinc,” but the term is frequently misused in context. In the context of that statement, “zinc” does not refer to the metallic substance; it uses the term “zinc” as a synonym for “anode;” i.e., a mechanical object. So more properly, one should say, “it’s possible to ‘over-anode’ a boat.”

Anodes used on boats are available in Magnesium, Aluminum and Zinc metals. Magnesium is best for boats kept long term in fresh water. Zinc is best for boats kept long term in brackish and salt water. Aluminum is often regarded as acceptable for use in all types of water. Using the wrong anode material in the wrong environment can reverse the galvanic potential between some dissimilar metals or non-metallic, electrically conductive materials under some conditions. Magnesium anodes should not be used long term in salt water. Aluminum anodes can cause harmful over-protection which may result in cathodic corrosion of aluminum parts (outdrive, trim tabs) and possible hydrogen blistering of paint, also known as cathodic disbondment. Some oxides of a few metals, including aluminum, tin, lead, and zinc, are “amphoteric,” meaning they are capable of reacting chemically in both acid (low pH) and basic (high pH) environments. These metals are more susceptible to corrosion in alkaline high pH electrolytes (fresh water) than other metals.

Conclusions: my PERSONAL OPINIONS:

  1. In general, most boats are better off having Bonding systems than not having bonding systems. If an owner chooses not to have a bonding system, that should be a deliberate, intentional decision made with great forethought.  It should be backed up by  thorough, professional cathodic measurement testing and with due consideration to dissipate of static electricity and lightening as a related technical matter.
  2. In general, absent an Isolation Transformer, all owners of boats that are fit with shore power service should install a Galvanic Isolator.  Galvanic Isolators block the flow of galvanic currents.  They greatly extend the life of the boat’s anodes, but more importantly, extend the protection of the most noble (and expensive) underwater metals on the boat.
  3. In general, the best protection an owner can afford their boat investment is to diligently maintain their anodes (“zincs”).

If you aren’t familiar with this language and these advanced electrical and materials concepts, you are in the clear majority of the general public and boat owners! Frankly, only true, insanely devoted electrical geeks venture into these “techno-weeds!” Most electrical service professionals – including the great majority of “marine-certified” electrical service professionals, do not really “get into this stuff.”  When faced with an issue, most “professionals” call in “experts” to handle remediation. This is why there can be, and is, a lot of misunderstanding and confusion around this subject.

Diagnosing Engine “No Starts”

The underlying causes of “no start” conditions can be either electrical or mechanical.  In order to start and run, an otherwise operational diesel engine needs fuel and air.  When the ignition key is “turned on,” one thing that happens is an electrical fuel valve called a “fuel solenoid” opens to allow fuel to flow to the injection pump.  No fuel, no start.  If the engine cranks but does not start, think of the humble fuel solenoid as a possible cause.

At it’s most basic, the ignition key or push-button operates the starter solenoid, and the starter solenoid picks, energizing the starter motor. If the engine does not crank (turn over) when the key is operated or the start push-button is pushed, the underlying problem is probably electrical.

In practice, there may be a dozen or more electrical connections in the starter solenoid pick circuit, depending upon how the engine manufacturer designed the circuit.  For example, Sanctuary is fit with a Cummins 4B engine.  On that engine, the starter solenoid circuit originates at the battery, goes to the “start” connection on a key operated ignition switch, goes on to the neutral safety switch (located in the transmission housing; prevents the engine from starting if the transmission is in gear), goes on in turn to the coil of a “secondary relay” and finally returns to ground.  Within this circuit, there are several intermediate connections on a terminal strip in the engine room and at the various switches and the relay.  So, there are many points of possible corrosion or wiring breaks that all must be viable in order to pick the secondary relay.  When that secondary relay picks, it’s the normally open points of that relay that actually put B+ battery power to the starter solenoid.  If that relay is picking when the key switch or “start” button is operated, probably everything in the pick circuit is OK (like that pesky neutral safety switch).  If the electrical connections at the secondary relay are OK, then the secondary relay itself becomes suspect (bad/worn/burned normally open points internal to the relay).

A starter motor pulls many hundreds of amps from the batteries (mine pulls 500 amps locked rotor and it’s a rather small starter motor).  When the starter motor is energized, the very high discharge current causes the battery terminal voltage to instantly fall off.  If battery terminal voltage falls off enough, the solenoid will drop out.  As soon as the solenoid drops, the battery voltage recovers enough to re-pick the solenoid.  This starts the next pick/drop out cycle.  This is called “chatter,” and it almost always means battery circuit problems.  Commonly, the problem is low battery charge.  The cause can be a battery that isn’t fully charged, or a bad battery, or bad connections, or a mechanically locked starter motor rotor.  Locked rotor could be a starter motor problem, or it could be that the engine itself is mechanically bound up.

RUNNING ENGINES ARE POTENTIALLY VERY DANGEROUS.  ONLY PROCEED FROM HERE IF YOU ARE COMFORTABLE AND EXPERIENCED WORKING ON RUNNING ENGINES.  ELSE, FOR YOUR PERSONAL SAFETY, CALL A MECHANIC.

MAKE SURE THAT YOUR CLOTHING AND BODY PARTS ARE WELL CLEAR OF ANY MOVING PARTS AND BELTS WHEN WORKING AROUND THE ENGINE.  DO NOT WEAR RINGS, WATCHES, JEWELERY OR ANY LOOSE CLOTHING.  NO LONG HAIR EITHER.  TEE SHIRTS ARE BEST; NO SLEEVES.  A SHIRT SLEEVE CAUGHT IN A SERPENTINE BELT WILL SPOIL YOUR WHOLE DAY.  FINGERS, HANDS AND ARMS ARE VERY DIFFICULT AND VERY EXPENSIVE TO REPLACE, TO SAY NOTHING OF EYES.  ALWAYS WEAR HEARING PROTECTION!  YOU’RE ALMOST DEAF ANYWAY; YOU MIGHT AS WELL SAVE WHAT LITTLE HEARING YOU STILL HAVE!  ANY OF THE FOLLOWING TESTS MAY CAUSE THE ENGINE TO START!

First, check that the timing pin on the engine is not engaged.  If it is engaged, starting the engine will shear that pin, and that could cause many thousands of dollars in engine damage.  That pin being engaged would only happen if a mechanic had been working on the engine to locate top dead center to do valve adjustments or to install the injection pump, but check it anyway!

If the engine has not been started in several months, suspect that the oil has drained from the cylinder walls and the internal parts (usually piston rings) may be bound to the cylinder walls.  To clear that, bar the engine over (make sure the fuel solenoid is “off” while baring the engine over, or it could start and damage you, the boat hull, the bar, and anything else nearby) and then remove the bar and try normally starting the engine again.

IF YOU CAN’T BAR THE ENGINE OVER, STOP.  CALL A MECHANIC.

The following procedure requires self-confidence, and is not for the timid of heart.  I learned this test as a kid working on my first car.  It is simple and very quick to complete.  Think carefully through each step, and execute with confidence.  Turn the key on (to open the fuel solenoid) and then take a big (fat, old, sacrificial) screwdriver, and us the metal shaft of the screwdriver to jumper across the battery cable connection at the solenoid to the strap buss that runs into the starter motor from the other large solenoid connection.  These connections on the started solenoid are the two large bolts on the starter solenoid.  Jupering across these two bolts will activate the starter motor by bypassing the solenoid.  B+ battery power will through the metal screwdriver shank to operate the starter motor.  Yes, it’ll spark.  Don’t be timid here.  Stick that baby in there firmly, and expect the engine to immediately turn over and start.  Don’t let the jumper touch the frame of the starter motor or the engine’s block, of course.  That will also spark!  If the engine turns over and starts, then you might assume the solenoid or the solenoid pick circuit is the cause of the no start.

If the engine doesn’t turn over with the solenoid jumpered, that is to say, if absolutely nothing happens, suspect the starter motor itself is bad.  One possible trick is to mechanically jar the starter motor’s internal brush rack.  If the motor has seen many cycles, the brushes will be worn, and eventually will be worn to the point that they do not make contact.  There may still be a few start cycles in that old motor, though.  Hit it with a hammer.  Yes, that’s right, hit it with a hammer.  Not so hard you hurt it, but several times, firmly.  That will jar the brush rack, and may allow the brushes to make contact again.  Perform the screwdriver jumper test again.  Again, expect that motor to immediately start. If this does work, you are definitely on borrowed time.  It wil only work a couple of times before the brushes will be so worn they won’t make contact.  Act immediately to get the starter motor rebuilt.

If the engine does turn over, but only very slowly, then suspect  battery terminal connections or the starter motor terminal connection, and also suspect the return connections at the engine block ground that connects the engine block back to the negative terminal of the battery.   If all connections are all in good condition, then consider low battery state-of-charge.

I once experienced an unusual starter motor failure that could result in a “no start” symptom.  The strap buss that runs from the starter solenoid to the brush rack inside the starter motor body broke inside the starter motor.  To check that, take a piece of wood (***not metal***) like a wooden hammer handle, and push the strap firmly downward into the starter motor body.  AS PREVIOUSLY DISCUSSED, MAKE ABSOLUTELY SURE YOUR BODY AND CLOTHING IS CLEAR OF ANY MOVING PARTS OF THE ENGINE!  While holding that strap down, have an assistant operate the key to start the engine. If it starts, you’ll have to pull the starter and take it to a shop to have the buss bar brazed.