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Marine Power Outage

More than four years ago BoatU.S. Magazine published “Engine Blocks Choke on Water” about water ingestion problems involving marine engines built on GM automotive “big blocks.” After over 50 boat owners reported similar engine failures to BoatU.S. and long after three major engine manufacturers developed ways to mitigate these failures, Marine Power USA has yet to bring an end to the engine failures experienced by a Connecticut couple.

Ann and Dave Farrington of Fairfield, CT, reported to BoatU.S. that their Luhrs 32 Convertible has been out of commission for months each and every boating season they’ve owned it due to catastrophic failures of its twin 5.7L Marine Power gasoline-powered engines.

These engines are built on GM 5.7L automotive blocks. As was outlined in our January 2003 article, marine engines using GM 7.4L, and 8.1L blocks have a well-known propensity for suffering valve failures when condensation from the exhaust migrates back to the engine due to the vacuum created during the intake stroke. Over time, salt crystals from the condensation cause rust on the valves, the valves stick or do not close properly and more water migrates back to the engine.

Although four replacement engines have been installed on the Farringtons’ boat, the installations have been the rough equivalent of replacing a burnt-out light bulb. Each time an engine fails, it has been bench tested at the Marine Power factory, failure has been diagnosed as water ingestion and an identical engine — with no modifications — is sent back to the owners in exchange.

The engine problems are bad enough but, concurrent with the first engine breakdown in 2003, the Farringtons discovered that the gel coat below the waterline was peeling off in at least 30 places. Temporary repairs were made but a major overhaul, paid for by Luhrs, occupied most of the 2005-06 winter. In the ensuing years, the retail dealer, Petzolds Marine Center in Portland, CT, has corrected a number of cosmetic and mechanical conditions fairly typical of most new boats.

Although these problems for the most part have been remedied, they have added to the disappointment and anger Mrs. Farrington says she and her husband feel.

Since purchasing the vessel, the boat owners’ costs run close to $40,000 for boat payments, slip rental and other expenses, to say nothing of cancelled vacation plans and the utter frustration of paying in good faith for a boat Mrs. Farrington describes as a “lemon.”

In responding to the boat owners’ complaints, Luhrs, Marine Power and Petzolds have all demonstrated to varying degrees exactly how far they are willing to go to assist their customers. In the case of Luhrs and Petzolds, that would be pretty far indeed.

Although BoatU.S., the Farringtons, Luhrs and Petzolds have contacted Marine Power numerous times, up until recently, the engine maker’s response has been limited to bench-testing the faulty engines at the factory and providing rebuilt engines. Period. Luhrs and the dealer contributed time and labor to get them installed.

Marine Power offers a flapper valve with a rubber lip that is supposed to prohibit the engine pulse from sucking water up the exhaust. Despite requests by the owners, Luhrs, Petzolds and BoatU.S., Marine Power has not sent an engineer to evaluate the engines as they are installed in the boat, nor has the Ponchatoula, LA, company been able to explain why salt deposits form on the intake valves to the point that the engines fail.

Marine Power 5.7L engines are marinized versions of GM automotive power packages. Like Volvo, Mercruiser, and Crusader, Marine Power buys long blocks containing the engine block, cylinder heads, crankshaft and pistons from GM and converts them for marine use by fitting them out with ignition-protected electrical components, as well as raw-water cooling and water-cooled and wetted exhaust systems. The blocks are also reinforced to withstand the prolonged, heavy use common to marine engines.

What doesn’t alter in the automotive-to-marine transformation is the valve overlap GM builds into the engines to improve efficiency. Valve overlap refers to the brief interval when the intake and exhaust valves are open during the start of the intake stroke, when the fuel-air mixture enters the combustion chamber. The pressure of the incoming mix pushes out the exhaust gases and makes the engine more powerful at high rpm levels.

Water ingestion is more likely to occur with through-hull exhaust systems and is less common with the through-prop exhausts found on sterndrive engines. Although Marine Power is keeping mum on a definitive explanation or a means to prevent future damage, a marine surveyor who specializes in engines confirms that this is probably the cause of the engine breakdowns the Farringtons have suffered. “From the dropped valves, it is my opinion that…salt water vapor has affected the valve stems, causing them to bind up. No solid water was found in the cylinders,” stated marine surveyor John Robertson of Amityville, NY.

“Factory tear-down of this engine must involve measuring the valve stems for buildup of any sort, measurements and clearance to the [valve] guides and a chemical analysis of any residue,” he recommended.

Robertson explained, “Being involved for many years on exhaust problems, dating back to the early days of the Chrysler Crowns, Sea Bees, Interceptors and Graymarine engines, running tests showed the valve overlap did in fact cause water ingestion and valve problems.”

In addition to the Farrington’s complaint, BoatU.S. has received reports in past years about water ingestion failures involving engines made by Mercruiser, Volvo and Crusader. However, these three companies developed new exhaust systems to mitigate the problem and Merc also developed an exhaust resonator kit that can be used to retrofit older designs.

Volvo’s solution is to increase the exhaust rise and incorporate baffles in the exhaust, as well as install a vacuum kit that diverts ingested water back into the outer part of the exhaust.

Back to the present. At this point, neither the Farringtons, Luhrs nor Petzolds is waiting to find out if Marine Power can solve the problem. After discussions last fall with BoatU.S. and the Farringtons, Luhrs and Petzolds agreed that replacing the engines with a different make is the best way to get the Farringtons back on the water in 2007.

In response, Marine Power offered to repair the faulty engines, send them back to Luhrs, so that Luhrs can sell them, using the proceeds to offset the cost of new engines for the Farringtons.

“We expected Marine Power USA to provide a minimum of $30,000 as Luhrs had already covered significant expense on engine related issues, along with goodwill, that is not a covered expense under the boat warranty,” said Mike Hankins, Luhrs’ director of customer relations.

“Our position is to provide 315 Yanmar diesel engines and gearboxes in their boat,” said Hankins. “We have always held out hope that Marine Power would provide the dollar difference between what Marine Power could sell the Farrington’s old motors for (which Luhrs has paid for most of) and what a set of diesels would be, approximately $18,000 each.

In the sometimes complex world of marine warranties, the boat manufacturer usually covers just the boat structure, while the engine manufacturer is responsible for the engine itself. Problems that develop when the engine installation or exhaust design do not conform to the engine maker’s recommendations are the responsibility of the boat manufacturer. Installation and exhaust design do not seem to be factors in the Farringtons’ case. If they were, it is almost certain Marine Power would have pointed out the anomalies.

Luhrs boats are built by Luhrs Marine Group, which also owns Hunter, Mainship and Silverton. The company stopped using Marine Power engines in 2003 because they decided to power all their models with diesel plants. “When we began to consider using gas again,” Hankins explained, “We chose Crusader and Volvo due to service support experience reported to us by Silverton and others.” Over the years, power options for the Luhrs 32 included Yanmar and Cummins diesels and Mercruiser gas engines.

In an effort to move the situation ahead, BoatU.S. offered to set up a mediation panel to review the Farringtons’ case. Several years ago, BoatU.S., along with the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the Marine Retailers Association of America established the BetterBOAT dispute resolution program to provide a peer review forum for settling complex cases, especially ones like this, where the parties are sharply divided. BetterBOAT settlement recommendations are non-binding.

Although, Marine Power failed to reply to our offer, company president W.E. Allbright, Jr., recently told BoatU.S., “I have some strong feelings about the proposed remedy [to install Yanmar engines] but I would be happy to participate in any type of conference call that can move this situation forward.” However when that call was recently scheduled, Allbright did not participate.

With an April launch date fast approaching, unless there is more substantive participation from Marine Power, it seems like Luhrs and the Farringtons will have some tough, expensive decisions to make.

(c) Copyright BoatU.S. Magazine, Mar 2007

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