How to Clean Your Boat Bilge

Cleaning is a vital part of proactive boat maintenance. Still, your boat's many nooks and crannies can make the process feel overwhelming. We're here to simplify your life with a breakdown of how to clean one of the most vital boat components — the bilge. 

How to Clean Your Boat Bilge

Why Should Bilges Be Kept Clean? 

A boat's bilge is similar to the basement of a home. It lies below the flooring and is where all the boat's components meet, including the keel, ribs and bulkheads. 

Because the bilge is a boat's lowest interior point, any water, condensation, oil or coolant that drains from the upper levels will collect there. For this reason, bilges contain pumps to keep the area clear of excess liquid. 

You must keep the bilge and pump clean because the moisture and chemicals that come into contact with them can cause rust, odor and bacterial growth if they sit too long. 

Cleaning Your Boat's Bilge

Cleaning Your Boat's Bilge

Learning how to clean the bilge area of a boat is reasonably straightforward. After every few outings, follow the steps below.

  1. Use a biodegradable bilge cleaner: Biodegradable bilge cleaners won't damage the environment if they leach into the nearby water or ground. As a bonus, many bilge cleaners are suitable for cleaning other parts of your boat, such as the mats, carpet and seats, so you won't need to buy multiple products. 
  2. Let the bilge cleaner soak: Open your boat's bilge area and douse every surface with cleaner. You may want to add some water to the cleaner to help it reach every inch of the bilge. It's a best practice to let bilge cleaners soak for two to three hours, but thoroughly read the instructions on the bottle to achieve the best results. The longer the product sits, the easier it will be to scrub the walls in the next step. 
  3. Scrub: Once the cleaning product has had adequate time to soak into the dirt, oil and grime, grab your scrub brush and finish the job. Anything abrasive will do, such as a nylon brush or scouring pad. 
  4. Rinse: Use clean water to rinse the bilge area of any remaining cleaning product, dirt or debris. 
  5. Properly discard the bilge water: It's common for traces of oil to end up in the water you use to rinse the bilge. Because it's a federal offense to discharge oil into the water around a boat, you must carefully dispose of it. Don't assume you can dump it into the sewer system, as this is also illegal in many areas. To clean oil from the bilge, use a small, handheld pump to transfer dirty water into a bucket. Dump it at a waste facility that permits oil-contaminated water. 
  6. Clean up any oil spills: If you accidentally spill oily water overboard, use absorbent pads or an oil spill kit to remove it immediately. The legal limit for oil spills equals about half a teaspoon per 50 gallons of water, so you must address even the slightest contamination.

How to Clean Your Bilge Pump

Bilge pumps are crucial to your boat's operation. They get rid of extra water by pumping liquid from leaks, spills or drainage systems out of the bilge. 

Annually cleaning your bilge pump will help keep it in proper working order. Below is a list of supplies you'll need to clean your bilge pump:

  • A screwdriver
  • A moisture-tolerant vacuum
  • Biodegradable marine cleaner
  • Marine grease
  • An abrasive brush

Once you've gathered these items, follow the steps below to achieve a clean bilge pump. 

  1. Access the bilge pump through the panel at the aft of the boat. 
  2. Remove any debris you find in the bilge. 
  3. Turn off the bilge pump's activation switch and unplug it from the electrical system.
  4. Loosen the clamp that connects the discharge hose to the pump with a screwdriver, then remove the hose.
  5. Turn the top of the pump to the left until it comes loose from the strainer base.
  6. With the top removed, hold the bottom and turn the pump's body to the left until it detaches from the lower casing.
  7. Remove any debris you find from each part of the pump. 
  8. Vacuum the bilge pump's strainer base.
  9. Take the bilge pump parts out of the boat and remove dirt and mold with a scrub brush and marine cleaner.
  10. Use fresh, clean water to rinse the bilge pump, being careful to keep the wiring dry.
  11. Grab your marine grease and apply a thin coating to the O-ring seal in the pump. 
  12. Carefully reattach the pump parts, ensuring they're in the same position as before.
  13. Place the clamp over the discharge hose and position the hose inside the pump. 
  14. Use a screwdriver to tighten the clamp so that it stays in place but doesn't compress the hose.
  15. Reattach the wires. Only turn the activator switch back on after confirming that the bilge pump operates correctly or your boat is in water. 
  16. Shut the access door. 

If you have your boat on a trailer, you can test the bilge pump's performance by plugging the drain and pouring four to five gallons of water inside the bilge. An automatic bilge pump should activate and pump the water. 

How to Keep Your Boat's Bilge as Clean as Possible

It's not feasible to keep your bilge perfectly clean all the time, but you can take preventive measures to reduce the amount of dirt and grime that gets into it. 

  • Service your boat engine regularly to keep it working correctly and reduce the chance of oil leaks.
  • Ensure your bilge pump hose clamps are tight.
  • Frequently check hoses for leaks.
  • Keep a drip pan under the motor to catch any oil leaks. 
  • Keep a supply of oil-absorbent pads on board. 
  • Stay current with bilge pump maintenance.

Turn to Fawcett Boat Supplies for Your Bilge Cleaning Needs

Turn to Fawcett Boat Supplies for Your Bilge Cleaning Needs

Fawcett Boat Supplies has provided high-quality boating supplies since 1948. We serve boaters of all kinds, including power, racer, cruiser, paddler and sail enthusiasts. 

We are proud to be your go-to marine supply source, whether you're working on an electrical, rigging, maintenance, hardware or cabin upgrade project. In addition to our extensive product inventory, we service and supply engine parts. 

Whether you're an experienced boater or a new hobbyist learning the ropes, we want to keep you out on the water. Contact Fawcett Boat Supplies for all your marine needs!

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