The original plastic water pipes on the boat were a horrible spaghetti-like mess in the bottom of the bilge, and constantly leaking. It was always an intricate contortionist job to even tighten up a fitting which had either vibrated loose, or had cracked through old age.
On talking to other old boat owners, (and owners of old boats) it would seem it is a common problem, as plastic pipes and fittings become brittle due to heat, cold, and plain old age.
I therefore decided to replace the whole system with new modern fittings and pipes, along with a more powerful water pump than our present three gallons a minute unit, which was not powerful enough to allow multiple outlets to be used at the same time.
I found an ideal system, used in new home construction, replacing expensive copper pipes. I reasoned that if they were considered suitable to install permanently behind walls, then it would also be suitable for my boat plumbing.
First I bought two 100 foot coils of half inch diameter PEX 1/2 inch internal diameter pipe. One coil is red for hot water, the other blue for cold. This in itself would be an improvement, because the old pipes were all grey and it was difficult to know which was which, without running hot water through them. The original pipes had also been routed in the most difficult manner possible, behind bulkheads and panels. This is always easy when building a boat, but not for owner maintenance. I therefore planned to re-route my new pipes in a more visible way, so I could inspect them and get to the connections. This would also shorten the pipes length.
I bought matching PEX pipe connectors, guaranteed up to 100 psi. I worked out roughly how many elbows, tees, and straight connectors I thought I might need. I actually used 28.
The pipe is easy to join to the connectors. A small insert is placed in the end of the pipe, which is then simply pushed into the connector until it bottoms through an O ring in the fitting, which seals the joint. The pipe is prevented from blowing out by an internal barbed ring. They are also surprisingly easy to disconnect. A small C shaped removal tool is placed over the pipe, then pushed against the fitting, while at the same time pulling the pipe, and out it pops.
This was a far-cry from the original connectors, where the female outer bezel first had to be slid on the pipe, along with a sharp barbed ring, (which I cut myself on more than once), and a plastic ferrule. The outer coupling then had to be screwed into its male connector—but not too tight, or the plastic coupling could crack and you have to begin again. Repairing one of these in the bottom of the bilge was a tedious operation, especially if it occurred behind a panel, and it was happening more and more frequently.
Uncoiling the tightly rolled plastic pipe was like wrestling an octopus. It didn’t want to form into anything like a straight length. I decided to tie one end to the pulpit of the boat and uncoil it down the deck, then tie it to the stern rail, and leave it there in the Florida sun. This worked a treat, and within a few hours the pipe had succumbed to the heat and become workably straight.
I still had to drill some awkward 3/4 inch holes through bulkheads and such, to route the pipes more directly to the aft cabin bathroom/shower, the forward bathroom/shower and the galley. BRITANNIA has ten separate hot and cold outlets, including a washing machine, so I didn’t have much pipe left over after I had routed the two colors to the various faucets.
We had been living with the three gallon per minute electric pump for years, but it never really had enough pressure to supply both bathroom washbasin faucets at the same time. Simultaneous warm showers were out of the question. I therefore decided to double the flow, using a Par-Max Plus, six gallon per minute pump. This is a big powerful pump and I was a bit weary of increasing the pressure from 35 psi to 60 psi, but if it proved to be too much, I knew I could return it for a pump with a lesser flow.
After I had layed all the twin pipes to the various outlets I then set about making hot and cold manifolds, using T connectors joined together. These were screwed to the side of our machinery bay, just below the cabin sole, where they would be easy to get to in the event of a failure. I installed the heavy pump just below these, head down, per instructions.
It was then just a question of connecting the various pipes to the manifolds, Cutting this type of pipe is made very much easier using pipe cutting shears, which slice through the pipe perfectly square and burr free.
It had taken two days to get this far, and I had left the old pipes and pump in place, to keep our water supply on. It was also helpful to be able to double check the old connections against the existing layout, to be sure I was joining the right pipe to the hot and cold side. This was made much easier by the color coded pipes.
On the third day I was ready to disconnect the old pipes, but before this we filled a few pans and the kettle with water, because it would not be possible to run any water, until all the faucets were reconnected.
This indeed took the best part of a day. Stretching inside cupboards, unscrewing the old connectors and ‘piping up’ the new ones. One reason it took so long was because they didn’t all have the same size threads, did they? After all it is a boat! So there were the inevitable couple of trips back to the store, to buy adaptors and exchange fittings.
BRITANNIA also has a shore water connection, also known as a City water supply, which we connect when in marinas to save using the pump and batteries. A hose connects from a dock faucet to a pressure reducing inlet on the boat and pressurizes the boat’s water system.
This gives a constant pressure in the boat’s water system without using any pumps or battery power, which also means no noisy pumps. The supply can often be a more even flow to say a shower, than using a small pulsating pressure pump. Also, if you live aboard and have small tanks, it saves having to fill them up. We liked the advantages and convenience. But when one of the old connectors broke I realized there was nothing to prevent the boat completely flooding and even sinking if nobody was on board to hear the bilge pump running.
My thoughts turned to how to make a fail-safe system, because there was no accounting for another internal failure, even with new pipes and connectors. We always switched the water off on the dock when we left the boat, but that’s not foolproof, because it’s easy to forget.
Some people suggested not using a dock water hose at all, drawing from the tanks and refilling them as needed. But you might say the same about a shore power electrical supply, which everyone uses without a second thought, but which have been the cause of many an electrical fire.
As a cheap added safeguard I fitted a second shut-off tap at the hose/boat connection, just in case anyone switched the dock faucet on again. This was still not an automatic safety measure, so I considered how I might install some sort of automatic shut-off.
I found a 12 volt solenoid water valve on line. It is normally open, but instantly closes when voltage is applied. I connected it directly after the pressure inlet, and wired it to the bilge pump float switch. On tests it closed flawlessly, but when the bilge pump lowered the water below the valve float switch, the valve opened again and the cycle repeated continuously.
To prevent this I incorporated what is called a latching relay. When activated by the float switch it stays live and keeps the shut-off valve closed, even when the float switch power disconnects. The relay only powers off when the circuit is manually switched off at a breaker.
I also wired a bell into the circuit, which rings when the system is activated. In other words, the boat now has a high water bilge alarm.
I also fitted stop-cocks on the hot and cold supply to the washing machine, which we close when it is not being used, in case the valves on the washer fail.
I had to fit a larger contact breaker in the circuit board, from 15amp to 20amps, to carry the increased draw of the larger pump.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
Since there was only air in all the new pipes I opened all the faucets, checked all my fittings for the third time, said a little prayer, then pushed the contact breaker. The pump immediately started up, then ran, and ran, and ran, but with absolutely no sign of water at any faucet. These new style diaphragm pumps are capable of being run dry, so I was not much bothered, but after a few minutes I began to wonder why not even the slightest spurt was coming out of even the nearest outlet to the pump.
Then it suddenly dawned on me: both water tanks had shut-off valves, which enable each to be used as required. I remembered closing these while I connected the new system, but I couldn’t remember ever opening them. Without thinking to switch off the pump I quickly lifted the floor board under where the values were located. Both valves were closed and I quickly opened one!!
The pump instantly changed its tone, as though it was talking to me, and what it was saying was not complimentary!
In an instant water gushed out of all the faucets with so much more force than we had been used to. I switched some off, then turned on the shower in the aft cabin, which was now as powerful as our house shower!
I quickly made an inspection of all the connectors, and I would be lying if I said I had no leaks. I hadn’t pushed the pipe fully into three connectors to engage the O ring, but that was easy to remedy. There were also a couple of straight threaded connectors which dripped, which were easily stopped by a few extra turns with a wrench.
After this, all became silent; until I opened a faucet, and the pressure drop activated the pump, which again stopped the moment the tap was closed. Wow!
I tested the automatic shut-off valve by filling the bilge with fresh water until the switch activated the bilge pump and simultaneously switched the shore water supply off. This worked perfectly and remained switched off, even after the bilge pump lowered the water level.
This was another good job done in restoring worn out systems to an otherwise soundly constructed ocean cruiser.