Northern Lights 12kW Generator Overheating

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Over the last few months the generator running temperature has been slowly increasing. We were still below the 205F cut-off level, and the generator continued to run fine, but something clearly wasn’t right.

The generator normally runs in the 192F to 193F range at full load and I have a warning set at 195 that sets a yellow light on the dash and send us email. The reason I set a warning indicator at such a low level rather than waiting for it to get up over 200F, is this allows me to catch most impeller failures early where I can just do a 30 minute impeller change rather than having to drain the antifreeze, take apart the heat exchanger, and dig the broken impeller parts out of the heat exchanger inlet.

If I wait until later, the generator will overheat and shut down during a run, potentially at an inconvenient time. And, more important, if you replace the impeller before the fins break free, you don’t have to take apart the heat exchanger hunting for impeller parts.

A couple of months back, the 195F warning fired. I’m used to this one and figured it would just be the usual quick impeller change. But the impellor looked fine.  The next mostly likely is a fault temperature sensor but, using an IR heat gun, I can “shoot” the head at the temp sensor and see if it’s reading accurately.  The sensor also tested fine. So, we had a slightly warmer than usual generator but we were also running in warmer water than we have seen for years on Lake Saimaa Finland where, even this early in the season, the lake water is already 61F. I figured it was likely the warmer than usual lake water. And, as soon as the generator is down below 100% load, it runs at normal temperature, so it wasn’t a big issue.

During the most recent generator run, the generator temps had crept up to 202F which is far too close to the 205F cut off used by Northern lights to shut the generator down. It was time to dig deeper and find the cause of the slowly-escalating generator operating temperature.

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The first thing I noticed is tiny spec of green antifreeze residue on the coolant circulation pump. I pushed on the spot and was a bit surprised to see coolant actually spraying out under pressure. The coolant circulation pump had corroded through. When I found the problem, it wasn’t yet leaking but the screwdriver pushed straight through the side of the pump when I pushed on it. The pump was paper thin and now the pump had a quarter-inch hole left by my screwdriver probe.

Clearly the first job was to change the coolant circulation pump. This is an easy job on a small Northern Light generator like our M843NW3.3. But since the coolant was full and there were no leaks prior to needing to change this pump, it almost certainly was not the cause of the higher-than-normal generator operating temperature.

To change the pump, I pop off the sound cabinet at the front and side, drain the coolant, loosen the water pump drive pulley, loosen the alternator, remove the drive belt, remove the water pump drive pulley, remove the coolant hose from the pump, remove the 6 fasteners that hold the water pump to the block, and remove the pump. I wire brushed the gasket surface until it was shiny and clean, replaced the gasket (I used a light coating of Permatex Red high temp RTV), and then re-attached the pump. Then I torqued up the pump, installed the pulley, belt, and tighten the alternator at the correct belt tension (roughly 1/4” deflection when pressed with finger).

Then I refilled the antifreeze and retested the generator at full load. Predictably, it still ran up over 200F.  There wasn’t much belt residue at the coolant pump or alternator pulleys so I knew the belt hadn’t been slipping. We now have a new coolant pump installed, so that wasn’t the problem either. The raw water pump impeller was fine, but I was concerned that the coolant may have become acidic since the pump should not corrode through.

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I checked the engine air filter and it was free-flowing and not a problem. The exhaust elbow was changed 1,500 hours back and I run fairly high load and don’t have carbon buildup in the exhaust so I didn’t bother to check it.

For the next phase, I drained the coolant back out to check the heat exchanger.  Here I’m checking the PH of the coolant using a handheld PH tester from Amazon. The coolant measured 9.1, which is slightly alkaline and just slightly lower than new coolant. From this test, the coolant appears fine but that’s not completely surprising since it was just changed 5 months back while we were in Amsterdam. Perhaps the old coolant was a problem or perhaps the coolant pump was just flawed.

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I next decided to check the thermostat since I was seeing slowly escalating temperatures and thermostats can fault in this way. This is an easy change where 4 bolts are removed from the side of the heat exchanger and the thermostat spring and thermostat come out. And the gasket surfaces need to be wire-brushed until shiny and clean before reassembly. I put a thin layer of Permatex RED high temp RTV on the gasket and then it all went back together quickly.

If you look closely at our thermostat in the second picture above, you can see that the thermostat is warped slightly and the movable inside section is scraping against the outside section. This can cause exactly the symptoms we were seeing, so I changed the thermostat, refilled the anti-freeze, and tested again at full load.

Unfortunately, the generator still ran on the hot side at full load, so the scraping thermostat wasn’t the primary issue and may not have been an issue at all. The generator was still hitting just barely above 200F at full load which allows it to operate without a thermal shut down but it’s far too close to the line.

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I drained the coolant for the third time and this time took apart the heat exchanger. I probably should have investigated this prior to changing the thermostat, but the thermostat is such a quick and easy check, I did it first even though it’s less likely to be the problem.

Removing the heat exchanger is easy. Remove the heat exchanger rubber boot at the front of the engine. Loosen the boot at the rear and push the heat exchanger bundle forward and then pull it from the front out of the housing. I found 8 or 9 heat exchanger tubes plugged, which is not a total surprise for a 5,600 nearly 10 year old generator. On our last boat, I used a gun barrel cleaner but I don’t appear to have it any more so I improvised and cleaned out the tubes using a short section of heavy gauge wire. When they were all nice and shiny and rinsed our clear, I reassembled the system, refilled the anti-freeze and tested.

The good news is that it was much better. The system now ran below 200F at full load so it was doing pretty well but I know it never ran that hot before, so something still wasn’t 100% right.

But, there was one concern from the first picture above. If you look closely a thin layer of perhaps 1/8” to 1/16” of residue is visible on the outside of the tubes.  The residue was thin, so I didn’t think it was a likely cause and didn’t go after it at this time (but I should have).

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At this point, I had investigated most reasonable causes of excess operating temp. I know the raw water pump only has 1,000 hours on it and the impeller is good but it’s an after-market  (non-Northern Lights pump) which I was encouraged to try and I sort of regret getting it. It’s a great pump and has operated flawlessly but I just feel better with the manufacture pump on there. If something weird happens and the shaft breaks, the engine gear train can be destroyed. This almost never happens, but I still would prefer to use the factory pump and I have one on hand so I decided to change the pump and keep the aftermarket pump as a spare since it’s only been lightly used.

The raw water pump is easy to change. Take off the top and bottom hoses, unscrew the top and bottom hose barbs to use on the new pump unless you are replacing them, remove the four fasteners, put an oil diaper under the pump, and remove the pump. The new pump went back on quickly. I refilled the anti-freeze and tested the gen at full load. It still ran right around 200F.

Northern Lights engine expert Bob Senter has mentioned many times that incompatible antifreezes can cause problems. Apparently the old John Deere coolant used in the past is incompatible with HOAT/OAT/NOAT type anti-freezes that are becoming common and the mixing of these antifreeze chemistries can cause rapid corrosion and over-temperature. Since this engine is showing some of both, I took Bob’s advice of flushing the coolant system.  The Nordhavn yard says they used Fleetguard ES Complete and I’ve used nothing but ES Complete blue label so there should have never been a coolant mix in the engine. But, I’ve checked just about everything else, so I would flush the cooling system and put in all new coolant as a next step.

To this I drained the coolant for the fifth time, put in water, ran the engine, drained it out (sixth time), and then refilled the coolant with 1 cup of dishwasher detergent (picture at top of this post) and the rest clear water.

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I ran this mix of dishwater detergent and water for a couple of hours and the generator never got above 190F at full load. This is better than the engine has been for at least 5 years. I drained it out (7th time) and in the picture above you can see how dirty the water came out. I repeatedly drained the coolant, refilled with freshwater, and ran the engine until the water came out clean. Then I refilled the system with new coolant. This ran up the “drain the antifreeze” count to 12 :-). But the good news is it has run for several days now with the coolant temp never exceeding 192F.

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While working on the generator, I always have to be careful to have generator auto-start shut off. This last operation of flushing the antifreeze took some time and, while working on the generator, the control system detected the house batteries needed charging. Of course, since I have autostart off, it failed to start the generator.

What I thought was kind of cool is the batteries need to be charged, and since the control system was unable to start the generator, it failed over to emergency-backup generator (two generators when you only have one) which on Dirona is the main engine. The main engine automatically started up, the RPM climbed to charging RPM, and it ran until the batteries were charged.

This is exactly what it’s supposed to do. If the batteries need charging and the gen won’t start, can’t start, or stops running, the main is run to charge the batteries. It’s not a surprise to see it start, but it’s great to see everything just work as designed. In the picture above you can see the main engine is currently producing 7.6KW which is that far below what our 12KW generator charges at. The main is an excellent backup to the generator but, in fairness to the generator, the main engine has actually only been needed as backup once.

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I worked for a six years as an Italian car mechanic servicing Alfa Romeo, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Fiat, Lancia, etc. And, of course, I’ve seen my fair share of vexing cooling problems but this one has actually been more challenging than most. It’s now running exactly as it should, where after 20 minutes at full load the whole time in 61F lake water, the generator temperature is only at 188F.  It has lots of cooling margin at this point. In fact, I don’t think the 180F thermostat is even fully open until 190F. It’s looking perfect.

What I’m left wondering about is the root cause of this problem. I’ve never used any antifreeze other than Fleetguard ES Complete blue label. This is an excellent antifreeze and I wouldn’t expect to see any problems with it. The cooling system gets new antifreeze every two years, but even with good coolant and proper changes, it was a bit of a mess. The engine showed no signs of exhaust leaks into the coolant. It produced full power, there are no bubbles into the coolant, and all cylinders are running at the same temperature. I suspect that I have a coolant quality problem but, if that is the case, I should see it again I’m running a new load of the same brand coolant.

If there are any signs of coolant problems in the generator over the next 6 months or so, I’ll not trust the coolant I’m using and replace it in all three engines. It’s good to see the generator back to running like new but it ended up taking nearly a day to chase it all down.

Thanks to Bob Senter for recommending the dishwasher detergent flush. It ended up making the difference. The generator hasn’t been above 192F in over a week and we have been in water as warm as 69F.


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55 comments on “Northern Lights 12kW Generator Overheating
  1. Rich Etzel says:

    I have a Northern Lights 5 1/2 KW M643 engine. I don’t have a gauge panel. The engine runs for 1/2 hour and shuts down. I replaced the coolant switch with same results. Then started it and kept checking with a heat gun. Temp rose to 203 then just as it dropped to 185 she cut out. any thoughts? thermostat? Thanks, Rich

    • MVDirona says:

      It sounds like your generator went into thermal shut down. Northern Lights shuts down at 205F and a well maintained cooling system shouldn’t get much over 195F even at full load. Check the impeller and water pump condition. Ensure you have cooling water flow. Remove the heat exchanger boot at the forward end and check for bits of broken impeller blades. If the coolant hasn’t been changed for a couple of years or the cooling system seems ineffective, dump the coolant, run a cup of dishwater coolant through the system for an hour at load. And then flush the system 3 to 4 times to clear it out.

      All the best and good luck with your project.

  2. TD Smyers says:


    You helped me with an overheat issue last summer, and now I have another annoying, intermittent issue I could use some guidance on.

    To refresh your memory, I have a Northern Lights M773LW3 diesel generator on my sailing catamaran. My inverter is a Victron MultiPlus 3000 12V inverter/charger. My Victron has a display that allows me to observe the charging voltage and current, as well as my batteries’ State of Charge (SOC). Occasionally, the Victron shows a momentary interruption of charging current, which usually comes back on after a few seconds. Sometimes this interruption is accompanied by the DC Circuit Breaker on the Generator Control Box tripping. Upon resetting the breaker, charging continues. There is no shutdown or alarm that accompanies this momentary interruption, all gauges indicate normal operating conditions, and the generator continues to operate fine mechanically. I’ve tried running this with only the batteries accepting current from the generator, through the Victron (no other AC draw) with the same result – intermittent reset, sometimes only once over several hours of operating the generator to charge my batteries, sometimes accompanied by a tripping of the DC breaker on the Generator Control Box, but usually not.
    What should I be looking for?
    Another thing to note, my raw water intake is on the port side, while the generator is on the starboard (my boat is a 2013 Fountaine Pajot Helia 44). At the raw water strainer is a “Little Giant” MS-1200 boost pump that assists the flow across the boat to the impeller.
    When this reset occurs and the DC breaker on the Control Box trips, it is usually accompanied by an oscillating sound from this pump, as if it’s straining.

  3. Kevin Greene says:

    Thanks for the details. I’m ordering a PH meter. What I couldn’t find was much detail on acceptable PH levels. We also have a NL12.5Kw Genset and use ES Compleat for both the genset and main. What range do you find acceptable, and do you mainly track PH or do you utilize other tests as well?

    • What you are looking for is the coolant becoming acidic. On the PH scale, 7.0 is neutral and you want the coolant to be slightly alkaline. I expect to find 8 to 9 and would change early if it dropped down below 7.5. If it was higher than 10, I would investigate why (incorrect PH meter, excess treatment of coolant, …). My general approach is to change the coolant on manufacturers recommended intervals or if the PH drops.

  4. James Le Voguer says:

    Curious, and me thinks obvious, but the dishwater detergent must be dishwasher type- non foaming?

    Meanwhile we are having what appears to be sender problem…

    James, mv Les Voguer – N5028

    • Correct. The text said “dishwasher detergent” rather than “dishwater detergent”. It needs to be non-foaming.

      We’ve seen a few sender problems as well. Good luck with yours.

      • Leigh says:

        Hi two questions:
        1) whats your rationale for applying the Permatex RED high temp RTV to a new gasket?
        2) after draining the water from the gen how did you dispose of this water?

        Cheers. L
        Salt Spring Island BC Canada

        • I’m a pretty big fan of Permatex red from my days as an aeromechanic at a Chevrolet dealer. Many surfaces in GM engines of that era used only Permatex red without any gasket or seal at all and still seal well. I use a light film of it on most oil and water sealing gaskets even though, strictly speaking, a new gasket along should be sufficient.

          We have a permanent storage storage locations for used oil since we produce it regularly and we have space on board to store 80 liters of used engine oil (roughly 1 year). This gets recycled when we are at marinas with such facilities. Marinas with recycling facilities are not universal but fairly common. Once, in Amsterdam, we had to pay a 100 euros to recycle but there is normally no charge (and shouldn’t be a charge since used oil has value). Antifreeze we normally don’t store on board and only change it at marinas with facilities to properly handle antifreeze but, if we do service away from a marina, we store it on board. In this case the soapy water from cleaning the cooling system repeatedly is discharged with the rest of the grey water (all sink and shower water) whenever that tank approaches full. We have the ability to disable grey water discharge for those rare places in the world where grey water discharge is not allowed but I can’t recall ever needing to do that.

          • Leigh says:

            Thanks for your reply. Wondering your thoughts on the following: I tried the dishwasher detergent/water (DDW) method on flush # 4. By the time I got to flush # 10 I was still having “tea/rust colored” returns. I repeated the DDW flush at #11 then repeated water flushes up to #14 but still had tea/rust colored returns. The DDW flushes ran for 1 hr. The in between water flushes 10 minutes. I guess I’m at a loss as to what to do next. Keep flushing? Store bought coolant flush? Thought I would have had clear returns by now. NL M844 16kw. 4300hrs. 1988. We took over the gen at 3500hrs. Not sure what maintenance was done to cooling system by PO. Thanks for any insight.

            • If antifreeze has been allowed to age excessively, it can become corrosive and some rust will build up in the cooling system. Your goal with the dishwasher solution is to clean up antifreeze build up on internal engine surfaces Once that is done, your ready to refill with a manufacturer approved antifreeze. I use Fleetguard ES Compleat Blue. The light tea color probably will not clear.

  5. TD Smyers says:

    Thanks for this article James! It helped me greatly to troubleshoot my M773LW3 when it began overheating under load. We worked around the problem by regulating the load, but it finally got to the point where I couldn’t even charge our batteries and run a single accessory for any length of time.
    I wound up replacing the heat exchanger boots, thermostat (w/spring and gasket) and pressure cap, and also used the dishwashing detergent trick to clean the system out. The maker of my boat didn’t leave me enough room to remove the heat exchanger bundle, so I cleaned the tubes out with wire while it was still in the housing.
    The problem now is that the generator quits running after 5 minutes or so. Temp doesn’t have time to get above 180 and the oil pressure is fine. As long as I hold down the bypass switch, the generator runs; but once it’s run for this 5 minutes and I try to start it again, it shuts down as soon as I release the switch. I read in the manual where the unit will shut down even when the engine temp is within limits if the exhaust temp is too high and that could be caused by the impeller or a blockage. I changed the impeller (and it did have several vanes that had failed) and inspected the through hull and strainer assembly – all clear.
    Any idea what’s going on? I’m assuming I caused this somehow while working on the system.

    • The most likely issue is the engine is running fine and you have a sensor problem. These engines use fairly primitive single wire analog sensors. They aren’t terribly reliable, fail fairly frequently, and since they get ground through the engine (single wire), a bad ground system can cause large error in the readings. The first check is to run the engine at load and measure the engine temperature using an IR heat gun on the front of the engine where the temperature sensor screws in above and to the right of the coolant circulation pump when looking at the front of the engine. Your engine thermal cutout is 205F so watch the temperature and see where it is cutting out. If it’s way down below 200F, you have an electrical issue rather than an actual over temperature issue. Bad ground, bad sender, and possible wiring issues. That would be my first test and it’ll get you headed in the right direction: electrical sender or related issue vs engine overheat problem.

      • TD Smyers says:

        Thanks for the help James. I measured the temp at the front of the heat exchanger, and it’s only around 150 when it the generator shuts down. I also measured it at the exhaust elbow to make sure raw water is getting through the system, and the temp there is 98 degrees, which I’m told is normal. Is there an easy way to disconnect the sensor and run the engine to isolate that as my issue?
        It looks like I’ll need to remove my alternator to R&R the sensor.

        • If the engine is only 150F, that confirms that you do not have a overheating problem. The engine cutout system using a grey wire that puts the low oil pressure switch and engine over temperatures switch in parallel where, if either grounds the grey wire, the engine will be shut down. Check the high temperature switch at shutdown by putting a continuity tester between the top terminal and ground (with the grey wire off). If there is continuity below 205F, it will shut down the engine and should be replaced. With care while monitoring the engine temperature with an IR gun, you can run with the grey wire disconnected from the high temperature sender to ensure it runs fine and there are no other problems.

          You can unscrew the wire terminal from the temperature switch behind the alternator without removing the alternator using a Philips tip in a 1/4″ drive socket and a 1/4″ ratchet. Make sure that the sender is at fault by checking for continuity with the wire removed when the engine shuts down, you need to change the switch. It can be done without taking off the alternator.

      • TD Smyers says:

        I didn’t pay attention to the orientation of the heat exchanger bundle when I put the boots on, securing it to the housing. Is it important to rotate it so the holes in the bundle are up or down? If so, might not getting this right contribute to my problem?

        • You have already determined you don’t have an overheating engine but, yes, the orientation of this part does matter. Put the large holes in either end down.

          • TD Smyers says:

            Again, thanks for this help. I’m confident this baby will be running cool and smooth by this afternoon … and I’ll be a better diesel mechanic!

            • Excellent. Northern Lights uses a simple wiring system with all discrete components so it’s easy to understand, easy to fix, and they supply accurate wiring diagrams.

              • TD Smyers says:

                We’re at anchor now with a generator that’s humming along at around 183 with a full load. Again, thanks for the very informational and insightful post.
                I wanted to add to the info with something very unusual I found that caused much of my problem.
                While I thoroughly inspected the hose connecting the seawater pump to the front end of the heat exchanger when I replaced the boots, I didn’t inspect the hose feeding into the pump from the bottom. I assumed that any broken impeller parts would travel downstream and be found at the end of the heat exchanger. In fact, when I cleaned the heat exchanger, I found a few there and was satisfied.
                Failing to find the cause of my overheating after replacing all the parts above, I went to replace the seawater pump and found masses of impeller parts impacting the hose feeding INTO the pump from below (mine, like yours, is mounted vertically). I cleaned them out with a probe and wound up with a fistful of debris that had almost completely clogged my line.
                The pieces had apparently fallen into the hose when the pump was run at some point in the past with the seacock closed. In the absence of water flow, gravity took over and dropped the pieces of disintegrated impeller into the feeder hose – something I certainly didn’t anticipate.
                So, I still have the new pump for a spare. I think I’ll order up a stainless steel exhaust elbow too, so I’ll eventually have a completely new cooling system, piece by piece!

                • Good to hear you are back to fully operational. As I read your note, I was trying to figure out how vanes went down against the flow and blocked your pump inlet but your thinking that operation with a closed sea cock might do it makes sense. I’ve never seen it vanes going anywhere but with the flow to the heat exchanger. Glad you’re back to running well. I set a visual indicator to light when the gen is above 194F and I find this sometimes allows me to get to it before the fins have moved to the impeller and, failing that, it give me a bit more warning that a heating problem is likely near.

  6. Ken Anderson says:

    James Do you use an SCA as indicated in the NL manual along with Fleetguard ES

    • Hey Ken. By SCA, I assume you mean supplemental coolant additive. These are used to prolong the life of coolant. ES Compleat and other good quality diesel coolants come withe appropriate coolant additives and don’t need any more. You can often extend life by adding more if the coolant tests low in additives.

      Note that neither the Operators manual nor the Workshop manual for the 12KW NL generator mentions the use of SCAs. I just use ES Compleat and change it on schedule or when the PH starts to become more acidic. If you use a compliant coolant like Fleetguard ES Compleat and change it on the NL schedule, it’ll be in great shape.

      • Ken Anderson says:

        As always many thanks. Bought a PH meter the other day and plan to also monitor that alongside the prescribed periodic changes. Thanks again

        • Good approach. One thing to keep in mind is unlike our main engines, the generator has a tiny coolant circuit. An entire coolant change is so easy it’s worth doing it at least on manufacturer intervals as cheap insurance. The main engine cooling circuit is gigantic and it’s more expensive to fill that one but, even then, it probably still make sense to follow guidelines.

    • Sevan Topjian says:

      James:. Wanted to send you a quick thank you for this post. We have an Oyster 485 and I noticed the same slight temperature increase on my NL 843 last week that I could just not figure out. I had gone through most of the items on your checklist when I searched online for answers and came across your posting. The detergent flush was the trick! Running great today with temperature locked in again around 193. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

      • That’s great to hear. My recommendation is to ensure the raw water pump impeller is in good shape, the raw water pump is not excessively worn, and impeller parts aren’t built up on the inlet side of the heat exchanger. Most overheats are related to one of these issues. The detergent trick (from Bob Senter) is amazingly effective at cleaning out the cooling system and improving heat transfer.

  7. Dave says:

    This is somewhat off-topic but I’ve wondered if you might have considered running your boat with a serial electric hybrid system. Three-phase AC marine electric motors from places like ELCO are efficient and very reliable. It seems to me that if you are typically running a hotel load along with the propulsive load, it might make more sense to run one or two three-phase gensets to generate motive power.
    The advantages I see would be:
    -quiet & efficient operation at the genset’s most efficient RPM
    -excess power could charge batteries
    -the wing engine could be replaced with a smaller electric motor for low-speed operation

    It’s a difficult solution to model, but I was curious if you considered it with Dirona.

    • Diesel electric is an attractive idea and that is how most cruise ships, train locomotives, mining trucks are driven. It has many advantages. It’s a great way to get extreamly high torque to each axle. A common cruise ship configuration is 3 V12 diesels and 3 V16s and these engines run the hotel loads, the thrusters, and the azipods. When more power is needed, they run more engines and when less is needed they run less. I’ve played around with the idea and like it but it’s not practical to install post-build. It’s also challenging to get the design right. Two larger Nordhavns where built diesel electric and the owners of both ended up giving up and the boats were returned to standard mechanical propulsion.

      In a smaller boat like ours, I don’t think I would be willing to give up the efficiency and reduced range of diesel electric even with all the advantages.

      • Dave says:

        Thanks for the reply!

        In fact I went on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Golden Princess once, and I saw on the electric management board the number of active diesels and the total load generated. She was able to move in the Gulf of Alaska at 20 knots while powering her hotel loads with only 4 of the 6 engines running.

        But that touches on the downside – there’s a substantial amount of mechanical fitting needed to modify a direct-diesel vessel. Also, those large cruise ships have a dedicated engineering team for optimizing the current mix of power generated and power delivered, while emulating that kind of expertise in some kind of energy management computer would be complex and probably full of weird corner cases.

        Diesel electric might make a little more sense in a sailing vessel, where the motors could also be used to generate electric power, and there is a good use case for low-speed energy efficient motoring to supplement wind power. It’s less clear that a motor vessel running flat out at top speed for hours would substantially benefit, unless there is a large continuous hotel load and/or the generators were substantially more energy efficient than a direct drive motor.

        • I think you are right. It’s harder to make diesel electric work well in a small boat where there is a hard limit on the amount of fuel that can be carried and, as a consequence, fuel efficiency matters greatly. And we don’t really have the massive load changes where diesel electric really shines.

          A related idea that interests me greatly is to replace a 12 to 16 kw generator with 2 6kw or smaller generators and bring the generators up and down as loads change with a battery/inverter absorbing the load during startup. I like the idea of more closely matching the load to the generator capacity.

          • Dave says:

            One way you could start in that direction would be to replace the 40 HP (30 kw peak) wing engine with the Elco EP-40 three-phase AC motor, along with a three Victron Quattro inverter/chargers operated as a three-phase system and maybe another diesel generator. Then any combination of available AC gensets and batteries (or even the main engine alternator) could power the wing motor. This would allow you to re-use some of the space used by the wing engine with a genset, and make the “get-home” motor even more reliable – supposedly 50,000 hours between required maintenance because there’s only one moving part. It would also allow reuse of genset capacity.
            I’m and electrical engineer, so I admit I like the idea of transforming problems into electrical problems. But it’s fun to think about, at any rate.

            • I’m a sucker for new engineering projects but, as much as I like your suggestion, getting these designs right takes time and investment. I would love to work with a company to engineering an excellent solution. But, doing the engineering for just a single boat doesn’t make sense. The project needs more scale to look good economically but I love the idea and would love to be involved with a project on the lines you describe.

            • Eric Patterson says:

              Dave, we’re currently building a nordhavn and I walked through many of these ideas and you’re correct they are certainly interesting. The thing I said about this is that Nordhavn has leaned towards proven concepts that they know are typical and tested. Haha, part of the build process is constantly re-examining you’re decisions.

  8. Bob Breen says:

    Great post, James. I recently attended Bob Senter’s two-day hands-on diesel class in Ballard and was able to follow all your troubleshooting steps thanks to Bob’s great instruction and your clear writing. Before Bob’s class, this would have all been pretty mystifying!

    I also read your post about storing your spare parts. With so many parts spread out across multiple areas of the boat and various boxes, do you have some kind of tracking system to help you find a part when you need it? I’ve got a slew of spares now, with more coming, and I’m worried I’ll lose track.

    Thanks again!

  9. Chris M says:

    Hi James and cheers from Seattle! Now that AWS Outposts are seeing some public light of day, I’m curious of you’ve had the urge to upgrade your power system to run one on the boat? It seems like that would be a pretty cool use case to bring the AWS Cloud everywhere!

    • It would be very cool but the boat is poorly connected by data center standards and has limited space and power so an Outpost won’t squeeze in. We would need a much bigger boat. But, we do run everything off of AWS. We have a central database where all on board telemetry and control information is stored. It’s fairly busy with well over 100 requests per second. From there, a subset of the data is uploaded to AWS where the web site is hosted. The AWS account also provide access to the boat control systems when we are away from the boat.

      • Chris M says:

        That’s awesome that you have been able to integrate that much with AWS. You must have some unique and robust data queuing and transfer backoff solutions to handle the connectivity challenges where latency could be measured in days until you have a [cost-effective] link again. Have you thought about grabbing a Snowball Edge to get a smaller taste of EC2 on-board until you can talk them into building an Outpost Pi? I’d think that would be a good way to periodically sync the superset of data to AWS for long-term retention and trend analysis. Greengrass seems like a potential option as well.

        Of course, this all assumes you don’t want to spend time just enjoying your travel. ;-)

  10. Per-Ola Selander says:

    James, I assume the heat-exchanger insert is made of bronze. In the Volvo Penta manual, I was recommended to use Muriatic acid to clean the oil-cooler insert. Given it was much smaller, only about a hand long and could be submerged, it was an easy job. And engine was never “in danger” as the procedure was only part of a (for me) preventive maintenance I undertook as I took most of the engine apart one summer.

    And as always; amazed you have time to both maintain Dirona in bristol condition – AND keep your WW audience abreast with what is going on. When it comes to technology or to adventures – and when they happen to intersect. Planned or not.

  11. Greg Moore says:

    Hi James – very informative article! Have you considered using Barnacle Buster to flush cooling systems? I’ve done it a few times now on my mains and it really cleans out the salt water side of the cooling system. Plus, it really is easier than pulling apart the cooling bundles on my engines. I’ve been very impressed with the results-

    • I’ve heard good things about Barnacle Buster for cleaning the raw water side of the heat exchanger. Despite all the stories I have heard about plugged up sea water systems, we have never had any trouble with ours and, even 10 years later, it’s still bright and clean. This particular issues was the jacket water (coolant) side of the heat exchanger had built up an insulating scum layer over 10 years and just under 6,000 hours.

      Thanks for the Barnacle Buster recommendation.

  12. Paul Wood says:

    Hi James,

    I wonder if this could be a case of the “fouling factor,” especially so if this is the first time the heat exchanger has had a proper cleaning flush. The coating on the heat exchanger tubes gradually builds up over the years and becomes like a form of insulation on the heat transfer tubes. Thus causing overheating.

    As you’ll know, all good heat exchangers are over-engineered to cope with this fouling factor issue so that they operate within spec for quite some time until eventually, it becomes a shutdown scenario due to overheating.

    I used to spray wash division plates and tube bundle exchangers with an alkaline solution, followed by a thorough rinse, reassembled and put back into normal operating service.

    Totally unrelated, and is more of preventative medicine. Giving washing machines etc a service wash with a tub of Bicarbonate of Soda once every 3 months works wonders for cleaning scale of heating elements, pump impellors, thermostat bodies :)

    • The heat exchanger fouling was either what Paul is calling “normal fouling factor” or some form of anti-freeze contaminant. Paul’s suggestion is the most likely of the two.

      Your Bicarbonate of Soda flush for washing machines sounds like a good idea in hard water applications.

  13. Brent says:

    As an ex Italian car Mechanic you would be a master of problem solving. You are definitely next level with tech. One thing to consider is growth or barnacles inside your sea cocks for the raw water inlets to the heat exchanger.

    • We did think of that but it’s never been a problem over the 10 years we’ve owned the boat and, since the only way to solve that one is to dive the boat, I decided to check other things first. But you’re right it does happen. I’ve heard from many that have had that problem but, for some reason, we’ve never seen the raw water inlets plug up. Perhaps everything gets used too frequently for build-up to start?

  14. Kenneth Geller says:

    I have worked on hearts not generators, so I am not exactly familiar with what you did. However, your problem solving was great.

    • Thanks Kenneth. On this problem, I probably should have gone to the heat exchanger more quickly. I suspect that the antifreeze I was using may have a problem but we’ll know if this problem returned or it stays clear since the new antifreeze added is from the same batch

      The cooling system is now very clean so if any problems return, then the it’ll be an antifreeze problem or a some leak into the cooling system.

  15. marcus says:

    really informative post – thankyou

  16. Tim Gillingham MV Iriana says:

    I have been having the same overheating issue with on our 16kw NL. This is a great guide to working through the system.
    Thanks for the comprehensive post.

    • Good luck in working through your issues. Generally, the generators are well engineered with systems that are easy to access so it shouldn’t be hard. The heat exchanger is a popular place to find issue with bits of raw water impeller often plugging the forward end.

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