Friday, April 27, 2018

I used to be a rational person.


 Then I became a sailor.

Deck all prepped, engine checks done, Deb twisted the key to bring the WesterBeast to life for the day's travel.

Nadda. Nothing. Silence.

And my first thought was, “I should never have written last night’s post.” As if there is some mysterious power in the cosmos that reads my posts, gets offended, and then puts a wonk into the starter system just to show me who’s boss.

It gets better.

Kintala is equipped with a secondary starter button located in the port side of the engine box, pointing into the galley. Its main use is to bleed air out of the fuel system and I can’t tell you when was the last time it was pressed into service. Still, it seemed the thing to do, so I pressed the button. The Beast fired right up, but the button stuck on, the starter screaming in protest as it was driven by the engine. Pause for a moment and picture the scene. 

The last time a starter hung on me that badly it nearly burned the King Air B100 I was driving to the ground. Quick thinking mechanics grabbed fire extinguishers and were coating the engine accessory section even as the prop was spinning down, smoke pouring out of the cowl, tiny molten metal bits dripping off to leave little smoke trails of their own. Fire, inside a wooded engine box, inside a fiberglass boat, was just about inevitable unless I could get the starter shut down.

Hammering the stuck switch  few times with a fist did nothing to help the situation. Deb pulled the fuel shutoff knowing only that something bad was happening. I went for the main battery switch as the howls of protesting metal made it clear the end was nigh. It worked. The starter disengaged. Silence reigned, except for the pounding of my heart.

A few posts ago I mentioned having little enthusiasm for the idea of having a ship’s battery bank split into two. I still think that is a poor idea. But a great idea is having a quick way to get all of the DC power off of the boat, and it likely prevented Kintala from becoming a smoking hulk sizzling her way to the bottom of Gasparilla Sound.

Order and poise regained, we attempted to get underway once again. Both starter switches where squirted with contact cleaner and tested for proper movement and “feel” before the DC was turned back on. Deb twisted the key, the Beast rumbled to life with no ado, and we went about getting under way once again.

Going forward to lift the anchor, I noticed the nut that holds the bolt that holds the roller that holds the anchor, was missing. I know it was there when I dropped the anchor in the evening. Come morning, it was gone. Just how is that possible? But my first thought?

“Good. Primary stater switch, secondary starter switch, and now a missing nut. That makes three near disasters of the day. We should be safe for a while.” 

As if there is some mysterious power in the universe that dishes out disasters in 3s, just to make sure we are paying attention.

I used to be a rational person.

Then I became a sailor.

There were four adults in this tiny little sailboat that was battling the ICW traffic jams of large, speeding motor yachts.

It was the day for little sailboats. Beautiful, this one.


21 comments:

Phil Gow said...

On my last boat I wired it so that the key had to be held twisted to the spring loaded start position, and the starter button had to be pressed, to engage the starter...sometimes I thought it was overkill, but your situation was exactly what I was thinking about when I did it! Glad it ended ok for you!

Robert Salnick said...

Good thinking and quick response! Every boat needs to be equipped with a switch to completely isolate the batteries- even from the engine. And for those of you out there feeling smug because you have a fuse in your primary battery wiring, it wouldn’t have helped here.

Robert Salnick said...

Also, I heard of a boat that burned to the waterline because the anchor windlass stuck on...

The Cynical Sailor said...

"I used to be a rational person. Then I became a sailor." Truer words have never been spoken :-)

Robert Salnick said...

Maybe wouldn’t have solved the problem... If the contacts in the starter solenoid had stuck, and I have seen this several times, interrupting the actuating current would have no effect. Again, there needs to be a way of isolating the batteries- even from the engine. Too often, I have seen the starter wired direct to the batteries, with the house loads being the only thing served by the battery switch.

Robert Salnick said...

The comment above was supposed to be a reply to Phil Gow’s observation

Phil Gow said...

Robert, that's a really good point...I haven't delved too deeply into my new boats wiring, but that needs to be on the list!

TJ said...

Robert, I went for the battery master switch knowing that the starter switch was stuck. I suspect, had it been a hung solenoid, we would have had ended up in much worse shape. Most of the boats I have worked on have no quick way to directly disconnect the stater from the battery. Starter loads are so high that locating switches large enough to handle them make it difficult to find a place to mount the thing that doesn't add a lot of length to the wire run, battery to starter. I think of where the battery master switch is in many boats in relationship to the location of the battery and the starter. To carry starter loads that far the wiring would have to be double runs of 4-0. And you still have to find a place for that big switch that is easily accessible without being in the way. I put starter isolation switches in the boat I wired last year, but they were in the engine compartments themselves. There was simply no room for them anywhere else.

It isn't a problem unique to boats. The King Air I nearly burned down had exactly that some flaw. Everything is a compromise.

Robert Salnick said...

TJ, even the smallest battery switches have tremendous current carrying capabilities. Here's the small Blue Seas one:

Cranking Rating: 10 sec. 1,500 Amps
Intermittent Rating: 5 min. 500 Amps
Continuous Rating: 300 Amps

For comparison, cranking Eolian's starter (Perkins 4-236 diesel) draws 200 amps - I know this because everything on Eolian goes thru the shunt for our Link2000 monitor. And everything also goes thru the battery switch on the power panel. Including the starter.

I'd like to amend one of my earlier comments - in my experience with engines, I have seen several instances of the contacts in the starter solenoid welding, and thus sticking, but I have *never* seen a case where the ignition switch stuck - well I guess I've heard of one now. Based on my experience, it is the starter solenoid which is most likely to cause a runaway starter (or windlass for that matter). I once destroyed a car battery trying to pry the connection off of it in a runaway starter situation. What a mess that was - sparks and acid everywhere (and it was my dad's car)! In retrospect, I guess I was lucky I didn't have a hydrogen explosion.

If your starter does not go thru a battery switch (or THE battery switch), I'd sure try to find a way to make it so...

Bob
s/v Eolian
Anacortes

Deb said...

Bob- our ignition switch on the panel didn't work (corrosión I'm sure because it worked after we sprayed it) so Tj used the button starter switch on the side of the engine compartment that is used to turn over the engine when you're bleeding it. That push button switch is located near the floor in the galley and it got stuck from various greasy and/or sticky fluids from cooking and four grandchildren. We never use it to bleed the engine anymore since I installed the electric boost pump last year so I never thought to clean it. Won't forget anymore...

TJ said...

Robert, it is something i intend to explore, it is entirely possible that Kintala's starter cable runs through the master switch. i hate to admit this, but I try to stay away from the boat's wiring as much as possible. I'm afraid that, should I actually start some major project I will end up rewiring the whole boat, stem to stern. Which would likely take yet another year out of my life, plus one more of working for someone else to pay for it.

My experience is the opposite of yours. The only time I recall a starter solenoid welding shut was the King Air, once in more than 12,000 hours of flying and who knows how many starts, adding in maintenance ground runs and reposition taxi operations. We used to do air restarts as a normal part of maintenance checks and training. Think of welding a solenoid shut on one of those...shudder. (That's what I loved about simulator training. One could practice bleeding without actually bleeding.)

Anyway, all good comments having to do with making our boats as safe as possible. And I'm glad you didn't blow up your Dad's car!

Robert Salnick said...

TJ -
Boy, I sure understand the reluctance to dive into the wiring... But I sure am glad I did on Eolian. The things I found!!

bob
s/v Eolian
Anacortes

Phil Gow said...

Robert, those carrying ratings are great, but it's the interruption rating that really matters - they are usually a LOT lower - the switches may arc and weld opening under heavy load...A good bet might be two solenoids in series?

pfrymier1 said...

Sorry to jump in as a novice, but I want to understand the situation and what I should do if this ever happens. You turn on the key and engage the starter and the engine starts. Sounds like either the switch itself or the solenoid can get stuck, and so the solenoid is energized engaged and won't release . The engine starts and the starter is still engaged and energized. At this point the engine is presumably spinning it faster than it was designed to be spun. Maybe it is a generator at that point? So it is feeding current back to the battery? Obviously this is not good for the starter since they are not designed to function continuously or be driven by the engine, so you stop the engine. The solenoid is still getting current so it is still engaged. It tries to start the engine again. Assuming the key is off, the engine won't start but the starter keeps spinning it.

What is the potential source of a fire? Although the starter is not designed to be run continuously, what will happen if it is run continuously? Is is the load from the engine causing the starter to overheat and cause the windings to melt?

Just curious. I hope I never need this information but it would be nice to know. I am pretty sure my brain would freeze and I would be running around in a panic, unable to remember my name. I've been in similar situations before and I am not the hero who saves the day. I am pretty sure I am the guy that runs over the kindergartners on the way to the exit.

TJ said...

pfrymier1, starters are connected to an engine though some type of clutch drive. Torque can be applied from the starter to the engine, but not the other way around. A starter would hand grenade itself rather quickly if it was spun up to the operating RPM of an engine.

The primary source of fire is the starter overheating from the current running though it. They are designed for very short operating cycles, unlike a generator. They overheat very quickly, internal components start to melt, and it is entirely possible that one can end up with a starter cable that is shorted dead to ground though the molten heap that was once a starter. I suspect another source of heat from a hung starter is, with the engine running, the starter is spinning up freely. There is no load to keep its RPM under control and they are not equipped with any kind of governor. Someone out there has likely hooked a stater up to a battery just to see what would happen, but I haven't heard that story.

If we are lucky someone will weigh in with more information.

pfrymier1 said...

TJ: Thanks. So the only way to stop it is to cut the current to the starter.

One last question that doesn't really have anything to do with the problem you had. The only boats I've sailed with inboard auxiliaries were charters (the boats I own are too small and have outboards or no boards) so I don't remember how they work; if the engine is running and the key is turned off, will it still run? I am not sure what the key does. I know on many diesels there is a shut off button that cuts off either the air or the fuel but all the switch does is turn on the electrics and allow the starter to run. We had a tractor that worked like that. After it was running, I believe the key only supplied power to the gauges, etc. and you could turn off the key and it would still run.

A mostly unrelated but interesting thing that happened yesterday with my 99 Jeep is that I accidentally pulled the key out of the ignition without turning it off first . I guess the switch is so worn it doesn't keep the key in anymore. For a minute there my brain was confused and I couldn't figure out how I was going to cut it off. Luckily, the key went back in as easily as it had come out.

pfrymier1 said...

Actually, I guess if it is the switch and not the solenoid, cutting the current to the solenoid will stop it.

TJ said...

pfrymier, a diesel motor is a compression ignition engine, it has no ignition circuit. Once it is running, as long as it has an air and fuel supply it will keep running. Once in a while our alternator drops off line. (Had it overhauled, made no difference.) When that happens we turn the key to "off", cutting all electrical power to the engine and the instrument panel. Then WesterBeast thumps happily along without even noticing. A few minutes later we turn the key back on and the alternator comes to life like nothing had happened. Some day I will try to figure it out...maybe. Though I'm afraid if I ever start trying to track down all the odd ball stuff that goes on in this boat I will disappear into the depths of weirdness and never be seen again.

And yes, cutting the power to the solenoid should take the power off of the starter. The solenoid is powered "closed" using a magnet and a metal slug, the slug is spring loaded to the open position. One of the failure modes is that the contacts themselves get tac welded closed. Another is that the slug gets jammed in its little cylinder, though that is a rather rare. It is, however, why it is sometimes possible to get a starter working by hitting it with the handle end of a screwdriver (hammers never being available when you need them). What you are doing is jostling the metal slug free.

pfrymier1 said...

TJ: Thanks. I guess if I ever have a runaway starter, I'll try cutting the mains power. If it is the solenoid contacts and there is no switch in the circuit, I guess I'm out of luck unless I can manage to uncover the batteries and disconnect the cable fast enough. I'm guessing that won't happen. I'll never be able to find a wrench fast enough and I'l probably disconnect the house battery instead of the starting battery anyway.

I am not sure but I have also heard that if you have a weak starter (bad brushes, I guess?), they can be stuck on a "dead" section and if you whack it with a hammer, it will sometimes jiggle it enough to move the brushes so they get contact. I am not sure about the mechanism of how it works but I have gotten an older Jeep with a weak starter to start like this several times before I had a chance to change the starter.

I have a friend with a 182 and I was discussing your experience with the King Air. He hadn't considered what would happen with a hung starter during an in-air restart. He wondered if the battery wouldn't die before any damage occurred. He thought the battery on his 182 was pretty small and could easily be depleted if the plane didn't start. I don't have any experience with planes except my wife has her license. She's the pilot, I'm the sailor.

TJ said...

pfrymier1, kind of obvious maybe, but we only did air restarts in multi-engine aircraft. And on those the engine still running is equipped with its own alternator or starter generator. A hung starter is going to have more than enough power available to reek all of the damage it can.

pfrymier1 said...

Obvious to you, not to me! Multiple engines, what a concept! I've heard my wife talk about practicing for engine failure in a single engine but I guess they just throttle back.

Thanks for the insight.