Canal boat maintenance for beginners: oil change

This is your engine.

engine pre anything done

Barrus Shire 2002, 50hp

It is important to keep it in excellent condition.  Not only does it get you from A to B, but it also provides your electricity and hot water. Oil plays a critical role in the optimal functioning of your engine.  It lubricates the various moving parts, and stops it heating up too much.  Unfortunately, the oil gets dirty and needs to be replaced every so often.  At the same time, it is worth replacing the oil filter, a replaceable cartridge that cleans the oil as the engine runs, but which also gets dirty.

As a regular boater, many people you chat to on the canal will explain how easy it is to do your own maintenance.  They will say that it is just as straightforward as servicing your car.  At this point, it will be not be necessary to disclose you have never done any such thing before.  Rather, nod along sagely, showing with a manly shrug that this sort of easy maintenance is something you get out your tool kit for every day.

So, the first step is to work out when your oil change is required.  As with many DIY tasks, it is important to begin with a phase of prevarication.  So, if your engine manual insists an oil change is necessary every 150 engine hours, be sure to wait until 170 hours have elapsed before buying the filter, 190 hours before buying the oil, and 200 before actually doing the work.  This will ensure that all leisure tasks like visiting the pub, or reading a book in the sun, have an added frisson of anxiety from the overdue task and the potential disastrous consequences of it being missed.

new filter

Oil filter

When you finally set to work, ensure you have all your tools to hand on the bank, so all are in easy reach.  However, be sure to leave a critical item in a place in a locked box at the other end of the boat, so that you and your workmate can enjoy a period of swearing when trying to locate it half way through.

Attire is important.  Many beginners make the mistake of wearing some old, ragged clothes that they don’t mind getting dirty.  However, old hands know that it is much more exciting to wear your favourite shorts, preferably fresh from the launderette.  This way, you can add to the fun by dodging stray spots of oil throughout the procedure, before inevitably succumbing to a massive blob getting you in the crotch just before you finish.

So, oil and parts purchased, tools ready, your favourite shorts on:  it’s time to start work!  Begin by smashing your head nice and hard against the steel roof of the engine room.

Then, when this is done, remove the old oil from the crank case.  This is done by pumping a little handle, which sucks the oil from the engine block and into the container you have handy.  Rather than employing a rhythmic motion to ensure the oil exits smoothly and predictably, get impatient and give the pump a great heave; this will ensure oil spatters over every surface except into the waiting receptacle.  Put the oil into an old oil can which you should have handy from the start, preferably one designed to hold approximately 500ml less than the oil that you are in the process of removing, necessitating a last minute scramble to find another can.

pumping old oil out

Removing the old oil from the engine

Now the engine is empty of oil, it’s time to change the oil filter.  This is a rather boring, simple procedure, which can be enlivened by purchasing a canal boat whose oil filter is located in an almost impossible location behind a wooden board and underneath the body of the engine.  Remove the aforementioned board and reach underneath the engine to get to the old oil filter.  Unscrew it carefully, and in a single, swift movement, drop it onto the hull of the boat, so it rolls underneath the engine, completely out of reach, tipping its oily residue into the bilges.  To retrieve the item, simply swear for a few seconds, drop a roll of kitchen towel in after it, and scrabble around with your backside in the air.

removing old filter

Scrabbling around with the filter

Now, take the new filter and screw it into place.  You may need a wrench to make sure it is sufficiently tight.  Replace the wooden board, pausing to give your fingers a nice nip by trapping them between the board and a steel strut.  Now all that remains is to pour the new oil into the engine.

Most engines will take approximately 5L of oil.  However, you can’t be sure exactly what yours will take.  So, fill up bit by bit, making sure to check the dipstick each time to ensure you don’t overfill.  As the 5L point approaches, make sure you have a workmate nearby to aid you:  they should shout out a query or comment, which you should turn to answer; when turning back to the engine, you will discover you have overfilled it.   Use the pump again to remove the excess oil.  Screw the oil cap back on.

man holds oil can

Adding too much oil into the engine

The job is now complete, except for the good housekeeping which is the mark of a good workman.  Put your tools away neatly and carefully, wiping away any oil that has got on them.  Give your head another good crack on that steel strut.  Carefully wash up any items like funnels or jugs that you have used, with warm soapy water.  Dry them outside on the river bank; this has two benefits:  firstly, so your domestic draining board is not soiled by oil residue; and secondly, so that all the items can be blown into the river by a boisterous gust of wind.

Good luck, and happy cruising!

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Posted in Boat Handling, Life Aboard, The Boat
5 comments on “Canal boat maintenance for beginners: oil change
  1. It was a lot like this:

  2. Graham says:

    Fantastic son. Think perhaps you could find gainful employ writing the instructions for IKEA flat pack ?

  3. Janet Walker says:

    Aunty Janet here. Just come back from a rather fraught journey up North ( which will tell you about later ) to find this post waiting for me! You do me a power of good, you two! I ended up laughing so hard there were tears, although I am sorry you had trouble with the filter of course. Enjoy yourselves.

  4. […] n Keeps our engine going, must be checked daily, a devil to change (see instructions here), always finds its way onto Tom’s shorts, especially when they have just been […]

  5. […] We’d seen a lot of wildlife. I’d finally mastered the art of working locks and Tom could service an engine standing on his […]

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