Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2009   by Andrew Ross

Marine Engine Business

All Work and All Play Make the Market

Few of those in the engine parts and engine rebuilding worlds will debate the fact that the industry’s traditional bread and butter, the volume-producing “grocery getter” business, is a mere shadow of its former self.

Improved engine build quality and factors such as a rise in the used engine business have driven many engine parts and rebuilding businesses to look beyond their traditional borders–even, in an increasing number of cases, beyond dry land.

The marine engine business has proven to be a profitable niche for many enterprises, but as with the traditional engine rebuilding business, it isn’t the “grocery getter” equivalent, the recreational cruiser, that holds the greatest potential.

“The marine business has always been a strong part of our business, but it has many facets,” explains Rick Miller, president of The E. R. I. Group. In fact, he says, members of the engine-builder buying group, which number some 270 across Canada, have grown the marine business to about 20% of the overall total, split about 50/50 between coastal operations and the interior. The two markets are very different.

“On both coasts it is tied up to the fishing fleets and transit fleets, ferry fleets. It’s all marine business, but you have to keep in mind that it isn’t just the boat you keep to take your kids out waterskiing.”

On the contrary, the business that his group’s members have found to be the most solid is working boats with large power requirements, whose engines have more in common with off-highway machinery than cabin cruisers.

“These have 12-cylinder Caterpillar power units that run generators. They have auxiliary power units that run hydraulics. That is the kind of stuff that our people get involved in.” He says it is common for such boats to have two or more engines on board.

And, as these craft are often the principal means of support for those who own them, prompt, quality service is imperative.

“Some only have six weeks in the spring and six more in the fall to make their year,” says Miller. Accordingly, the cost of having that boat out of commission for even a short time can be disastrous. For these marine applications, it’s all work and no play.

And then there is the other end of the spectrum.

Another significant niche, he points out, is the performance business, made up of free-spending boat owners who put most well-heeled performance car enthusiasts to shame.

“Those people are immune to discretionary-income declines,” he says.

“Guys who drive $150,000 Baja speedboats, they aren’t our next-door neighbours. When they have $300,000 cigarette boats, they don’t have to worry about cash to begin with.

“When they blow one up, it’s not a problem. They just reach into their pocket. The cash is there.”

And since much of the technology that goes into powering these watercraft is similar to that in automotive engines, engine builders and those selling engine parts already have a strong knowledge base they can apply to the marine market.

“It is seen as the last bastion of sales and profits, and it is looked upon as an opportunity by a pretty wide range of our customers,” says Ron Rotunno, performance sealing product manager, Federal-Mogul Corp.

What he has seen, though, is that there are certain crucial differences to consider.

“The marine environment is a lot different from the passenger car or light truck application in that the engines operate at a different level, in terms of what types of loads they are under.

“On a boat, for example, when you lay off the throttle it pretty much stops, unlike a passenger car where the engine is under load all the time.

“It is a pretty harsh environment; typically people don’t take care of their boats over the winter.

“Typically we see a spike in the early spring, and the reason is that a good portion of the public leaves the lake water in the engine, so they end up with head gasket issues or a cracked block.”

Federal-Mogul colleague (and avid boater) Brent Berman says that pricing and profit are unmistakable attractions for the automotive engine builder.

“They can see what these guys are charging at a marina on what is essentially an automotive engine: four to seven times what you would get if you rolled your Chevy Caprice Classic with the same engine into a service shop.”

Rotunno adds, though, that this does not mean businesses should be cavalier about their customer’s dollars.

“The customer expectation is that they will pay a good buck, but they want good quality. Buying inferior parts jeopardizes the health and safety of the owner and the people in the boat. They don’t want to have problems and they certainly don’t want to be the person who is embarrassed when the tow boat has to come out and get them.

“These factors create the mindset on the customer level that they need to get the right parts. The seller’s job is to educate the public and say why it is different and what you get when you get a part made specifically for boat applications.”

While the majority of internal engine components are interchangeable with those for land-lubbing applications, there are some key differences.

Gaskets, for instance, have stainless steel to protect against corrosion, for example.

“But you also have reverse rotation seals,” says Rotunno. “If you have an engine that runs in reverse and you install a standard rotation oil seal, it will pump oil out of the engine,” instead of keeping it in. “It is really important to understand those types of differences.”

Bill McKnight, team leader-training for Mahle Clevite, concurs that most of the components are the same as automotive, but with notable challenges.

“That is to say, engine bearings, piston rings, and pistons are almost always the same between the two. Gaskets are a tough line for marine applications because of the number and variety of accessories, manifolds, etc., as well as the diverse variety of marine engines in service. Probably the toughest job for the engine builder is finding the right gaskets.”

Accordingly, he offers that engine year is key, not boat model year, as is the aforementioned direction of rotation.

“Another key is don’t throw anything away! I learned the hard way that some accessories, even some internal parts of the engine, are just not available, so I saved every old part until the engine was completely rebuilt.”


Caution Against Using Automotive Electrical Components In Marine Applications

Transport Canada’s Construction Standards for Small Vessels (TP1332) states that all electrical components must be ignition-protected. This includes all breakers, distributors, regulators, alternators, blowers, starters, pumps, and ignition wires. This is a legal requirement. Compliance labels affixed to vessels indicate that all parts meet construction standards, including ignition protection. A marine technician or an accredited marine surveyor should certify any alterations or work done on a vessel or its engine.

Transport Canada has produced a seven-minute film entitled “Boom! Up She Went” explaining the importance of ignition-protected marine engines. The film was made in co-operation with the owner of the vessel involved in the 2004 incident, his wife, and the appropriate authorities and experts.

Car parts may often be less expensive than marine engine parts, but they are not the same. With your help, we can reach the boating community and spread this message. To view the film “Boom! Up She Went” visit share this information with colleagues in the industry and the boating public. For more information on this or any other topic covered by the Office of Boating Safety, visit the website or call 1-800-267-6687.


Tips From The Field

• The most popular engines are Mercruiser 3.0L (GM), early and late 3.7L Ford model
470 and 488, 5.0L and 5.7L GM Vortec and Non-Vortec family, 7.4L and 8.2L GM, and are often rebuilt with high-performance parts.

• Record intake and exhaust valve sizes, as they may vary from the automotive applications.

• Understand that marine is Heavy Duty. Stock parts will eventually fail. Marine applications spend the majority of the time under far greater loads than automotive applications.

• Consider carrying trailer lighting and other accessory items.

• Fuel and ignition systems are different, employing water separation, corrosion-resistant fuel pumps, and spark-arresting construction, and must meet special certifications to ensure that the risk of sparks and explosion is minimized. See accompanying sidebar.

• Useful resources include AERA’s PROSIS database, OE manuals, aftermarket parts catalogues, and people experienced in the marine engine business.

Special thanks for their assistance with this sidebar to Mahle Clevite Canada’s Tony Gannon, account manager, Western Canada, Rob Aitken, account manager, Ontario, and Pierre Ferry, account manager, Quebec; and Federal-Mogul’s Jeff Richardson, fuel delivery and ignition product manager.

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