Sailboat project | Fresh Water System – Tanks, Pipes and Taps

Sailboat project | Fresh Water System – Tanks, Pipes and Taps

Now that most of the world is in lockdown mode, some of us have time to write about boat projects – and maybe some have time to read about them! In January, when we began our boat’s freshwater system refit, no one had heard of the Coronavirus. We were enjoying a nice Greek winter with sunny, warm days and cool, sometimes cold nights, and occasional rainy spells. The perfect time to work on the boat, especially if it happens to be of an older vintage with plenty of things needing improvement.

The fresh water system on our s/y Aina was definitely at the end of its life cycle. Actually, way beyond it, as it was the original 37-year-old system, and the problems were gradually getting bigger. We plugged several of the pipes because of leaks two years ago, before embarking on our journey, so we had never had running water in either of the bathrooms. There were smaller leaks elsewhere, but they couldn’t be fixed, because the original parts were American and we couldn’t find new fittings anywhere. So we only turned on the water pump whenever we wanted to wash the dishes or take a shower. Otherwise the only way to get fresh water was using a foot-operated pump in the galley – which is a practical and fun thing to have, by the way. Then our bilge started to fill up frequently with fresh water after some pipe had burst, and we knew we had to look the problem in the eye.

Rusty valve found under the demolished floor.

But how to get started? Only one of the three big water tanks was partly visible. The others were hidden inside solid saloon settees, just like all of the fittings where water went in and out of the tanks. Grimy, gross plastic hoses snaked all over the bilges, you couldn’t tell where they were coming from or going to. At least they would have to be disposed of and replaced with something nicer.

We drilled test holes in the settee tops to determine the extent of the water tanks and the location of their fittings. As more and more stainless steel came to view we began to see that we would never get the tanks out of the boat in one piece – that in fact our entire boat had been built around them! They had probably been installed when our Aina was just an empty hull, before the deck was built. All the fittings were either behind or underneath the tanks, where it was impossible to inspect them, and most of them very worn out and rusty. How on earth were the hoses and clamps supposed to be replaced? The tanks themselves seemed to be in fair condition, but the fittings would have to be moved to better places and the old holes patched up, which would mean welding. We couldn’t do that inside the boat, and – well, we weren’t going to make our doorway bigger. The tanks had to go, simple as that.

Ok, here we go…
… and soon it’s just a smoking ruin!

Our boat is very sturdily built, and the indoor materials are of good, lasting quality – mostly Burmese teak, both solid wood and veneer. Having completed this big refit we can conclude that the builders may have been highly skilled carpenters and craftsmen, but they weren’t boat builders! They had no idea of the everyday life of a cruising sailor, who has to fix and maintain the boat’s systems almost daily. Otherwise they would have made it possible to inspect and replace things. After all, technical systems come and go many times during the boat’s lifetime.

To remove the tanks, we had to demolish the saloon settees, front panels, and even a small part of the floor. We used an electric saw to cut the tanks into pieces, and heaved them out of the companionway. That was certainly the sweatiest part of the project!

Boat renovation is not pretty. The port tanks already removed, starboard tank still in place.

Now there wasn’t much of an interior to speak of. There were two gaping holes where the settees had been, and the exposed hull was covered in dirt. There were sealed pockets of moisture and mildew that were now opened for the first time in decades – plenty of that “Good Ol’ Boat” smell, but it didn’t make us nostalgic. We removed everything, and finally had a pretty clean slate to start planning the new tanks and settees.

We decided to buy new tanks of polyethylene, one on each side of the boat. It would have been great to have them made to measure, but we were able to find nicely shaped off-the-shelf tanks, and our local chandler delivered them in two weeks. Polyethylene is a robust material and leaves no taste or smell in the water. It’s also very light, certainly compared to our old stainless steel tanks. Whether or not it was smart to reduce our water capacity – from 700 to 330 litres (about 185 to 90 gallons) – we are yet to find out. In the Mediterranean and Europe in general it’s easy to find water everywhere. If we ever decide to sail to places where water might be an issue, we will invest in a watermaker. We have a dedicated place for it and even a couple of spare seacocks. Because of smaller tanks, we gained a little more storage space, and you can never have too much of that in a cruising boat.

Trying how the new tank fits.

Next we planned the plumbing. The original plumbing consisted of semi-hard piping assembled with plastic fittings, much like the ones used in houses. When demolishing, we discovered several connecting pieces in unexpected places, and who knows how many of them had leaked. We decided we would build a separate hose from a “manifold” to each water tap, pump, heater and every other part of the system, both for hot and cold water. Both ends of every line would be marked, each line would run uninterrupted, and everything could be traced and inspected through hatches in the new carpentry. We found a small cabinet behind the shower to be a good place for the manifolds. The water pump was relocated in the same space, and the hot water heater already happened to live next door in another cabinet. We have four water taps in the boat: the forward head, the aft head, shower, and galley. We also wanted to keep the foot pump in the galley in case the electric one ever had a problem.

Manifolds for hot and cold water in the shower cupboard.

For the water hose we chose a flexible PVC hose with stainless fittings and hose clamps. The hoses are coated, so no UV light can penetrate and provide a nice place for microbes to grow. Besides, they’re really pretty in red and blue, for hot and cold water respectively, so they’re also easy to identify in the nooks and crannies of the boat. Modern production boats are usually plumbed with semi-hard pipes and plastic fittings. They’re quick and easy to assemble, but after some pondering we decided against them. They probably would have been just fine, but on an old boat – particularly one that has been built by furniture carpenters – plumbing routes are winding and complicated, and the semi-hard pipes could not be bent tight enough. We didn’t want to repeat the original mistakes – installing connecting pieces where they would not be seen, and which no one would remember after a while.

Last, but not least in a fresh water system are the water faucets. The old ones were not worth saving, and the new ones we chose were inexpensive household models. Replacements can be found anywhere, and modern taps use water sparingly, which is a good thing on a boat.

So many holes were revealed when removing the old galley taps…
… but a piece of plexiglass did the trick. Looks pretty nice!

Finally everything was ready. It was time to fill the tanks from the water hose on our pontoon, turn on the fresh water pump, and open all the faucets. After two months we had running water in our home! Time to celebrate! And celebrate we did – we nearly got into a fight over who got to do the first dishes. Taking a shower felt very festive, too, with the nice constant pressure and temperature, and no danger of burning your skin!

The nice new shower!

In the next refit story we will rebuild the saloon. After the plumbing job we get to be carpenters and upholsterers, as we try to turn our boat back to a home – and hopefully more presentable than it has ever been during our ownership!

It’s tiring work this renovation stuff. Anouk the marina dog won’t let a little mayhem disturb her afternoon nap.

3 thoughts on “Sailboat project | Fresh Water System – Tanks, Pipes and Taps

  1. Impressive! We imagine your Life will be easier with more confort. This is also important que sailing. Take café. Catherine and Didier

    1. Thank you! Yes, our life is much more comfortable now! You two stay safe and take care as well (and café too 😉)! 😘💕❤️

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