Tips for Getting Boat Bilge Cleaning Right

If you clean your boat’s bilge and forget a very important detail, you could face imprisonment or a hefty fine. Did that get your attention? Good!

Boat bilge cleaning tips

Because there are countless articles online about how to clean your boat’s bilge the right way. However, many of these articles leave out information about doing it the wrong way. In other words, dumping polluted bilge water overboard after cleaning the bilge out. Because if there’s even the smallest trace of oil in that water, you’re breaking federal law and could face severe penalties if you get caught.

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Water Pollution and Federal Law

Federal law prohibits water pollution, and is particularly stringent on water pollution caused by oil. In other words, the Feds don’t mess around with this stuff!

Boat bilge cleaning

Bilge cleaning is easy enough, and essentially boils down to applying bilge cleaner, then scrubbing and rinsing it. It’s what you do after you’ve cleaned your bilge that could land you in trouble. Bilge cleaners contain detergents that break oil down into tiny particles. This enables you to remove oil and grease from the surfaces within the bilge, and suspend that oil in a mixture of cleaner and water. However, while the oil remains suspended in the cleaner/water solution, purging it into the surrounding water means you’re polluting it. 

Boat bilge cleaning water pollution

As of this writing, the maximum amount of oil that can legally be discharged into the water is 15 parts oil per 1 million parts liquid. Sound like a lot? … Well, not really. For an idea of how little 15 parts per million (ppm) really is, it’s the equivalent of half a teaspoon in 50 gallons. Some states even have a 0 ppm policy, which means even the faintest oil sheen from the water purged from your boat is bad news! If you think getting off with a citation for polluting water with oil will be easy, think again. Under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, you’re automatically considered guilty and have to prove your innocence. 

How to Clean Bilges Safely

Instead of dumping out contaminated bilge water, store it in a container and dispose of it at an oil recycling or hazardous waste facility that will accept it.

Boat bilge cleaning oil

Another method is to use an oil spill kit that absorbs the oil from the bilge cleaner/water, so the remaining liquid can be safely discharged overboard. There are also absorbent oil pads available to soak up oil, just make sure you use pads that absorb only oil and repel water. If your boat is out of the water, don’t assume you can simply throw the bilge cleaner/water anywhere. It’s illegal to dump oil into public sewers, which is where it could end up if you pour it down a gutter or sink.

Boat bilge cleaning tips

If you accidentally pollute water with oil, don’t try to clean the water with detergents. You’ll only make matters worse. Detergents are dispersing agents that break down oil but don’t actually remove it. Using dispersing agents on oil only spreads the pollution, and can land you a hefty 5-figure fine!

Preparation is the Key

You can never fully prevent oils and chemicals from getting into your bilge, but you can minimize the quantity by cleaning the bilge regularly. Keep up with your boat’s bilge pump maintenance and engine maintenance to reduce the likelihood of oil or fuel leaks. Lastly, always keep some oil pads on your boat, and clean up any oil or fuel spills immediately before they spread. The less oil in your bilge, the less chance there is of you polluting the water and getting penalized for it.




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