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Olivia Hudak

By: Olivia Hudak on April 8th, 2022

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What is Electrolysis? (Boaters Beware)

If you boat in saltwater or plan to travel to the coast with your boat, there’s a component you should have onboard that not everyone is aware of. You will see these advertised in many coastal packages for pontoons in particular but you might not know what their function is and why you need them. 


I’m talking about anodes. You may or may not have heard this term related to boats. The main function of an anode is to keep electrolysis at bay. If you’re not familiar with electrolysis don’t worry, you're not alone.


Until recently I didn’t know what the term meant exactly, but that’s because I stick to freshwater lakes while boating. As a part of the Barletta team, I figured it was time I did my research. Lucky for you, I’m here to share what I found so that you know how to help prevent electrolysis from wreaking havoc on your boat. 


Who’s Exempt from Experiencing Electrolysis?

Electrolysis can affect any kind of boat in any kind of water. It doesn’t matter whether you have a pontoon or a deck boat. It also doesn’t matter whether your boat is made out of fiberglass or aluminum. While it may only affect parts of your boat at a slow rate, all boats can fall victim to this if the right precautions aren’t taken. 


Also, electrolysis can occur in freshwater, brackish water, and saltwater. Saltwater tends to speed up the process compared to freshwater. I will go over the reason for this later in this article. 


Electrolysis is a concept that every boat owner should be aware of, especially those who boat on intercoastal waters. This process is something that can be problematic to boat owners if preventative measures are not taken. This article will go over all the information you need to know about electrolysis and how to prevent it as best as you can. 


What is Electrolysis?

According to the dictionary, electrolysis is defined as chemical decomposition produced by passing an electric current through a liquid or solution containing ions. So, what does this actually mean and why should you care?


Chemical decomposition that occurs from electrolysis is the deterioration of the metal components on a boat. Electrical current passes through water and has a chemical reaction with those metals. 


Electrical current can pass through any water type. Saltwater is a greater conductive liquid than freshwater. This is because of the chemical composition of different types of water. For this reason, electrolysis is rarely a problem in freshwater. Saltwater allows for the process of electrolysis to be sped up as it conducts any electrical currents much faster than freshwater is able to.  


The process of electrolysis occurs between two dissimilar metals. Any electrical currents that travel through the water strip electrons from one of the metals and deposit them in the other metal. This process causes corrosion in the metal components on boats. Pontoons fall especially susceptible as they have aluminum toons and many metal components on the outboard motor.


How Does it Happen?

To explain the process, I think it would be easiest to go over an example. Say you have a pontoon boat with aluminum toons and your boat has a propeller on the outboard motor that is made of zinc. Zinc carries a higher electrolytic voltage than aluminum does. 


Therefore, electrons are stripped off of the zinc prop and deposited on the aluminum toons. The extra electrons that are now on the surface of the aluminum toons attract the electrical current that can travel through the water. 


Electrical current is sourced from faulty wiring or inadequately wired electrical boxes. These can send stray electrical currents through the water and react with the metal on your boat. The result of this reaction is seen in corrosion on the metal pieces on your boat. 


What Happens When Electrolysis Occurs?

When electrolysis occurs, it causes corrosion on your boat. If it goes on for a long period of time, it can cause quite a bit of damage to your boat as well. Any electrical current in the water will “eat away” at the metal components of your boat by stripping electrons away. A lot of people categorize this phenomenon by calling it corrosion. It is a form of corrosion, but remember there are other forms of corrosion as well. 


Electrolysis is often confused with galvanic corrosion as they are similar to one another. Galvanic corrosion is a process that only takes place in saltwater. This is because, for galvanic corrosion to occur, an electrolyte (saltwater) must be present. Electrolysis can occur without the presence of an electrolyte. 


The Best Prevention System

If you’re worried about electrolysis affecting your boat, anodes are a great way to slow the process. Anodes are typically made of zinc, magnesium, or aluminum. They will usually be located on trim tabs to help protect the metal components on your boat. 


Zinc and aluminum anodes can be used in saltwater or brackish water. Magnesium anodes can be used in freshwater. It is important to use zinc or aluminum anodes in saltwater because they are heavier and protect other metals better against the high conductivity of saltwater. 


So, what exactly is an anode? An anode is a positively charged electrode. What is the benefit of having these on your boat? The anodes give up electrons first as they are made of base metals. 


This protects the metal of your boat because they are sacrificial metals and will corrode prior to the other metals on your boat. Therefore protecting the important metals. 


Other Prevention Methods

The best way to protect your boat from falling victim to electrolysis is to equip your boat with anodes. Make sure you select the type of metal the anode is made out of based on where you are going to do your boating. From there, you can take more precautions to help combat electrolysis affecting your boat. 


The next best thing you can do for your boat is to paint over aluminum toons and other metal parts on your boat with corrosion protection paint. If you use this for your boat, be sure you don’t paint over any anodes. Doing so will prevent them from doing their job which is what you want to avoid. 


Be sure to shut off the power when you aren’t using your boat. This will help prevent any faulty charges from entering the water and causing the metals on your boat to corrode. Practicing turning the power off in your boat will be beneficial for many components onboard. 


You’ll also want to make sure you don’t leave any other metal objects in the water if the boat is going to sit for a while. Objects that could cause problems relating to electrolysis include anchors, along with any other loose metal parts. Always be sure to get your anchor up and out of the water completely before leaving your boat. 


If you are in an area that you feel could potentially have quite a bit of electrical currents flowing through the water, another thing you can consider is a zinc fish. This is a great tool that someone who houses their boat in a busy saltwater location such as a marina could utilize to protect their boat. These objects can be placed around your boat to help protect the metal components. 


All of these methods of preventing corrosion caused by electrolysis can be key to prolonging the life of your boat. It’s good to remember that none of these methods are 100% guaranteed to prevent corrosion although the likelihood that corrosion will occur is lessened. It is important to keep an eye on your boat and repair any anodes that need to be replaced or to repair any corroded parts on your boat before they cause issues. 


Barletta Specific Precautions

Barletta offers specific add-ons to the boats to help combat the process of electrolysis. Since it is mainly only an issue in saltwater, Barletta offers a Coastal Edition package. This package can be added to any model of a Barletta boat. It is highly recommended if you ever plan to boat on a body of water that is saltwater rather than freshwater. 


The coastal edition package includes anodes that are made of zinc. These anodes are on the brackets that are welded on the aft end caps of the toons. They are strategically placed here to help protect the other metal components onboard. 


Another feature Barletta offers on all boats with the Coastal Edition package is a Metal Jacket toon protectant. This is a ceramic coating on the toons that helps protect the aluminum from corrosion. This helps the toons to continue to look shiny and clean.


These are all measures used by Barletta to protect boats against electrolysis. By understanding what prevention mechanisms are on your boat, you will be able to maintain them and prolong the health of your hull. Take the time to learn about your boat.


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About Olivia Hudak

Avid boater and Barletta Boats team member, Olivia is no stranger to the water. She was on the MSU wake team through college and continues to ride the wake in her spare time.