Pontoon Boat Motor Maintenance 101 (Tips from the Experts)
You’ve done your research, you know that you’re set on buying a pontoon boat, and you’re ready to pull the trigger. There are a lot of choices while shopping for a pontoon boat, and many of those revolve around the motor.
Have you picked out what size of engine is right for you? Do you know how many factors will play into the speed you get out of the engine you choose? What about maintenance?
If you’re new to boating, you may not realize that caring for an outboard motor is easy and straightforward compared to inboard engines. Pontoon boats are not only popular because they’re the ultimate family cruiser, but also because the care and maintenance is a breeze.
It will benefit you in the long run to know how to maintain and troubleshoot your engine yourself. It could clue you into when you need to bring it into the shop (which could save you money on repairs), you could quickly troubleshoot issues keeping you from launching, and even troubleshoot problems if your engine dies out on the water.
I’m going to walk you through the main steps in caring for your outboard motor. If you plan on having your dealer’s service center perform engine maintenance, that’s great, however, there are still a few steps you need to be aware of as the owner.
Break In the Motor
If you’re taking ownership of a brand new pontoon boat, you need to be aware of the break-in period for the engine. Your dealer should talk this through with you, so make sure to ask before you jump on board for the first time.
The break-in period should happen immediately upon receiving the boat. This is the process of running the engine at certain RPM ranges for specific time frames for the purpose of creating tolerances for moving parts inside the engine.
It’s very important to complete your manufacturer’s recommended break-in period per the owner’s manual to ensure long engine life. Each brand of engine may differ, so be sure to check your manual for specific instructions.
Failure to follow the engine break‑in procedures can result in poor performance throughout the life of the engine and can cause engine damage.
As I mentioned, you may have an agreement with your boat dealer that they will perform all maintenance on the motor for you. Either way, here is what to consider in order to keep your engine running at the highest level.
Most new engines require maintenance after a certain amount of hours in order to clear out any shakedown from the initial break-in period. For instance, my new Barletta pontoon boat with a Mercury outboard motor required maintenance after the first 100 hours driven.
A 100 hour service can get pretty in depth, for good reason. For starters, an oil change will usually kick off the process. Then, there’s an entire list of other items such as battery inspection and prop shaft lubrication that are also involved.
Most engine manufacturers follow the same basic guidelines, but they will vary depending on the brand so always follow your owner’s manual.
Once you’ve broken in the motor and had the first round of maintenance done, keeping up with routine maintenance is key. Typically maintenance can be done annually or every 100 hours, whichever comes first. Most manufacturers recommend changing the oil and filter as well as either inspecting or replacing the fuel filters at this point.
Once you start to reach 300 hours on your engine, you typically will want to have more items checked other than what is on your 100 hour schedule. This list includes but is not limited to; water pump impeller, spark plugs, alternator drive belt, etc.
I strongly suggest having your servicing dealer perform this kind of maintenance if possible. A lot of customers like doing their own oil changes, lower unit oil replacement, etc., however it’s always a good idea to consult your dealer prior to working on your engine.
Prepare for Winter
At the end of each boating season, it’s critical that you prepare the boat and the engine before it goes into storage. If you plan to store the boat for two months or longer, these are the steps you should follow.
Winterization includes stabilizing the fuel system by adding stabilizer to the fuel tank, and then running the engine long enough to circulate the stabilizer through the engine’s fuel system.
Depending on the type of engine, draining the block and/or running on antifreeze to prevent freeze damage is also part of this process. Many dealers choose to perform oil changes and general lubrication of moving parts (such as prop shafts) during this process as well.
The major consideration in preparing your outboard motor for storage is to protect it from rust, corrosion, and damage caused when trapped water freezes inside of the engine. Unless you have experience working with engines, I recommend having your dealership perform this service.
Another consideration is the position of the engine while it sits in storage. Storing the outboard in a tilted position can damage the engine. Water trapped in the cooling passages or rain water collected in the propeller exhaust outlet in the gearcase can freeze. Store the outboard in the full down position in order to keep this from happening.
Once the motor is winterized, the next step is covering the boat. If you’re storing it indoors, I recommend putting the mooring cover on and then laying a tarp over that. If you’re storing outdoors in inclement weather, have a marine professional shrink wrap the boat for you.
Healthy Battery, Healthy Boat
The battery, or batteries, that power the boat play a significant role in making sure everything runs smoothly. If the battery is losing voltage, you will notice it in things like how well the electric bimini functions or the engine turns over.
You need to care for and maintain your marine batteries in order to prolong their lifespan and contribute to the overall health of your pontoon boat. It’s always good to keep your batteries maintained with a tender or trickle charger.
One of the biggest reasons batteries fail prematurely is because they can discharge completely while in storage. They will only come back from a complete discharge so many times before they need to be replaced.
Always remember to shut off your battery switch when not in use, and in long term storage it’s best to disconnect them completely.
Make sure they have a full charge before going into storage. Dead batteries will not have as good of a chance of surviving the winter and become difficult to recharge fully in the spring. Once disconnected, check the water level and store in a cool dry place.
The lifespan of a battery all depends on how they’re operated and maintained. Typically batteries will last 3-5 years if properly cared for.
One of the first indicator’s that your battery is healthy is if you’re getting enough voltage while the boat is turned on. A fully charged marine battery will have a static voltage of about 12-12.5 volts. Once the engine is running you should expect to see 13-14.5 volts on your gauges.
If one or both batteries are deeply discharged you may find lower output of voltage. Raising the engine RPM’s to increase the alternator output will help charge them faster.
If you have two batteries (Engine & House), think of one as your backup. If you’re floating at the sandbar, listening to the radio, keep the switch turned to ON.
Do not turn the battery switch to the “Combine Batteries'' position unless it’s an emergency. If you turn it to combine and run the radio on both batteries all day, you may be stuck there with two dead batteries and no backup at the end of the day. The battery switch position is key to running your engine.
When you first jump on board, remember to turn the battery switch to ON and once you’re done for the day, flip the switch to OFF. If you get in the habit of turning the battery OFF after every outing, you will prolong the lifespan of the battery.
Your dealer should be able to check the health of your battery for you. If you take it to the dealership, their service center may be able to have a Load Test performed on the battery if it’s fully charged. This will let you know where you stand and if you need to invest in a new one all together.
Keep Things Running Smooth
If you take care of your outboard engine, there’s a great chance it will last for a very long time. Pontoon boats are easy to maintain if you keep up with routine service and care for your marine batteries.
Remember that you should have the engine serviced annually or every 100 hours, whichever comes first. If you don’t have experience working with engines, it will be worth having your dealer’s service center tackle this project.
You will save a lot of money and headache in the future if you routinely care for your outboard motor. For more information on caring for your pontoon boat, visit our Owner’s Resource Center.