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Galvanic & Electrolytic Corrosion How to Protect Your Boat

This paper provides a short description of the corrosion process for steel hulled boats and describes how fitting sacrificial anodes and isolating shore mains supplies can prevent damage to your boat.

2008 Trent Boat Services Ltd

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If two dissimilar metals are in direct electrical contact with each other and both immersed in a conducting electrolyte a simple battery is formed. This battery produces a small DC voltage which drives a current from one electrode to the other through the electrolyte and back via the metallic connection between the electrodes. The process of generating the voltage and driving the current results in one of the electrodes losing electrons and the resulting metallic ions dissolving into the water, or put simply the electrode is corroded. Which electrode is corroded and which way the current flows depends on the relative positions of the two metals in the Galvanic series. The most active metals or those towards the top of the series act as an anode and are subject to corrosion whilst those lower down the series are protected from corrosion and are said to be more noble metals. A basic list of metals in the order of the Galvanic series is shown below, with the most active metals at the top of the list and the most noble at the bottom.

Magnesium and Magnesium alloys Zinc Aluminium alloys Cadmium Mild steel and iron Cast iron Stainless steel Lead Tin Nickel (active) Brasses Copper Bronzes Cupronickel alloys Silver Titanium Graphite Gold Platinum Consider a steel hulled boat with a bronze or similar propeller, a stainless steel shaft and a brass or similar stuffing gland. All these items are in metallic contact since the propeller is fastened to the shaft, the shaft runs in the bearing of the gland and the gland is pressed into the hull. Of all these items the hull being made of steel is the most active and will form the anode when the system is immersed in water. It will therefore corrode in preference to the other items which are made of more noble metals. 2008 Trent Boat Services Ltd Page 2 of 2

In order to protect the steel it must be a cathode and therefore there must be a more reactive metal involved to act as an anode. This is usually accomplished by adding Magnesium, Aluminium or Zinc anodes to the boat. The type of anode and the size depend on whether the boat is to be used in fresh water, brackish water or sea water and for how long protection is required. Once fitted the sacrificial anodes corrode and keep the potential of the steel below its free corrosion value and hence keep it protected. This is the situation shown in for a typical steel narrow boat fitted with Magnesium anodes for use in fresh water.

Figure 1

A second type of corrosion can occur due to stray currents flowing between metals in an electrolyte. In this situation the metals may be dissimilar but do not have to be. The situation arises where a current path, other than through the electrolyte also exists, for example through the Earth connection between two boats connected to the same shore supply. It can also occur between a boat and the metal work of a jetty against which it is moored, since this metal may be connected to the general mass of the Earth and be at a different potential (voltage) to the hull of the boat. For safety reasons the hull of the boat must be connected to an Earth that allows the Residual Current Device (RCD) to trip in the event of an Earth fault on the boat. In a standard shore supply the connection to the boat is via a three core cable and the arrangement is similar to that shown in Figure 2 where two boats are connected to the same shore supply using standard hook-up pillars with typically 16A circuit breakers providing over-current and short circuit protection. 2008 Trent Boat Services Ltd Page 3 of 3

There now exists a metallic connection between the two boat hulls via each shore supply Earth connection and the main Earth system of the shore side. Corrosion currents can flow through the water and return via this Earth path thus leading one hull or the becoming an anode and the other a cathode. Although the figure shows the ionic current in the water being from the boat on the left to the boat on the right it must be understood that these stray currents can flow in any direction between metallic parts in the water. For example the current might flow from one boat hull to the steel piling alongside the jetty but also from the jetty to another boat hull moored some distance away. This means that it is not possible to predict which metallic structure will be an anode and therefore subject to corrosion.

Figure 2

2008 Trent Boat Services Ltd

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One situation where it is more predictable is when one boat is fitted with sacrificial anodes and adjacent ones are not. In this case the anodes on the protected boat will actually be protecting all the steel of the other boats, and in some cases the steel of the marinas jetties and piling! The result of this is that the sacrificial anodes will be corroded much faster than expected and will not last for the design life. If you have anodes fitted are you sure that your neighbours have or that they have the correct anodes for the location? Fortunately there is a way of preventing the above situation occurring by fitting an isolation transformer between the boat and the shore supply. This unit effectively places a barrier between the boat and the shore supply and allows the Earth connection shown in Figure 2 to be removed whilst still maintaining a safe system onboard. The general arrangement of such a system is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3

The boat on the right is now isolated from the shore Earth and there is no return path for ionic corrosion currents. However if an Earth fault occurs on board the safety of the system is still maintained as the hull is bonded to the local Earth provided at the secondary terminals of the transformer. Any leakage current or fault current can now return to the source of the supply, in this case the secondary of the transformer and trip the RCD and circuit breaker respectively. 2008 Trent Boat Services Ltd Page 5 of 5