In All at Sea's final installment on watermakers for cruising boats, we examine the initial investment, installation and long-term maintenance involved in a typical sea-going desalinization unit. ECHO Marine in Trinidad, makers of the ECHOTec watermakers, provided many of the technical details, through their comprehensive website and through interviews with managing director Michael Bauza. We also gleaned information from conversations with liveaboard cruisers, not necessarily with ECHOTec units.
Of course, the initial investment on the unit is going to depend primarily on the desired output, which in turn depends on the boat, its occupants and their intended cruising plans. As we did in the February issue, we'll examine units capable of providing a cruising couple with a comfortable output of fresh water for regular showers, drinking and cooking, dishwashing, occasional laundry, etc. for a sailboat in the 40-50 foot range. Many cruisers I spoke with at the recently completed Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) in St. Lucia fit into this category, and most were indeed equipped with watermakers from a range of producers. None regretted their installation.
The only major decisions in purchasing a unit are the required output of fresh water and the power source (12/24V DC, AC or belt-driven). The average cruising couple should expect to use between eight and thirteen gallons of fresh water per day. However, regardless of conservation efforts, Bauza recommends, "fitting the largest system you can afford." Several of the ARC participants were thankful to have a large system during the crossing from Las Palmas, as ocean-sailing yachts tend to carry more crew to maintain a comfortable watch rotation.
ECHOTec's 12/24V DC systems range in output from 8.5 up to 32 gallons per hour, with prices in the neighborhood of $5-6,000 for the complete package. The belt-driven systems, which Bauza recommends for yachts that use their engine as a primary means of battery charging, provide greater output – ranging from 16 to 60 gallons per hour – but come at a higher price tag, from $5,000 to nearly $8,000. Though the initial investment is high (ARC yachts with other systems reported similar prices), the long-term financial benefits in countries where water is scarce and expensive can make the investment pay for itself.
The installation of a watermaker is like any piece of major onboard equipment, in that it requires a large time commitment from the do-it-yourself sailor. However, ECHOTec and Spectra, as well as the ARC sailors, all stress that DIY installations are indeed doable, with a basic understanding of mechanics (and perhaps a six-pack of cold beer). The major differences between system installations stem from the various power sources available.
All watermakers are like any relatively complicated system, and regular maintenance is required to keep everything running smoothly. Simple maintenance procedures include checking and tightening fittings, changing filters as needed, only operating the system in "clean" water (most importantly free from chemicals and oil pollutants), and keeping the high-pressure pump topped up with clean gearbox oil.
Additionally, Bauza stresses the need for proper operation; the reverse osmosis membrane requires its own care, specifically when leaving the system shut down over extended time periods. When leaving the boat for more than ten days, you must flush the membrane with a biocide solution to prevent the growth of microorganisms. This process effectively "winterizes" the system for up to ten months. Similarly, regularly flushing the system both after winterization and at regular intervals ensures clean components, clean water, and greater output. By following these and the rest of the scheduled maintenance items recommended by the manufacturer, a newly install watermaker can "last the yacht's lifetime or more than 20 years," according to Bauza of ECHOTec.
As a cruising sailor, deciding to purchase and install any new system can be a challenging and often expensive task. Watermakers, in operation for over 40 years, are recently gaining even greater popularity among cruisers wishing to remain completely self-sufficient on the high seas. With the promise of fresh drinking water, clean laundry and a daily shower, a watermaker just may become your most beloved piece of equipment onboard.
Andy Schell is a professional captain and freelance writer, based in the Caribbean, Annapolis and Stockholm, depending on the season. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.fathersonsailing.com.