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Should You Get an On Board Watermaker

A watermaker debate in All at Sea began last June, when Christopher Fletcher asked Santa to bring him a watermaker (Santa did—see our December issue at www.allatsea.net). It might have been an odd choice for the wish list of a 16-year old, but Fletcher’s article ignited interest and feedback from our readers in the topic. In this series, we’ll attempt to provide more insight into onboard desalinization units.

The Magical Water Maker & Its Uses Worldwide

Though oft considered ‘high-tech’ in the cruising world, current technology that allows us to produce potable water from the ocean has been around for some 40 years. And it’s not just us “yachtsman” that benefit from it. Around the world, watermakers are used to produce drinkable water in small hotels, on commercial ships, in beachside houses and communities, and in emergency relief scenarios, with industrial units capable of producing upwards of 10,000 gallons per day.

Watermakers also appear on virtually every ocean-going racing yacht, from the Volvo Open 70s to the single-handed Open 60s of the Vendee Globe. A Spectra watermaker was even installed in an ocean-going rowboat piloted by Stuart Boreham, who cheerfully stated, “It worked like a dream and never let me down!”

Despite its seeming complexity, the modern watermaker is essentially a very simple device. All watermakers work on the principle of a high-pressure pump forcing quantities of seawater through a special membrane that separates the fresh from the salt, sending the resulting brine back to the fishes and the drinkable water into your tank. Manufacturers utilize different methods to accomplish this feat, but the basic idea remains the same. The ability to produce water on demand is attractive to both the weight-conscious ocean racer and the cruising sailor—like Christopher Fletcher and his family—who is tired of hauling jugs around in the dinghy.

The Cruiser’s Watermaker

Two of the most ubiquitous watermakers in use throughout the Caribbean are those produced by ECHOTec, based in Chagaraumas, Trinidad, and Spectra, based in the U.S. Spectra’s website includes fantastic resources about maintaining and trouble-shooting their products, specifically in a posted article by Don Wilson. Wilson has enjoyed his watermaker for more than 10 years on his CSY 44, and has learned the importance of maintenance: “In your diesel engine, you keep the fuel clean, change the filters, and watch the gauges for possible changes in the working parts and you can go thousands of hours with very little trouble. Your watermaker is the same.”

In the yachting world, several installation options are available, utilizing virtually any power source. ECHOTec produces three ranges of watermaker, one for each power source: a DC-powered unit, an AC/Inverter-power unit and a belt-driven unit using the boat’s engine as generator, thereby completely bypassing your house battery supply. The power source depends on your current battery bank, if you have a generator or not, and how much you plan on running your engine to recharge.

ECHOTec’s 12V systems are designed “without bells and whistles, (specifically) for live-aboard offshore cruisers with peace of mind,” and “standard filters, chemicals and membranes can be obtained anywhere.” These systems range from 8½ to 32 gallons per hour, and sell for roughly $4,500 to $6,000. Amazingly, they have a life expectancy of 20 years upward. 

Each company’s website offers extensive information, from choosing the right model/capacity to installation and long-term maintenance, as well as product catalogs and user manuals. ECHOTec recommends installing the highest capacity system your boat and budget can handle, noting that many boaters often underestimate their fresh-water needs and regret not installing a larger system after the fact. Typically, 15-38 amps of DC power are required to operate one hour’s worth of watermaking on both Spectra and ECHOTec systems, though each system varies depending on freshwater output. 

Are watermakers for everyone?

Some cruisers, like Liesbet Collaert on the 35’ catamaran Irie currently cruising the Caribbean, reject the added cost and maintenance, preferring instead the inconvenience of carrying water: “Of course, owning a watermaker is very convenient,” she wrote to All at Sea recently. “For us, however, obtaining water from a dock with our dinghy is still the most economic and stress-free way. The tank of our sailboat only contains 53 gallons and it takes three trips with four six-gallon jugs to fill it and our two sun showers, and have enough left for a couple of hand washes. A full water tank lasts us and our dog about three weeks.”

Next month we’ll examine which types of boaters best benefit from the technology, and how the installation and maintenance process works once a decision is made to purchase one.

Andy Schell is a professional captain and freelance writer based in the Caribbean, Annapolis and Stockholm, depending on the season. He lives aboard his yawl Arcturus. Contact him at andy.schell125@gmail.com or www.fathersonsailing.com.

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