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Dripless Shaftseals

My friends think I’m lucky. The cruisers I meet think I’m lucky. My family
thinks I’m lucky. They all point a finger and say “You’ve got the best job in the
world!” I admit, spending every summer living aboard my trawler moored at Block
Island is a great lifestyle, and being the TowBOAT/US captain stationed over there
means I’m lucky enough to meet many people and enjoy more than my fair share of
incredible sunsets. My luck, however, is fueled by the misfortunes of those unlucky
enough to suffer some sort of boating calamity within range of my rescue boat, and
few situations are as tense for my customers as the sudden discovery of water rising
in the bilges.
Over the past four or five years, I have responded to a surprising number of
assistance calls from sinking boats where the subsequent cause of the flooding is
determined to be the failure of a dripless shaft seal (DSS). The use of these devices
has become widespread in the past decade, and unlike traditional stuffing boxes,
when a DSS fails, the resultant flooding is at least alarming and sometimes
catastrophic. My goal here is a review of the ways DSSs may fail, and some
suggestions at to how to prevent failure in the future.
There are a number of manufacturers of dripless shaft seals, and therefore
there exists a variety of designs. The subject of this article is limited to two very
popular units in use today: the PYI Inc.’s “PSS Shaftseal”, and the Lasdrop “Original
Bellows” model. Both of those DSSs use a flexible bellows attached to the stern tube
(or stuffing box collar) to press a fixed carbon/graphite flange against a rotating
stainless steal rotor that spins with the prop shaft, creating a seal between the rotor
and flange. Dripless seals have become quite popular for two main reasons: they
don’t require any adjustment after installation, and they continue to keep the seawater
out even if the drive train is out of alignment.
Before I go any farther, it’s important to mention that both companies make a
fine product, and if used in strict accordance with the manufacturer’s instruction, both
DSS’s should perform as advertised, and none of the failures I describe here can be
attributed to poor design or manufacturing defects. The two brands that appear in this
article not because they are somehow especially problematic, but because together
they represent the huge majority of DSSs used in the recreational market, and
therefore they are the ones I see most often. Indeed, I have one of these devices on
my own boat, and it has given me a trouble free, drip free alternative to the constant
hassles I had with my old dripping stuffing box.
With one exception, all the examples below are from my own personal
experiences as a rescue captain.

Problems related to the movement of the rotor.


The PSS Shaftseal uses four setscrews stacked in two threaded holes to hold
the rotor in place. If the screws loose their grip, the bellows can slowly push the rotor
forward. Once the bellows is relaxed, the mechanical seal between rotor and flange is
lost, and seawater flows into the bilge. This happens more often than you think.
According to the manufacturer’s instructions, the setscrews are not to be reused-- a
new set of setscrews should be used each time the rotor is installed. I suspect that this
alone is a cause of much of the rotor movement problems I see. How many yard
personnel would just assume to re-use the same set screws after removing them to
pull a shaft or transmission? I made this mistake on my own vessel, and when I
removed the setscrews for the second time, the inner screws were surprisingly loose.
I’ve also encountered a case when the rotor was missing the second pair of setscrews;
I can only speculate that someone not following the installation instructions
inadvertently omitted them.
Exacerbating this issue of rotor movement is that the flange and rotor are so
well mated that there is a suction effect between them, and the rotor can actually
stretch the bellows beyond its relaxed position slightly before the seal is broken. So
when the bellows finally returns back to its natural, relaxed position, the result leaves
a tiny space between the flange and rotor. I have been able to repeat this in the field
more than once.
One flooding situation I responded to was particularly vexing because it took
some sleuthing for me to figure out what had happened. When I arrived on scene, the
owner of a 46’ Carver hadn’t even identified the source of the flooding; he only knew
that his pumps weren’t keeping up. What I found was the rotor on the starboard shaft
was about two inches forward of the bellows and flange. Even after I removed the
four setscrews (which were tight) I had to use considerable force to move the rotor
back to its proper position. Once the rotor was re-secured, the DSS once again
worked fine. So how could the rotor have gotten so far out of place and still be tight
on the shaft?
The owner denied that he had hit anything, but did say that he had to back
down hard to avoid another boat. Could that have been enough to move the shaft in
the transmission coupling? If the shaft was loose in the coupling, then a situation that
calls for hard reverse could draw the shaft aft, but perhaps not completely out of the
coupling. If the coupling is longer than the DSS bellows travel, then as the shaft
travels aft, the collapsed bellows will force the rotor further forward on the shaft.
Once the engine is back in forward gear, as power is increased, the shaft could slowly
work its way back into the coupling, but now the rotor moves forward with it. This
sounds like an unusual chain of events, but I was unable to reconcile the situation in
any other way.
The solution to prevent setscrew related problems is to place a hose clamp on
the prop shaft up against the forward face of the rotor, so that even if the screws come
loose, the hose clamp prevents the rotor from moving away from the flange. I have
seen enough PSS Shaftseal rotors in the wrong place that I implore marine surveyors
to add the extra hose clamp to their recommendations.
The Lasdrop uses a “clamp ring assembly” secured with two hose clamps to
hold the rotor on the shaft, so there are no setscrews to fail or go missing, but the
same problems related to rotor movement could arise if the hose clamps fail or
become loose. To date, I have not encountered a Lasdrop clamp ring assembly that
was out of place.

Problems Related to the Bellows


The bellows performs two functions; it creates a watertight barrier between
the stern tube and the interior of the boat, and it acts like a spring, pushing the flange
against the rotor. Problems associated with the bellows are either related to fatigue,
mechanical abuse, or improper installation.
Fatigue of the bellows comes in two varieties; the first is simply deterioration
of the material through age and exposure to the hot environment of an engine room.
Heat, vibration, accidental spills of fuel and fluids, toxic battery vapors and
temperature differences between the interior bilge space and the sea water all take
their toll on the bellows. The material can become brittle with age, and a close
inspection might reveal cracks, splits or tears (see photos). These problems may not
be readily apparent on the surface of the bellows, and inspection requires at the very
least, moving the rotor a few inches out of the way, allowing the bellows to relax,
then stretching and twisting it reveal any cracks or splitting of the material. A
thorough inspection would mean complete removal of the bellows, so one could
examine the inside. Removing the bellows will also allow you to inspect the area
where the hose clamps have been squeezing the bellows over the stern tube, which
could reveal a problem that might be hidden under the clamps.
The second form of fatigue is what I call “compression fatigue”, i.e. the
bellows losses its resistance to compression after years of being in a compressed state.
The result of compression fatigue is a loss of, or at least a lowering of, the designed
pressure between the rotor and the flange, reducing the mechanical seal, and it will
eventually begin to leak. I would suggest that anytime a boat is hauled, either for
winter lay-up or just a few days for maintenance, that the rotor is moved and the
bellows allowed to relax. The other consequence of compression fatigue is that an
older bellows, when allowed to relax after years of compression, will not completely
expand to its original shape, it will be shorter. On my own boat, I marked where the
rotor sits on the shaft, and last spring when I re-launched, I noted that the rotor now
sits a little further aft, which confirms my theory that the bellows is shorter. My DSS
is now three years old, and was only allowed to relax for a few weeks during that
time.
Mechanical abuse of the bellows would include: over tightening of the hose
clamps, which could crush or tear the material; getting hit or torn with tools while
working nearby; spilling oils, fuel, or chemicals such as paints or thinners
(technically, I guess that would be chemical abuse); accidentally stepping on the
bellows while climbing around, or getting hit by some heavy piece of gear that gets
loose during a rough voyage. There is an particular danger if the bellows gets hit from
the outside – the inside of the bellows may have been cut or torn by sharp edges of
the stern tube, but there may be no sign of damage on the outer surface. I responded
to a case were a metal toolbox got loose and hit the bellows, putting a three inch gash
across the “valley” of the middle fold. It was almost impossible to make a decent
temporary repair, but with tape and plastic we managed to stem the flow to a slow
drip, and the boater made it back to his home port and immediately hauled out.
Both of the manufacturers support do-it-yourself installation of their product,
and I admit that anyone who is capable of removing the shaft from the coupling
should be up to the task, but I have run into a few problems that were a result of
improper installation. The worst was on a sailboat with a very short piece of
fiberglass stern tube extending into the bilge. The very shallow angle between the
tube and hull meant that it was impossible to get a decent amount of the bellows over
the tube. The installer could only get one hose clamp around bellows, and eventually,
the entire shaft seal vibrated off the stern tube. That stern tube required some real
spelunking to even reach, and I wonder if whoever installed that one just couldn’t get
close enough to do a good job.
The next season, I had another sailboat that was taking on water. I discovered
that the rotor (actually, a clamp ring assembly of a Lasdrop unit) was not pressing on
the bellows, so I reset the rotor and sent the skipper on his way. Ten minutes later, he
called again with the same problem. Further investigation revealed that the problem
was not the rotor, but loose hose clamps holding the bellows to the stern tube; it was
slowly working its way aft along the tube. I can only speculate as to how that
happened, but the skipper stated that he had had that DSS for years, and it had never
failed or needed any maintenance, which brings me to the most important point of the
whole article.
I am afraid that too many boaters have a sort of “set it and forget it” attitude
about their shaft seals, and may not realize the consequences of an ageing or damaged
unit. The manufacturers have to share the blame, not for building an inferior product,
but for marketing DSSs as maintenance free or needing very little attention from the
user. Now that DSSs have been in widespread use for twenty years, I wonder how
many twenty-year-old bellows are still in service? Rather than a testament to how
durable these things are, those twenty-year-old bellows are a warning that boaters
have confused “drip free” with “maintenance free”. It is now incumbent on marine
professionals like yard personnel, dealers and surveyors to ensure that boaters
understand and abide by the manufacturers guidelines.
Here is what the manufacturers have to say about maintenance.
The instructions for the PSS Shaftseal states “the PSS bellows must be
inspected on a regular basis (i.e.,no less than at least every 6 months under most
circumstances) and checked for any signs of deterioration (cracks, splits, tears,
brittleness, or other signs).Upon any sign of deterioration the bellows must be
replaced. As preventive maintenance the bellows should be replaced no less than
every six (6)years, regardless of its apparent condition.”
Lasdrop recommends that “The Original Bellows and Generation II models
will last as long as eight to ten years before servicing…the bellows on the Original
model should also be inspected and replaced, if necessary.”

Water Injection Hose


Both of these units have a small hose barb fitting on the graphite flange, to
insure that water is always present right up to the rotor. A hose runs from there either
to a place high above the waterline, or in the case of higher speed boats, is teed into
the seawater exhaust plumbing. I have never seen an installation where that little hose
didn’t have to span an unsupported distance of at least five or six inches from the
flange to a nearby stringer, floor, or bulkhead where it could be attached. The water
injection hose is probably the most vulnerable piece of the entire system. I wonder if
it would be possible to use a hose reinforced with a braided stainless steel cover?
This is the last story. My colleague responded to a sailboat taking on water,
and when he arrived, he found a twisted, melted black sticky rubbery mess where the
DSS used to be. Water was coming in from every crack and fold. Once things were
stabilized, he was able to inspect the problem more closely, and he determined that
somehow, the water injection hose had come free, wrapped around the prop shaft, and
then twisted the bellows beyond recognition. Friction caused enough heat to actually
melt some of the bellows.
To avoid corrosion problems, both manufacturers use a plastic hose barb
threaded into the graphite flange, rather than a barb made of metal. I can’t argue with
the logic of that decision, but it isn’t going to take much force to break that hose barb
off, leaving a ¼” hole in the flange. So, another recommendation that I will suggest is
to install some kind of protection above or around the DSS flange, to minimize the
chance of something falling onto, or someone stepping on that plastic hose barb.

The old packing glands and stuffing boxes were a pain in the neck to maintain,
but they sure were easy to jury rig an emergency repair. If all the packing somehow
fell out or disappeared, you could use an old rag, some greasy rope or pages ripped
from Chapman’s to re-pack the gland and slow the flow of water to a manageable
rate. You could stand on it, whack it with a pipe wrench, paint it, spray WD-40 on it,
curse and throw bricks at it, and it would still only drip a little bit. The modern DSS is
much more vulnerable, and the bellows in particular is very difficult to patch or
repair, especially when cold seawater is squirting out of it. To date, I have not boarded
a single boat with a damaged bellows that had a spare on board. Changing the bellows
with the boat in the water would not be a simple matter, but could be accomplished
after plugging the cutlass bearing from underwater. It would mean someone has to get
wet, but if the bellows needs replacing, everyone is already getting wet.
To continue to get drip free performance from your DSS, consider the
following recommendations:
• Inspect the bellows every six months or before spring commissioning.
• Allow the bellows to relax whenever you haul the boat.
• Place a safety hose clamp in front of the rotor on the prop shaft.
• Carry a spare bellows.
• Protect the bellows from accidental damage.
• Remember that the water injection hose is really a through hull fitting with
no seacock, and install it with that in mind.
• Replace the bellows every six years, no matter what condition its in. (keep
the old one as your emergency spare)
• Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Read them a second
time.

A brand new dripless shaft seal, properly installed, will do exactly what they
claim – provide a vibration tolerant, drip free stuffing box. But lets face it, many of
these seals are installed in very hard to reach places. In fact, that is one of the great
benefits of having one: to avoid squeezing into a tight lazurette or bilge on a regular
basis to slow a nagging drip. DSSs have a disadvantage though: a failure of a
component does not cause a nagging drip like traditional packing gland, but instead
opens up a little floodgate. As I have demonstrated in the above examples, almost any
failure of a DSS will result in a considerable amount of water entering the boat.
Probably not a catastrophic amount, but certainly more than a drip, and usually
enough water to create a very tense situation for the average recreational boater. So
you have to ask yourself – do you feel lucky?
Photo #1: Somehow, the rotor was forced forward on this shaft, and is now about
two inches away from the flange. The rotor is up against the back of the coupling.
Not bubbling sea water rushing in.

Photo #2: After replacing the rotor back against the flange, the bilge is dry again.
Just behind the white arrow is the water injection hose. Also, note the plywood
shelf directly above the DSS, and the problem that presents in photo #3.
Photo #3: This picture was taken before the rotor was moved back in place. The
bellows is completely hidden under the battery shelf that supports a large 8D
battery, preventing any visual inspection without first removing the battery and
shelf, and creating a real challenge to anyone needing to make emergency
repairs.