Don’t Steer It Wrong

Posted: October 1, 2012

When was the last time you checked your hydraulic steering system?

By: Deane Hislop

Hydraulic steering systems tend to exist in the background and don’t show up on many maintenance lists. That’s because well-engineered hydraulic systems are generally reliable and trouble-free, but that doesn’t mean they don’t require attention. Skippers should be familiar with the location of steering-system components, so they can conduct regular checks, and should also know what type and brand of system is installed in the boat in case it requires specialized attention.

A complete visual inspection of the system components should be part of the regular maintenance routine, conducted at least as often as you change the oil. The most common problems to look for are leaks, usually in the seals of the slave cylinder that actuates the rudder, but leaks may also appear at any joint in the system lines.

Seal leaks can be the result of several conditions. The seals may simply be worn or possibly damaged by grit that has been drawn in through the cylinder ram. For that reason, the ram needs to be cleaned as part of your maintenance routine. The seals also can be affected by a bent ram rod, which may be the result of a poorly designed or improperly installed system that fails to provide proper rudder stops. In such a case, have the system geometry evaluated by a professional.

The condition of hydraulic lines should be checked regularly, especially the exposed flexible hoses that may be subject to chafe or wear because of movement during regular operation. Any lines that exhibit fraying or seepage should be replaced immediately to avoid an untimely failure, and the cause of the chafe or damage should be eliminated. A common source of the problem can be traced to unsecured equipment or supplies that are haphazardly stowed below deck.

The hydraulic fluid in the system’s reservoir must be maintained to the level specified by the manufacturer, to avoid the introduction of air into the lines and cylinders. If the reservoir needs to be topped off regularly, the system may have a leak. Be sure to follow up with a more detailed inspection. The fluid should not require changing except in instances of contamination by water intrusion, as indicated by a milky color. Fluid that is added must comply with the manufacturer’s recommendations to avoid potential damage to seals and O-rings.

Mechanical attachment points such as clevis pins, ball joints and yokes should be kept lubricated. Also check these points for corrosion or excess wear. They are subjected to tremendous loads during normal use, so proper lubrication is essential to ease their operation and reduce wear. Some older hydraulic models operate with pressurized air in addition to hydraulic fluid. These systems can require more intensive inspection and maintenance to ensure proper operation.

Repairs or adjustments to such systems should only be performed by a yard professional thoroughly familiar with specific requirements.

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