Marine Technology Notes: The oil filter comes clean

As anyone who has ever performed an oil change on an engine knows, replaceable oil filters make the filter part of the job a breeze. Unscrew the old one (making sure not to get oil all over your shoes), then spin on the new filter. Done.

Except, of course, for that drippy used filter. You still have to get rid of it. In some states, the used filter can be wrapped up and put in household trash. In other states, it must be disposed of via recycling at an approved facility. Now, however, a different type of oil filter is becoming available. Instead of a paper filter element, this unit has a metal screen that can be washed and reused.

What may not be readily apparent to the average boat owner is the environmental impact of dirty disposable oil filters. Reportedly more than 400 million used oil filters require disposal every year in the United States. That is a great deal of nasty, oil-soaked paper filters and metal casings. Of course, only a fraction of those millions of used filters come from voyaging sailboats; the vast majority come from automobiles and trucks. However, if sailors could reduce their contribution to that mammoth waste stream, they would be doing something to reduce pressure on the environment.

Well, since engines do need lubrication, and oil does need to be filtered to remove dirt and large particles that can damage the engine, what is the solution? An oil filter that can be taken out, cleaned and reinstalled. This type of filter has the potential to make a contribution toward reducing the numbers of used filters tossed out every year.

The return to cleanable, reusable filters is a throwback of sorts to the original approach of oil filtering. In the early days of the internal combustion engine, there were no separate oil filters. A wire mesh screen on the intake side of the oil pump was generally the only method at filtering. The screen could be removed for cleaning, but the size of the mesh was large enough that all but the biggest particles got through.

In the 1920s, replaceable filters became available when Ernest J. Sweetland invented the replaceable filter that used paper as the filtering agent. The company that Sweetland founded was later called Purolator, a shortened version of Sweetland’s advertising slogan that his filter provided “pure oil later.” In the early 1950s, the spin-on filter was introduced. Other than changes in the paper filtering element, oil filters remained fairly unchanged for many years. Then in the latter part of the 1980s, the auto-racing community was looking for a way to increase the power, performance and reliability of oil filters as way to ensure that a race car’s primary investment &mdash its engine &mdash was performing properly. A reusable oil filter allowed race mechanics to examine engine oil and verify whether it contained any debris that would indicate problems that might lead to failure of the engine.

This diagnostic capability also gives the owners of trucking fleets a reason to use these types of oil filters. While this is less of an issue for a sailboat owner with a single engine, this forensic ability could still be used for keeping an eye on possible developing engine problems.

The Racor filter company of Modesto, Calif., has a line of remote-mount cleanable filters that has been race-tested on the NASCAR circuit and can be used for marine-engine applications. The remote-mount capability means that the filter doesn’t have to be spun onto the engine, but it can be placed where space is available in crowded engine compartments. “We have a remote-mount unit that can be mounted anywhere (in the engine space) that is accessible,” said David Cline, oil-filtration product manager for Racor. According to Cline, Racor is also working on a spin-on, cleanable filter for its 300 series that should be available by January 2004. These units will fit many of the diesel engines used in voyaging sailboats.

While replaceable filters use paper filter elements, the reusable filter has a filter element made of fine strands of stainless-steel wire. The wire is woven in a pattern called a Dutch weave, where each wire is woven top pass over and under each other. The two types of wire, called warp and shute, are of different diameters. The warp and shute wires are forced tightly together. The Dutch weave produces a twisted path for the oil flow that is reportedly highly effective in catching particulate matter.

One issue involved in reusable filters is cleaning the filter element. While this is a task the average boat owner may contract out to their local boatyard, it is possible for an owner to remove the filter elements and clean it in a bucket, using a water-dilutable solvent, like Brulin’s Nature-Sol 100.

Another California company, System 1 of Tulare, also makes cleanable filters &mdash their 400 series being the right size for the voyaging sailboat diesels. According to Steve Faria, owner of System 1, cleaning the filter is not difficult. “It is all stainless steel; it’s easy to clean. You can clean it with hot soapy water, a citrus-based cleaner or a solvent cleaner.” It is also possible that some sort of filter-element cleaning service may become available for this type of filter.

Another important consideration, of course, is cost. How much do these units cost compared to the relatively cheap replaceable filter? According to the Racor company, one of the leading manufacturers of reusable filters, the cost of a reusable filter for a recreational boat can be between $90 and $150. Plus, there is an additional charge of $8 to $20 per cleaning. At a cost of roughly $15, the one-time replaceable filter is far less expensive initially. Over time, however, the cleanable filter can be used on average for five years, or for 50 cleanings, while a new replaceable filter is required at each oil change. If the filter element is handled carefully, one of these units could quite possibly last even longer. Faria of System 1 claims, “I’ve had people who’ve had them for 15 years.”

However, what can’t be as easily quantified is the benefit to the environment with the elimination of all those used, oil-soaked, paper-based filters. Sailors are generally more attuned to the environment around them. This is not a slap at powerboat operators, but given by the nature of using the wind for locomotion, sailors have to be more savvy to their natural surroundings. A sailor who pays scant attention to wind and weather is generally a rare exception. Their well-developed appreciation for the natural world could lead many sailors to make the leap to more environmentally friendly cleanable oil filters.

By Ocean Navigator