This post is a bit more technical and more for other sailors interested in propellers. Hopefully it may come in handy someday for those with AutoProps, because there isn’t a whole lot of community info on them that I could find.
We have an AutoProp propeller on our boat. It’s like a MaxProp, which is also a feathering propeller, except that the AutoProp is also dynamically pitching – instead of a fixed, preset pitch, it changes its pitch to match operating conditions.
It’s really a very clever piece of engineering – dynamic pitch means that in theory it’s always at the optimal pitch for our speed and engine power. This mainly applies when motor-sailing (which is pretty common in the Northwest) – our sails can contribute some speed while the AutoProp contributes some as well, but allows our engine to work less hard – meaning lower engine RPMs, saving on fuel but getting the same power as a higher RPM.
Do We Need a Rebuild?
But one downside to this engineering marvel is it’s a bit more complicated – the ball bearings in the blades require servicing, and the prop may need to be rebuilt every 10 years or so. This is because the bearings wear and the groove they run in may actually deteriorate. I emailed Brunton’s, the UK manufacturer of the prop, telling them I had records that a prior owner had done a rebuild in 2008, and the Brunton’s owner told me it was probably due again.
Doing a rebuild though means pulling the prop off and shipping it to King Propulsion on the east coast. I called a local prop shop (Kruger & Sons) that the yard recommended, but they said they could probably figure it out but had never worked on an AutoProp before. This was a daunting aspect of our haul-out because it sounded technically complex and had the most potential to delay the haul-out (which we didn’t want since we live aboard).
I talked extensively with the owner of King Propulsion (Rod Sampson) and he was probably the most helpful anyone in the marine service has ever been in my experience. He sent me a grease zerk fitting when I had trouble finding one locally (the AutoProp requires a 5mm zerk fitting, and metric sizes are uncommon in the US – the local shops that did have them didn’t have smaller than 6mm).
In the end I decided just to inspect and regrease the blades. I found an AutoProp service manual which said it should be rebuilt every 1000 engine hours, and we’re not quite there yet (about 800 since 2008). We’ll send it to King Propulsion next year for a rebuild.
Regreasing an AutoProp
Regreasing is an annual maintenance recommendation by the manufacturer, but how many boaters really follow manufacturer recommendations to the letter? Our prop hadn’t been regreased in probably 8 years, maybe 10. So I was a bit afraid of what I’d find.
Upon haul-out, all blades turned in my hand, but one was a little rough – it would stick in a couple spots, and wouldn’t fall by the force of gravity, which is the test to determine if your AutoProp is feathering perfectly. The other two blades did that fine (a slow gravity fall is okay – they don’t drop super quickly).
So I regreased them with the zerc fitting Rod had sent me. I’ve never used a grease gun before, and man I have to say it’s pretty fun! Way easier than I expected, and forcing out all that old dirty grease with fresh new grease was pretty satisfying. Later I used the grease gun on our windlass, which also had been neglected in the grease regimen. I hate to buy tools that we’ll only use once a year, but a grease gun is pretty cheap.
I pushed Sierra marine lithium grease through each blade, doing a lot extra on the sticky blade – for that one I did four rounds, rotating the blade during and in between each round. Some water ejected from the hub on each blade (this is normal), but the sticky blade ejected a bit more dirty grease than the other two did. After regreasing it felt better, but still doesn’t gravity fall of its own accord.
When we have a longer haul-out planned I’ll be sending the AutoProp to King Propulsion for a rebuild.
I also debated what to do about antifouling for the prop and prop shaft. Two years ago we used a zinc coat (3 coats from a spray can) and it only lasted about 6 months. It’s cheap, but the prep still takes a couple hours. This year I had the yard do PropSpeed, because it has a reputation of being the best and they said it should last 2 years.
AutoProp Zinc / Aluminum Anodes
The only other annoying thing about the AutoProp is its anode falls off early and easily. It’s a proprietary anode, so you can’t order a generic anode, you have to order the AutoProp anodes. And they don’t have a great deal of material on them, and often spin off the prop early because the metal around their securing bolts wastes away early.
So you end up having to replace it every 4-6 months, which is a pain in the PNW because unless you’re really hardcore you probably don’t want to be in the water in the winter – so you’re hiring a diver for $75-100. And if you do dive in the frigid water yourself, like I did last fall – you’ll find the nylon screws provided with the AutoProp zincs easily break off when being removed. Then you have a much bigger problem of half a screw being embedded in the prop and have to just use 2 screws till your next haul-out (or get someone willing to do an underwater extraction).
To make a long story short, I made 3 changes to try to alleviate these problems:
- Switched to aluminum anodes. It sounds like they might last longer, and anyway Washington is recommending aluminum now because it’s supposed to be better on the environment.
- Painted around the bolt holes of the anode with transducer antifouling paint. This is a common recommendation online. Any kind of paint would probably work, but transducer paint is what I had easily on hand and last year I had tried nail polish but it hadn’t seemed to last long. I also smeared Lanocote around the bolts.
- Used SS bolts with allen heads. These are 6mm bolts by 20mm length (bought from Tacoma Screw because Fisheries was all out of metric bolts). These won’t break off and I was able to use them to clean out the threads in the prop as well – dirty threads are why the nylon screws got stuck and broke.
Allen heads aren’t essential, but are nice for easy removal underwater.
Although cleaning the threads might have fixed the nylon bolt problem, my feeling is it’s a prop – it’s underwater, so it’s always getting dirty and fouled by marine growth, so counting on the threads to stay perfectly clean is a losing bet.
I think the reason they provide nylon threads is to avoid dissimilar metal corrosion, but every other prop shaft anode in the world uses SS bolts, and dissimilar metal corrosion works pretty slowly, so I’m suspecting it’s not a problem. Plus LanoCote, the best stuff ever.