Q: I’ve heard MEK or acetone is great for removing marks in gel coat. Is it OK to use or will it ruin the gel coat in any way?
A: I would save strong chemicals such as MEK or acetone as a last resort gel coat stain remover. First try a multi-purpose, biodegradable cleaner such as Pure Oceans All-Purpose Spray or even Simple Green in its more concentrated form. If the mark or stain isn’t coming off with a spray cleaner, then try a cleaner wax or rubbing compound. Just squeeze a small drop of it on a cloth and try rubbing the stain away. Remember that there is no wax in rubbing compound, so if you use it to remove a stain, you’ve also just removed any wax that was in that area, so you’ll want to apply another layer of wax for continuous protection.
If those things aren’t working and you want to try a stronger chemical such as acetone or lacquer thinner, then just pour a small amount of it on a rag and wipe it over the stain. These types of products will probably remove the stain, but consider that they’ll also remove any wax in that area, just as the rubbing compound will. This won’t hurt the gel coat in any way, but if you use strong products like this on gel coat, always follow up with another coat of wax in that section.
Q: Can I use my car detailing products on my boat? What about home cleaning products?
A: Yes and no. There are some products that are meant for autos and home and some that can be used anywhere. First, make sure the product is biodegradable if you’re going to use it on your boat. Second, decide where you plan to use this product on your boat. If you’re cleaning the interior of the boat such as the cabin, staterooms, head, galley, etc, most of your home cleaning products can be used in those areas because the finishes are similar between boat and home, such as wood paneling, granite countertops, mirrors, fiberglass tubs and showers, glass windows and carpeting.
However, there are a few areas inside your boat where you won’t want to use general home cleaning products and those areas include the sink, toilet or shower drain. If you’re going to be pouring something down a drain, stick to a marine product so as not to dry out or cause damage overtime to any drains or connections.
For exterior cleaning, such as washing and waxing, it’s often best to stick with products meant for a boat rather than a car. Waxes, compounds, polishes and buffing pads meant for automobiles are designed to work with clear coat rather than gel coat. It’s not that a polish meant for cars won’t work on your boat, but from those that we’ve tested, they didn’t do as good of a job or last as long as those meant for gel coated boats. When buffing clear coat, you typically use a foam buffing pad, whereas with gel coat, you want to use a wool compounding or polishing pad. Also, the manufacturers assume that you probably garage your car and a car takes much less time to wax than a boat, so to wax your car every few months isn’t too much of an undertaking. A boat sits out in the sun and takes a lot of time, labor and money to wax, so any wax used on a boat had better last at least 9 to 12 months.
One tempting household product that should never touch your boat is dish soap. It removes wax and will dry out your gel coat quickly making it look faded.
You may have seen the white and blue Clean Marina signs around your marina lately and wondered what they mean. Clean Marina is an organization made up of several other environmentally friendly organizations that create rules and enforce policies in regards to helping a marina abide by local environmental laws.
As it states on their web site:
Clean Marina Washington was created in 2005 as an expansion of the EnviroStars program, which provides incentives for businesses to reduce and better manage their hazardous waste. Clean Marina Washington is an incentive-based certification program in which marinas assess their operations and implement improvements to better protect the environment. When they reach the qualification standards of Clean Marina Washington they earn the right to "fly the flag."
Their four main goals are to:
Now that you know the “boilerplate” reason for their existence, what does this mean for you as a boat owner who moors their boat at a Clean Marina and wants to work on their boat in its slip, wash and clean it or hire a detailing company to wash and clean their boat? It means there are many cleaning products you can no longer use and it changes the way you maintain your boat.
I read through their 112-page Resource Manual For Pollution Prevention In Marinas so you don’t have to. (Your welcome. Don’t worry, I was having trouble sleeping anyway. This helped immensely.) In this manual, they outline very specific rules and regulations that marinas that belong to the Clean Marina organization must follow. There are fines involved if they are caught being non-compliant, so most marinas are starting to take these rules more seriously.
As the owner of a boat detailing company, my crew is often having to deal with a marina manager looking in their dock cart or bucket to make sure the cleaning products we’re using are allowed or approved by the Clean Marina association. As we’re finding out, not many cleaning products meet their strict requirements. The word “biodegradable” means nothing to this organization. All cleaning products must also be free of phosphates, chlorinated compounds, petroleum distillates, phenols and formaldehyde.
What this means for you, the boat owner, is that if your boat is fairly dirty because it hasn’t been washed in a while or it isn’t washed on a regular basis (literally every couple of weeks) and you moor it at a Clean Marina location, you may only be able to wash your boat with water and vinegar, but not boat soap or any other type of cleaner that removes specific stains that commonly show up on boats, such as water streaks, green mildew, black mold or bird droppings. This can be extremely frustrating for the boat detailer who is trying to meet certain expectations of the customer and can’t get a boat as clean when only being allowed to use hose water as they normally could when allowed to use soap and other specific cleaners.
In fact, this is becoming a more common issue with our customers who moor their boats at Clean Marina locations where many have chosen to move their boat, permanently or on the day we come to wash it, to a different marina that doesn’t belong to this organization so we can do a thorough cleaning with products that will actually work well to remove dirt and stains. We have always tried to use biodegradable products and more natural products to clean boats with in the first place, but even most of those aren’t approved by the Clean Marina organization. In fact, as we have learned, very few products are approved.
So what boat cleaning products are allowed by the Clean Marina organization, you ask? So far, only two boat soaps we found and a few products you’ll find in the baking aisle of your local grocery store meet their requirements.
In order for a boat soap product to be compliant, it must be biodegradable, phosphate-free AND not leave any suds in the water. After testing several “natural” boat soaps, we found only one product that meets all three of these requirements and one that meets two of them even though that particular boat soap had a Clean Marina “approved by” label on it.
The cleaning products Clean Marina recommends for cleaning different stains and marks off your boat is vinegar, baking soda and lots of “elbow grease”. Yes, they even state in their manual that good old fashioned elbow grease is what it will take to clean your boat the natural way. Not everyone has elbow grease to clean their own boat with, especially the older boat owner. And as for a boat detailing crew who works on 40 plus boats each week, the grease in our elbows would be gone after just the first few boats if we could only rely on water and baking ingredients to clean dirty boats with.
This is where a boat owner’s maintenance plan must be changed. If you can no longer use boat soap or cleaning products to remove dirt, mildew and stains, that means you’ll need to clean your boat almost weekly and constantly keep it waxed so that any stain or mark comes off more easily and has less of a chance to set in or soak into the gel coat. That might sound great to a boat detailer because it means more business, but I think it’s an unrealistic maintenance plan for a boat owner to maintain as often as it would be needed.
I believe in the vision of this organization and as someone who tries to live as environmentally friendly in both my personal and work life as I can, I think there needs to be a healthy balance in this area. Companies that make body and skin care or household cleaning products are starting to realize that consumers don’t want harsh chemicals in their shampoo, deodorant or counter top spray and are having to come up with more natural ingredients that can still do the tough job they need to. I am hoping this will be the next step for companies that make boat cleaning products as more people choose natural ingredients and more organizations start to police what is going into our waterways.
At the same time, this organization needs to realize that the mild boat soap people use to wash their boat with is nothing in comparison to the oil spills I often see floating on the water or the degradation of old boats left to die in their slip that have a constant white film floating around them. These issues also need to be addressed, as well as many others, to keep our waterways clean and healthy. And I’m sure that if enough people were using vinegar to wash their boat with, eventually the pH of the water would change and that would eventually cause environmental problems as well.
For now, we’ll continue testing natural boat cleaning products that are currently on the market or new on the shelves and report back so you can start to replace caustic or chemical-laden cleaners with more natural ones that actually work well.
Go to CleanMarinaWashington.org for more information and to see a list of all certified marinas.
Q: Can I use Armorall on my vinyl seats?
A: Technically, yes, but there is a better product out there. Try 303 Aerospace Protectant. It sounds like something you might use to keep your rocketship shiny, but it’s actually intended for boats. It offers the same kind of UV protection as a product like Armorall, but it packs a bit more of a punch because I find that it lasts longer. It can be used on vinyl seats, the rubber pontoons of your tender, plastics and plastic windows, leather and the “dashboard” area of your helm station. My truck has a black Tonneau cover, which I spray with 303 once a year, and it is still a nice deep black with no fading.
On the bottle of 303 Aerospace Protectant, it says it can also be used on colored gel coat fiberglass. It may help protect your gel coat from harmful UV rays, but wax serves the same purpose and is a better choice than the 303, which is streaky and won’t cut through oxidation. Let’s say your boat hull is blue and has faded badly. If you spray the 303 on it, for about 30 seconds, it will look deep blue and brand new again, but as soon as the product dries, it will start to fade again. In this case, it’s best to use compound to remove the oxidation and then apply wax to protect from UV rays.
Q: What’s the best way to prevent mildew from forming inside the cabin and the cockpit?
A: If you’re trying to prevent mildew from forming in your boat during the wetter months, you want to make sure there is enough air flow in your boat and no humidity. You can do this inside your boat with a dehumidifier and a fan or air conditioner. It’s not that you’re trying to keep your boat warm, but rather you’re trying to move air around, which is where the fan or air conditioner comes into play. In fact, mildew loves warmth, so don’t let your boat get too warm, especially if there’s no air movement.
For the enclosed cockpit or fly bridge area, it’s best to make sure there is some natural air flow coming in under or through the canvas. Most people with ski boats put the canvas cover on so tight that there’s no movement of air and when they remove the canvas cover in the spring, a layer of mildew has formed on every surface. You should also purchase some moisture absorbers such as Star Brite’s No Damp Dehumidifier. These are great for an area with no plug outlets or inside the enclosure because they’re inexpensive and can be placed in several areas to absorb moisture.
Q: How do I clean the green mildew that has formed around the edges of my deck carpeting in the cockpit?
A: If you see green mildew forming around the edges of the deck carpet in your cockpit, simply spray with a mildew spray, work in with a light bristle brush and pat dry with a rag. You may want to pull the carpet up during the wet months and put back again in the spring. You can find mildew cleaner spray at either your local boat supply store or in the cleaning aisle of your grocery or home improvement store.
Q: How often should my boat get washed?
A: As the owner of a boat detailing company, I would like to say that you should have us wash it every three days! That may help me pay for my next trip to Europe, but it doesn’t help answer this reader’s question and it’s completely unrealistic. The truth is that it’s different for every boat and it depends on several factors – where it’s moored (covered or open slip), how often it’s used, where it’s used (salt or lake water) and when it was last waxed.
If those are the factors, then X = a boat that doesn’t require strong cleaners or soaps to get clean. X does not equal “a clean boat” because you can get a clean boat by washing it with acetone or bleach (not that anyone ever would – just making a point), but you don’t ever want your boat to get so dirty that it can’t easily be cleaned with mild cleaners. That’s why X = “a boat that doesn’t require strong cleaners or soaps to get clean”.
I make this point because a lot of marinas these days are changing their policies and not allowing certain types of cleaning products or boat soaps to be used at their marina anymore. As boat detailers, we run into this all the time and have had to change the products we use to comply with these new rules. So if this is the way things are heading, then best to make the change now by making sure your boat never gets so dirty that it needs cleaners your marina won’t approve to remove stains or mildew.
I’ll get off my phosphate-free soap box now and finally answer the question. You’d think that if your boat is in a covered slip, you don’t need to wash it as often because it’s not getting rained on. With a covered slip, you’re basically swapping water streaks for spider droppings and you definitely want to wash those off your boat quickly as they can stain permanently if left on the gel coat long enough and especially if your boat hasn’t been waxed in a while. If you have spider droppings and don’t have time to wash your boat, at least go around with cleaner wax and wipe them off. If your boat is in a covered slip and you’re quick to remove spider droppings, you can get away with washing your boat every eight weeks or so before it becomes a bigger job than just a basic wash.
If your boat lives outside (not in a covered slip), you can get away with washing it every three to four weeks as long as it has a good coat of wax on it so the water streaks and bird droppings don’t start to set in. However, each time you take your boat out in salt water, wash it as soon as you get back to the dock to remove all salt spray. A quick hose down isn’t good enough because that salt spray can be quite sticky and it will eventually etch your windows with water spots that never come off. If you only have time for a quick hose down after a salty trip, at least spend a few extra minutes washing the windows and wiping them dry. This will pay off greatly in the future.