Understanding Your Marine Diesel Engine

Posted on November 14, 2009
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In a traditional marine diesel engine its power is produced by hot compressed air igniting fuel which has been sprayed into the cylinder head under very high pressure. A marine diesel engine does not have a carburetor to mix fuel or air spark plugs to ignite the mixture. Instead, the pistons are used to compress the air to 3000 kPa, which causes it to become extremely hot and the fuel is ignited as soon as it is injected into the cylinder.

Some marine diesel engines are fitted with a glow plug in the pre-combustion chamber of each cylinder or a heater plug in the inlet manifold. These can provide additional heat to the combustion air during the starting process.

Diesel marine engines are slower revving and heavier than gasoline engines but they are also more reliable because they do not have to count on external carburetion or that electrical spark for ignition.

Newer engines use an electronic fuel injection system whereby air and fuel are mixed thoroughly in the pre-combustion chamber before entering the cylinder. This system maximizes power and fuel economy and is a less polluting option.

All boaters should have an understanding about how their engine works so let’s start by looking at the mechanical cycles.

Most reciprocating piston internal combustion engines work on one of two mechanical cyclesóeither the four-stroke cycle or the two-stroke cycle. These cycles designate, in correct sequence, the mechanical actions by which the fuel and air gain access to the engine cylinder, the gas pressure – due to combustion – is converted to power and, finally, the burnt gas is expelled from the engine cylinder.

The Basic Four-Stroke Diesel Engine

From its name, you should understand that there are four strokes in one complete engine cycle. A stroke is the movement of the piston through the full length of the cylinder and, since one such movement causes the crankshaft to rotate half a turn, it follows that there are two crankshaft revolutions in one complete engine cycle.

The four strokes in the order they occur are:

1. Inlet stroke. With the inlet valve open and the exhaust valve closed, the piston moves from top dead center (TDC) to bottom dead center (BDC), creating a low-pressure area in the cylinder. Clean, filtered air rushes through the open inlet valve to relieve this low-pressure area, and the cylinder fills with air.

2. Compression stroke. With both valves closed, the piston moves from BDC to TDC, compressing the air. During the course of this stroke the air becomes heated to a temperature high enough to ignite the fuel.

3. Power stroke. At around TDC, the fuel is injected, or sprayed, into the hot, compressed air, where it ignites, burns and expands. Both valves remain closed, and the pressure on the piston crown forces it down the cylinder from TDC to BDC.

4. Exhaust stroke. At approximately BDC the exhaust valve will open and the piston starts to move from BDC to TDC, driving the burnt gas out of the cylinder through the open exhaust valve.

The Two-Stroke Diesel Engine

The two-stroke engine uses two piston strokes to complete one power stroke and, therefore, it fires twice as often as a four-stroke engine. A two-stroke engine is smaller and simpler with fewer moving parts. A two-stroke engine has the potential to produce twice as much power as a four-stroke engine of the same size, however, because of the extra fitting required in a two-stroke diesel engine, for example blowers and governors, they become more expensive to produce. Recently there has been a move towards four stroke diesel engines which have become more efficient and smaller.

Protect Your Marine Diesel Engine

Avoid idling your marine engine for longer than ten minutes in a no-load state. The engine is often idled to charge the batteries or cool  the refrigeration but if done repeatedly it will glaze the bores of the engine and cause premature engine failure. When the vessel is in a berth the engine can be put in gear to create load at idle.

Every boat owner should have some knowledge of basic marine diesel engine maintenance to keep themselves and their families safe while boating.


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