Gross Neglect: Maintenance Steps

Liveaboards too often forget

February 2014 Feature Janet Groene with Gordon Groene

You have all the comforts of home onboard your houseboat so it’s easy to forget that boats have special needs. Whether you live at the dock year ‘round or are constantly on the go, here’s a checklist of maintenance steps you can’t afford to forget.

Leaking Electrical Current

Last summer two children and a 26-year-old woman died in a Missouri lake from Electric Shock Drowning, or ESD. Improperly wired docks and boats, especially freshwater boats that have 110V systems onboard, are to blame.

“Most incidents we’ve seen,” says Beth Leonard at BoatUS, “can be blamed on do-it-yourself wiring projects.”

Even a competent household electrician may not realize that boat systems are different. Test your houseboat now and have it tested at least once a year by a marine electrician. If you add or change wiring have it done by, or checked out by, a marine specialist.  Use a clamp meter often because a fault could occur any time for reasons ranging from normal wear to a mouse nibbling a wire. Consider installing an isolation transformer.

Battery Maintenance

Fire departments urge people to change batteries in smoke alarms and CO alarms annually on a given date, such as a birthday. Choosing a significant date for all battery maintenance is a good memory jogger for liveaboards too. If your “house” batteries require water, check them monthly on, say, the first of the month. Corrosion on terminals builds and eventually disables the battery. Clean them faithfully. 

Where The Rubber Meets The Road

All houseboat propulsion systems have trouble spots. In an inboard engine it can be leakage in the shaft seal. Some older types can be tightened but you may have to haul the boat for a proper repair. In a stern drive, boots can deteriorate from age, heat and sun damage. Look for cracks and soft spots. Check your owner’s manual and/or installation instructions for the last replacement boots you installed. They’ll tell you how often boots need to be replaced.

Your outboard’s Achilles heel may be the transom itself, which could be weakened by neglected dry rot. Also, fittings could be weakened by rust or corrosion. Think about security upgrades too. Outboards can be stolen in an instant.

Hose Clamps

Don’t skimp when it comes to clamps. You need the best marine grade, all-stainless hose clamps you can find. Some “stainless” clamps sold for automotive use have iron screws. It’s a good idea to have a regular maintenance schedule for checking hoses and clamps.

Running Lights

If a crucial light fails underway at night, you’re unsafe and also illegal. At least once a year, remove bulbs to check sockets for corrosion. (After that you can put the same bulbs back if they work.) Check wiring for kinks, worn insulation, breaks and corrosion around spade fittings.

Dock Lines And Cleats

If your houseboat doesn’t leave the dock often, you may not realize that dock lines are dying in spots that are exposed day after day to UV and chafe. Improperly bedded cleats could be leaking water into sub-structure, feeding wood rot. In the first high wind, lines could split and cleats could pull lose.


Your houseboat has filters in everything from vacuum cleaners to the clothes dryer, microwave and heat/air system. They get full use when you’re living aboard, and double the use if you have a pet or live in an area with heavy dust or pollen. Devise a replacement routine.

The Mattress

Your mattress should be turned often, not only to distribute wear, but because ventilation is so important on a houseboat. If mildew forms on the underside, increase air circulation by, say, drilling holes in the plywood platform (if possible) and/or consider using a mattress underlay such as Hypervent (


About the Authors

“Living Aboard” is a recurring column that focuses on living on your houseboat. Gordon and Janet Groene lived full-time on the go for ten years and they hold the NMMA Directors Award for boating journalism. Their books include Living Aboard and Creating Comfort Afloat. Janet posts new galley recipes weekly at


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