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How to Choose a Power-Steering System for Your Boat

Key components to look for when selecting a power-steering system.

October 11, 2013

Power steering makes maneuvering easier for skippers of any style of boat. When you’re looking for a power-steering system, or a new boat fitted with one, make sure it incorporates these key components.

1. No Feedback
The helm should have a stainless-steel steering column with a self-lubricating bearing to last longer in the saltwater environment. A power-steering helm also needs integrated lockouts or “stops” to ensure that feedback from the rudder doesn’t push fluid back up into the system and torque the steering wheel. Maximum backpressure for the lockouts is 300 psi.

2. Size (It Matters)
Steering hoses must be sized to the system pump’s flow capacity. Except for high-performance installations that have braided stainless-steel lines to look cool, most power-steering hoses are 1,000 psi minimum, single-wire reinforced, industrial, hydraulic versions with swaged ends. Avoid the plastic hose used in manual hydraulic systems. Hot fluid from a power-steering pump can deform the hose.

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3. Controlled Cruise
Autopilot is easier to install on a power-steering system than on a manual hydraulic one because, at the steering end, a solenoid is all that’s added. It receives a signal from the auto­pilot unit and adjusts the steering to port or starboard.

4. Sufficient Tankage
The ideal rule of thumb for fluid capacity is three times the maximum flow of the pump, but it’s unrealistic. If you have a pump making 4 gpm at 600 rpm, it will make 16 gpm at 2,400, and a 48-gallon tank takes up lots of space. Instead, most shops use a 1:1 ratio but encourage owners to install an in-line cooler to keep temperatures in check and steering smooth.

5. Pump Potential
Power steering uses an engine-driven pump — either mounted on the motor or belt-operated — to open and close hydraulic cylinders. The pump needs a third reserve hose to return fluid to the tank. Typically, for a 30- to 40-foot boat, you’ll need a unit that pumps four gallons per minute at idle to maneuver around the docks. As engine rpm increase, so does the pump’s flow rate. A quality system has a diverter kick in at a preset flow rate to divert excess fluid back to the tank.

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6. Steering Cylinders
The point of contact for the rudder, sterndrive or outboard in the system is the steering cylinder. Most boats under 40 feet use single cylinders. Outboard cylinders may push against the boat or just the engine, and offshore performance boats use twin stainless steel.Dual-cylinder inboard installations offer smoother rudder action versus a single cylinder.

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