Manifold Destiny

Are California’s tough regulations forcing our boats out of the water?

October 1, 2001

In the grand scheme of things, there’s not too much about the San Pablo Reservoir to get excited about. The rust-colored, tree-lined hills surrounding this lake, just 45 minutes from San Francisco, are pretty, but not breathtaking. The trout and bass fishing is decent, but not world renowned. And with just 860 surface acres, it’s no Lake Tahoe. In most regards, it’s a par-for-the-course boating destination for weekend warriors, like thousands of lakes in the other 49 states. The only thing there of real note to boaters across the country is the sign posted along the road to the ramp: “Notice: As of opening day, the only gasoline motors that will be allowed on San Pablo Reservoir will be four-cycle.”

Welcome to your boating future. For outboards and waterbikes, California already has the toughest emissions laws in the land. Now they’re putting the hammer down on diesels, stern drives, and inboards, and that means big changes are coming. And not just to the engines. Soon, more lakes and rivers, from Arizona to Pennsylvania, could wind up with engine restrictions just like the San Pablo Reservoir.

How can regulations enacted in California affect someone boating in New York? Because when the Golden State (mainly Los Angeles) had air pollution thicker than Guinness Stout in the ’70s, the federal government let the state set up its own regulatory body, the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Out of necessity, CARB enacts tougher regulations than the EPA, often taking the lead on environmental issues while the EPA follows.


There’s another twist. All the other states are subject to the EPA’s mandates, unless they want to adopt California’s laws. So when California makes a rule, it will most likely hit home elsewhere. It’s manifest destiny in reverse, or as we call it, manifold destiny.

Manifold destiny is not necessarily a bad thing. The new outboard technologies on the market have proved a win-win for everyone, even providing engines that environmentalists want to bear hug. But will it work with diesels as well as gasoline stern drives and inboards? We’ve talked to manufacturers, regulators, and lobbyists to find out how California’s rules will affect your power. Here’s what we learned.

Two-Stroke Transformation

In the next few years, kiss the old carbureted two-stroke good-bye. If you haven’t noticed, this process has already begun. Federal regulations state that by 2006, new engines must have a 75 percent reduction in hydrocarbon (HC) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. California isn’t waiting that long.


Starting in January 2001, all new two-stroke outboards, waterbike engines, and jet boat engines in the Golden State had to meet the 75 percent mark, and they must be 90 percent cleaner by 2008. By 2004, carbureted two-strokes cannot be sold in California. Older ones will be grandfathered in, meaning boaters can still use them. But municipal governments can set their own boating restrictions on local waterways like the San Pablo Reservoir.

One way your home state might do this would be to adopt California’s emissions label program. All new outboards in California are assigned a star rating. One star means low-emissions status-the engine meets California’s requirements for 2001. Two stars means the engine is 80 percent cleaner, meeting the rules for 2004. And three stars means it meets California’s 2008 standards-90 percent cleaner than the traditional carbureted two-stroke. If a town chooses, it can ban use of all but three star-rated engines on the local lake.

Every outboard company has a four-stroke or direct fuel injection (DFI) two-stroke on the market. Some, like Mercury, plan to phase out carbureted two-strokes by 2006. Others, like Suzuki, are slowly replacing every two-stroke engine in their lineup with a new four-stroke. Most agree the results are positive.


“The outboard rule is one that everyone can be proud of,” says John McKnight of the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association (NMMA). “Engine manufacturers were able to identify existing technologies and apply them, and they provided the consumer with a benefit.”

The new four-stroke engines, as well as the DFI two-strokes, start easier, have far better fuel economy, and run much quieter. There’s not much to dislike. Except sticker price. The new engines can cost thousands of dollars more than a traditional two-stroke, depending on size. Some argue that improved fuel economy saves you the money with fewer fill-ups, but you’d have to boat a lot more than the national average of 45 hours a year to recoup the difference.

The other knock against the new engines is speed, or the lack of it. The four-stroke engines are heavier than their carbureted two-stroke counterparts, adding extra weight and taking away from top end, the theory goes. But Japanese manufacturers such as Yamaha, Honda, and Suzuki are coming out with a new generation of high-performance four-strokes that more closely match two-strokes in weight and top-end performance. The final question remains to be answered: Will the new engines be as durable as the old two-stroke standby?


The Waterbike Smackdown

As goes the outboard, so too goes the waterbike. CARB doesn’t distinguish between the two-anything with a carbureted two-stroke is no mas. Waterbikes, though, have a public-image problem that outboards never had. Right now, everyone’s picking on them. New York adopted CARB’s two-stroke regulations, but for waterbikes only. National seashore areas such as those on Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras passed similar waterbike bans. And the National Park Service had restricted waterbike use in all but 21 national parks, although the ban was lifted in four parks last April.

California, of course, plays a prominent role. Marin County was one of the first municipalities to try to ban waterbikes outright (a move struck down in court). And the first big fight over waterbikes to take on national significance happened at Lake Tahoe in 1998. The most vocal national clean-engine lobbying group, the Bluewater Network, is based in San Francisco. The organization has even sued the National Park Service to ban waterbikes from all national parks. A bill in California legislature that attempted to ban waterbikes from all state waters was withdrawn in April but could resurface by the end of 2002.

Part of the vendetta against waterbikes stems from the fact that they are perceived as louder and dirtier than traditional carbureted outboard-powered boats. According to Russell Long of the Bluewater Network, waterbike engines produce nine times the HC emissions as two-stroke outboards. One oft-cited but disputed statistic claims that a waterbike driven for seven hours produces more emissions than a 1998 model-year car driven for 100,000 miles. Even if this is correct, technology is changing that, too.

Honda is coming out with a four-stroke waterbike this fall. Yamaha fit its WaveRunner XLT 1200 with a water-cooled platinum exhaust catalyst that, according to Yamaha, cuts HC emissions by two-thirds, and will have a four-stroke-powered model out in 2002. Sea-Doo is currently using Orbital technology to meet the regulations and will also have a four-stroke model in 2002. Polaris and Kawasaki use Ficht direct injection. These diverse technologies will benefit waterbike buyers, says Stephan Andranian of the American Watercraft Association, “Because if one doesn’t work, another one will.” As with the outboards, expect in the future cleaner, quieter waterbikes that cost about 1,000 bucks more a pop. But what about big boats?

Dirty Dancing With Diesel

In the words of Doug Cartwright, the chief engineer for Cummins Marine, “I believe you’ll see the end of mechanical engines.” Diesel engines of all kinds are getting busted. The International Maritime Organization, which sets the standards for international shipping, has tough mandates for marine diesels, and most engine companies have already complied. Builders like Caterpillar, Cummins, and Detroit Diesel are making engines with electronic control units that keep emissions down.

California’s effect? Last fall CARB released a draft risk-reduction plan-basically a starting point-that outlines strategies to reduce particulate matter (PM) from all diesel engines in the state, including marine engines. “Right now recreational boats aren’t at the top of the list,” said Richard Varenchik of CARB. But eventually they’ll be regulated.

One CARB proposal involves installing PM traps on all diesels. Old diesels will have to be retrofit, which could cost owners between $10 and $50 per horsepower, meaning you may have to cough up thousands of dollars to make your boat compliant. But the technology is doable.

“There are plenty of suppliers throughout the world that can manufacture and supply PM traps,” says Cartwright. “The only concern for us would be exhaust temperatures and back pressure.” Increasing back pressure could decrease airflow to the engine and reduce power.

“What you’ll likely see as an end user,” Cartwright explains, “is electronic engines with seawater after cooling. There will be a slight improvement in fuel consumption, but the big benefit will be smoke reduction.” As with the other engines, the main concern is price. The new technology could put diesel engine costs through the roof.

Going After Gasoline

California already sees some good in gasoline stern drives and inboards. The four-stroke engines are now as clean as most four-stroke outboards-but the same engine in a car or truck makes a fraction of a marine version’s emissions. CARB wants marine gas engine emissions to get down to car levels by 2009, with restrictions starting in 2003. The main question about CARB’s new policy: Is this really possible-and how? Right now CARB is testing catalytic converters on stern drives at Southwest Research in San Antonio, Texas.

This makes engine- and boatbuilders cringe. Even the Coast Guard questions catalytic converters, because of the extreme heat they give off, which could cause an explosion in a cramped boat engine compartment. “The safety concerns have to be met head-on,” says M’K Veloz of the Northern California Marine Trade Association. “They need to be proved in real-world situations.”

Not to mention that they can’t be exposed to salt water. “Right now there is no catalyst out there that can get wet with salt water and not lose performance,” says McKnight of the NMMA. The main issue is the fact that most marine exhaust systems are water cooled. A catalyst cannot work without an oxygen sensor, and up to this point, one has not been developed for a four-stroke gas engine that can survive in a marine environment.

Companies that build catalysts, used to dealing in millions of units with cars, have no incentive to help marine builders with the 115,000 gasoline stern drives they sell every year. (On its worldwide assembly lines, General Motors could make the engine blocks for the boating industry in 20 minutes.)

If catalysts don’t work, another option would be exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), an expensive and complex system that takes exhaust gas and puts it through the engine, which cleans it up. Every car on the road has it today, but it’s unclear whether it will work with boats.

How will this affect boaters? When engine companies are finally forced to find a catalyst that works, boat companies are going to have to build bigger engine rooms to allow more air intake to account for the increased heat. And, as usual, prices will go up.

The Emissions Endgame

The CARB edicts are spreading east and could be visiting a lake near you. But don’t expect to see a ton of signs like the one at San Pablo Reservoir popping up tomorrow. Too many areas depend on revenue from boaters to limit their numbers by banning two-strokes entirely. But as the engine companies phase out two-strokes and fewer people use them, a lot of local areas will go the way of San Pablo. Waterbikes? They’re a target, so you may have to scope out new places to ride yours until the new technology comes along. At least California overruled its first outright ban.

Old diesels won’t fade from the scene for a long time, but if California adopts a retrofitting plan and your state follows, prepare to slap down some dead presidents. And some day, in the not so distant future, gasoline stern drives and inboards will have catalytic converters, and everyone will look back and wonder what the fuss was about. With these new cleaner, quieter, and more efficient engines, the average boater will win in every way except one: price. But when the results are shown over time, boaters and environmentalists alike will want to give the new engines a big bear hug.


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