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Powering Up for Personal Watercraft Engine Service
By Doug Kaufman
The personal watercraft (PWC) – commonly known as a Jet Ski, Sea-Doo or Wave Runner – is leading an exciting and rapidly expanding industry in the United States. Since 1994, well over 1.1 million units have been sold. Many of these PWC are used simply as hobby craft by people content to race around a local lake on a sunny summer afternoon. But another large group of users look to squeeze as much performance out of these little powerplants as possible.
But whether you’re reaching the sometime-enthusiast or the professional PWC racer, the opportunities are plentiful for engine builders to provide valuable engine services – and earn a tidy sum of money in the process.
Despite what some owners might expect, service on a PWC doesn’t necessarily have to be performed by a dealer. In fact, while dealers may be trained on the latest features of a particular brand by factory representatives, the independent rebuilder can offer service on all makes.
"Dealers are the ones who cause many of the problems," proclaims George Grabowski of High Performance Tuning/HPT Sports, Paducah, KY. "There is no real dealer training for technicians, and anybody who sharpens a drill bit or picks up a hammer can declare himself to be a technician."
Grabowski explains that, unlike the automotive engine business, training courses for PWC are limited. This, he says, has caused the industry to suffer tremendously from misinformation and bad repair techniques, followed by service providers who either didn’t understand or care about what they were doing.
Grabowski offers one-on-one training in engine rebuilding techniques for PWC, snowmobiles and motorcycles at his facility. With more than 40 years of building and machining experience in two-stroke engines, Grabowski says he is one of the "old men" of the industry. But, he says, anyone can learn to properly repair and upgrade engines to meet any customer’s demands.
Some of those demands can be quite extreme, particularly regarding high performance expectations. Grabowski says cylinder head porting is one of the most important modifications that can be made to a PWC engine. However, it is important that porting changes made to increase rpm also take into regard other factors or else the engine will never operate at its peak efficiency.
"When designing a cylinder head, engineers are faced with many decisions regarding economy, longevity, performance, fuel consumption, noise and air pollution," Grabowski explains. "In addition to these issues, factors such as fuel/air ratio, scavenging efficiency, trapping efficiency, fuel economy, flow symmetry ratio, mean velocity and compression ratio are all closely related functions, and when changes are made to affect one, they affect many."
Grabowski says that many knowledgeable PWC owners take the opportunity during the winter to have major service done to their vehicles, so machine shops and rebuilders should expect this business to be somewhat seasonal.
"Most shops keep their most knowledgeable techs around even during slow periods," Grabowski says, "and savvy PWC owners know this is the best time to get modifications done. They believe that during the busy season, their engines may find themselves in the hands of a part-timer, first-timer or apprentice, and it’s not what they were bargaining for."
Not all PWC owners plan ahead, however. Mike Mabry, operations manager for Rochester Motorsports, Rochester, NH, says, at least in the Northeastern United States, PWC service is very seasonal – unfortunately, it’s not as he would like.
"The customer sees it’s a nice day and decides to bring it in, He wants me to work on it and have it ready the same day. At least around here, common sense does not apply," says Mabry.
Service opportunities include modifications, upgrades, seasonal maintenance as well as major repairs that are not covered under factory warranties. One repair you may encounter is likely the result of customer error – but you’ll be hard pressed to get them to admit that, says Mabry.
"Hydro-lock occurs when water gets into the engine. It can happen if there is a leaking head gasket or a leaking exhaust manifold gasket," he explains. "The way these engines work, water from the lake makes a big loop through the engine and out through the exhaust manifold. If there’s a leak in that system, water can leak into the cylinder. It’s the same as can happen in a car if the head gasket blew."
However, Mabry says he’s hardly ever seen hydro-lock happen this way. "Where I have seen it is if people swamp their PWC or tip them completely over. If the engine stalls when it is upside down, it can suck water back in through the muffler right into the engine. They won’t tell you that’s what happened, of course. They just say ‘my motor won’t run.’"
The skill required to service PWC engines is not difficult to learn, explains Grabowski. And it is worth investigating as a profitable niche business for any engine facility, he says.
"There’s not a year goes by that I don’t graduate several people who get into this business. They do the right stuff and they just grow and grow. Several of my former students are now very successful race engine builders."
Another source of education for the PWC repair industry is the Marine Mechanics Institute, part of Universal Technical Institute. This is an intense, nine-week program where students learn all aspects of servicing and maintaining PWC.
According to Grabowski, education is the key to success. "The field is wide open, because there are so many people who do the work wrong – people who do things right are in high demand."