Taking care of customers who buy ballast water treatment systems

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

17 September 2018


It has always been a gripe of shipowners that equipment warranties are often not worth the paper they are written on. In all probability that will remain the case for many suppliers but short of boycotting the worst offenders there is very little that an owner can do. Even a boycott is not effective if the equipment supplier has ceased trading with no legacy company to deal with future complaints.

It is also an unfortunate fact that when a particular item of equipment suddenly becomes necessary for existing ships as a result of IMO or national regulation, there will be a sudden surge in new suppliers that take advantage of the rolling bandwagon and then disappear. That can be bad enough when the equipment involved is relatively inexpensive but could be catastrophic if it is something with a very high capital price tag such as a ballast water treatment system.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that some ballast treatment systems installed on ships do not work exactly as intended. Some may have been wrong choices by the owner – a UV system for a ship trading in very murky waters or an electro-chlorination system for ships operating in fresh and ballast regions – but others it seems are simply very troublesome and unreliable. We can not name names because the systems described in some of the reports are not named there either, but the owners involved will know and may spread the word to their peers.

The ballast retrofit bandwagon is now rolling. Were it not for the short delay agreed by the IMO in late 2017 it would already be gathering pace. The consequence of the delay and the fact that the G8 type approval process has been made more robust, may mean that many of the system makers on the current list decide to withdraw but most will probably hang on in there while the market shakes itself out.

Exactly what assurances were given to owners who have already fitted systems we cannot know but some companies did make public their commitment. As long ago as 2007 when Alfa Laval set out on the type-approval path for its PureBallast system, the company guaranteed buyers a refund of the system cost if type approval was not granted.

Other makers may not have made public announcements, but some have demonstrated commitment to existing and potential new customers. RWO was one of the first to gain IMO type approval for its CleanBallast system and notched up several system sales in the early days. However, as ratification of the ballast convention became more and more delayed, in 2015 the company suspended market activity.

The CleanBallast also had US AMS status suggesting that the sector for ships trading to the US was important to it. However, the AMS concession is to end soon and this year, RWO has ended its market suspension and applied for US type-approval fulfilling an obligation to existing customers. It has also resumed marketing of its system and will probably pick up more users.

As far as absolute guarantees of system efficiency and reliability go few system makers would be in a position to offer that. Even the type-approval process recognises that under some circumstances systems may have problems achieving the required disinfection level. Exactly what the owner is supposed to do under those circumstances is very unclear and the consequences will doubtless be discovered during the experience building phase.

At least one maker is prepared to go a little further – EcoChlor’s new EcoCare guarantee might be seen as an industry first. So long as the system is operated in accordance with maker’s instruction, this ensures regulatory compliance with IMO, USCG and individual U.S. state standards now and throughout the life of the system. In addition the guarantee addresses system efficacy as it pertains to treating ballast water for invasive species contamination and it insures against financial penalties up to $1,000,000 relating to fines, port charges, delays and off-hire.

As part of the EcoCare guarantee, the company proactively tracks all ballasting operations with results reported via a Functional Monitoring Data Sheet and other remote monitoring tools It also has a 24/7 international call centre for when crews and operators need support.

Finding a company that is prepared to stand full square behind its products is just part of the battle for buyers of new ships. The main problem is ensuring that the shipyard is willing and able to include the desired products within the newbuilding contract.

Many yards refuse outright to offer anything other than their supported equipment while others may be willing to accommodate the buyer at a cost. For the owner, the decision as to whether any additional charge is worth paying for a product that offers above average guarantees and warranties is one that only they can make.