How anodes work

Anodes depend for their operation upon the relative positions of metals in the galvanic series. These positions are determined by measuring the voltage between the immersed metal and a reference cell composed of silver and silver chloride, also immersed in the solution, which for the purposes of this article is seawater. A galvanic series is thus created for all metals. More anodic metals to the right have negative voltages compared with the cell, whereas those to the left have more positive voltages and are referred to as cathodic. When a cathodic and anodic metal are connected together and immersed in seawater the anodic one will corrode preferentially, while the more cathodic one will be protected. Relatively low cost sacrificial anodes are connected to our more expensive cathodic metals or, as will be seen, combinations of them.

This figure is a much abbreviated version of the galvanic series and includes commonly used pure metals, alloys and specialised anode alloys. The manufacturers of anodes have conducted considerable research into both aluminium and zinc anodes, adding small amounts of various other elements to manipulate their voltages and improve other properties such as even corrosion pattern, reliable electrical capacity and a long working life. Some of these are shown in tables 1-3.

It can be seen that the voltages of magnesium, aluminium and zinc anode alloys differ quite considerably from those of the general alloys which, for example, allows an aluminium saildrive leg to be protected by an aluminium anode.

The tables show the composition of three commercial anode alloys. There are several important points to note here:
Firstly, the chemical composition is extremely closely controlled, particularly where iron is involved. The US MIL specification limits iron to very low levels as it inhibits the action of the anode. DIY re-melting of old anodes is very unlikely to comply with these specifications. Even cleaning anodes with a steel wire brush or file may inhibit its action.

Secondly, the open circuit potentials of zinc and aluminium anodes are very similar but the capacity of the aluminium version is very much greater. Thus aluminium anodes are superseding zinc ones in general use, as:

  • They may be used in both salt and brackish water
  • Their higher electrical capacity allows the use of smaller anodes
  • The alloy remains active if exposed to air and will reactivate when re-immersed

Zinc anodes still have some advantages but these are usually of lesser importance in yachts:

  • They have better impact strength
  • Their decay is more even across the anode
  • The formation of zinc oxide in fresh and brackish water will inhibit their action

Magnesium alloys react rapidly in seawater and are only suitable for use in fresh water where their loss rate is reduced by lower open circuit potential.

Use of anodes

For the protection of cathodic metals in boats there are very specific requirements for the connection and placement of anodes. Firstly, the anode should be able to ‘see’ the surface being protected. Thus it is not possible to protect an engine with a hull anode; raw water cooled engines need an internal anode for protection. Secondly, the anode needs to be fairly close to the object being protected. The passage of ions in water is not very efficient and they will fail to arrive when widely separated.

Protection of propellers and shafts by anodes is possibly the largest application of cathodic protection on yachts. The anode not only protects the shaft and propeller individually but it also protects the galvanic couple that exists between the two when made of different materials. In its simplest form a specially shaped anode is bolted around the shaft, preferably as close to the propeller as possible. Where the design of the drive is not suitable for a shaft anode it is usual to arrange a hull anode close to the propeller, connected electrically to it via the gearbox. Some shaft couplings are electrically isolating, in which the connection is made either using a copper braid bridge to bypass it or alternatively a copper brush rubbing on the shaft inside the boat. It is good practice to test the conductivity of the arrangement with a meter between the object being protected and the anode, which should show a resistance of around 1 ohm or less.

Saildrive corrosion is a persistent source of concern for many owners. There are considerable differences between makers, in that Yanmar ones are electrically connected to the rest of the boat, whereas Volvo ones are totally isolated from everything else in most cases. It is important to preserve the isolation of the Volvo ones, ensuring that no metals can bridge between the leg and the gearbox, and that the gasket is kept clean and dry. In each case it is important to replace the anode annually, ensuring a good electrical connection on installation. The special paint applied to saildrives is of great importance in reducing the area of the cathode and should also be checked annually.

Where anode depletion occurs more rapidly than one per season the action can be extended by hanging anodes over the side of the boat, again placing them as close to the cathode as possible. In the case of a saildrive the connection should be made to the leg itself, using insulated wire to avoid bridging the isolation.

ALUMINIUM ALLOY – According to US MIL specification MIL-A-24779(SH)

 Element Range (%) 
Zinc (Zn)3.50 – 5.0 
Titanium (Ti)0.01 – 0.05 
Silicon (Si)0.05 – 0.20 
Bismuth (Bi)0.05 – 0.15 
Indium (In)0.02 – 0.05 
Copper (Cu)0.01 max 
Iron (Fe)0.15 max 
Otherseach 0.10 max 
Nominal electrical capacity:2700 AmpHr/Kg 
Nominal open circuit potential:1100 mV vs Ag/AgCl (seawater) reference cell 

ZINC ALLOY according to US MIL Specification. A-18001K

 Element Range (%)
Aluminium (Al)0.10 – 0.5
Cadmium (Cd)0.025 – 0.07
Copper (Cu)0.005 max
Iron (Fe)0.005 max
Lead (Pb)0.006 max
Otherstotal 0.10 max
Zinc (Zn)Balance
Nominal electrical capacity:780 AmpHr/Kg
Nominal open circuit potential:-1050 mV vs Ag/AgCl (seawater) reference cell

MAGNESIUM ALLOY according to US specification MIL-A-21412A (Ships).

 Element range (%)
Aluminium (Al)6
Zinc (Zn)3
Nominal electrical capacity:1210 AmpHr/kg
Nominal open circuit potential:-1700 mV vs Ag/AgCl (seawater) reference cell

(Two anodes)  The anode supplied to fit this feathering propeller is small, limiting its life. The addition of a shaft anode supplements the protection. Painting the propeller (for antifouling) has been found to double anode life by reducing the cathode area.