IPS vs Shaft: The Truth About Pod Drives

We’ve all heard the horror stories – but how bad, or good, can they be? Pod drives, such as Zeus or Volvo IPS (Inboard Propulsion System) are all so popular in Australia. The first Australian manufacturer that comes to mind is Riviera who have been fitting twin and triple set-ups.

POD drive is a system where the gearbox and drive is mounted beneath the boat in the water. They steer on a large axis, and when mounted in twin and triple set-ups can be used with a joystick for ease of parking. Much like a sterndrive, the exhaust and water inlet is incorporated with the drive. They are mounted in a manner that allows them to increase fuel efficiency, and reduce drag.

There are two main brands in the market – Volvo IPS and MerCruiser Zeus. There are some distinct differences – such as:

Now on the other hand, shaft drive is traditionally a shaft with a propeller, and a rudder mounted behind for steering. You must understand the principles of driving a shaft, before operating as there usually isn’t a joystick (although manufacturers are starting to combine bow & stern thrusters with a joystick set-up). While a shaft drive will usually have lower fuel efficiency over a pod, the maintenance is decreased because there are less moving parts, and less metal parts mounted underwater. Typically pod drive oil is expensive and needs to be changed regularly. Seals in the gearbox stopping water from entering can wear out, and a close eye needs to be kept on the gearbox at each service interval to ensure they stay water free. Because they’re made of metal, each pod requires special anodes designed to sacrifice first – protecting your pod from eroding away.

The last thing that needs to be considered is availability of parts and technicians to work on them. If you’re going to be planning some serious offshore trips, and extended trips to remote locations – pods are not for you.
If you’re happy to just cruise around the local waterways and the odd week or weekend away – a pod drive is great.

What to look for when buying an IPS or Zeus pod?

Pre 2009 IPS drives were fitted with certain parts that are now superseded, one being a bronze steering seal. When used in salt water they were prone to failing sooner than expected. Although Volvo never actually did a recall, they are now fitting a stainless steel version. To replace the ring is a labour intensive job, including the removal of the drive and top box – the cost of the part itself is around $1000. It is generally a good idea to get the seals replaced, or keep a very close eye on water levels, for any Pod that is over 5 years old. If water starts to get in it will then cause damage to the clutch plates in the gearbox, which becomes a spiralling effect and before you know it you’ve spent 15K rebuilding a single gearbox.

Stainless Steel Seal-Runner Fitted to IPS Pod Drive

How will I know there is water in my gearbox?

Fortunately we’re no longer in the Stone Age – we can use oil sampling to check for water mixed with oil. Anyone buying a pod that is out of warranty should really consider getting a sample taken for testing to see where the seals are at. If you already own the boat you can monitor it at each service, or more regularly if you’re concerned.

What to look for when buying shafts?

Fortunately shafts have been around for a long time, and there are more mechanics competent at checking them. The 4 main things to look for when buying a shaft is checking its condition (straight etc.), the skeg bearing, the alignment, and the propellor. Generally speaking the worst case repair for a shaft and propellor would be closer to the vicinity of $2000-5000 for a moderate sized boat (model specific) whereas a POD you’re looking at upward of $20000 just for the drive.

So, whats best?

It really comes down to the purchaser, and how they’re planning to use the boat. For lots of offshore work and driving to remote locations – shaft all the way. For really big boats (60ft plus) – shafts again. For anything in between, river and inshore cruising, and lots of parking in Marinas – Pods are a great option. One other advantage of pods is that the cabin set-up can be completely different, as the engines don’t have to be mounted right in the middle of the boat. Be aware of the additional cost from the beginning – don’t expect it to be cheap! Technology costs money, and you’re going to pay for it with pods if you keep the boat long-term.

Just remember – if you ask someone who has owned a shaft their whole life and never an IPS they probably aren’t going to be a fan of the IPS, and there will be mixed emotions from those who have owned them and couldn’t afford to maintain them.

Are IPS drives reliable?

While there is always going to be horror stories, IPS drives when regularly maintained are reliable. Many of the issues around pod drives relate to lack of use, lack of servicing and underwater impacts.

What types of pod drives are available?

While there are more than two brands, the most popular ones in Australia are Volvo Penta IPS, and Zeus Pods.

What is a pod drive?

Pod drive is a marine propulsion system where the gearbox and drive is mounted right beneath the boat in the water. They steer on a large axis, and when mounted in twin and triple set-ups can be used with a joystick for ease of parking. Much like a sterndrive, the exhaust and water inlet is incorporated with the drive and they are mounted in a manner that allows them to increase fuel efficiency, and reduce drag.

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