Corrosion on the High Seas: How Ship Owners Battle Rust

A C38 oil/chemical tanker. Photo courtesy of Stolt Tankers.

Because seawater contains a significant concentration of dissolved salts and is very corrosive to steel, infrastructure and assets in or near marine environments are particularly susceptible to corrosion. Efforts to mitigate corrosion in marine environments continue as industries develop and implement solutions to prevent asset degradation.

The shipping industry is one that continually faces the corrosion challenges stemming from marine environments, particularly seawater. According to the U.S. Maritime Administration, 41,674 oceangoing merchant vessels (1,000 gross tons and over)1 were registered with an International Maritime Organization number as of January 1, 2015 (the latest report available). This worldwide fleet includes container, dry bulk, general cargo, passenger, ro-ro, liquefied natural gas (LNG)/liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), and tanker ships—and all are vulnerable to corrosion-related degradation of cargo tanks, ballast tanks, decks, and hulls, which can lead to higher maintenance costs, reduced service life, and potential failures.

Recently, NACE International member Johnny Eliasson (JE), structural and corrosion engineer with Chevron Shipping Co. (San Ramon, California, USA), and Massimo Rubesa (MR), coating and materials specialist with Stolt Tankers (Rotterdam, The Netherlands), shared their insights on the corrosion challenges that can affect cargo ships, particularly tankers, and the solutions.

What types of corrosion issues could be encountered on tankers?

JE/MR: The most frequent forms of corrosion we find on chemical tankers are uniform corrosion, pitting corrosion, crevice corrosion, galvanic corrosion, and microbiologically influenced corrosion. We have every type of corrosion on board a ship that you would have in a city. Anything you can imagine that would corrode in the city can corrode on board a ship—just much faster and much worse.

Are some tankers more susceptible to corrosion than others because of service environments or cargoes?

JE/MR: Yes, some are more susceptible because of service environments or cargoes. Many factors can cause corrosion on tankers. There are about 1,000 types of cargoes that are common for tankers and some are much more aggressive than others. Chemical tankers, for example, carry some very corrosive cargoes, such as sulfuric acid (H2SO4), hydrochloric acid (HCl), and nitric acid (HNO3), while other cargoes, such as crude oil, are not as corrosive. Additionally, some cargoes are heated, which also can contribute to many types of corrosion. Piping on the main deck of chemical tankers can be complex. Photo courtesy of Stolt Tankers.

Are there areas of the tankers where corrosion could be more severe than in other areas on the ship?

JE/MR: Because they have materials in them that cause corrosion, the cargo and ballast tanks are particularly prone to corrosion. As mentioned previously, the materials being transported in the cargo tanks can cause corrosion. Ballast tanks, which are critical to the life of the vessel, are constantly emptying and refilling with seawater, and this will increase the rate of corrosion. Changes in temperature will affect the corrosion rate as well. The sewage tanks on ships also have a propensity toward corrosion because of the aggressive environment, which includes bacteria. The microbes create acids that attack the walls of the tanks.

The main deck, although not as susceptible to corrosion as the ballast and cargo tanks, is also subjected to corrosion. The general environment is very corrosive because of the combination of salty air and seawater. Additionally, the entire main deck—plus all the piping and supports installed on it—is covered nightly with salt-laden dew that contains corrosion-causing chloride ions. Then add the daytime heat that increases the temperature, and the capability to corrode is aggravated.

What is your strategy to address corrosion?

JE/MR: The overarching strategy is to keep the expected service life of the vessel in mind. Usually a vessel is designed to meet a 25-year life at the lowest cost. At the design stage, an analysis determines whether it is most profitable to initially invest in higher-cost materials that will reduce maintenance costs over time, or to use more economical materials up front and plan for higher maintenance costs as the vessel is maintained throughout its service life. This strategy addresses the life of the vessel from the cradle to the grave. Once initial construction costs are determined, expected consequences and their costs are plotted over time. Then the most economical approach for a successful 25-year life is selected. This approach requires sound economic policy and an appropriate projection of probable consequences over time.

Materials selection is one strategy to address corrosion. Corrosion control can be designed into the ship itself. For example, the deck on a tanker can be fitted with ~3 km (2 mi) of piping. Typically, this piping is constructed of stainless steel (SS); however, SS is cathodic to the carbon steel (CS) used on the supports and structure of the ship, which means the CS acts as an anode for the SS piping, and it will corrode preferentially to protect the SS piping. Ideally, the piping material should be designed so the current density from the cathodes (SS) to the anodes (CS) is reduced, which will the prevent the deck of the ship from corroding. Coatings are very good resistors, and on Stolt Tankers ships, the SS is coated to reduce the current density. The CS supports and structure are also coated to protect them from the corrosive environment.

Using high-quality coating systems is another strategy for battling corrosion on the ship. The main deck is protected with a high-grade, combined composite coating system that starts with a zinc primer, followed by an epoxy coating with aluminum pigment as the second coat, and then a topcoat of polyurethane (PUR) coating. Zinc primer is used for adhesion purposes, enabling the coating system to adhere to the metal surface. The epoxy acts as a barrier to protect the metal surface, and reduces the amount of water, chlorides, and other contaminants that can access the surface and cause corrosion problems. The PUR topcoat acts as a sunscreen and protects the epoxy from ultraviolet light. Otherwise, the epoxy would chalk and deteriorate. The PUR is tinted and provides an aesthetically appealing finish to the deck as well.

The epoxy coating with aluminum pigmentation is also used to protect the ballast tanks. Although the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Performance Standard for Protective Coatings2 has a specific objective of achieving a target service life of 15 years for the seawater ballast tank coatings, Stolt Tankers aims to go beyond the standard and meet a 25-year service life of the ballast tanks. To do this, Stolt Tankers protects the CS ballast tanks by applying two coats of this epoxy coating system.

A seawater ballast tank in a Stolt Tankers ship after 20 years in service. Photo courtesy of Stolt Tankers.

Since most of the cargo tanks are constructed of SS, they are typically uncoated. Some cargo tanks, though, are built with CS. In this case, Stolt Tankers lines the CS tanks with either a three-coat epoxy phenolic system comprised of a primer, undercoat, and finish coat, with each coat applied with a dry film thickness (DFT) of 100 µm (4 mils); a three-coat epoxy isocyanate system with a DFT of 90 µm (3.5 mils) for each coat; a zinc silicate coating with a DFT of 80 µm (3 mils); or a two-coat cyclosilicon epoxy system with a DFT 150 µm (6 mils) for each coat.

Are there particular industry standards you follow for corrosion mitigation? How do these standards help with corrosion mitigation?

JE/MR: The industry standards available for corrosion provide guidelines for anticorrosion design during a vessel’s planning and construction stages, as well as protocols to follow for maintaining corrosion protection systems during the life of the ship. There are a number of standards used. For example, maintenance standards for coatings cover areas such as surface preparation, coating application, coating inspection, and how to determine coating deterioration. The standards clarify what is required and make it possible for all parties involved with ship construction and maintenance to have a comparable understanding of the requirements. The most common standards used are the four parts of ISO 8501, “Preparation of Steel Substrates Before Application of Paints and Related Products—Visual Assessment of Surface Cleanliness,” and multiple parts of ISO 4628, “Paints and Varnishes—Evaluation of Degradation of Coatings—Designation of Quantity and Size of Defects, and of Intensity of Uniform Changes in Appearance.” Without standards, we wouldn’t be able to build or maintain a ship.

What are your expectations for a coating system in terms of application, performance, service life, and return on investment? 

JE/MR: The expected or desired coating service life will vary depending on the area of the ship where the coating is installed. We follow maintenance regulations and guidelines that define the requirements for the condition of the coating. And, depending on the area of the ship, the regulations and guidelines that apply to the coating’s condition in terms of what is required to meet a specified condition can be different. In some areas, more work may need to be done to maintain the specified coating condition than in other areas.

On the main deck, for example, it is very costly to reblast the steel and replace the coating, so we want a coating that will perform well while being maintained throughout the ship’s service life, which is typically 25 years. As discussed previously, ballast tank coatings also have a target life of 25 years and the coatings must meet certain regulated conditions throughout this time period. For example, ballast tank coatings are inspected at specified intervals and are rated as either “good,” “fair,” or “poor,” and should not fall below a “good” rating during the ship’s life. It’s a very high standard. If the coating condition falls short of this rating earlier than its desired service life, then remedial action needs to be taken. But the overall desire is for each ballast tank coating to remain in “good” condition for 25 years.

Although there are many facets of ship design and maintenance that need to be considered when battling corrosion while at sea, there are many corrosion standards, guidelines, and corrosion protection technologies and products available to assist the maritime industry in economically achieving the desired service life of its vessels. The Stolt Tankers strategy is to aggressively maintain its ships’ coatings with a philosophy of “see rust equals fix rust,” and not wait until coating degradation becomes an issue.


1 “MARAD Open Data Portal, Maritime Data & Statistics,” Merchant Fleets of the World Report for 2016, U.S. Maritime Administration, (February 6, 2018).

2 “Performance Standard for Protective Coatings for Dedicated Seawater Ballast Tanks in All Types of Ships and Double-Side Skin Spaces of Bulk Carriers,” International Maritime Organization, Resolution MSC.215(82), December 8, 2006.

The article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Maritime News,, published by NACE International.

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