Perhaps you’ve owned your boat for a while now, and have gotten used to the way your helm works. This applies whether you have ever done an electronics refit on your boat or not. You may be missing out on some features that could enhance your on-the-water experience. Bottom line: If you can’t remember when you last refit your electronics (or if you haven’t considered it), you owe it to yourself to look at what’s new with the help of a professional electronics installer.
First, decide if an electronics refit is the right path for you. If your electronics are still working and you have a comfort level with them, then standing pat could be the best play. But if you think you may be missing out or would like to explore what’s available, follow these five steps to electronic enlightenment.
Many boaters get the idea they’re going to see everything new at once and end up in a head-spinning situation where they don’t know which way is up. These experiences often happen at boat shows, where everything is flashing in your face and you’ve got to see it because it’s new new new. And that’s just one of several different brands that you’re seeing, all in one day. Or you may pay a visit to a big-box retail store that has a ton of equipment on display. Both places help your research, because they give you a sense of the immensity of choice out there. The downside: You’re not really getting all the facts at either one.
“If boaters visit a local boat show they get info overload from speaking to the sales reps from the different manufacturers,” says Steve Gorman, managing member of Norwegian Marine Electronics in Pompano Beach, Florida (www.norwegianmarine.com). “They all explain why their product is better than the other manufacturers’.”
Instead it may be a better experience to speak to an experienced dealer. “Our system designers ask lots of questions including, Who will be enjoying the vessel? and What interests and hobbies are to be considered?” says Debbie Milbery, president of Concord Marine Electronics (www.concordelectronics.com). “The owner can spend countless hours researching or they can consult with a professional who has the experience and knowledge to help them sort through the endless options and keep them from making a costly mistake. We help owners pick equipment that is proven to meet expectations and safety levels.” Be forewarned: Where once upon a time, functionality was added component by component, today you may be looking at a full system refit.
Talk to the installer about the system you have decided upon and get an estimate. Ask them to explain fully what their installation provides. “Obviously with today’s all-in-one MFDs you can pretty much do everything from one display,” Gorman says. “Most of us can still remember the days of having a GPS, a radar, a sounder, a digital depth finder, and an actual autopilot control. Now, of course, all that can be done in one display. But this still requires configuring all these add-ons into that one MFD specific to the boating needs and goals of the customer. I find that if the right package is sold to them that fits their needs they have a good boating experience and they will continue to come back to me for future needs and services.” Some manufacturers encourage professional installations with extended warranties.
If you decide to shop the estimate for the equipment and installation, make certain you’re comparing apples to apples—right down to the warranty. You want to see a certain pride in the work. While price is always a factor, so is downtime during the boating season if problems arise later. “If you’re price-shopping by the hour, I’ll tell you why my rate could be $125 an hour and the other guy could be $100 an hour,” says Michael Serdynski, owner of Marine Electronics Engineering, a dealer for Garmin and Raymarine and many other brands (www.go2mee.com). “But when my estimate says it will be done in two days and theirs says four days, you will see the difference. But the real difference is that my team is factory-trained and -certified, and I know my guys will make sure they get the job done right and on time.” Installers can be certified by electronics brands through factory training, and also through the National Marine Electronics Association (www.nmea.org). Each is good; both are best.
Putting the Helm Together
Your installer may come across as caring about your boat more than you do, but that’s okay. He just wants the installation to be completed to a standard where he isn’t getting a call on a Saturday—service calls are not good money for his firm. So he will not only look at the installation but he may also recommend upgrades to your whole electrical system.
“If you have only one or two start batteries and you don’t have a proper electronics installation, the first time that you get a bad cell in one battery in the bank that’s powering your electronics, you will have your stereo cranking, you left the radar on, you’re looking at the fishfinder—you’re having a good ol’ time. You crank that big ol’ four-stroke and the battery drops down to its knees and all your electronics flicker,” Serdynski says. “So that’s like taking your laptop, while it’s on, and you’re doing e-mail, and ripping the battery out of it and shoving it back in—what do you think your laptop would do? It’s not going to be happy. Marine electronics are computers and have processors. They don’t like flickering power. I will tell you in the estimate if you need a new fuse panel, if you need a new battery switch, if you need a house battery. And if you need a battery charger.”
These systems have gotten more sensitive over the years, too, and good installers know the details. “If you bundle the wrong wires together you can actually add noise into the system,” says Eric Turnquist, service manager for the Americas for Navico, manufacturer of the Simrad, Lowrance, and B&G brands (www.navico.com). “Your good installers are going to know not only what wires they can bundle together, they’ll also know what gauge wire should be run for a particular application, how much load can be put on any terminal, what size fuse or what size breaker has to be there. All these things are not just nice to have, they’re essential. It’s just not a place to cut corners.” See if you can get a schematic diagram of the installation: Sometimes available for an added fee, it can be invaluable for trouble-shooting in remote locations.
There are plenty of knowledgeable tradesmen out there, but it’s best to have an established installer because they deliver on levels you maybe hadn’t initially thought about. “Is the company you are working with licensed, trained, and insured?” Milbery asks. “What happens if they cause damage or get injured on your property, who is responsible?”
All installers will know how to set up a unit. It’s the good one that delivers training with patience. Boaters should come away with a solid knowledge base. “Depending on the install you may need to turn things on in certain sequences,” Turnquist says. “They should show you how to know what a good return is either through the sounder for depth or, if you have a radar onboard, what a good return is for your radar. They will teach you how to lay in waypoints and routes, understand your position on the charts, how to use charts, how to use the chart-reading capabilities most units have today. A good installer in this industry has a good working knowledge of this product and has probably been to a good number of seminars with the manufacturers.”
If you’re middle-aged or just not particularly tech savvy, bring along a young person (sons and daughters, or a niece or nephew who will be looking to do some boating are good choices) to go through the training with you. Generally they pick it up quickly and can be your onboard help desk.
“The time to learn your radar is on a beautiful sunny warm day, when you don’t have to worry about it and you have a cool drink in your hands,” Turnquist says. “It’s not when you’re out there in the fog and you can’t see anything and you’re hoping not to get run over by the tanker you can hear blowing his horn.” Take the time to build your trust in it in fair conditions.
Make sure your software is kept up to date, still another way a good installer can help. Take notes when you get trained on the system, and sign up for notfication for updates. Installers will know how often the software is updated and also will be able to fill you in on what your machine needs to keep things operating smoothly.
“Technologies are constantly evolving and changing with greater improvements,” Milbery says. “It’s important that you keep your equipment up to date.”
In the competitive market right now, software updates often mean new, added features and enhancements to existing functions—for free. You don’t want to miss out on that.
After all, it will keep your system running smoothly. Just what any enlightened boater would want.
Helm Refit Don’ts
1. Don’t presume it’s easy to install it yourself.
Unless you work as a certified electronics installer in your day job, this isn’t what it used to be in terms of do-it-yourself projects. The complexity, time you will spend, and the damage you could do far outweigh the savings. “The dealer knows where and how to install it,” says Eric Turnquist, service manager for the Americas for Navico. “And if he doesn’t do it right, he’s on the hook to fix it for you.”
2. Don’t expect good reputable installers to stand behind products they didn’t install.
If you bought it from Walmart and you and your uncle put it in, a dealer will deal with it, but it will cost you.
3. Don’t rush the work.
“No matter how good an installer is, if you put them up against a wall and you rush them, they’re going to take some kind of shortcut,” says Michael Serdynski of Marine Electronics Engineering. “No shortcut is good.”
This post originally appeared here.