Information, Please

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As I sit in my office quietly contemplating a series of exchanges between a client and the owner of the shop that recently completed a very expensive refit, one word comes to mind: exasperation. Hold that thought.
Building and repairing boats and designing and installing complex engine, plumbing, electrical, and electronics systems are all challenging yet rewarding tasks, to be sure. I’'ve undertaken this work for my entire professional career, from bottom painting to electrical panel replacement, and while it was never fun hanging upside down in a narrow bilge on a hot summer day wiring a pump, knowing the pump would work reliably because I had installed it correctly was, and remains, immensely satisfying. All of the aforementioned tasks and many others in the world of boats have one thing in common: without accurate information and instructions, they cannot take place successfully.
I routinely inspect vessels, both factory fresh and pre-enjoyed, whose myriad and complex systems lack what should be considered a basic necessity—documentation and instructions. Not knowing whether this is standard practice in the industry, many owners ask me, “Steve, isn’t it just common sense that I should expect instructions, diagrams, or documentation with this installation? How would I know how to use this or what to do when it doesn’t work?”
Indeed, these are valid questions, and ones you’ve likely asked yourself at some point in your boat-ownership life.

So, what are reasonable expectations? Considering that you’ve probably spent a great deal of money on your boat and/or on the work that was carried out, I believe it’s appropriate for your expectations to be high. For instance, new vessels should come with schematics or diagrams for electrical systems and all plumbing systems. If you have electrical or electronics work carried out on your boat, part of that installation or repair should include preparation of a diagram that clearly indicates what was done.
When I point this out to boatyards or other installers, they often scoff, saying, “Do you know how much time that would take? No one wants to pay for that.” I have two responses: One, let the customer be the judge of what he or she wants to pay for. If you offer it as the default—i.e., as part of the job- —I suspect few will want to omit this work for the perceived savings. Two, think about how much it will cost the owner in troubleshooting time if this documentation is not supplied (or, worse, how much it will cost for someone else to track down a problem years later when they are a thousand miles away and none of the wires, switches, or fuses are labeled).
Another retort I hear from the folks from whom I expect such documentation is, “We can'’t justify the CAD program and operator training for creating these schematics.” This is either a simple misunderstanding of the expectations or an excuse for avoiding the responsibility of providing the information to the client. Let me be clear: I don’t expect computer-generated schematics using electrical engineering argot and symbols. On the contrary, a neatly drawn diagram that simply illustrates placement of the components, indicating where they are located aboard the vessel, if it’s not immediately obvious, and lines connecting them, along with any relevant notes, will often suffice. This should be a standard part of all but the most basic electrical installations. A PDF scan of such a diagram enables the owner to keep an electronic copy as well as a printed copy, and the yard/installer can retain a copy for future reference. To omit this vital step in the building, systems installation, or refit process of a new boat is simply irresponsible, and you should expect—nay, demand—more.
Along similar lines, consider how utterly confusing a series of valves can be if they are not clearly labeled. For that matter, consider the consequences of encountering a single valve that’s not labeled—is it the raw-water intake for the engine, or an overboard discharge for the sanitation system? I’m not exaggerating when I say that I routinely venture aboard new boats made by well-respected, quality builders and find dozens of unlabeled valves. Recently I worked with a vessel owner who, when asked about manipulation of the fuel system manifold valves, said, “It all works, so don’t touch them. I’m not sure what they do, anyway.” Small wonder—most of the valves aboard this new boat were unlabeled. Folks, this is simply unacceptable, and you need to let it be known that you expect more.
Let’s return to the exchange between the owner of the recently refitted boat—a refit that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars—and the yard that carried out the work. The source of the client’s frustration, and my exasperation, was the yard’s failure to provide the necessary documentation. Such documentation would have made the delivery of the vessel and its subsequent use a seamless and, if not completely stress-free, at least low-anxiety transition for the owner. Imagine—the vessel is now filled with new, complex equipment that wasn’t there before, it is hundreds of miles from the yard, and the instruction manuals that came with the gear are disorganized and, in some cases, absent altogether, as are warranty and registration cards. The owner doesn’t know where to start, because he doesn’t know what might be missing. Additionally, he’s not even sure where to look for a blown fuse when a set of cabin lights stops working.
If the boat owner does receive instruction manuals for each piece of gear, in many cases they do not explain how the various pieces work in unison. The responsibility for supplying this information lies with the installer or the installer’s manager. He or she must take the time to explain the operation to you verbally and write it down, with diagrams if necessary, for future reference or for reference by the next owner. I’m not suggesting this be done free of charge; on the contrary, it’s part of the job, just like tie-wrapping wire bundles and making sure all connections are properly crimped and all bus bar screws torqued. This all-too-important aspect of so many tasks must be carried out, and it’s worth paying for.

Here is a list of reasonable expectations you should have for any boatbuilder, boatyard, or specialized contractor:

  • Every fuse and circuit breaker must be clearly and permanently labeled.
  • Wires should be labeled or numbered at both ends. If numbered, the numbers should correspond to an accompanying diagram.
  • All but the simplest of electrical/electronics installations or refits should include a wiring or layout diagram.
  • Installation manuals and owner’s manuals must be supplied upon completion of the project; they should be neatly stored and must include warranty or product registration cards.
  • Equipment model numbers and serial numbers should be recorded; these can be written in the instruction manuals.
  • Every valve—including seacocks and overboard discharges—should be clearly and permanently labeled.
  • Installed gear that requires setup or initialization should be so initialized by the installer, unless specifically instructed otherwise. Battery chargers, electrical system monitors, autopilots, and alternator regulators come to mind. Setup is part of the job; it’s unreasonable for the installer or boatbuilder to expect you to do this, unless you specifically request this option.
  • A list or diagram of fuses used aboard, and a list of replacement fuses for the owner to purchase, should be provided.
  • The installer should walk the client through the location of key fuses/circuit breakers and their operation.