Skip to main content

Switch It Off... Not!

As you read the boat tour in this issue, you'll see a comment made that the owners of this bluewater passagemaker believe it is best to leave all systems fully operational, 24 hours a day, even when they leave the boat for days or weeks at a time. Every system on their trawler-navigation electronics, engine room lighting, radios, computers, alarm systems, sound systems, everything.

Since I suspect the majority of us routinely shut down much of our electronics when we anchor for the night, or have perfect sea conditions in familiar waters, or we leave the boat for a walkabout at a new port, I thought it might be worth looking into the leave-it-on philosophy further. After all, I know that jewels of wisdom come when you least expect them...

I don't know about you, but I grew up being constantly told to shut off lights and things when I was finished, or leaving a room. Lights, television, radio, whatever-I can still hear my parents loudly reminding me to "Turn off the light!"

During my sailing days, I also kept things off, but my motivation was more to conserve valuable battery power. Before the days of wind generators and solar panels, electricity on board sailboats was as precious as fresh water, maybe even more so. After all, you could do without a shower, but not having electrical power was unthinkable. Kerosene lamps and engine-less boats are for people from another time. I still treasure my sextant and Walker log, but it all seems a bit quaint to me these days.

At the recent Miami International Boat Show, I spoke with several professionals in the marine electronics industry about this philosophy. I candidly asked them, "Is it better to leave your electronics on all the time?"

Jim Tindall, manager of the Marine Division of Icom America, answered with a resounding affirmative! (Jim is an expert in the marine electronics industry, and I've long respected his knowledge and experience.)

"Moisture is a big issue on a boat," Jim told me. "All solid state devices benefit from being on, because they stay warm. In the marine environment, this translates into staying dry."

And dry electronics are more reliable than wet electronics that are subject to corrosion.

Additionally, when you switch warm equipment off, it cools, creating moisture, which puts us back to square one. Hmm, maybe there is something to all of this...

Lighting fixtures are not the same animal as solid state electronics, and both incandescent and flourescent bulbs will eventually burn out if left on indefinitely. However, these bulbs are cheap, and in the case of Bruce Kessler, his reasons for leaving lights on in his engine room have nothing to do with dry and warm. It is strictly preparation for an engine room emergency, so that no crew member has to hunt around for light switches while all hell's breaking loose in the engine compartment...

"If you've done the job of installing equipment right, it's better to leave things on," Jim concluded after a few minutes of discussion. This includes navigation electronics, GPS and autopilot, and all communications gear. The same is true for radar, but that is best kept in stand-by mode.

We're pretty lucky. Unlike sailboats, continuous and uninterrupted power is not a problem for most trawler yachts, so we can take advantage of warm and dry circuitry.

Chuck Worst, OEM manager of Navionics, and another longtime expert in marine electronics agrees.

"In the commercial end of the marine business, you really see the effectiveness of leaving electronics on. Some fishing boats go out in miserable conditions for nine months straight, and they keep all electronics on during that time," Worst said.

"I've seen radar units on for nine years before needing a replacement magnatron," Worst added. Commercial guys know that modern electronics are very reliable if kept warm and dry. Shouldn't we apply this commercial thinking to our pleasure boats?

Worst also recalled from his years in the business that most failures occur during power-up of an electronic system. Whatever gremlins are lurking about will choose to show up when you turn the unit on, even if it worked perfectly the day before.

Chuck provided his own experience as testimony. "Whenever I'm on my boat, I leave the electronics on, especially radar, although I try to keep it on stand-by as much as possible. Radar is my number one piece of electronic equipment.

"If I go out for a four-week cruise, everything is left on during that time, even if we pull in to port for supplies."

Unlike a few years ago, satellite acquisition is no longer the problem it once was. Today's GPS units don't lose track of satellites as easily as older models, so maintaining acquisition is not really a factor in the leave-it-on mentality.


This is certainly not the last word on the subject, nor was it intended to be.

For now, it's just an interesting observation that we may be doing more harm than good by "conserving" our electronics. Modern marine electronics are light-years ahead of what was available a decade ago-maybe we ought to readjust our perception about keeping them off to save them from wear and tear.

I suppose a peripheral advantage is that we too benefit from having our electronics on more often. You see, we become more accustomed to operating the equipment on a regular basis, and we learn to better understand the information displayed, especially with respect to radar.

Perhaps this means we ought to leave ourselves on all the time as well!