In 2015 I enjoyed testing, and then enthusing about, the first electronic distress signal that could effectively and legally replace the flares required on most of our boats by the US Coast Guard. Hot flares always struck me as a dangerous way to seek help, they are distinctly unpopular with the folks who protect our environment, and their short lifespan is a boating hassle.
Now the original SOS C-1001 “LED flare” I wrote about — designed and engineered by Sirius Signal, and currently distributed by Weems & Plath — has competition from Orion Safety, the company that manufactures most actual marine pyrotechnic flares. It’s good news, I think, that Orion has finally endorsed the electronic Visual Distress Signal Device (eVDSD) concept — yes, it even has an acronym now — but which is better? Sirius Signal thinks it knows the answer, and loaned me a comparison kit to see for myself.
So what follows is my comparison of the two competing SOS distress signals, which both sell for $90 at West Marine and other outlets. First we’ll look at the design differences, though I also tried testing them on the water, and finally I’ll share news about an expansion of the eVDSD standard that looks quite interesting.
The slightly larger Orion only opens at the bottom and is powered by two D cells while the Sirius Signal (Weems & Plath) can be entirely dissembled from the top and uses three C-size batteries. All of which is important because, as the West Advisor notes, a significant drawback of an electronic non-pyrotechnic device is that it “uses batteries that can leak, corrode or fail” to which I’ll add the overall issue of many safety devices not receiving the maintenance attention they deserve. (I’m guilty too.)
If a battery did corrode inside the Sirius Signal design, you could access every part for cleaning. In fact, according to Sirius, you can purchase any part that needs replacement. Also, as noted in the comments to my 2015 review, Sirius included a platinum catalyst — that little box glued to the inside of the naked black electronics cup above — meant to protect against the outgassing of a failing alkaline battery. Nice!
I’ve also come to appreciate Sirius’s careful engineering of the on/off switch and power path, always potential points of failure, especially when rarely used. The left photo shows how the one-piece copper battery spring and negative power conductor fit into the Sirius case so that its springy tip can engage the large aluminum contact area on the back of the electronics cup (at right) when you screw the lens down a couple of turns. You can also see the large copper positive contact on the cup, and how all conducting contact surfaces are self-cleaning with the twisting motion. Moreover, the Sirius is arguably easier on the switching path than the Orion because it uses 4.5v instead of 3v to produce the same mandated light intensity levels, and thus less current.
Inside the Orion
By contrast, the Orion SOS Beacon had to be sawn and pried apart so that Sirius (and then I) could examine the innards. The sealed air volume — with the double o-ringed battery cap in place — and the larger size do give this beacon more buoyancy than Sirius’s combination of foam flotation collar and sealed air, which seemed a plus in testing. And the Orion can also be turned on with one hand.
But, dang, if that switch fails or a leaky battery otherwise fouls up the power path, an Orion SOS distress signal owner is going to have a hard time diagnosing the problem, let alone fixing it.
While Sirius also sent me lenses they had sawn and blackened to reveal the optical designs, I’ll leave comparative comments to informed readers as I’m pretty dim on that subject (which is also why I accidentally posed the small Orion cutaway at left upside down). But I did take untampered-with Orion and Sirius Signal lights with fresh batteries out on Penobscot Bay.
Testing the lights
So Gizmo’s first trip of 2019 was a twilight cruise in late April with old buddy Alden Cole as mate and a second set of independently judgemental eyes. But, cutting to the chase, such testing is tricky and neither of us detected significant differences in the eVDSD performance (again that stands for the formal title “electronic Visual Distress Signal Device”).
I actually shot this clip after we’d returned to Gizmo’s float, but it does give a close view of how the distress lights float and flash Morse code SOS. Note too how the Sirius Signal design at left is a little lower in the water, which from a distant low angle seemed to make it a tiny bit less visible. Then again, that perception may have been because it was more obscured by the life jacket we attached to make each light easier to pick up. (Plus Sirius Signal tells me that they’ve designed a production line change that will cause newly manufactured signals to float a little higher.)
My phone camera brightened this scene more than real life but much of our testing was at last twilight as the two distress lights drifted down the Bay. This was taken from Gizmo’s upper deck where the life jackets did not obscure the lights, and both seemed about equally as bright and consistent. Sorry the video isn’t longer, but you can see how the darn lights tried to fetch up on a rocky shore, which led to a somewhat hairy retrieval.
Besides, I don’t think any video like this can substitute for actually being there. For us the lights were pretty much equal at about the half mile maximum distance we got. And, by the way, I did inform the local and very cooperative Coast Guard about this testing beforehand, though I don’t know if anyone called to report seeing the distress lights. (I doubt it as a lot of the shore homes are still empty and Gizmo circling the scene was likely a tip-off anyway.)
But we did wonder how visible these beacons would be if there were lots of shore lights in the background, and I’m glad to report that the eVDSD standard expansion I mentioned permits distinct colors in addition to white. But before I get into detail, I have more than little to say about which current eVDSD I would buy.
What I’d buy
First, in my view, the Sirius Signal (Weems & Plath) product design beats Orion’s by a wide margin. The latter’s single-handed switching and slightly higher float position just don’t strike me as major factors when I envision all the ways an eVDSD might be used in a real distress situation. But reliability does, and I’m quite impressed with how well Sirius engineered it in.
But there’s a whole other factor that would color my buying decision, and that’s how Orion Safety reacted when the original Sirius Signal device came to market. Shortly after I wrote the Electronic Flare entry in 2015, I received an email from Orion’s marketing director that went in part like this:
Interesting article on the new LED light by Sirius, I read online. I think consumers should be made aware they are buying a soon to be unapproved signal. The Coast Guard has been in the process of developing an electronic alternative/supplement to hand flares for the past 3 years. I am a member of the committee convened to develop the new specification. We are hoping to finalize a draft this year to be submitted to the Coast Guard for further evaluation and testing… At a minimum I think consumers and your readers should be made aware they are spending $100 for a signal soon to be an unacceptable alternative for a hand flare. I suggest they save their money and wait till the new product becomes available hopefully in 2016.
I investigated this claim only to find that the (not really public) draft report was much vaguer than cited, and then the Orion guy stopped answering my pesky questions about it. Besides, I’d already seen other USCG safety regulation changes move along a much slower timeline — heck, I got close to whiny about Class B AIS — and also knew that they are very careful about causing boaters unnecessary expense (by regulation).
My skepticism has stood the test of time. The Sirius Signal (Weems & Plath) eVDSD was not made an “unacceptable alternative for a hand flare” in 2016 or any year since, and there’s no indication that it or the Orion model will be. In fact, I could never find anyone besides Orion who ever thought that would happen.
But that did not stop Orion from muddying the marketplace. Thus the trade show photo (above) that a reader sent in and thus my “The rumor is NOT TRUE” comments on the old entry. I’ve rarely seen that sort of “marketing” in the boating industry (I’m happy to report), and I haven’t forgotten it. I wouldn’t buy anything from Orion Safety unless it was a clearly superior product I felt important. Then again, I’m obviously closer to what happened than most, and your buying decisions are very much your own.
Coming: two color eVDSD
Orion was right about USCG efforts to improve the eVDSD starting back in 2013, and they’re finally coming to fruition. As Sirius Signal notes in this press release, “On December 21, 2018, the USCG issued a Policy Letter accepting red-orange/cyan as official colors to be used in maritime electronic visual distress signal devices (eVDSDs).”
I’ve read that policy letter (online here), and the Guard is exercising their right to “approve an item of equipment that does not meet all of the requirements of 46 CFR 161.013 if it has equivalent performance characteristics.” That’s how the CFR General Performance Standard (1) reading “Emit a white light which…” can now include red-orange and cyan without precluding existing white devices.
I saw Sirius Signal CEO Anthony Covelli demonstrate a prototype red-orange/cyan eVDSD at a 2017 National Boating Safety Advisory Council meeting in Washington, DC, and don’t doubt that a visual distress signal with these two distinct colors flashing SOS can be more effective than what the old standard originally specified. However, there’s more to the story.
I have not seen the RTCM Standard 13200.0 for Electronic Visual Distress Signal Devices that emerged from the extended USCG testing and discussion, but I understand that the expanded specification will be challenging for manufacturers to build at a friendly cost, and thus likely to be a premium safety product, at least at first.
Incidentally, National Safe Boating Week kicks off this weekend, and thus it’s high time for many of us to check out our safety gear in the here and now. Is all your boat’s required equipment fit and functional? What about smart though probably not mandated safety items like an EPIRB, PLB, or SEND; is the registration info that will help SAR services up to date? Most types of boating aren’t actually very dangerous, but when things do wrong there’s often time to turn the situation around with the right aids.
Back on subject, I look forward to covering new eVDSDs as possible, but right now I’m pleased that the basic technology has become so mainstream that even the major U.S. flare company is on board, and that you might even run into a Weems & Plath SOS Distress Light mascot at a boat show.