Installing and Maintaining Marine Electronics Equipment
Few things can be more frustrating to a boat owner than spending money on a new piece of gear, only to find that it doesn’t work properly. According to marine electronics manufacturers, the two leading causes of new equipment failure are not choosing the right gear and improper installations. These seemingly simple processes cause boat owners a great deal of headaches.
With an ever increasing variety of choices, it can be very difficult to decide on the correct gear for your boat. What is a proper choice for one situation may not be suitable for the next. This is where a trusted, reputable marine dealer can be most helpful. They are qualified to match the new gear to your exact needs and can also assist you with any interfacing that may be required.
When it comes to installing that new gear, a qualified technician or dealer should be consulted. I recommend having it installed by a professional, but do realize that there are many boat owners who would prefer to do it themselves. One compromise is for the owner to physically mount all of the equipment and run the cables, then have an installer do the connections and setups to the equipment. This way, you have a professional, guaranteed installation, and you’ve saved money by doing the most time consuming work yourself.
If your new equipment should suffer from installation problems, all is not lost. There are simple checks you can perform to help determine the cause. Of course, if the installation was performed by the dealer or another professional, you should contact them immediately upon discovering the problem.
In the case that the equipment doesn’t work at all, you should check the fuses and the battery power connections. If it does turn on, but doesn’t work properly, or if the new gear causes problems in your existing equipment, check the signal and antenna cables, ensuring that the connectors are tightly seated, and there are no frayed or loose wires, and that the cables are run well away from wires of other sensitive systems. Make sure the proper size wires were used. In cases of equipment interference, check that all equipment and cables are properly grounded, as that is the leading cause of most instances of interference on boats.
Another common problem that may arise after installing new equipment is not actually caused by the installation, but is related to it. This is the problem of man-made interference, or noise. This may show up as audible noise in the speakers of radio or audio equipment, inaccurate GPS positions, autopilots steering off course or in circles, and random indications on depth sounders and plotters.
Interference can be radio interference (RFI) or electromagnetic interference (EMI), though the two are usually lumped together as RFI/EMI. There are several sources of interference, and the methods for eliminating them usually depend on the cause. Some common causes of interference are alternators, voltage regulators, electric motors, radio equipment transmitters, engine instruments, televisions and computers.
When installing new equipment, in order to reduce the chances of interference, mount the equipment well away from those devices listed above. Also, use high quality cables and run them away from other cables as much as possible. Ensure they are not passing near any of the interference-causing devices. When signal cables must be run near or parallel to other cables, always use shielded cables, and properly ground all equipment and shields.
When you’ve taken all of these precautions, but still experience RFI/EMI, you should consult your marine dealer. Special filters and cables are available to eliminate or reduce interference, and the dealer will be able to assist you with selecting and installing them properly.
Installing It Properly
The first step in doing a proper installation is buying quality equipment. While it is true that a cheaper VHF radio has the same output power as a more expensive unit, the higher priced one is usually made of higher quality components and undergoes more rigorous factory testing, has more convenience features, and will last much longer. Remember, when it comes to marine electronics, the general rule of thumb is to buy the best equipment you can afford.
When choosing your new radio system, you should get the very best antenna you can afford. The antenna is the most important part of the system, because if it can’t send or receive a signal, then your new setup is just about worthless. Also, make sure you go with a high quality antenna cable. Use RG-8/U or RG-213/U, instead of the smaller RG-58/U. The RG-58/U has a lot more cable loss, so less of the signal reaches the antenna or radio.
For a VHF radio, the antenna should be mounted as high as possible, as it is a “line of sight” system, so the higher the antennas are on each end, the farther it can communicate. For Single-Sideband (SSB) radio, height is not an issue, and since the antenna is quite long, at least 23 feet, there may not be many options on where to place it.
All equipment should be mounted securely, and in a location that minimizes exposure to salt water spray. All antenna cable connections should be tight and wrapped with self-amalgamating tape, sometimes called cold-shrink tape, to make the connection water tight. Some people choose to use silicone seal to weatherproof the connections, but it can be difficult to remove, should you ever have the need to get to the connection again.
GPS antennas should be mounted in an area that gives maximum view of the sky in all directions, to ensure there is minimal blockage of the satellite signals, and should be kept away from VHF and SSB antennas to prevent interference. The same holds true for satellite communication systems.
Power connections should be done with the proper size wire. Consult the equipment manual, or your marine dealer to get the proper size for each piece of equipment.
When installing an SSB radio, grounding is very critical. Both the transceiver and the antenna tuner must be properly grounded to ensure efficient operation, and to prevent interference to other equipment. The transceiver should be connected to the boats ground terminal with a heavy gauge copper wire, and the tuner should be connected with a one or two inch copper strap. Also, the tuner should be mounted as near to the ground point as possible.
If you follow the recommendations in the equipment manuals regarding installation, you should have no problems with your new equipment. If you do have any questions, your dealer or the manufacturer will be happy to assist you.
Getting your electronics installed is only part of the battle. Due to the environment in which marine electronics equipment is forced to operate, constant maintenance is imperative to ensure a long life. The following procedures should be performed periodically to keep your gear running. This should be done at least once or twice a month, and each time before setting out when proper operation of the equipment is a must.
Connectors, plugs and terminals should be checked to ensure they have not worked loose due to vibration and shock. If any are found to be loose, they should be tightened. The battery connections should be tight and clean. And, while you’re there, check the condition of the battery.
Antenna cable connectors should be checked for corrosion. If the corrosion is slight, it can usually be removed with electrical contact cleaner. A stiff brush can be helpful, here. When the corrosion is heavy, it is best to replace the connector. Check the antenna cable for cuts or abrasions, and if any are found, replace the cable. Afterwards, ensure that the connections are properly tightened and sealed.
Ensure all equipment and antennas are securely mounted. Perform an operational check of all the equipment, consulting the operator manuals for details on performing these tests. As an added measure, consider having all the electronics equipment checked out by an FCC-licensed technician once a year.
Marine electronics equipment is designed to operate error free for a very long time. When installed properly and given the proper care, it is better able to live up to its design.
© 2009 Rodney Rodriguez