This boat really was never designed to have an autopilot installed despite the fact it's a twin engined hybrid pleasure bowrider and fishing boat. I visit the boat, crawl around, snap pics to aid my creaky memory and figure it's possible. Not easy, very cramped but I can do it. It has a new Teleflex helm jammed into a tiny console, no worries there other than the lack of room. What I didn't know was something was different, very different about this helm that I think even an experienced installer like myself could easily miss. I would bet that most couldn't tell from the picture what this is, but I'm going to enlighten all. From my experience the line from the movie Groundhog Day "Anything that's different is good" was not.
I visited the local Parker hydraulic fittings distributor and bought a substantial amount of fittings trying to shrewdly anticipate the problems I was sure to have.
The boat is living in a dealers lot and has to be completed by the end of Friday and this is Monday. I'm also throwing in a chartplotter and transducer which have their own spatial constraint issues. Half of Tuesday gully washes and is a work write off. On Wednesday morning armed with plethora of fittings and tools I crawl into the console and start the process. This is where things start to go south... really quickly.
I always start autopilot plumbing by taking out the six o'clock return port and draining the hydraulic fluid reservoir into a bottle for later safe disposal. Humm... the plug to the port is not what I was expecting. It needs a hex wrench to remove it. When did this change?
I rummage around in my kit, find the wrench and remove the plug. There is another issue that has to be contended with. Things are so cramped I can't get a bottle under the fitting to catch to hydraulic fluid so I need lots of paper towels under it to absorb the fluid.
Normally there is only a couple cubic inches of fluid, but the damn stuff keeps pouring out. I frantically grab more paper towels and jam them under, but the stuff is still escaping. More paper towels are frantically jammed in and the original ones are so saturated they are now dripping. Finally it stops but not before the oily stuff has dripped into the console on everything, weeped onto the sole of the boat and a small creek of the stuff has run all the way to the stern. A substantial amount of the stuff is now on me also.
What I hadn't noticed was the filler for the helm pump was mounted high up on the console and a foot and a half of half inch plastic hose was also full of fluid. An hour later of clean up and degreasing I'm back behind the pump staring at the fitting. It ain't right. This isn't what I was expecting. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, what's going on. Nothing I have will fit, and if it's not bad enough it's started or pour again. %$#*!!
I pick up the phone and have a good and animated conversation with Teleflex. What's different is the plumbing. Teleflex's new helm pumps are now using ORB fittings (O Ring Boss) instead of the 1/4" NPT fittings they have used for years.
Their argument is they have a lot of warranty issues with both teflon tape and pipe thread sealants getting into the systems. These fittings eliminate both of these problems. Further you can orient them into any position you want which is often very difficult to do with NPT fittings. I certainly don't disagree with their assessment. These are better fittings but.....
I get the the issues you can have with sealants of all varieties. It only takes a tiny amount of anything in a hydraulic system to cause a check valve or the ilk to allow fluid bypass. Neither gooey thread sealants or tape are great solutions, but this is all we've had for years. Of the two I like the tape better for a number of reasons.
So be it. My Teleflex colleague and I have had this ongoing friendly conversation for years. I understand if they find tape in a system I connected to a autopilot I have voided their warranty. This has never happen to me. In general if they find anything in the helm pump you're in the same position with the warranty.
So here is my problem with the new fittings. It's not that they are bad, because they're really much better. It's where do you get them from? Teleflex apparently is under the impression that West Marine is stocking these fittings in their warehouse. I took a quick look and only found four straight out ORB fittings period. I didn't check every fitting in the Teleflex catalog against the West Marine warehouse, but the next four fitting tries yielded no products in stock. As a matter of fact those three fittings you see above depleted the inventory of the only two hydraulic fittings suppliers within an hours travel of me, and in general their inventory of these smaller ORB fittings were somewhat bleak.
Now there is still a second problem. No matter what I'm still going to have to use some NTP fittings when plumbing an autopilot. Space is cramped, I often have to use NPT nipples, and other creative options to get things to fit. So we're back to the tape or goo thing again. And one more thing, these ORB fittings can be really pricey as you can see from this online marine store. Just to give you a point of contrast a NPT version of this is about $6.00 in brass and locally available
So this is what I'm going to do in the short run. I'm going to buy a good handful of both straight out and ninety degree ORB to NPT adapters like you see in the photo. Everything else will be done with NPT fittings until I can find a better, meaning has the inventory and more affordable sources. This is a good idea, but the supply chain needs some improvement for these particular sized fittings, a lot of it.
The autopilot still isn't finished. I put the return plug back in and refilled the system. My confidence level wasn't very high that I could do the plumbing correctly in the time I had left, and the owner wanted to used his new boat. He leaves town in a couple of days, and then I will finish the plumbing. This way if something goes awry, I have time to find the odd pieces I will need to make it work in the tiny space I have. It's a boat and it's always something.