Thursday, December 30, 2010

What the installer wants for the new year.

The phone rings, and I answer the call. It's Bob, "Hi Bob, what's up. You're in the Bahamas with your family? Sounds nice. Your grandson accidentally changed the Garmin chart plotter's language to one you can't read? Calm down Bob, we can fix up the little urchin's faux pas in short order. You have your waypoints backed up like I suggested don't you? You forgot? Okay we can still fix things up, no worries. Okay Bob, no matter what it now says, touch the small button in the very upper left corner of the screen. Did a bunch of big blue buttons appear? Good deal Bob, now look at the big blue buttons. See the one with the gears on it? Touch it, and don't touch anything else. Let me think about this for a second. Touch the second button down on the blue button list at right, that should be Preferences, I think. Now touch the second blue button down again on the new list. Good, do you see English, or Americanized English on any of the buttons, either will do. Yes? Excellent touch it. Can you read it now? You're welcome Bob, keep the kids, away from the nav gear, and don't forget to back up your waypoints. The little tyke could have done a factory reset, and then you would really be in a jam."

I do this sort of support often, and I am pretty good at it, to a point. If I have to go any deeper into the menu trees, the dialog starts to have a lot of, "Okay Bob, read me the list you see. Good, now touch "device list".

I was really excited when I saw the Garmin chart plotter simulator you see below. Boy would this make my life easier. I could actually see what the client sees, when I have to do this sort of remote diagnostics. I was ready to download it on my "murse" (it's Kate's word for a man purse, my net book with all of my nav update software, pdf manuals, and cables), But I have to pull up on the reins. It works perfectly, with a terrific format, but only for a couple of layers down, and then it just stops. I think this could be a great tool, both from a support viewpoint, but also an excellent training aid. And it would be good, at least for me, if everybody developed a version of this, for their larger and more complex systems, and I'm now also musing out loud to Raymarine, Navico, Furuno, and all of the others in this line of endeavor. This is a grand idea.

Now on to chart plotter cable plugs, and boat builders. As the navigation systems have become faster, and do more things, they have gotten larger, and deeper. This coupled with the plugs, which sometimes to me, looks like my modestly exaggerated example of a chart plotter's power plug shown below can make installations difficult. 

So first the boat builders. I am still amazed at the lack of forethought I see in many helm layouts. Sure they look pretty, but why didn't you think, after the customer spent $100,000 on the boat, he would only want to install a chartplotter with a 4" screen, because that's all you left room for. Sometimes they look big, but behind them, all too often there is not a lot of depth, which can require all sorts of gyrations to get systems to fit, if at all. While I am on this subject, I want to remind all boat builders, that modern navigation systems require wires, and sometimes lots of them, coming from various places on the boat, so ponder on that when you do your next design. "I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Conduits." (sorry Mrs Robinson). And as long I'm ranting, this business of building a "Fishing" boat that has an anchor locker design you can't install a winch on has got to stop. Are the people that make that orange ball paying you to do this?

For the chart plotter manufacturers, I know there is a ton of wiring that that has to go to your systems, and that things need to be water resistant, but as your systems get deeper, look for ways to keep the plugs from exacerbating the problems, and dimensional drawings of the equipment should also reflect the depth needed with the plugs. 

My final wish is that everybody has a safe and prosperous new year, and steer small damn your eyes. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

An unfortunate series of electrical events

Sometimes, even if every rule, and guideline is followed, the great electrical gods can play a prank, if only to demonstrate their omnipotent powers, and faithful adherence to Murphy's laws. A local captain asked me to look at what happened here, and offer any opinion I might have about it, and as you might suspect, I have one, or two, at least. That round stainless steel fitting you see in the picture holds a flat panel TV in place on the bridge. The TV was stored below, and the owners were out of town when this minor conflagration occurred. 

This event had a simple explanation, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out. Below you can see the power plug for the TV has melted into the split loom that was covering the TV's coax cable. The plug shorted internally, and started to catch fire, sort of. A lot of smoldering, smoke, and heat was going on, but I suspect there was no flame.

There was little if any of the plug left to forensically examine, but there was a void in the center, where the wires would have attached to the pins. My guess, and that is all it is, was when the plug was molded, there were a few strands of loose wire that were in close proximity to each other, and over time, with the help of a little heating, they eventually came into contact with each other. The plug's circuit was still live when I looked at it, so whatever had been shorting in the plug, had stopped, and no real fire started. The fiberglass was charred, and there was enough heat to do some minor damage to the Isen glass above it.

Although the TV's power cord is toast, in a literal way, the cable TV's coax cable can be fixed by splicing in, out of sight, a new piece of cable. Although in this particular, and peculiar case, I think the split loom was being used in a cosmetic way, since the wiring is visible, but it actually ended up saving the day. I will come back to the split loom a little later. 

The fact that the circuit was still energized was curious to me, especially given all of the arcing, and sparking that had to have occurred. I didn't use any fancy equipment to detect this, I just used my keen powers of observation to note the DVD player was still on under the cabinet, so off I went to do a little exploring. I found the GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) for this circuit in the head, and at first blush it looked normal. I wasn't surprised the GCFI hadn't popped, it wouldn't have in this case. Why? After the events on the, bridge you might think so, but in theory, it was doing its job, which is to detect current imbalances in-between the hot wire, and the neutral wire.

If an imbalance in-between the neutral, and hot wire occurs, the presumption is that some electricity is going somewhere else, like through you.

Let's say you're in the bath tub, perusing the latest edition of Wooden Boat, and a cat jumps up onto the counter, and pushes the plugged in hair dryer into the water, as cats are oft prone to do. Since some current is now flowing through the water, and you, there is now a current differential. The GFCI, in about 1/30th of a second, senses the imbalance has exceed about 5 milliamps (enough to feel a tingle in fresh water), and disconnects the circuit, and thus thwarting the devious cat's latest attempt at your demise.

Although the GFCI looked normal, with its happy green light glowing, it was broken. The trip mechanism was faulty, and it needs to be replaced. GCFI's should be checked periodically, by using the test button on the receptacle, and reseting it. The indicator light should turn off, and then come back on when reset. If there is not a light on the receptacle, plug a lamp, or the ilk into it to test it. If it's faulty, replace it soonest.

As a small note, according to a study by the American Society of Home Inspectors, around 20 percent of GFCI's tested are faulty, and in South West Florida, due to lightning, and the associated electrical transients, the number is closer to 50 percent, so test early and often.

The circuit breaker on the main panel didn't blow either. The short wasn't drawing enough current to trip it. 

I have pondered whether things might have been worse, and the answer is yes. I mentioned before that I thought the split loom was just being used to dress up some exposed wiring, and in this case it saved the day. If the split loom had not been on the wires, a real fire may have started. Just to verify this, I set up this little experiment in the top secret Parmain laboratory, to see if I could get split loom to catch on fire. 

I hung some split loom up, (Ancor marine grade), and using a high tech incendiary ignition device, I lit it. Sure enough, it started to burn, sort of, but just for a few seconds, and then the flame went out. 

It really only continued to burn, if the flame source was present. Take away the flame, and it self extinguishes, just as its label says. Another empirical lesson learned in this little experiment is to not let melted drops of this stuff fall on your hand. It's not pleasant, Doh! 

As I said in the beginning, even if everything is to code, and properly installed, the wrathful electricity gods can still play havoc with your vessel, sometimes just because they can. I suggest that at least once a year you maybe consider sacrificing a small lamp or hair dryer to the gods.

If your cat is still trying to kill you, a couple of rescued Greyhounds around the house will help. These "Coiled Springs" will keep the cats at bay at all times. Greyhounds are gentle, fun, devoted, and graceful dogs, that are always appreciative of a good home.

Greyhound rescue groups are found all over the US, this is our local one.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tech support Kudos 2010

"The Installer shall from time to time give to boaters information of the state of marine electronics technical support, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient".

Ladies and gentlemen, and fellow boaters, I want to aver that the state of boating technical support is strong. Okay, enough of this falderal, it's that time of year to provide my assessment of marine electronics technical support. I have changed the format a bit this year, and what I will do is acknowledge the better technical support efforts I have encountered this year.

As smart as I think I might be, it is comforting to know that there are much smarter technical professionals out there to help. I think that at most times, it must be a very gratifying job helping boaters solve their problems. Although, on occasion, I'm sure that they would like to reach through the phone, and slowly choke the caller that is either rude, or is just trying to suck the living soul out of them. I just hope I'm not one of them, most of the time anyway.

I am going to start with Raymarine and give them kudos for being the "Best of the best". Short phone waits, if any. Excellent and very knowledgeable personnel who are always helpful. They provide superior support, and information in a friendly, and professional way. Thanks Mark, Trevor, Linda, and the rest of their team for teaching me something on every call.

Garmin gets the "Most improved technical support" kudos. The wait times have shrunk dramatically over the previous year, and I now often get in immediately, without a wait. I also like the fact that you collect my phone number when I call, because on more than one occasion, my cranky cell phone provider, drops my call, and I have gotten an immediate call back from the tech. The tech support staff also sounds less scripted this year, and there were fewer incidents of being put on hold because they needed to ask the help desk something. Good job Garmin, and very much improved.

There are two "Above, and beyond the call of duty" kudos this year. The first goes to Josh Weltman at Nobletec Navigation who spent many hours over several weeks, helping me sort out Nobletec software issues after some shamans "Fixed" the PC computer system on a boat. He was patient, knew what he was talking about, and if he didn't immediately know the answer, he found out, and called me back. Thanks Josh, you were a lifesaver.

The second kudos in this category goes to Allison at Garmin who persisted mightily in helping me solve a somewhat odd sounder module related problem. Allison has assisted me several times, and alway does an excellent job, Thank you Allison.

Other notable kudos go to:

Airmar/Gemeco for always being helpful and pleasant to deal with, and assisting me in figuring out which of a zillion wiring diagrams I should be looking at. And thanks Irene for the help with the WeatherCaster port business (the same shamans from above at work here).

Teleflex has continued to provide great support, and good advice. Nobody knows marine hydraulics better than Marc Adams, and Teleflex.

Navico has done an excellent job, especially when you consider the bewildering number of brands they deal with. I spoke recently with a tech I have dealt with for years on Northstar problems, who seamlessly helped me with a Simrad autopilot issue. Good job Bill, and Navico.

For everybody else, I'm not ignoring you, there are just too many, but all have done a good job. I can only think of a couple of occasions this year when I was little dissatisfied with the support, and I'm writing the incidents off as one, or the other of us, was just having a grumpy day.

So I want to remind everybody that this is a complicated world, and the technical support groups all try their very best to help you solve a myriad of disparate, and complex problems on a daily basis. So don't forget to say thank you. I'm sure they don't mind hearing it. If you see a hand coming out of your phone, drop it and run, and don't ever call back. Your being a jerk!

The "shamans" mentioned above were involved in an earlier story titled PC Purgatory Increased complexity equals reduced reliability.

The photo was from Wikimedia Commons, and came from the Cross-Slip website.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Water under troubled bridges

The postman swings next to owners mailbox, and deposits an onerous looking official document from the Coast Guard. The document is the result of a formal complaint filed by a zealous local bridge tender, that resulted in paper work from the USCG requiring that the vessel become compliant under aspects of CFR's Title 33, Sec 117. Translated this means that there were things on the boat that could be lowered before requesting a bridge opening, but for a variety of reasons we will discuss, they weren't.

This is our starting point, a boat too high. Two 18 foot antennas, and a set of outriggers that were just as tall.

What I suspect the bridge tender was upset about was the outriggers, which could be lowered, theoretically speaking, and I will get back to this later, but were not. The high antennas didn't help much here either. So here is the "Official" language, and I will parce these sentences for you. The important part of the following section is the definition of what an "Appurtenance" is (sounds dirty doesn't it?), and it boils down to anything that is not needed to safely operate the boat, and sticks out someplace from the boat. The outriggers certainly fall into this category.

Sec 117.4 "Appurtenance means an attachment or accessory extending beyond the hull or superstructure that is not an integral part of the vessel and is not needed for a vessel's piloting, propelling, controlling, or collision avoidance capabilities."

I underlined the key words above. The next section says:

Sec 117.11 "No vessel owner or operator shall signal a drawbridge to open if the vertical clearance is sufficient to allow the vessel, after all lowerable nonstructural vessel appurtenances that are not essential to navigation have been lowered to safely pass under the drawbridge in the closed position."

The crux of the owners problem was that although the outriggers could be lowered, it takes two people to do it, and once lowered, there was no way to keep the outriggers from falling out, and away from the sides of the boat. They wouldn't fall into the water, but boy would they stick way out to the sides, making it impossible to pass through the bridge. I'm not an expert in outrigger design, but given the rules about lowerable appurtenances, you would have thought the boat builder would have thought about this?  They do lower, but now what do you with them when they are lowered?

In the real world, this was not a difficult problem to solve, and the solution was simple and elegant. A local machine shop fabricated a nice set of stainless steel brackets that could be mounted on the hardtop, and a trip to West Marine yielded sturdy Velcro webbing straps to secure the lowered outriggers.

The inside of the brackets were lined with some additional Velcro to keep the bracket from scratching the aluminum outrigger tubing.

Now on to the antennas. There were several issue involved here. The first question revolves around whether an antenna is really an "appurtenance", and I think the wording in the regs is ambiguous to say the least. I would think that a VHF radio would be "needed for a vessel's piloting, propelling, controlling, or collision avoidance capabilities", if for no other reason then to talk to the bridge tender, and if so, then it is no longer an "appurtenance".

The rebel in me wanted to say it was not an appurtenance, but the fact was that some clever installer had throughly sealed the bottom of the antenna bases with silicone, and used some form of pipe thread sealant, insuring that the water that did get into the antennas, could not escape. The mast was filled with water, and the wiring was shot. The easy answer was to replace the 18' antennas with 8' Shakespeare 5225XT antennas, and pull in new wiring to the radios.

The boat, again theoretically, now adheres to the needed requirements. In the picture below, you can't see it, but there is a small satellite phone dome, which is definitely not an appurtenance, on the upper hardtop, and the VHF antennas are just a few inches higher than the dome. The boat looks okay, but there is a caveat to all of this.

The entire outward loading of the outriggers are now being carried on a 1" aluminum tube being held by a 2" clip. This is fine because the loads are not very large, as long as the boat is not being aggressively rocked, and rolled. But I would not recommend leaving them down in rough seas while traveling at speed.

I don't often get to see O Henry style "Irony" in real action, but in this case it has manifested itself. The bridge tender that filed the complaint works a bridge with a clearance of 21', and as you can see below, the measured height is now 23', so the bridge still has to open.

Bridge tenders are nether friends, or foes of boaters. In the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases they are very professional, and helpful, but on occasion you do run into the occasional miscreant, and in researching the issues for this missive, it is not hard to find both good, and bad comments  about them.

The real problem is the direction given to bridge tenders by their employers. Bridge tenders in Sarasota county are provided by a contractor, that is no doubt the low bidder, and local municipalities, often see boaters as an inconvenience. There are a zillion cars, and much fewer boats, and so the emphasis is always on keeping the car drivers happy, and I get it, sort of. On more than a few occasions, I'm stuck waiting for a bridge to open, and close. My solution to this problem is to shut off the truck, and walk over to the side of the bridge to see what boats are coming and going, and the view is always nice. I guess the alternative is to sit in the car, and fume about the how those "sail botes" are making you late for the early bird special.

Bridges are a big deal where I live. If  you take about a 50 mile trip on a sailboat from Tampa Bay, to Charlotte Harbor via the ICW  it involves having ten bridges open for you, and all with disparate schedules. So I will leave you now with the opening times for a local bridge.

The draw of the Hatchett Creek (US–41) bridge, mile 56.9 at Venice, shall open on signal, except that, from 7 a.m. to 4:20 p.m., Monday through Friday except Federal holidays, the draw need open only on the hour, 20 minutes after the hour, and 40 minutes after the hour and except between 4:25 p.m. and 5:25 p.m. when the draw need not open. On Saturdays, Sundays, and Federal holidays from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. the draw need open only on the hour, quarter-hour, half-hour, and three quarter-hour.

Funny how the bridge opening times above, reminds me of a Warner Bros cartoon titled "Fool Coverage." Daffy Duck sells Porky Pig a policy for $1 million coverage. This is only paid out for a black eye as a result of a stampede of wild elephants running through his house between 3:55 and 4 PM on the 4th of July during a hailstorm, and oh yes, also a baby zebra. Needless to say, Porky got his money.

Wikipedia's take on Fool Coverage

Friday, November 26, 2010

The S.M.I.T.E. Awards

A hush falls over the crowd in the large hall, as the president of S.M.I.T.E. (Society of Marine Installer Technological Entrepreneurs) walks up to the microphone holding three large envelopes. "Thank you for your patience, I know it's been a long night, but at last we are ready for the final awards." "As you all know, the prestigious, and coveted "Ron Popeil" awards are given to the applicants who have installed a chart plotter in a way that makes it theft proof. The judge's criteria is that it should be virtually impossible to remove, and survive in a console overnight, in the Mogadishu, Somalia "Thieves Market."

"Our esteemed judges have done their due diligence, and reviewed over a hundred contestant entries. So without further adieu, we will start with our second runner up. So let's give a big installers hand to Steve Stickus. The judges were very impressed with the massive amounts of 3M 5200 applied everywhere, and his technique of using a hair dryer to fully cure it, especially in areas where it was almost three inches thick. Steve wins a $200 Harbor Freight gift certificate, and the "Spray Hair" in a can trophy."

"Our first runner up is John Spawl, and the judges have noted that his finesse, and attention to detail, is alway a joy to see. John's talent is in making the install look perfect in appearance, while retaining all of the subtle security measures he is famous for, such as screws driven into slightly undersized holes, insuring the heads will snap off when removing them. The rounding of Phillips head screws with undersized bits, and his personal specialty of driving cross threaded nuts all the way down on the bolts. John wins a $500 Ace Hardware gift certificate, and the "Pocket Fisherman" trophy."

"Okay, I see the bar is getting ready to open, so let's get to the grand prize, and this year's first place winner, is Ian Sidious. Let's all give him that big installers congratulations, and a standing O."

"The judges were amazed at Ian's ingenuity. Starting first with placing the chart plotter as close as possible to the console's edge, and doing the actual install prior to having the console mounted in the boat. This insured that the two outboard fasteners could not be reached, or seen at all, and further making sure lots of extra bonding putty was used, to reduce easy access."

"Ian also used excessively long bolts, and managed to damage the threads just enough, to guarantee that two people would be needed to remove the nuts." 

"This clever approach created a triple threat, causing the potential thief to drill out the bolt heads, in a time consuming, irritating, and messy process."

"But to the judges delight, Ian had two additional treats in store to make thievery all but impossible. The first was the use of epoxy glue to seal the edges, and the "coup the gras" was a hole cut out that was just slightly smaller than the chart plotter, requiring a rubber hammer to beat it into place."  

"Congratulations Ian, you will take home the 1st place Ron Popeil "Veg-o-Matic" trophy, a $1000 gift certificate from Tractor Supply, and a collection of colorful designer Tyvek suits, which will give you that professional appearance you're looking for. So what do you have in mind for next year Ian?"

"Well I am proud to be a member of S.M.I.T.E, and of the contribution we all make to the world of marine electronics, and the theft protection we provide to our owners. I am experimenting with grade 8 bolts. They're really tough to cross thread, but with my new Tractor Supply gift certificate, I think I can now buy some hydraulic equipment to do the job. Thank you my colleagues, for this magnificent honor." 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sea Ray entertainment console conceptual reiteration, and integration.

There are two kinds of boat projects. In the first group, the answer is obvious, and the path is clear. Mount the GPS on the hardtop, pull the wire to the console, and connect it. In the second group, the answer is less obvious, and there are many potential paths to completion. If problems are going to occur, it's in group two, especially if completion is time is being pushed. This is particularly true when your'e doing interior remodeling in a boat. 

This is Randy, and Vicki's Sea Ray 500 Sundancer, and we have seen a project on this boat before. It is an older, but immaculately kept vessel. The problem was the entertainment systems had become very dated. In the cabinet below, in the right compartment was a glass tube Panasonic TV, in the center section there was a flush mounted DVD player, a Clarion stereo, and below was storage for DVDs. In the left section, two 6 disc CD changers are mounted on shelves.

The goal is to remodel the cabinet to allow a new, and much larger flat panel TV to be installed, while keeping the appearance "Factory" built. So this is where the story title comes in. When you first embark on this type of project, it is difficult to instantly have all of the answers at your finger tips. The three of us sit in the cabin, stare at the cabinet, and talk about the art of the possible. Maybe we could pull out the old TV, make a panel that would cover the hole, and mount a new flat panel TV on it, or we could cover the hole, and mount a new TV elsewhere, and so on. This was the most valuable aspect of the project, and out of the iteration, a conceptual approach forms.  

The plan we agreed on, was to make a new panel that will cover the entire face of the cabinet. A very accurate template was made, and a new panel was fabricated by Delcraft Acrylics. In order to get this to work well, the panel had to fit perfectly, and as you can see below, it did.

So again, we all sit in the cabin, and talk about what we are going to do. It was decided that we would do a cut out in the panel where the CD changers were located. My first thought was to get a router, and cut out a matching hole, but after some cogitating, I decided it wouldn't end up with the type of finish we wanted, and one small slip of the router, would required a new panel to be fabricated. After thinking about it, I taped some paper over the hole, cut a big X in it, and using a small jewelers screwdriver, I burnished the edges, and the result was a perfect pattern of the hole.

The paper is neatly covered with copious amounts of double faced tape, the panel is pushed back into place, and with some modest banging with my fist, the paper adhered to the panel, and the position of the cutout is exactly where it is supposed to be. Meanwhile, Randy, and Vicki go TV shopping, and armed with the maximum dimensions, they come back with a beautiful 36" Samsung LED TV that is only about an inch thick. 

Now for the easy part. Drop the TV onto the panel, center it, and use a Sharpie the trace the edges. The TV frame is square, and about 1 1/2" wide, a new cut out line is made that is 1/2" smaller all around. The panel cut out templates are now done, and off it goes to Delcraft, to have the final cutouts made.

The panel comes back, and a trip is made to Home Depot for some sturdy brackets, and a piece of 2" x 12" wood to attach the mount to. I picked out a mount that would allow the TV to slide from side to side, meaning I only had to get the vertical position correct, and I could easily adjust the side to side reveal. 

So now it is time to stick the panel in place. The TV is adjusted a little to the right, and some cleat blocks are placed, on the mount to keep it in place, and the panel is pushed into place.

The end result is stunning in appearance. The TV appears to be actually molded into the panel, and the touch controls are just above the frame allowing, by design, access. 

The original smoked glass door is reinstalled in the CD changer compartment, and the end result looks better than the original configuration.

When the TV is turned off, the the whole panel looks like a black mirror, and the very hardest part of the whole project, was in trying to get good pictures. The panel is very much like a mirror, and every picture I took with the flash was awful, and even using ambient light, there were still a lot of reflections. My professional lighting crew must have been on vacation on this day, or I'm not paying them enough to hang around.

It's still not quite complete. The Clarion stereo is going to be mounted this week into the panel above the CD changer compartment, and the wire harness is ready to go for it. There was no room for the new Blue Ray player, so it will live on the counter, or in its box. The HDMI cable for the Blue Ray player is attached to one of the clips that once held old rope lighting, so it is out of sight under the cabinet when not in use. A very clever wireless surround sound system was installed above the cabinet, hidden under the port hole, and the sub-woofer is stashed under the sofa. New cabling was pulled in from the satellite receiver, to the TV to support an upgrade to HDTV in the future. The panel will get final attachment with countersunk #4 SS flathead screws, with black painted heads, rendering them hard to see.

The real point of this story, is that the end results were terrific, because Randy, and Vicki took their time, were patient, and the ideas were discussed, and iterated many times. Their avid participation, made my job easier, and the end results much better.

The second point to the story, is letting people who are good at what they do, do it. I could have never done the panel fabrication, as well as Delcraft did it. It would have been okay, and by that, I mean it wouldn't have looked like it was chewed out by beavers, but it would not look, or fit as well, as having it done by someone who does this for a living, and has all of the right tools. This is better summed up by a The Hull Truth poster's aphorism, "Find out what you don't do well in life, and then don't do it".

My thanks to SpongeBob, and Patrick for their modeling in the TV pictures, it was as nautical as I could find, at the time. Where are the movies "Mutiny on the Bounty", or "Perfect Storm", when you need them?  

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sarasota gets a new West Marine "Flag Ship" store.

It has taken some time to build, but I have been watching the new West Marine store rising like a Phoenix, from the ashes of a failed retail giant. The building had been hulking empty for about a year, when workers started its make over.

We begin with a cavernous empty shell, and it doesn't take long, before the transformation starts to take shape. Floors are repaired, ceilings drop in places, are painted, and lighting is installed.

Fixture crews appear, along with large trucks, and a store starts to take shape. Every fixture is accompanied by paper work, that describes its layout, for the stock yet to come.

A huge electronics section in the middle of the store is assembled, along with a curved hardtop, that is featuring "top of vessel" electronics, and the Garmin radar array will draw your attention, because it will actually be spinning. 

And the merchandise starts to arrive, and I mean a lot of merchandise arrives. A small army of West Marine staffers spend several weeks stocking the shelves, and putting the final touches on the store. New employees are being trained, and new systems are being put into place. Work is wrapped up on the exterior, and the parking lot gets resurfaced, and re-striped.

The big opening day arrives, and the store gorgeous. More than three times larger than the old stores. The sales floor is 21,000 square feet, and heavily stocked. I'm not sure of the exact amount of items, but I would guess that there are about 15,000 in the store. The breadth of merchandise is impressive, especially in the basic items I buy every day.

The store is also the new west coast of Florida's Port Supply depot. This means, if I need something that isn't in the store (a lot less likely now), it will be available in the store when it opens the next day. On opening day, I was wandering around with a colleague, and he needed two shims for a specific Harken cam cleat, and there they were on the shelf. Odds were, in the old store, they would be in the warehouse, and would have to be shipped in. Not the case with this store.

There is now a very large fishing department, and all of the watercraft, inflatables, and motors are on display.

A full service engine department, to help you keep your motors running, is in the back of the store, and there is a huge apparel department in the front of the store, with new brands, emphasizing West Marine's commitment to women boaters, and my favorite, real changing rooms. 

The end result is terrific, two smaller stores in the area were shuttered, and replaced with an impressive destination store, with a massive inventory, and most importantly, at least to me, is a staggering array of operational marine electronics on display.

Above is my friend Wayne Seel, the general manager of the new Sarasota Flagship store in a moment of exuberance, and he deserves it. Many West Marine employees worked very long hours, for many weeks to make this happen, and it was all worth it. Wayne said, "My vision of what West Marine should be in Sarasota has been fulfilled." Good job Wayne, and West Marine.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Death hides in the bilge

Walking down the long dock to my clients boat, I kept getting whiffs of sewer gas, and I thought to myself, someone's boat needs to see the doctor. I step aboard the clients boat, open the sliding glass door to the main salon, and the stench bowled me over. My first thought was the holding tank had to have exploded, or at least sprung a bad leak. I turned on the air conditioning systems, and suspecting that maybe water had evaporated out of an S-trap, or loop, I flushed the heads, and let some water stand in them, ran sink taps, and showers, and then the odor then seemed to dissipate. I opened the hatch to the engine compartment, climbed in and, checked the holding tank, and the lower portions of the bilge, but the whole area appeared to have less odor than the the main salon initially did. At this point, I had already made several errors, but  I never realized it. I called the owner, and told him about the problem, and the owner contacted the maintenance company. A tech came out, and he had seen this problem before, and recognized the odor as hydrogen sulphide gas. 

This boat is very well maintained. I take care of the electronics, and another firm does everything else. The boat had been checked a week earlier, and the batteries had been checked for water levels. This is a 24 volt boat, with two banks of four batteries each, and you can see one of the batteries above, with a now swollen case. There is a high quality charger on board, and only the starter battery bank, has a temperature sensor. Somehow, in a very short period of time, four identical batteries in the house battery bank, nearly boiled dry, and the side effects of this, are what this story is all about.

The lead acid batteries used in our boats, are a far cry from the one invented by Gaston Plante in 1859. Like most of us, I know there are lead plates, submerged in an electrolyte (sulphuric acid and water), that undergo some electrochemical reaction to create Mr. Electricity, and that is about where my real understanding stopped, until recently. Batteries have come a long way from Mr. Plante's simple roll of lead separated by linen cloth, and immersed in sulphuric acid. Todays batteries are sophisticated structures, and are made of a complex mixture of metals, and chemicals.

The primary ingredients we are going to learn about, are hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and antimony. Your battery, in its normal course of activities, creates both hydrogen, and oxygen while charging, and these are reabsorbed during the discharge cycle. It's when things become abnormal in your battery, that bad things can happen. If the electrolyte (water and sulphuric acid) levels drop in the battery, exposing the plates, sulfates that are now exposed on the lead plates, start to combine with the hydrogen gas created during charging, and hydrogen sulphide gas is created.

Two other gases can form, depending on the construction of the batteries. Lead by itself, is not a very strong material, and is generally alloyed with the element antimony to make the lead stronger. Another item, that can be present, in the lead plate's alloy mixture, is arsenic. So again, if the plates become exposed, the hydrogen gas atoms will also combine with antimony atoms, to make Stibine gas. And if arsenic is present in the alloy mix, Arsine gas can be created. Both of these are even more toxic than hydrogen sulphide gas, and also very flammable.

Hydrogen sulphide gas, sometimes called sewer gas, or rotten egg gas, does occur naturally, and is created by decomposing organic material. It does smell very much like the inside of your holding tank. So while I was running around inside the boat, thinking something was awry with the holding tank system, what I was really smelling, was hydrogen sulphide gas, and this is a dangerous, and toxic material. It is very flammable, heavier than air, and very poisonous. At low concentrations, you can smell it, but at slightly higher concentrations, around 100 ppm, it paralyzes the olfactory nerve, and the odor goes away. So when I went down into the engine compartment, and It didn't seem to have any notable, odor, my smeller had been shut down by the gas. At between 300 to 500 ppm, death is a possibility, and at 1000 ppm death is almost immediate.

I did a lot of digging around, and cases of pleasure boaters who have died from breathing hydrogen sulphide are rare. Less rare are explosions on boats initiated by hydrogen gas/hydrogen sulphide gas coming from batteries. In the end, your boat batteries are both a blessing, and if not properly cared for, a curse.

In this case, I am not sure what happened, other than somehow the four large flooded lead acid batteries, in one of two battery banks, in a very short period of time, had the majority of the electrolyte boiled out of them. This created a very dangerous situation, either from explosion, or breathing the associated gases. New batteries were installed, and everything now appears normal. But the reason the problem occurred in the first case, needs to be found. Charger problem? Installation problem? Alternator problem? Shorted battery?

The typical gas sensors on a boat are not designed to sense these gases, so no warning was available, other than the very strong odor, which goes away with exposure. I have to be honest, I was a more than a little startled about both my specific lack of knowledge, and my potential exposure to the gas.

I will do my best to discover the cause of the problem. It had to have had a source, and I will do a second story soon, when I find out what actually did happen, and learn even more. I will also include some do's, and don'ts when dealing with your batteries, and some thoughts about battery types to use.  I am a lot smarter now, and I hope to get even smarter.

If you have had any personal experiences with hydrogen sulphide gas, and or battery related explosions, I would like to hear about it. You can use the comment, or the email links below. Thank you, Bill

I have a few links below to review.
Case report of a marine technician killed by an exploding battery
Hydrogen Sulphide in low maintenance batteries

The diagram of the battery is from the The Association of European Automotive and Industrial Battery Manufacturers website