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