Sunday, April 18, 2010

Where was the word professional in this inverter install?

I will start this little written tirade with the fact that I am not a big fan of using inverters on a boat. Improperly installed, they can be very dangerous, and wring them into ship electrical systems requires very close attention to detail. On older boats, that have had AC wiring systems less than professionally modified through the years, safe installation can be very difficult. A typical inverter installation requires that the output neutrals be bonded through the inverter, and tracking down these neutral wires, and getting all of them on an older boat, can be tedious at best, and in some cases fiscally impossible. When I install them, I try to convince owners to keep it very simple, and let me wire the system to dedicated stand alone outlets. For example a galley outlet for the microwave, and one outlet for a TV. The downside to this that you always have to use the inverter to watch TV and make popcorn in the microwave. Wiring directly into the primary ships primary AC input buss requires transfer switches (at the minimum), and there is always the possibility of applying too large of a load to the inverter. So, in short, if I can't install it in a way that lets me sleep well at night, I just won't do it, period. I'm not going to be the guy who burned down the boat, it's hard to get more work after that.

I do not consider the Coleman unit above to be a marine grade product. I just removed it from a recently purchased vessel. The new owner had been told the unit was professionally installed. I looked at at the installation, and took some umbrage to that assertion. The only thing professional, or marine about the install, was the use of a piece of starboard to mount the inverter. The installer had taken Romex house wiring, had attached a three prong plug, and jacked it into the inverter outlet. The other end went to the AC panel, and  was connected directly to the main buss. Since it was Romex wire, the ground lead had no insulation, and the installer had wrapped it in some black tape that was now falling off.  The outlet circuit breaker had an additional Romex wire attached, and this had been run to a new outlet in the galley.

The DC feeds to the unit, were also marginally sized. To invert, you had to access an under seat compartment, and turn on the inverter via the red switch. Oops, plugged in to shore power because you forgot to turn it off? I shudder to think what could happen. The new owner was told to be very careful, to make sure the inverter was off, before plugging in to shore power. All in all, this was a really poor, unprofessional, and unsafe piece of work, "professionally" installed on a piece of starboard. The new owner agreed, and I professionally ripped it out. 

I know that some boaters need, or want inverters, and they can be safely installed, but like entertainment systems on a boat, simpler is alway safer, and better. 

Tools, "In Situ", and MacGyver

There are several interlinked themes here, all dealing with tools. I have a love/hate relationship with my tools. I learned early, that tools used in a marine environment, like veal, "live fast, and die young". The everyday vessel offers a multitude of opportunities to lose tools, soak them in salt water, or just wear them out. Fiberglass dust eats my tools for dinner, and has anything that has a sharp edge for dessert. So the first time my $400 Fluke voltmeter ended up submerged in the bilge, I said, "Thats it, I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more". Not really, but I now just buy inexpensive, but adequate tools, and I have resigned myself to tools living a shorter life. I buy the $50.00 "On Sale" Black & Decker drill, instead of the $250.00 Makita. When the Black & Decker passes on, I sigh, and stop at Home Depot to buy a new one. Even if they don't actually wear out, everything will get rusty, in short order. 

Below is one of my favorite tools. It is an Ace Hardware socket set. It has a composite ratchet, standard and metric sockets, and a variety of screwdriver bits. It costs about $16.00, and fits well in the tool bag. It's about 4 months old, is getting rusty, two of the sockets, and several of the bits have already disappeared into the bowels of some vessel. Next to it is the new replacement, all shinny, and ready to go, when the old one becomes to dilapidated, or embarrassing  to use.

My young associate is smart, works very hard, and unlike me, is very organized. This translates to, "the marine electronics installation business, on some days, literally drives him nuts". His tool bag is always neat, and is stuffed full of very nice tools. He has a Makita drill, lots of Snap-on tools, and sharp drill bits (my new ones always seem to migrate to his bag, because then he "knows where they are"). He believes tools should be used properly, and only for the intended purpose. Screw drivers are not pry bars or chisels, a pipe wrench is not a hammer, a drill bit is only used to drill straight holes, and there is the correct tool available for every purpose.

One afternoon we have to enlarge an existing hole in a T-top's rectangular tube. The hole is about 3/8" in diameter, and it needs to be about a 5/8" oval shape to get the wires through. My bag is down on the ground, so I ask to borrow his Makita, and a 1/2" bit. He winces, and hands it to me, already anticipating the horrible torture that will occur to his tools in my hands. I drill the hole, and start to wallow it out with circular motions with the drill bit, and he freaks out. "Stop, that's not the way to use the bit, you're dulling the edges, it's brand new". "Okay", I said, "come up here, and tell me what tool we need". So up he pops, and says "we need a hole saw". I point out that the hole saw centering bit will drill out through the bottom of the tube, and besides the hole needs to be oval. What else do you have in mind? In the end, he is sure there is a good tool to do this, and I should, but don't have it. 

So it's lesson time. We take off in the truck, and go to the local hardware store. About thirty minutes later, he hasn't found the right tool. Off to Home Depot we go, and again the search is fruitless. Two hours later, we are back at the boat. I take my drill and 1/2" bit, and in about 5 minutes, the hole is done. Over two hours searching around town cost about $200.00 in lost billing, plus the cost of his wages. I'm sure somewhere there was that perfect tool, but a new bit was less than $10.00. In the end, the bit wasn't ruined, mostly, okay it didn't do it much good, but it did do the job quickly, and it was cost effective. My point was made. 

"In situ" comes from Latin, and means "in place, or in position". I have to go to the boat, and drag everything I need with me. If I am short some part, or tool, it is costly to stop, and go out and buy it. Many times, in the end you have to invent something to get the job done. I have shortened drill bits to get into some tight spot, used screw drivers as pry bars, and chisels, and yes, a pipe wrench can be a hammer if it needs to be.

The improvised tool below is a bow saw blade with a duct tape handle. It was used to cut off a big blob of bonding putty in a anchor locker rehab project that will post next week. It was flexible, and could cut against the hull with out going through it, and the big teeth did not gum up, like the 60 grit grinder kept doing. I will keep it, but I suspect it will never be used again. 

So in the end, in situ, there is alway a way, even if you have to be MacGyver for just a little while to solve the problem.