Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The fixer

Jaytron, is my favorite marine electronics distributor. I can't remember how long I have dealt with them but its been many years. They're fair, have a smart staff, and a huge inventory. The conversations I have with them often go like, "Hi Frank, it's Bill, I need one of these Seaview round wedgie thingys for a KVH M1 satellite system mount and a Ray backbone kit, you know, the one with really long blue cable. Yeah that's it, the 20m cable is the right one. Thanks Frank." A large amount of my transactions are done from my cell phone whilst milling around in my less than palatial vehicle trying not to run over tourists. The slow ones at any rate. I rarely have part numbers at hand and rely on their very experienced staff to help me. Jaytron however has another huge asset.

Today is different, I'm waiting patiently in line at Jaytron clutching a large canvas bag. Vinnie, wearing a black suit and holding a clipboard is manning the rope line. "What's in the bag buddy?" inquires Vinnie. I quaver, "It's a Ray classic E-120 with no back lighting, and a classic C-80 with a broken on off switch. Vinnie stares into the bag for a second, then reaches back, unhooks the velvet rope, and says "The Fixer will now see you."

The Fixer is Steve Senft, a quite remarkable and extraordinarily talented professional. He was an electronics warfare tech in the navy, and afterwards worked for several contractors including GE on Andros Island. For the last twenty years he has been associated with Jaytron repairing marine electronics and amateur radio gear including single side band radios, one of his many specialties.

His credentials are impressive. He's a Senior CMET technician, and NMEA member. His FCC licences include GROL (General Radio Operators Licence) with radar endorsement, GMDSS DM licence for at sea repairs, and a AM EXTRA amateur radio ticket.
Steve deals with the world we don't normally see. The insides of our marine electronics, both from the vintage, to the very newest.

For example, this is a CCFL (Cold Cathode Florescent Light). This is one of the technologies that provides the back lighting for displays. Two things can happen with these. One or more of the CCFL's fail, and part of your display is dimmer than other areas, or more commonly, the whole display has dimmed indicating the high voltage power supply has failed. Both of these scenarios Steve can typically fix.

Another problem is your beloved fish finder, or other display has become sun burnt. When you see this effect, it's usually not the the LCD display that's damaged, it's the polarization filter on top of the display that has been UV baked. Although Steve doesn't personally replace the polarization filters, he uses a company that has the very specialized equipment needed to do this.

Steve pointed out to me that not all sun covers for your marine electronic's displays stop UV rays. His suggestion is if you hold up the cover in front of a bright light, and see any light pass through, it's likely over time you will accumulate some UV damage. If this is the case, Steve suggests that you use aluminum duct tape to line the inside of the sun cover to correct this problem.

Autopilot systems are often worth investigating repair viability. In the case of older systems a single component failure, can often mean the entire system including the rudder drive system have to be replaced at great expense because factory spare parts are no longer commonly available. One of the common things Steve repairs are damaged FET's in the course computers.

These three legged devices do the DC polarity switching for the autopilot's hydraulic, or linear drive systems. The symptoms are most often your autopilot will now only turn in one direction, and in some cases the rudder drive no longer works at all.

Not only does Steve have an impressive grasp on electronics design and theory, he has a vast array of technical tools to support his craft. An extremely accurate GPS disciplined master oscillator that keeps other systems exactly on frequency, IFR FM/AM 1600S radio test set that includes a spectrum analyzer, 2 - 100 MHZ oscilloscopes, 3 - X band radar test systems, and a EDI depth sounder test and calibration system.

That was just the short list. Then add to this a high performance vacuum desoldering system, a hot air re-flow machine for the repair of circuit boards that use surface mount components, a USB microscope, the hands of a surgeon, and decades of experience.

I'm always amazed when I visit Steve carrying some misbehaving piece of gear. On one of my recent visits he is in the lobby repairing the digital controller for a local race track's "Christmas tree." These are the staging lights for a drag race track. I'm even more astonished when I see the repairs he has managed to accomplished on equipment the manufacturers have long stop supporting. This is a Garmin 2010C that was operating intermittently Steve re-soldered all 160 pins of the integrated circuit to repair it.

Can Steve fix everything, I think the answer is mostly yes, but not everything is cost effective to repair. This would include VHF radios, and marine stereos, but there are some exceptions to this rule. There are also components that aren't manufactured any more which preclude being able to do some repairs. But things like failed MFD back lighting, cranky Furuno track balls, broken inverters, and many other things can easily be repaired.

I recently had repaired in the shop, a Classic E 120 that would not talk to the sounder module, a classic C-series whose on/off button didn't, and a antique Navico autopilot pendant. The Ray gear was repaired, the Navico pendant case was glued together in what must have been an optimistic view of the electronic's life inside. It would have taken a band saw to open in, so it was sent off to the farm that is so far away the owner can never visit it.

Steve gets to see this patient at his trauma center. This is the result of the untimely meeting between the radar and a steel I beam. The I beam was treated for cuts and bruises at the scene and released.

Like I averred in the beginning Steve is a remarkable guy. One foot is planted in the marine electronics past, while the other one is firmly set in today's technology. I know of no one better in this business.

You can reach Steve at his new website Marine Electronics Repairs (portions of the brand new website are still under construction). His contact page has his email access, and phone number.

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