Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Five years in the life

I'm a left brain type, and maybe too much of one. This is good news, and maybe some less than great news. I have a tendency to analyze almost everything. Not at an OCD level, but maybe on that side of the fence. I couldn't even use the "Left Brain" term without reading about Sperry's work on the subject. By the way, my very usage of the term is promulgating the hemispheric dominance myth, but you get my point.

The rational side of my personality makes me question things, and is one of many reasons I infuriate so many people when politics are being discussed. I know things, because I carefully research them. My brain is full of errata like liberals do drink more than conservatives, and Democrats don't historically tax and spend anymore than Republicans do. They're both guilty. I'm stopping here before someone develops a dire case of apoplexy. 

These characteristics, as flawed as they maybe, come with some advantages. I'm not a sports fanatic. There, I said it out loud. "Prepare the stocks in the village square and lock him up." It's not that I don't like sports, it's just that I don't always see, or perhaps understand the intellectual aspects in a lot of them. On occasion I'm gracefully chided because I don't sit and watch "ESPN's "Sports Center" for hours on end, or don't know some stat that is apparent to others who do. Isn't that Nova special about dark matter on PBS now?

But left brain dude has some tools. This year I entered the Gecko's football pool. 200 people during seventeen long weeks try to predict the winners. I was fourth overall. I just Geekified the process. A spread sheet was made. About forty expert's choices with a selection percentage rating above sixty percent for correct picks are entered for each game. Add home game, injury lists, weather conditions for open air stadiums and some secret others as weighing factors, and I did better than many of the so called experts.

It's a very very low tech Nate Silver take off. I never needed to watch a single game. I admit under less than duress, and the promise of medicinal adult beverages that I did spend some Sundays towards the end of the season in the saloon watching the games, and discovered it didn't kill me. My little spreadsheet project already has a new special column for Nate's sports projections. His famous 538 blog has been acquired by ESPN, and will now include not only his brilliant political race projections, but sports and other subjects also. Hush, don't tell anyone, next year is coming.

We all hopefully learn from our experiences, and repairing and installing electronics is no different. I did a little spread sheet that covers my sense of what causes things to go awry on a boat. You can right click it, or do whatever you need to make it larger.

No it's not painstakingly gleaned from years of detailed invoicing, but more on my sense of what I typically see and do daily across general categories.

Corrosion is a biggie, along with water intrusion at any level. This is most prevalent on the more open boats such as center console fishing boats. One good driving rain with wind that pushes water onto a console can play havoc. Water that seeps behind a poorly sealed device such as a stereo, or autopilot head drips onto power blocks and everything else gravity can pull it downward onto.

Connections of all types are prone to eventual failure. Salt air, and high humidity eventually will render all wiring into an increasingly poorer conductor until it turns into flecks of multicolored copper and tin oxides packaged in an embrittled plastic sheath. Areas prone to be continually damp should always have extra attention paid to the way connections are made.

It won't turn on, what should I do? Fuses, and their holders are the first things I check. ATC style fuse blocks, and their plastic fuses do corrode. The problem is you can't clean the ATC fuse contacts inside. I do use a little trick from time to time. I take a pair of needle nose pliers and give the ATC fuse blades a slight twist. Just enough to make it tougher, but not too tough to reinsert. A small wire brush will also remove the gray oxides that seem to build up on the blades. In the end, ATC and glass fuse blocks should be promptly replaced when they become problematic.

I don't mean to beat up DIY installers, many do it well, but installation inexperience can cause issues. Poor wire and connector type choices. Incorrect wiring colors used. Failure to install gaskets or sealants where needed. Didn't have the right tools, and improvised. My favorite is twisting the wires together, and then wrapping them in 4 feet of the cheap black electrical tape if they are covered at all. 

Software is ever increasingly becoming an issue. Ten years ago software upgrades were not very common, and usually came about because there was some glaring error immediately discovered when a device was put in the field by a 14 year old. Today software updates can be continually ongoing. Not so much now to just correct errors, but to add new features, or to support new products or changes to them. 

Many owners abuse their gear. They're not beating their equipment with rubber hoses, but it happens never the less. The largest sin is not using things on a boat. The winch wasn't used for two years, and now it doesn't work, and the fuse now pops every time you push the switch. Boats that don't get covered have extra opportunities for water intrusion when it rains. Radars aren't run, and condensation inexorably carries on corrosion's cause. Bracket mounted equipment is removed, and the cable's connectors are left exposed to fend for themselves out in the elements. Use it or lose it.

All things will break sooner or later, it is just more likely to happen sooner on a boat. Over a five year period there are endless ways for electronics to fail, but many failures have some things in common. Things inside a boat, or in more protected areas live much long that those with more exposure to the elements. For this reason properly installed flush mount gear has a much better survival rate than bracket mounted gear.

Many marine stereos are lucky to survive five years, if even that. This is primarily because they are typically not well protected from the elements, and are encased in marginal materials like steel cases. A piece of plastic covering the top of the unit is the best many do to "Marinize" the units. On the other hand chart plotters are remarkably resilient, and the failure rate if not abused by the elements is very low over a five year period.

And lastly the dreaded obsolescence issue. Modern manufacturing drives costs down, makes devices more compact, but they are no longer repairable at a board level. Add the the ever increasing rate of tech change, and most marine electronics are going to be obsolete at some level in a five year period.

When I say obsolete, what I mean is they may no longer have parts available for repair. Support for software may have stopped, your existing equipment will lack features you now desire, and so on. I just have to have that new chart plotter that will let me Skype with my buddy on the yacht club trip.

The rate of technology change for marine electronics varies considerably. Chart plotters and marine entertainment systems now change very quickly, radars at a slower pace, and rudder references hardly at all. I think I can safely aver, "The higher the level of technology on a boat, the faster the rate of technological change will impact it." 

The numbers I have tendered are a mix of experience with Florida boats in salt water , and gut instincts. Feel free to question them. I also didn't throw the kitchen sink into the list, it would have gone on forever. Environments do vary widely from fresh water lower humidity, to continually muggy, hot, salt water locations and this changes things. These are by any measure subjective numbers, but on the whole I would bet on them, statistically speaking. 


  1. I enjoy your writing so much that one of these days I'm going to come to Florida just to meet you. I wish you were on the Chesapeake so I could hire you.

    Al Lorman

  2. Board-level servicing may be dying, but I'm old enough to recall when component-level servicing was the routine...service-mounted-devices is what killed that...virtually impossible to replace a SMD in the field, be it a large CPU or even just a single resistor or capacitor, and diagnostics have become almost impossible without brand-specific test equipment....so, send the entire unit back to the manufacturer....

  3. Ah shucks Al, and thank you for the compliment. I try to make droll stuff at least more fun to read. Bill

  4. One of the DIY installing issues I've come to terms with is acknowledging the role of moisture wicking and gravity on a boat. While care can be taken to do proper gasketing (the "proper" aspect of which has to be confirmed by actually looking and touching...because if you can hear dripping, it's too late) has to be done and old-school techniques like "drip loops" (http://www.thevirtualboatyard.com/2009/02/keep-the-wiring-dry-with-a-drip-loop.html) should be employed.

    Another goodie is deck level goosenecks for mast conduits. Water tends to want to go downwards, and if you can make that harder, you have a shot at keeping the green monster out of the wiring.

    Of course, if you are upside down and the drip loops aren't working, you may have more pressing issues.


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