Water-makers join the age of the internet.
Water-makers are not exactly thrilling, eye-catching, sexy, headline-grabbing products. When most people think of water-makers, they envision a big white box that sucks in saltwater and pours out freshwater. That’s the end of story — until it’s not.
The dramatic 2017 hurricane season put water-makers in the news, as storms including Maria, Irma and Harvey destroyed the infrastructure in a number of areas that don’t have easy access to clean drinking water. In many cases water-makers were brought in so communities in places ranging from the Turks and Caicos to Puerto Rico could have potable water. And in doing so, water-makers earned a newfound respect.
Just as importantly, some people began to realize those plain white boxes aren’t always so plain. Sure, they look more or less the same, other than the addition of a digital touchscreen here and there. But beyond that, some water-makers have evolved into high-tech pieces of machinery that are far advanced over the water-makers we saw just a few years ago.
The basics of reverse-osmosis watermakers used on recreational vessels remain the same: the water gets pre-filtered and then pumped under pressure through a membrane, or a series of membranes, to remove salt and minerals. The process takes filtration down to a microscopic level, since little more than water molecules can pass through the membrane. The good stuff then gets pumped into freshwater tanks; the icky stuff, called brine, gets pumped back overboard. Afterward, some fresh water is usually run through the system to flush it. Both 12v and 120v models are available, as are some that run on engine-driven pumps. In these regards, water-makers have not changed. What has changed, however, is the way owners can interface with these systems.
While certainly not of the utmost importance to the people in need of hurricane relief, one of the biggest developments in modern water-makers, which boat owners need to be aware of, is the products’ entry into the “internet of things,” known as the IOT. With onboard data-logging ability and a connection to the internet, a water-maker can act on its own, sending maintenance reminders and keeping track of how effectively it’s operating. Some even have remote access capability, which allows owners to troubleshoot from afar and remotely control the unit from about anywhere.
Spectra’s Newport and Farallon series offer perfect examples. In October 2017, Spectra launched the Connect Controller app, which allows full monitoring and operational control of a water-maker directly from one’s cellphone, tablet or computer, in addition to the system’s onboard touchscreen interface. This type of interface isn’t just remote; it offers easier operation with features such as one-touch tank-fill and auto-flush. Let’s face it, we’ve all become accustomed to smartphone apps, and whether it’s taking command of a widget or operating a water-maker, doing so on a phone is completely intuitive. And it doesn’t benefit only the owner. Since data logging is constant and comprehensive, service technicians can keep tabs on a water-maker’s functionality without having to visit the boat — saving everyone involved both time and money. Issues that arise can be caught quickly, at the first hint of malfunction, and early signs of a need for maintenance, like a drop in productivity, can be identified as they occur.
Dometic’s SpotZero Sea Xchange XTC series offers another example of an IOT water-maker. Dometic embeds its “Smart Touch Integrated Intelligent Control” software in the XTC, which again interacts with the remote user via a free app that can be run on a smartphone, tablet or computer. Full monitoring and control abilities are provided both from the app and from a seven-inch touchscreen on the unit itself, and status checks and settings changes can be performed from anywhere there’s internet service.
In both of these cases, there’s an added onboard bonus, since one’s phone or tablet can effectively act as close-quarters remote controls too. Most boaters carry their phone at virtually all times, and they can be used to remotely control the water-maker from the bridge or a stateroom, saving someone a trip to the engine-room.
One step removed from true IOT is remote control via digital switching. Digital switching systems are becoming more and more popular on boats and yachts of all types and sizes, and it’s no wonder. Those old switches are replaced by touchscreen control, which can be activated from the helm on most modern MFDs. And while some people are a bit hesitant to go all-digital when it comes to controlling their boat’s systems, digital switching is very reliable.
Think back. Have you ever flipped a switch at the helm but nothing happened? Of course. Corroded or jiggling connections, switch failures and fuse-box failures are all common events aboard boats, especially older boats. Not only does digital switching minimize these issues by eliminating mechanical contacts, it also helps builders cut down on wiring, which saves weight. It allows different systems to share data, which can eliminate redundant sensors and simplify installations.
On moderately self-aware boats that have a cellular or Wi-Fi link to the outer world, certain digital switching systems allow owners to flip those electronic “switches” from afar. While this won’t offer the same level of control as an app that provides direct communication with a water-maker, it does deliver a basic remote interface.
The key to taking advantage of such technology lies in choosing a digitally controlled water-maker that’s NMEA2000 compatible. Using the common NMEA2000 digital language is what ensures an MFD knows what the water-maker (or any other accessory or appliance) is communicating. It does not, however, dictate the level of control allowed.
Most new water-maker models that incorporate digital controls are being introduced with NMEA2000 compatibility in mind. Take the Sea Recovery Aqua lines, for example. Certain Aqua Matic and Aqua Whisper models are designed with digital color touchscreens and can communicate with any NMEA2000 display.
Units such as the FCI Watermakers Max Q split the difference between full IOT and NMEA2000 integration. This unit, which utilizes a seven-inch marine-certified touchscreen, recently incorporated NMEA2000 compatibility and has a unique IP address for remote access.
Aside from advances in tech and the ability to integrate a water-maker with both the boat and the wider world, the usual never-ending quest to reduce the units’ size and weight continues unabated. Manufacturers such as US Watermakers continue to make units that are modular, are designed to fit into tight spaces and can run on the 12v systems used on smaller boats. Its Island Explorer is one such example. Note that units like this aren’t apt to be quite as advanced in the digital department, but on the flip side of the coin, neither are they quite as advanced in the price department.
Watermakers Inc. takes a different approach, offering units that aren’t framed or standalone systems. Instead, they’re modular in nature and are designed to be mounted on a bulkhead. This allows a boat owner to shift the unit’s pieces-parts around a bit, to fit into a boat’s available space.