Author: Capt. Frank Lanier
All boat owners like to stretch their boating bucks, and electronics are a great place to generate savings. Here’s a look at eight simple tips that can help extend the life of your marine electronics.
1. Salt water and sunlight combine to make the marine environment particularly brutal with regard to maintaining electronics. Protect electronics by mounting them where they are easy to view and work with but shielded from the elements to the greatest extent possible. If mounted in an exposed location, protect them with suitable covers. If located in an exposed area, store easily removed electronics belowdecks or even ashore when possible — protecting them from both the elements and thieves.
2. Never use a dock or washdown hose to rinse off your electronics. Even gear rated as being waterproof can easily be damaged by spraying it with pressurized water. The best advice is to avoid the use of high-pressure hoses near your electronics. If that’s not possible, remove your electronics (don’t forget to protect all plugs and connectors) or make sure they are adequately covered prior to washdown.
3. Clean your electronics regularly … but do it correctly. Dust, dirt and grime can cause problems with buttons, screens and even watertight seals. Never use glass cleaners or harsh chemicals to clean display monitors, because most feature special coatings (to enhance viewing quality) that can be damaged if the wrong cleaner is used. Clean displays using a soft microfiber cloth and clean water or an optics cleaner designed for use on anti-glare coatings. Always verify the compatibility of any cleaner with the equipment manufacturer prior to use.
4. Verify each piece of equipment is protected by its own properly sized fuse or breaker. Treat recurrent blown fuses as a symptom, rather than the problem. Never try to “fix” the situation by replacing blown fuses with fuses of higher amperage than called for by the manufacturer — doing so can damage your electronics or even result in a fire. Now’s also a good time to verify that you have spare fuses on board for each piece of gear.
5. Turn off electronics (e.g., chartplotters, multifunction displays) or place them in “safe mode” prior to removing chart cards or other storage devices. Popping out a chart card with the unit running can cause anything from system lockups to accidental deletion of waypoints.
To expand on this a bit more, always use the on/off button at each unit to turn them off. Never use a circuit breaker to kill power to a piece of equipment or console.
6. Inspect all connectors, terminal strips, and fuse holders regularly for problems such as loose screws, broken wires, and corrosion. Bad connections cause more problems with electronics than any other issue. Corrosion causes resistance, which in turn can lead to a wide variety of problems, from low equipment voltage to fires. Application of dielectric grease or other suitable corrosion inhibitor after cleaning will help prevent corrosion, as will the use of only marine-grade connectors and components.
7. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the entire installation of each system. Many modern electronics (e.g., autopilots, single sideband radios) may have “hidden” components in some out-of-the-way space or locker. Learn where these are and make sure they are kept protected from damage due to loose gear, bilge water, etc. Never store metal objects near electronic compass sensors (or magnetic compasses for that matter) — cellphones, tools, canned goods, and even metal coat hangers and jacket zippers can all induce compass error.
8. Check your antennas for possible degradation. Many of the complaints that boaters typically attribute to their electronics (e.g., poor VHF transmission and reception, fluky GPS fixes) can often be traced to faulty antenna systems. Look for loose or corroded RF connectors, as well as damaged or improperly routed cables, which can introduce unwanted noise and interference. Exposed connectors should be weatherproofed using vulcanizing (aka self-fusing) tape and a coating of liquid electrical tape or some other suitable product — just remember to check and re-tape them annually as part of your regularly scheduled maintenance program. You can also monitor the health of your VHF antenna system by installing an inline forward/reflected power meter.