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When your onboard electronics don't work, Part 2

A while back one of the regular contributors to Marine Electronics Journal made the rounds of dealers asking if they were ever brought in to fix electronics problems on boats that were caused by others. She got an earful. Some of the malfunctioning electronics resulted from installations done by do-it-yourselfers. Others were turned out by friends or relatives who professed to be competent. Many were improperly installed or calibrated by boat builders or guys walking the docks who claimed to be expert marine electronics technicians.
Although this article was put together for traditional dealers, the accounts also serve as cautionary tales for boat owners. Make sure your installer has the horsepower necessary to do the job right. We ran Part 1 last week—CLICK HERE. Get in touch with us if you’ve suffered through a similar experience. 

By Nancy Griffin

Not all the stories reflect on the installers. Mike Marr of Birchwood Electric, Harbor Springs, MI, tells a tale of 1992, when he was starting out in the business, working with an experienced technician who planned to retire at the end of the season and hand the reins to Mike.

A transient customer came in, wanting an autopilot, Marr recalls. The customer’s 45 foot sailboat had never had an autopilot, so the team went to the boat and put one in place. They tested it dockside and everything worked fine. But when they took the boat for sea trials, they encountered an odd problem. When the autopilot was on and the boat started going off course, the autopilot would take much smaller corrections than it had at the dock.
"Nothing would happen. It wouldn’t steer the boat right,” says Marr. "We checked and discovered what it was. His hydraulic steering system had check valves that will engage and disengage and lock out another system. It would prevent the steering wheel from steering the boat. The system was either dirty, contaminated or worn out, so if the wheel was turned sharply, aggressively, it would engage. If the wheel was turned really slowly, the valve would slip and nothing would happen, it would freewheel.”
Turned out the customer knew all along he had the steering problem, and had learned to compensate. But he failed to tell Marr and his colleague about it. During the sea trials, the customer apparently spotted an opportunity.
"He said he had never had the problem before, but since we had installed the autopilot, we had created the problem and he felt he should have a working autopilot before he paid the bill,” Marr says. "We ended up draining all the fluid out of the system, cleaning and purging the system, putting it back together and replacing the fluid.
"We found the problem when we took everything apart—he had a contaminated, leaky system and he’d just been adding fluid to it regularly to top it off.” Although he never admitted to a prior problem, they knew from a few things the customer said that he knew the problem existed.  Two men spent half a day fixing the system, but Marr learned a valuable lesson. 
"Now when I go aboard a boat,” Marr says, "I go to the helm, slowly turn the wheel and have a helper watch the movement of the rudder to see it matches the wheel movements.”

Can’t please everyone
Mike Whitten of Sawyer and Whitten in Portland, ME, says he has no one standout story, but he has a couple of recurring bad dreams. For instance, every season he and his partner get one or two customers who can’t be pleased, no matter what.

"Sometimes you sell equipment and it’s no one’s fault—you have a failure of the equipment,” Whitten says. "You try to fix it and it doesn’t work. You offer to give the customer a refund, offer to remove the faulty equipment, offer to replace it with another unit at no charge. It doesn’t matter what you do, they won’t be made happy.”
Whitten has also experienced the boatbuilder installations from hell. "Often we get a package installed at the boatbuilder’s factory and the builders are not qualified to install it. We’ve run into it several times. You get involved and it takes time. And it always reflects badly on the industry, even if you fix it, because it leaves a bad taste in the customer’s mouth. Raymarine is leading the way in requiring certification for their installers. All of us certified dealers are certainly behind that movement.”

Avoiding nightmares
Marr has advice for dealers who want to avoid their own horror stories. "Take an extra five or 10 minutes,” he says. "Thoroughly check out the system you’re working on because you have product performance liability if you don’t determine the problem ahead of time.” (Insert Wire nest pic)
Ken Englert of Maritime Communications in Marina del Rey, CA, advises boat owners who want to avoid faulty installations in the first place: 1) Get guidance in selecting the right equipment for the right boat and the right application. 2) Make sure it’s installed properly by trained people 3) Get training on the equipment so you know how to use it—it’s equally important to the other two.

About the author
Nancy Griffin has written for many marine publications, including National Fisherman, Seafood Business, Working Waterfront and MEJ.

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