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Tools of the electronics installer trade

Over the years as editor of Marine Electronics Journal and National Fisherman before that, I’ve seen that many boaters want to be able to work on their own vessels. This may involve carpentry as well as being able to troubleshoot and solve some mechanical and electrical problems. The article below was adapted from a more technical piece written for MEJ by experienced marine electronics installer and dealer John Barry. If some of the description is a bit techy, just move by it. Our goal in presenting it in The Mic is not to make you a professional installer but rather to let you know about some of the test equipment that pros use—and may be of use to you.
--Jim Fullilove

By John Barry

I have seen technicians and installers who have tools and skills from other industries like automotive service or computers move to the marine industry. They find that they still need their existing tools, plus some new tools for the marine industry.  Marine electronics network technicians may already have an Ethernet tester that will work on boats while auto mechanics may already own tools to cut and drill.  Electricians have fish tapes and plumbers have hydraulic skills.  The marine electronics installer uses skills from many disciplines and this makes the job very demanding.

Installers use a wide variety of tools—our tasks are varied and so are our tools.  We are asked to drill holes below the waterline to install transducers, climb towers to install antennas and everything in between. We all know about screwdrivers, wrenches and cordless drills, and everyone has their favorite tools that fit their hands just right.

Some months ago in MEJ I wrote about the DVOM—Digital Volt Ohm Meter.  Whether it is a Fluke, Kenyan or another brand, most installers have this tool in their toolbox.  (DVOM pair pic) Like any tool, the DVOM is only as good as the person operating it.  You can use it to check for 12 VDC or a fuse for continuity. To detect data, set the DVOM to the 12VDC range and observe a pulsating voltage if data is present.  To detect a missing ground, reference a known good 12 VDC source and probe for ground.

Another tool is the RF watt meter, which is an essential tool if you install VHF radios. A cheaper alternative to a RF watt meter is a SWR tester (Standing Wave Ratio), which is also used to confirm the soundness of a VHF installation.

When testing VHF installations, proper practice is to test the "transmission line” or coaxial cable.  We do this by measuring the radio waves action inside the coax.  If poor connections or an improper impedance match exist, it will show up as reflected power in the RF watt meter or a high standing wave reading in the SWR meter.

Data tester

Ethernet testers, available at Home Depot, etc., hook up to both ends of an Ethernet wire to confirm connectivity.  The Ethernet world is mainly land based, but their tools work anywhere.  Another data tester tool is an AMI Maritime AMI300 data reader/tester.  This is a sophisticated tool for reading NMEA 0183 data and displaying it on a color screen.  It can also generate various NMEA sentences and has a simple oscilloscope.

Although not all that common a tool in the trade, the AMI300 is very useful. Using the "Data Read” mode, it can auto detect baud rate and read out in ASCII characters or in English. Using "Generate” mode it can generate heading, position and GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) information, etc.  Using "Oscilloscope” mode allows you to view the data waveform.  The compact unit is rechargeable, rugged and versatile.

All around, the tools installers carry are job specific.  I do not bring a drill to troubleshoot data and I don’t bring a data tester to install a transducer.  The problem is, you need all of it in the truck. The contents of the "main toolbox”—that is the toolbox that goes to every boat—is dependent on the technician and the tasks he or she normally performs.  Everyone needs a screwdriver and a flashlight but the marine installer/technician requires much more. 

Author John Barry owns and operates Technical Marine Support in Pleasant Prairie, WI. He also teaches NMEA’s technical courses for installers.

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