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The Smart Buyer: There's more to buying electronics than meets the eye

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How to Choose Marine Electronics

Boaters looking to buy electronics have more shopping choices than ever. In addition to traditional full-service marine electronics dealers, there are Internet-based sellers, big-box stores and mass retailers offering equipment at attractive prices. But you should understand that while buying from discounters can save money initially, it could cost you more in the long run.

Selecting the right equipment and having it installed properly can prevent unplanned costs, such as repairs, replacements or reworking the entire system later on. And it’s reassuring to know that your navigation, communications and safety electronics will perform as intended when they are specified and installed by competent and certified experts. Sophisticated electronics installations require expertise and training to ensure that equipment is properly integrated and that the system is commissioned to work as expected.

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Buying electronics without advice can lead to problems. For example, not all devices are compatible with one another and some might even interfere with the operation of others. Also, if you’re selecting an NMEA 2000 network for your boat, you need to make sure all devices are NMEA 2000- certified or they might not operate properly or might bring down the network. Power requirements, shielding from radio frequency interference, grounding and antenna placement are just a few of the many considerations that call for expert advice.

“The mass retailers are an essential sales channel for consumers who want a wide choice of products and store locations,” says National Marine Electronics Association executive director Bruce Angus. “Internet sellers and mass marine retailers usually have the best prices and selection, whereas NMEA-certified dealers, in addition to selling equipment, will provide expert technical advice, system planning and installation, and will visit your boat for after-sales service and warranty support.”

Mike Spyros is service manager at Electronics Unlimited, a full-service marine electronics dealership in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He says consumers should ask a lot of questions before deciding where to purchase. You should know whether the supplier/installer:

• is trained by the manufacturer on the products you want to buy

• is certified by the manufacturer to do on-board warranty work — otherwise you might have to remove the device and return it to the manufacturer for warranty claims

• has NMEA training

• will conduct sea trials and provide operator training

• provides service after the sale

Planning an electronics layout is as important as the installation itself, says Spyros, and that requires knowing what you’re doing. “If an owner wants to add an integrated multifunction system and all he has on the boat is a VHF and a single breaker, then you have to redesign the power distribution system,” he says. “I tell customers all the time, ‘If you make a decision based only on price, you may end up not getting everything you expect, such as product performance and a technician who will fix any problems and expedite warranty support from the manufacturer.’

“In the case of simple electronic devices, the boater may want to do some research to learn if they can do a basic installation themselves,” he adds. “However, if they get to the point of wondering if they’re doing things safely and correctly, the extra cost to hire an expert will more than pay for itself with reduced risk of failures and more peace of mind when out on the water.”

The NMEA recommends that electronics installations be done by technicians who have completed its training courses. NMEA runs the following classes for marine installers and technicians throughout the United States and Canada using published NMEA standards as references:

• Marine Electronics Installer

• Advanced Marine Electronics Installer

• NMEA 2000 Networks

NMEA dealers provide expert service after the sale, including warranty support. Dealerships that carry the master dealer designation are recognized as having the highest level of competent technical staff, as certified by stringent NMEA requirements. For a list of NMEA master dealers and dealers, visit

The NMEA has produced a brochure to help boaters become better informed about buying marine electronics: A Guide to Boating Electronics: What You Should Know When Buying Electronics for Your Boat. The table here is from the guide.

You can read and download the guide on the NMEA website by clicking on the “Boaters Guide button,” or call NMEA at (401) 975-9425 and one will be mailed to you. 

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.