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Make 2009 the year of the upgrade

New navigation electronics can spruce up your pride and joy if you’re not in the market for a new boat

For many, 2009 will not be the year of the new boat. The consensus is that, until the markets stabilize and credit becomes more readily available, there is too much financial uncertainty swirling about to justify squeezing the trigger on a major discretionary purchase.

When measuring for new electronics, make full-size templates and pay attention to the best position for each display.

But truth be told, we love our boats a lot. So if purchasing a new boat this year is not on your to-do list, then maybe this is the opportune time to love the one you’re with by renovating your helm with some new navigation equipment. With a little research and planning, you might find that updating your boat’s electronics with a splash of color and a little digital integration is the right compromise between the desire for a new boat and the reality of holding on to the boat that has been serving you well for another season or two.

So when is the right time to upgrade your navigation electronics? Other than outright equipment failure or physical and cosmetic deterioration, there is no hard-and-fast rule as to when it is appropriate to update or replace a piece of navigational gear. New electronics hit the market every year, each aimed at outperforming last season’s models. Most marine manufacturers tend to introduce new products that are being added to existing series at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in the fall. They usually hold back the preview and release of any completely new series of equipment until the first major show of the new model year, the Miami International Boat Show in February.

As the marine electronics market has matured over the years from revolutionary to evolutionary, manufacturers seem to be settling into a five-year market life cycle on most series of navigational equipment. A large percentage of the nav equipment sold today is based around multifunction, multipurpose helm displays.

When fitting multifuncion screens side-by-side, leave space in between.

One way manufacturers have learned to extend or at least preserve the development-to-profitability cycle is to actively support their existing product series by making software enhancements readily available on their Web sites (normally at no charge) so that customers can upgrade features on their existing multifunction units via downloads into an inexpensive memory card. This type of manufacturer support not only fosters customer loyalty, but also keeps units technically current in the marketplace.

Another way marine manufacturers are keeping their existing series of products competitive for longer periods of time is to offer new accessory sensors and feature add-on modules that are compatible with all units within existing series, not just the latest model release. Sensors such as digital radar and satellite weather receivers, or feature modules like HD aerial photos are usually the innovations that spark the initial interest into a helm upgrade.

In comparison to the market life of a particular unit, the actual service life of most marine electronics averages around 10 years. After the 10-year mark, the average factory repair charge for recreational electronics that require a primary repair is often within 30 percent of the cost of a current like-model replacement. When new equipment warranty and technological advances are factored in, the math usually supports the decision that, while repairing an older unit might initially cost a little less, it is probably not the most cost-effective and long-term solution. Will navigational equipment that is older than 10 years old continue to work? Absolutely. But the tradeoff is in technological advances and reliability.

There must be enough space in between the units to snap on the sun covers.

The purchasing decision

Coming from the premise that careful planning usually saves money, your first step in upgrading your helm electronics needs to define the scope of your project and your budget. Is this a project I feel comfortable enough tackling the installation myself, or am I going to require the services of a professional? Get a small notepad and write down what you don’t like about your existing equipment, what new features are must-haves, and your time constraints and budget goals. A wish list of future additions, as well as a sketch of what you envision your new helm to look like when completed, will help keep the project in focus.

Take digital photos of your helm — both from the front and rear — as well as any existing radar antenna or GPS sensor. Break out the tape measure and mark out key dimensions on your rough helm sketch. Armed with your notepad and an Internet connection, you will be able to research equipment choices, prices — and equally important — what physically appears to fit on your helm.

Do your research to get yourself up to speed so you can have a sense of direction as to your equipment likes and dislikes. In the GPS/radar multifunction display market, there are basically five major players: Furuno (, Garmin (, Northstar (, Raymarine ( and Simrad ( The operational nuances between each of these manufacturers’ units are major. Use your budget and your collected data to pare down the list to two, if you can. Narrowing the field will save you a lot of anguish when the time comes to make the final purchasing decision.

You might also want to add weight to staying with the manufacturer of your current equipment, provided the company has earned your future business. In many instances, the button-pushing logic (man-to-machine interface) is a carryover from series to series. Therefore, if you know how to navigate around a particular manufacturer’s previous series, the learning curve on your new equipment will be shorter.

DIY or help from a pro

With the field narrowed and the budget in view, the next big decision is: Can you install the equipment yourself or do you need professional assistance? It is generally accepted that like-for-like GPS and/or small radar replacement is well within the abilities of those who have the time and the tools. When contemplating an autopilot installation or a multiple-display integrated helm, dealer involvement is recommended primarily because of the complexity of the installation and concerns not covered in the documentation provided with the unit.

The installation factor also has a subcomponent, the manufacturer’s warranty, which basically boils down to risk and reward. Manufacturers like Raymarine are attempting to reduce the number of units that are returned to them each year for warranty repairs because of improper installation. It offers the customer two years of free, on-board, at-your-dock service on a majority of its products when the installation has been performed and certified by one of its authorized dealers. This doesn’t mean the product has to be purchased from an authorized dealer; it just means it needs to be certified as installed properly and working, per Raymarine’s detailed guidelines. Although the program could use some tweaking, it does show Raymarine’s desire to create additional value for its customers.

If you are inclined to seek professional help with an installation, a good starting place for referrals is your marina manager, who deals all year with dealer/subcontractors signing in and out of the facility. He or she will know which firms are the area pros and which have the required liability insurance. If the marina is large enough, it might have a person on staff who is a certified installer for your particular product.

Another good resource to help select an installation specialist is the manufacturer’s Web site. A quick browse will quickly identify local dealers in your area that are factory trained. Link to a few of the dealer Web sites and look for content that shows they are passionately focused on marine electronics. If your particular project is complex or a bit over the top, call the manufacturer and ask to speak to the regional sales manger responsible for your area. These factory mangers know which companies would be best suited to complete the type of project you are planning. They are usually more than happy to spend a few minutes talking shop, especially during the offseason.

Making a purchase

The final step in this process, which we purposely put last, is where to buy the equipment. It is important to refrain from buying the equipment first (the fun part) until you have completed all of your other homework and have a true understanding of the total cost and the scope of your project. There will never be a shortage of dot.coms and special deals, so use your position as a well-informed customer, slow the process down and make sure you’re not only getting what you asked for, but that you have asked for everything that makes the system complete.

E-tailers and conventional retailers each serve a different sector of the market, but with many manufacturers implementing minimum advertised pricing and reducing order volume incentives, the pricing differential between the “E” and the “re” are starting to dramatically shrink, especially when factoring in ever-increasing freight charges.

Who would have ever thought 10 or so years ago that clicking “Buy Now” could have evoked such a feeling of instant gratification. In many instances involving self-installation, the Buy Now route is the most cost-effective way to go. However, when you are about to purchase a higher-value item — something techie like a top-tier GPS/plotter or a radar unit — you should evaluate the benefits of hiring a professional against self-installation. Ask an area certified dealer about its value-added after-sale services, such as orientation and instructions, availability of loaner equipment, warranty service priority, and free software upgrades. Give the services proper consideration and weight before you click that mouse.

The process of revamping part of or your entire helm is not difficult if you take the project in steps. The reward of keeping your helm current by installing a faster, brighter, more-colorful GPS/chart plotter with the capability of displaying live weather, radar and AIS anticollision visual data on highly detailed charts might just make your boating experience exciting enough to keep your mind off that new boat.

Installation guidelines

• Remember, the end goal of a helm upgrade is to install the unit that you selected into your helm, rather than rebuilding the helm around the unit.

• When laying out and measuring for new electronics, think in three dimensions. One of the best places to position a GPS/plotter display is on the centerline of the helm. This is also the predominant area that flush-mounted compasses hang down into, on console helms. Most new color multifunction displays require 2 to 4 inches of depth, plus the attaching plugs. Give a good look behind the helm to make sure all is clear before plugging in the jigsaw.

• Interactions with shifter and throttle levers have ruined more than a few seemingly well-planed installations. Make a full-size template of the unit that you’re installing, tape it in place, then sit back and pseudo-operate the helm. This step sounds logical, but it often is overlooked during the excitement of discovering that the new display actually fits the helm, only to find out that the gear selector hits the LCD.

• When fitting two multifunction screens side-by-side, leave enough space between the units and between the surrounding structure to allow for the snapping on and off of the manufacturer-provided sun covers. Sun covers are essential protection on LCDs that are exterior-mounted. A small, lateral preinstallation adjustment will make all the difference in not having to wrestle with a cover on a unit that is mounted too close to an adjacent unit.

Dave Laska, 48, is president of L&L Electronics in Branford, Conn., which he runs with his brothers Rob and Jim. A marine electronics technician with 27 years of professional experience, Laska is an FCC-licensed senior grade technician certified by the National Marine Electronics Association.

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.



Treat Your Boat to an Upgrade

Who doesn’t love an upgrade? You check in at the airport and go from cattle-car economy to first-class luxury.