Making Connections

Get the most out of your electronics before they’re on your boat by working with your installer.

Marine Electronics
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Perhaps you don't remember how marine electronics used to be. You had a unit — with its own CRT screen — for every function you wanted, from chart plotting to depth to radar. Add weather and communications and the whole bridge fairly bristled with buttons and knobs, all poorly labeled, if at all, and tricky to operate ("gain" what, exactly?). Or maybe you've blocked out the bad old days.

Fast-forward to now, when the systems are integrated and the touchscreens mean every bit of information they gather is literally at your fingertips. Those systems don’t happen on their own, and anyone who has used a really good helm setup knows that they don’t simply come out of a cardboard box that way. Someone puts them in and asks you how you like it, then makes the system work to suit you.

Meet your electronics installer.

This meeting should be something a little special. Without overthinking the conversation, it should be more like a first date. Because this is a guy you want to get to know, and in very real terms, you want him to get to know you. After all, some first dates don’t lead to second dates, and everyone involved is better off.

But when it works, it works — for all parties involved. Here are three steps to help get off on the right foot.

Research

In this day and age the Internet is a powerful tool — you can research nearly anything to an exhaustive degree. Marine electronics companies put huge amounts of information about their products out there in the ether, because they build them as well as they can and they want you to know about them and what they can do.

"For the most part it's beneficial. [Installers] have to make sure that everyone understands what the equipment is, what it does and what it's capable of doing," says Harold O'Neal of Custom Marine Electronics, a dealer of Furuno, Simrad, Krill Systems and others in San Diego. "And today a lot of that knowledge comes from the Internet."

Searching websites, online reviews and forums to learn about features, capabilities and other users’ experiences is an excellent way to improve your grasp of what’s out there — the possibilities are virtually unlimited. Side-byside comparisons of units in one manufacturer’s line are invaluable for determining what level of equipment you should consider, and then you can do similar comparisons within other brands. A virtual final-four bracket of candidates to be added to your new helm setup awaits, all from the comfort of your Wi-Fi connection. Internet forums contain real experiences from real users — what better place to get information on a system you’re considering?

"With the advent of the Internet [boat owners] understand a little bit more," says Kevin English, West Coast regional sales manager for Raymarine. "With that being said, the Internet is also dangerous because owners will start searching for prices on items, and you get a lot of gray-market sellers where there's no warranty offered on the device." The prices online often get you an electronics unit in a box. A good electronics installer provides much more than that, including warranties on the installation.

A great place to move your research to the next level is under the tents at the boat shows. Chances are your favorite manufacturers will have the demo equipment you’re drooling over on the Web right there, with full functionality. It’s a great way to get a feel for those features you’ve decided you need and to ask any questions that come to mind. The one problem: You may want to take home everything you try.

Let your research go beyond hardware shopping: You can get the lowdown on potential installers and the services they offer, both online and on the docks.

"When we finish one of our customers who has taken the time to research what he wants, and we fulfill what he wants, he becomes a perfect salesman," says Dave Laska of L&L Electronics, a dealer for Furuno, Raymarine, Simrad, FLIR and others in Branford, Connecticut. "Because they're happy and that's really what this whole business is about."

When you speak to the installer, ask specif ic questions about the sorts of training and experience his team has — the people who will be doing the work on your boat. Factory training means they have an understanding of how devices work based on interaction with the people who design and make them. The experience of previous installs means they understand what it takes to make the systems work in real-world conditions. And a good installer will be happy to share.

The National Marine Electronics Association also offers courses to train installers, ranging from marine electronics installer to certified marine electronics technician. These classifications are part of the effort of the organization to standardize practices within the marine electronics field.

“We’re training two times a year with each manufacturer,” Laska says. “It takes a lot of time to send our guys in and out of here to be up to date on that.”

Communication

The foundation of any solid relationship is communication, and the interaction between a yacht owner and his installer is no different. Remember, every client that comes into the installer’s shop has a different set of needs. He can re-create the system you saw that he put on your buddy’s boat, but chances are you will want something different. You should take the time to find out together.

"We try to get a questionnaire from the guy — where is he going to be cruising?" says Ron Muller of Electronics Unlimited, a dealer for Garmin, Furuno, Raymar ine, Standard Horizon and others in Fort Lauderdale (elec-unlimited.com). "We try to get a good baseline of how the boat is going to be used, the size and weight of the vessel to see if GMDSS regulatons apply, where it's going and what the plans are. Some of the specifications for the yacht can be dictated by the size or the weight of the vessel, where they may have certain equipment requirements." While those regulations are important, most boat owners won't need to be concerned, since a good installer will make sure the boat is up to code based on what he knows about its use.

Get into specifics about not only how you’ve used your boat in the past, but also how you intend to use it in the future. Not only will it affect the equipment the installer recommends, but his wheels will also be turning on setting up the system to optimize your use of all components. Discuss the kinds of conditions you usually see, and get specific about how you use your boat, such as blue-water cruising or fishing. If the install is part of your gearing up for an extended cruise that will be different from your usual itinerary, that should enter the discussion.

"A lot of the installation is very specific to the equipment, to the boat and to the owners as far as what it is they want out of the system once it's installed and commissioned," says Jeff Sawyer of Sawyer & Whitten Marine Electronics, a dealer for Furuno, Garmin, Si-Tex and others in Portland, Maine. "Basically the objective of any quality installers is to have it be turnkey for the person who hires them to do the install. When it comes to directing a customer to a product, everything has to do with what they're looking for." The installer will have ideas about configuring the system and components to be added, but he won't automatically know what you want.

Trust

By telling your installer your electronics needs, you’re investing in the relationship. Hopefully he will respond in kind, using his expertise to select equipment that will get you the setup you want within the budget you shared at the outset of the process. And this trust will get you added value, both in follow-up service and knowledge.

“Everything is software-driven, so you have to be a bit of a software guru to get through some of this stuff,” O’Neal says. “And that’s part of the install: getting the equipment set up. A lot of people who do an install themselves can pull the cables, but when it comes to setting up the equipment, they need help, and that’s what we do.” Because the software controls every aspect of the integration and functionality, it’s more than just getting your personal settings loaded. The safety factor alone is reason to involve an expert — you’ll have someone to call if things go wrong.

“If somebody comes in and they want something a certain way, we’re going to work with the customer to try to match the product to what it is they want to do with it and to the boat,” Sawyer says. “And that takes a certain amount of intuition.” The installer’s experience is invaluable, and he will be willing to share it because he knows you’re invested in the relationship.

“We’re going to give you what you think you’re going to get,” Laska says. “And it’s going to be even better than that.”