This story appeared in our October/November 2016 Edition of InTheBite The Professionals Sportfishing Magazine. For this or any back issue check out our online store. Click Here
Helm Electronics Upgrade
All at once or piecemeal? Mix and match brands?
by Steve Katz
In spite of all of the information available about the latest marine electronics – new releases, future offerings and the like, many owners are not prepared for a complete electronics makeover. The speed with which new technology is introduced can be overwhelming. Though your boat may have a fully capable electronics package, chances are good that some new features in the most current offerings may peak your interest.
When the time comes to remodel your boat’s electronics, there are a number of options. You can always upgrade your entire package at once. Another, less publicized option (that is increasingly easy today) is to upgrade in piecemeal. This option allows you to mix and match brands of electronics, getting the best of new offerings while keeping the best of what you already own. Which option is the right one for you?
When to upgrade?
If your current system is functioning properly—that is not requiring repeated, expensive repairs and can be counted on to perform reliably for navigation, collision avoidance and fish finding in all conditions – then you can expect to get about ten years of life out of the system. Once you pass the decade mark, service and parts repair become more difficult and cost prohibitive. Some companies, such as Furuno, are famous for their ability to repair units that are ten or more years old. In addition, some marine electronics companies specialize in repair of older hardware, often focusing on a particular brand or popular model. Some of these companies buy used equipment just for the parts, keeping them on hand to repair customers’ units.
Can I upgrade piecemeal?
A piecemeal upgrade refers to replacing a single or few components of a system, without a complete overhaul. The NMEA2000 and NMEA0183 protocols are industry standards that require baseline compatibility of marine instrumentation. The protocols effectively ensure that many pieces of hardware can share information regardless of age, model or brand of hardware. Before these protocols were enacted, such broad compatibility did not exist and complete overhauls were the order of the day. Owing to the protocols, however, piecemeal upgrades are smoother now than ever before.
What does a piecemeal upgrade look like? A customer of mine wanted to add a CHIRP system to his existing electronics. He had a Furuno VX2 sonar package and an older Garmin chart plotter. As it turns out, the Garmin chart plotter was compatible with a Garmin CHIRP module while the Furuno VX2 was not compatible with the Furuno CHIRP module. This allowed him to keep the existing Furuno Radar, Furuno tone burst sounder while adding a CHIRP system to his existing display. Even better—owing to the NMEA2000 protocol, the new CHIRP transducer can be used with most any modern CHIRP system now or in the future.
Besides CHIRP and satellite positioning, there are other new technologies that make life easier on owners and crew. These include high resolution sea surface temperatures and weather, integration of instruments with entertainment systems, Wi-Fi connectivity for remote viewing devices, compatibility with specialized navigation charts and more. The ability to selectively integrate new instruments into your onboard electronics package is uniquely appealing.
Mix and match brands?
The comprehensive compatibility protocols allow different brands of hardware to share critical navigation information across a standardized brand-independent network. Devices such as autopilots, GPS receivers, sounders, temperature sensors, etc. can provide NMEA2000-data to different brands of hardware on the same boat. This often excludes propriety data such as a radar or sonar imagery which are carried on proprietary data networks, not NMEA2000.
The popular “black box” system, also known as standalone processors, offers flexibility in the design of helm packages. Furuno, Garmin and Simrad all offer black box processor systems. In these systems, the main processor is found under the helm or other dry secure location, and the hardware is connected to helm display screens. The display screens used can be of any brand that meets the specifications of the processor. Independent companies such as KEP Marine/Sparton and Hatteland offer marine duty, sunlight viewable monitors, as do Furuno, Garmin and Simrad. Combining different brands of black boxes can allow you to cherry pick the best equipment from each manufacturer, while displaying the images on matching screens.
How does this work in practice? A captain wanted all the displays on the helm to match, but wanted a combination of brands, such as Furuno radar and Garmin CHIRP. He designed his helm with matching KEP Marine monitors and “black box” processors. The result provided multi-brand functionality and ability to view data on any of the matching screens.
Today’s newest chart plotters allow you to display video and information from many sources, including other brands of hardware. Yes, it might look surprising to see a Furuno Radar on a Garmin screen or a Garmin CHRIP on a Furuno display. The flexibility in these systems, however, allows the user to create custom solutions to meet the exact needs of most any captain and owner.
A Pro’s Tip: Small screens, routed to large displays
Another alternative to the black box system is to select the small screen size of new equipment across the board. You can then use the video output of the new device as an input on the existing large display screens. Many times the cost of new instruments is primarily dependent on screen size. You can purchase new, small-screened equipment that has the same technical specifications of larger-screened models for much less money.
If opting for this approach, you will still need to have a way to operate the small screens. Though not as elegant as a true black box system, this is a cost effective way to try out new technology without a major overhaul. You will need to check compatibility of the new and existing equipment to see if this will work with your hardware. This approach is particularly useful for boats with limited helm space.
When to upgrade everything on the helm at once?
The answer to this question is generally a combination of financial and functional issues. The advantages of an engineered system package are great, but often so is the cost. The functionally of older equipment and the feasibility of its repair and maintenance may lead to entire system replacement with new hardware.
Keep in mind that the supporting hardware may need to be upgraded too. Supporting hardware includes radar, sounders, antennas, weather modules, displays, remote controls and the like. If budgeting for a complete overhaul, you should also consider the resale value of old hardware. There is a good secondary market for popular hardware. Using the internet in combination with word of mouth, it is easy to let others know what you have for sale. You can even list your old hardware on the sportfishing marketplace of InTheBite.com. Functional hardware that is one or even two generations old may easily find a home in another boat.
There are marine electronics businesses that specialize in the purchase, sale, and repair of used marine electronics. There is some older equipment that is no longer made or serviced by the manufacturers but is still in high demand by boaters. Those who need that an out of circulation item may pay a premium for your used parts. An interesting example is the popular Simrad autopilot control head, the AP26. The product is one generation old. Today it is worth about $800 on the used market, not much less than the item’s cost when new ten years ago!
Helm Makeover Takeaways
A complete helm makeover is not always necessary to take advantage of newer marine electronics. Many of the new features available with latest equipment can be integrated into your existing system. If you want to try out a new instrument but are not ready to fully commit, you can always further integrate later in the event of a full makeover. With all the options available, now is a good time to be in the marine electronics business.
Why add new navigation systems?
Making use of other satellite positing systems is a great reason to consider adding a new chart plotter. While we are familiar with GPS (global positioning system), this is actually owned and operated by the United States Government as a national resource. Other governments operate similar, proprietary systems. These include GLONASS (Russian), Galileo (European Union) and QZSS (Japan). Most of these systems offer global coverage. Many of the newest marine electronics systems are capable of receiving signals from these systems, adding another layer of redundancy to your navigation systems.