By Brian Kelly, Bayland Enterprises

Editor’s note: Part 1 is featured in the Spring 2015 issue of Boats&Places.

So, you’ve decided to pull the trigger and upgrade your marine electronics. Good for you! Now, what? Are you going to try installing the components yourself? Or, maybe it’s a little too complicated and seeking the assistance of a professional is more in your comfort zone?

If you are simply running a chartplotter (or iPad) with a navigation system, chances are you can tackle the installation all by your lonesome. But, when you get into transducers and drilling holes through the bottom of your boat, it may be time to ask for help. We’ll take a look at what is involved in installing each component and then you can decide if you have the skill set needed.

A basic system will likely consist of a chartplotter, depth unit (transducer) and VHF radio. A more advanced system includes radar, autopilot and possibly AIS (automated identification system). Though it may seem like installing three electronics is an easy task, make no mistake, each boat is different and poses its own set of challenges.

If all of your instruments are made by the same manufacturer, networking is easier.

The number of electronics you have to install will dictate the ability level required to do the installation. As mentioned in part one, when linking electronics together (plotter, radar, depth finder, etc.) some networking has to be done so all of the pieces talk to each other. If all of your instruments are made by the same manufacturer, networking is easier. When mixing and matching pieces from different brands, converters may be required.

It’s best to map out all the equipment to be installed and create a schematic drawing to work from. This helps to determine what cable lengths are needed, where they have to be run and how many cables there are.

Most of the newer chartplotters have built in GPS units that are very accurate – usually within three metres. If your intention is to install the chartplotter under a covered area, it could block its view to the sky and prevent it from accurately reading satellite signals. What you can do is put in an external GPS head. This might not be an issue with your unit, but it may be a good idea to power it up to see how many satellites the GPS is picking up before installation.

Communication is paramount on a boat, especially if something goes wrong. Properly installing your VHF is critical. Make sure that the antenna is sized appropriately for your boat – remember it’s all about line of sight. If the cable from the antenna to the VHF doesn’t reach, calculate the length and drop then make sure to cut the coaxial cable to the correct size. Soldering connections can be a tricky thing for the average do-it-yourselfer, so crimp-on PL-259s may be an easier option to master.

Modern VHFs have a great – almost essential – feature built into them: digital selective calling, or DSC. DSC will tie into your GPS or chartplotter to give the VHF your position. In an emergency, this feature could save your life. In order to get the position into the VHF, we must have a means of communication. If both the VHF and the GPS or chartplotter have the same NMEA communication system rating, then no additional converters are required. However, if the units have different communication systems, a converter is a must. Once everything is tied together and ready, check that you have latitude and longitude on the VHF screen. Then do a radio check and to note how well you are being received. You may want to check the installation with a VHF tester.

Be aware of the proximity to propellers or engine intake.

Knowing how deep the water is when you’re boating is, obviously, very important. When installing a transducer, you have to be careful of where you place it. An avid fisherman may want detailed images of the fish under the boat, so a large transducer with a fairing block may be the way to go. That comes with its own set of challenges. When mounting a fairing block be mindful of what you are mounting it near. Be aware of the proximity to propellers or engine intake.

If speed is important to you, or you just require depth without all the bells and whistles, then you can probably use a low profile transducer. Installing one of those is a lot easier and it even comes with a tilted element to compensate for the dead rise in your hull. Before putting a hole in your boat, make sure the stem of the transducer is long enough and that there’s plenty of room inside. Connection to the rest of the system will either be direct through a fish finder module, or through an NMEA network or other communication network.

Radar is a good piece of equipment to have when navigating for long periods of time or if you boat at night. As with most of the electronics discussed so far, installation location is important. If you have a larger system with an open array, measure where the dome will be installed. Does the navigation light or VHF antenna clear it? A closed radar dome isn’t as big, so you’ll have a little more real estate to work with. Depending on how the dome may be installed, a custom mount may be needed. Sometimes combining your radar, navigation lights and satellite dish on one mount can be the most aesthetically pleasing. Though if you have a satellite dish, be aware that the radar can burn out the low-noise blocks inside the dish over time. To avoid this, mount one above or below the other.

Although not a necessity, it’s surprising how many boaters will not leave the dock without autopilot. It makes those long voyages a little easier, saves on fuel and helps to plot that nice fishing pattern. The hardest part of installing the autopilot is integration with the steering system. Whether you have power, sail, tiller or hydraulic, just make sure to follow the instructions carefully.

The heading compass is one area of the installation that gives a lot of people trouble. When mounting the heading compass make sure it’s away from any ferrous objects. One trick is to use a small hand compass and move it around the potential mounting area. If the needle moves, try somewhere else. Also, try to mount it as close to the centerline and middle of the ship as possible. Again, connections are made through an NMEA network or other communication network.

Before undergoing any installation, make sure you have the proper tools to do the job. There is nothing worse than getting half way through something and realizing you don’t have that special tool. I hope some of these tips and tricks will help you along the way, and when in doubt, contact your local marine electronics dealer for advice.

This article is featured in the Summer 2015 issue of Boats&Places.