Marine Electronics Installation Choices

Go with a professional, or do it yourself?

Do you enjoy comparing wire gauges, discussing connection points and terminators, and drilling holes in fiberglass? Then you just might be a do-it-yourselfer.

If not, you’re like me and many other boat owners — in search of a trusted technician to wrestle all those cables into order, orchestrating a suite of functional electronics aboard our beloved vessels. All we want to do is push the power button and go fishing.

But whether you choose to craft your own helm systems or pay someone else, you should know what to expect, and you should ask a lot of questions.

"I fully support DIY," says Johnny Lindstrom, chairman of the board for the National Marine Electronics Association. "But the bottom line is the individual needs to have an honest look at what he or she is attempting to do, and make an honest evaluation of the skill set to do it."

Lindstrom, who engineers and designs marine-electronics installations on large vessels at Westport Shipyard, says most electronics that anglers and others buy are safety related, “so it’s a good idea that they work when you need them. The reality of that is installation.”

Initial Incentives

In today’s market, anglers can acquire new electronics in three primary ways:

  • At the boatbuilder's factory, when your new boat is constructed.
  • At the boat dealership, when you buy a boat.
  • From electronics retailers, with professional or DIY installation.

When you use the first two methods, the boatbuilder or dealer supplies the trained installer. Be sure to ask about service on electronics after the sale. If you’re angler No. 3, more variables exist.

It benefits any marine-electronics manufacturer to please customers from the moment of interest, so the company that makes your sounder/plotter, VHF, radar and other devices has a vested interest in installation. That company usually offers a variety of support options, some even for DIYers.

"We think it's important that a product gets installed right the first time," regardless of who does it, says Louis Chemi, executive vice president and managing director for the marine division of Navico (parent to the Simrad and Lowrance brands). "We offer something called an Owner Advantage Program, designed around the consumer having a trouble-free experience."

Under the program, an angler can install his electronics unit, and then have it inspected and tested by a certified dealer at no cost. “The consumer gets an orientation on the products, and we pay the dealer for it,” Chemi says. But if consumers don’t ask, they won’t necessarily find out.

Furuno offers a credit program that pays dealers to help DIY installers resolve problems, although it does not cover all products. A dealer might still charge a fee, but the rebate, of sorts, encourages dealers to work with such customers.

Without these programs, DIYers face fewer options for support after installation. They do retain the warranty on the unit itself, but — in most cases — they either have to fix problems themselves with online or phone support, send the unit to the factory, or hire a technician.

Install Options

Furuno says that its new-boat electronics installations more often occur at the factory. When anglers retrofit an existing boat, Furuno dealers do the bulk of the installations. However, the company has some DIY base.

“If you’re going with a stand-alone device, a large minority are probably self-installed. If a guy’s doing his own boat, he’ll be 98 to 100 percent there just by reading the manuals,” says Matt Wood, Furuno sales manager. “If you’re combining units from different manufacturers, the potential to go rodeo ratchets up.”

Difficulties also arise when a job blends NMEA 0183 with NMEA 2000, and multiple sensors and antennas enter the picture. Transducer installations sometimes push DIYers to the breaking point, where they’ll pay the extra cost for assistance.

Electronics dealers build installation costs into the price of the unit (that can include a full sea trial and orientation). But if you hire an installer outright, expect to pay about $70 to $150 an hour, Chemi says, depending on your area of the country and the level of local demand. “The larger the system, the more complex it gets,” he says. “With transducer installations — there are surgeons who will take a drill and cut into someone’s head, but they won’t cut into fiberglass on a boat. Unless you’re very confident, I would recommend a professional install.”

Many electronics makers provide lists or search tools for certified dealers on their websites. Installers can gain certification through the manufacturer’s own testing program. They can also train and test for a rating or certification from the National Marine Electronics Association.

NMEA’s three training programs include basic and advanced marine installer and NMEA 2000. The agency also offers a higher commercial certification. Look for framed training certificates or ask about an installer’s credentials.

Onboard Help

When you use a pro, you should expect onboard support after installation — in many cases, at no cost for a certain time period. That’s a big perk, particularly if your electronics are flush mounted in the dash.

For instance, while Garmin products come with easy-to-install features (color-coded cables), and the company prides itself on user-friendliness, "we do prefer that our customers use one of our many Garmin-certified installers for their needs," says Garmin spokesman Wes Owen. "That way, the work is guaranteed by an individual or company that has been personally trained and certified by Garmin, and will also stand behind the work done with an onboard warranty."

Garmin-certified installer Capt. Bill Platt, who operates Custom Marine Electronics out of League City, Texas, says he does all he can to help consumers, whether talking through issues on the phone or making a boat‑call. Reputation, he says, is key.

If he installs a Garmin system on your vessel, and something breaks a few months later, “I’ll take care of you,” he says. “If you buy on the Internet, and I didn’t make any money off the parts at all, then I can’t go service it for free.”

As in most cases, the buying process is about value rather than price. Weigh the short-term and the long-term benefits when making the DIY decision.

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Go with a professional, or do it yourself?Courtesy Furuno
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A pro created a clean installation for this Simrad electronics owner.