1 LiveBloggin' the ICW: an Ode to Marine Manufacturers, or Fixing Stuff in Exotic Places, Redux

Sunday, May 17, 2015

an Ode to Marine Manufacturers, or Fixing Stuff in Exotic Places, Redux

We all know the line, we even use it as a badge of honour amongst ourselves in recognition of our reality: We are not 'cruising', we are 'fixing stuff in exotic places'. Except that if you're like me, not technically competent, it's having stuff break - or breaking stuff in exotic places - and then traveling to still more exotic places till you find someone who can fix it.
That's not really what this lifestyle is supposed to be about....
A good friend who replaced his alternator with a pricey Balmar system was good enough to give me the two 80 amp Hitachis he was originally going to use for the upgrade when he was unable to sell them. One, he told me, needed new diodes, the other was fine. Better than fine, it was new, unused, in the box even!
So while sitting in Bimini waiting for a weather window, I decide to swap out my working just fine, 35 amp alternator for the larger one. What was I thinking? Cue in the violins now please....
First of all, I installed the 'new but not working one', thinking it was the good one. It didn't work. So, I installed the other one. It didn't work either, so I figured it was actually the broken one since it was in the older box.
That's logical, isn't it? I mean, they're both new, so go with the condition of the box it came in. I re-installed the first (non working) one, figuring I had missed something in the install.
There was a reason I nearly failed shop class in grade school, as you can imagine...
I read online that the unit needed to have the exciter wire installed correctly....that wasn't required on my old unit. So I spent hours searching out the information on the internet.
Now I'm not a totally inept doofus...ok, I am, but I've installed a windlass on this boat, as well as an engine, a new furler, I've built a sail from a kit...but if you've ever tried to install an alternator in anything but the four wheeled vehicle it was intended for, you're in uncharted waters, let me tell you. For starters, the manufacturers do NOT put proper labelling on the units. If you're not a trained 'alternator guru', you have to guess at which stud is the ground attachment for example. Or which terminal is the 'L' terminal and where does it attach to?
And since no two boats are the same, you then have to figure out the connections that are appropriate to your boat. All this while hoping that that red and white wire at the instrument panel in the cockpit is the red and white wire you see in the wiring harness in the engine room. And no, it wasn't, it was the yellow and green wire....that took some time to figure out too. (Aside - WHY WHY WHY do the manufacturers of multimeters use such stupidly short cords?)
Now all of this would be considerably easier if the manufacturers were to put some labeling on the units, or include a nice photo or two (the photo above is from a cruising website, NOT a manufacturer), and instructions - you know, like people who manufacture windlasses, or mainsail kits, or furlers - do. Marine manufacturers in other words.
Yes, I'm about to commit what to many of us is a horrific sin - I'm going to praise, with faint praise, the natural enemy of most boaters, the marine manufacturer. Hold tight....I know this is scary stuff.
These guys don't assume we're some kind of technical genius - they figure we're as dumb as dirt and they are right. They know us well! After all, we own boats, how bright can we be?
They very kindly don't say that, or even give a hint that they know how dumb we must be, they just put together directions that a complete doofus, such as myself, can follow to get the job done. That's smart on their part. (Special thanks here to Matt and Jeff at Sailrite, and also Scott and Scott at Selden, you guys rock!)
Seriously - a windlass installation (see Installing a new windlass, SAIL Magazine) is a complex job, involving some serious wiring to several components, numerous connections and a fair bit of ingenuity to complete. Compared to installing an alternator - two, perhaps three wires and three bolts - it's like flying a 767 compared to flying a kite.
Yet I had a far simpler time installing the windlass, with a great deal less trouble - all because the instructions were complete, detailed and well thought out. Thanks to the guys at Quick for their fine directions and superb customer service...
The sum total of instructions for the alternator? There were None. At. All. And the diagram of the unit was wrong in any event. And the right info about the exciter wire? Ahhh.....don't ask, heck, it wasn't even labeled on the unit. Honestly, I now understand why car repairs are so fraught with problems.
My opening query - the thread ran to over 120 posts
So I turned to the internet, particularly my friends on the Sailing and Cruising group on Facebook. This, it turns out, was the right move, as there is a considerable amount of expertise in the group and a huge willingness to help. Although it took a while to ferret out the problems, the suggestions, diagrams and questions about what was happening with this job kept me moving in the right direction until finally, I established that the alternator I was attempting to install was, indeed, the faulty one.
About this time almost to the minute, my benefactor came online and told me which one was bad.....wouldn't you know it?
Out came the other unit again and, since all the other potential problems - ground wire, exciter wire, connection to the instrument panel, etc. - had been corrected while 'fixing' the faulty one, it was just a matter of three bolts, three wires and start 'er up.
The exciter wire, now properly connected, fired off the idiot light and warning buzzer, then stopped as the power came up. The voltmeter immediately shot to 13.4 from 12.3, telling me that all was good in Electronville. So good in fact, I popped a couple of warm brews into the fridge to turn them into ice cold ambrosia as a reward for all my hard work.
So the next time you are struggling with an impossible install or repair - remember, it could be worse. Or cost more. Or, more likely, both! Don't struggle on your own - join an online community of sailors and share the misery with them. It may not make the job go faster, but it'll be much more fun!