When it comes to installing new marine electronics we all want to save a buck. But, is doing a DIY installation always the smart move?
Some electronics installations are a piece of cake, while some others seem like they should be easy but turn out to be a major ordeal. And in most cases you won’t know which any given task is until you either grin from ear to ear, or you wipe away a tear. So, how can you predict which are easy DIY jobs versus when it’s time to buy a hired gun? Step number one is recognizing your own abilities and limitations. Some people can rewire a helm in an afternoon, while others can’t manage to crimp a connection without drawing blood. So as you determine what you’ll take on and what you’ll pay a pro to handle, realize first that it’s a personal call. Hopefully, understanding some of the hidden pitfalls of these tasks will help you avoid discovering that you’re in well over your DIY head.
Mounting a Transom-Mount Transducer – This is probably the easiest job that everyone’s scared to do. Some people are worried about driving holes below the waterline, but as long as you use gobs of 3M 5200 to seal around the screws and allow it the full cure time, you’ll be fine. Positioning the transducer is also a stressor, but pay heed to the instructions and picking the spot is fairly straightforward. Plus, if you don’t get it perfect the first time, virtually all mounts allow for some adjustment (just be sure to re-seal those screws after loosening them up). In fact, the toughest chore is commonly running the plug and wire through the chase and up to the helm.
Binnacle-Mounting a Fishfinder/Chartplotter or MFD – Though putting on a new fishfinder/chartplotter might sound like a big deal, this is actually a very easy job. All you have to do is mount the binnacle, drill a hole for running wires to it (it’s smart to mount a clamshell to protect the wires and prevent water intrusion), run the transducer wire, mount the transducer, and run the power line to a busbar or breaker panel. Any half-competent DIY boater can handle this job, though there’s one common pitfall that can force a do-over: mounting the binnacle such that the fishfinder doesn’t fit. Most binnacle mounts go on the top of a console, and pesky obstructions like angled windshields can be deceiving. Before drilling any holes, put the fishfinder in the binnacle, hold it in place, and make sure you’re allowing enough room to mount, tilt, and remove the unit from the binnacle mount.
Flush-Mounting a Fishfinder/Chartplotter, MFD, VHF, or Stereo – Flush-mounting requires significantly more skill than binnacle mounting, since part of the deal includes cutting a hole in your helm. Yeah, a screwup in this case is disastrous enough to make anyone think twice before reaching for the saber saw, and many of us will pass the job on to a pro on this count alone. Still, cutting that hole probably isn’t as bad as you might imagine. Flush-mount kits come with templates, and the bezel around the edges of the unit will cover up any minor cuts that veer off-track. Yet there is one epic-level mistake that countless people make when they tackle this chore: failing to look behind the dash and make darn sure that there are no wires or hoses behind that it you might cut through by accident. Oh, and be sure to measure any tight spots to ensure that there’s enough depth for the unit to fit behind the helm, too.
Adding an Autopilot – You’d think putting in an autopilot would be fairly simple, right? Wrong. Some are less complex than others, but in general autopilots can be downright sneaky. The head unit might go in easy, but then you have to integrate it with the rest of the system — which can range from plug-and-play to pray, and pray, and pray. Heading sensors can be finicky and if you mount one too close to any ferrous metals, you’ll end up driving in circles. Oh, and in most cases you also get to deal with hydraulics, too, both mounting and bleeding. The good news? As long as you don’t botch up the existing hydraulics there isn’t much chance of accidentally destroying anything. This is one of those jobs a competent DIY-er can handle, but he or she should expect to encounter some roadblocks along the way. And when the job is finished there’s a good chance additional tweaking and adjusting will be in order. As a result this can be a time-consuming adventure.
Adding Radar – Assuming you already have an MFD capable of displaying the radar and you have a flat mounting surface or pedestal base to work with, this is usually an easy gig. The toughest potential hitch is usually running the cable and its relatively large plug through the pipework and to the helm. This can range from a piece of cake to virtually impossible, mostly depending on the path through the pipes. Have you ever seen one of those rigs where the radar cable is tie-wrapped alongside the pipework? That was probably the DIY guy who spent days trying to get the cable through before throwing up his hands in disgust. So, it’s wise to check out this phase of the operation before getting your hands dirty, and make sure it won’t be too problematic before deciding whether to take on the task yourself.
So, when tackling any or all of these jobs, should you pony up for a pro? That’s only half of the question you need to ask. The other half is, what’s your time (and aggravation) worth to you?