In some ways, the boating industry tends to be the bastion of older, proven technology. Take carburetors, for example. Although the last car built in the United States with a carburetor was in 1990, small outboards that have them are still being produced. Similarly, while digital switching has been used in airplanes and cars since the end of the 20th century, boatbuilders kept producing electrical panels that looked like a rat’s maze of spaghetti.
The electrical-panel mess is (finally) now being cleaned up as more builders embrace digital-switching systems, which are programmable in ways that traditional analog systems are not. In analog systems, the electricity travels from the power source to a fuse, then to a switch before reaching the device being activated, with lots of different gauge wires connecting each step of the way.
With digital systems, the power goes to a black box that meters out the proper current heading to the load. The switch is not part of the circuit that conducts the current to the load itself. Because everything is connected to a single NMEA 2000 backbone, each component can communicate with other devices using a message-based protocol, and using parameter group numbers. And since the devices aren’t hardwired to an individual switch, they can be programmed to do the boat owner’s bidding, including activating multiple systems with the push of one button or one tap on a multifunction display. Digital-switching systems also can be expanded to add sensors of all types.
Though there are many digital-switching providers, the two main players in the business are CZone and Maretron.
Megayachts were the first to start incorporating digital switching, with the cost of early-generation platforms being a nonfactor for most megayacht buyers. Then, in 2007, the trickle downward began with Australia-based boatbuilder Riviera. Five years later, Scout Boats in Summerville, S.C., started using CZone digital switching systems for its 320 LXF.
Today, CZone’s products include systems such as the Contact 6 Plus, which retails for $263, or about $44 per circuit — meaning the technology is more accessible to boat owners in other price ranges.
“We expect that within five years, 80 percent of boatbuilders will offer digital switching,” says Dave Dunn, senior director of marine and RV sales at Garmin International. “In 10 years, it’ll likely be 100 percent of builders.”
Today, adding a multifunction display to a location like a flybridge is the equivalent of installing an array of accessory switches. Modes offer a predefined system state at a single touch of a button, or the display allows the user to select activities such as fishing, nighttime cruising or end-of-day security so the appropriate accessories are turned on or off. Certain items that need more lead time, such as a gyrostabilizer, air-conditioning or a freezer, can be activated remotely using a smart device. CZone’s configuration tool allows installers to program the system properly.
CZone also offers a feature called load shedding that will shut down non-essential systems when it detects battery levels going down in a way that could affect the ability to start the engines.
The CZone brand is part of the Advanced Systems Group at Brunswick Corp. Boats such as Sea Ray’s SLX-R 400e showcase CZone’s ability to control all of the boat’s electrical components with twin Simrad displays. Other Brunswick boat brands that incorporate CZone technology include Boston Whaler, Harris, Heyday and Lund. The Advanced Systems Group also supplies 24 non-Brunswick OEMs with CZone digital switching technology.
CZone is compatible with Navico electronics brands (Simrad, Lowrance and B&G), as well as with products from Garmin, Furuno and Raymarine. Brunswick’s recent acquisition of Navico is not expectd to affect these other partnerships, or the fact that CZone supplies Volvo Penta — the main competition for Brunswick’s MerCruiser engines — with digital-switching capability.
Maretron, part of Carling Technologies, was founded 101 years ago. Carling has been making switches since the 1940s. Its MPower digital platform also provides an affordable entry with such products as the CLMD12 12-channel DC load control module ($561) and VMM6 Contura Series six-switch panel (starting at $112).
For larger boats, the CLMD16 16-channel DC load controller module ($1,557) has eight inputs for hard-wired switches that can be used to switch breaker states, or as inputs for other data, such as bilge alarms or hatch positions. The CLMD16 also supports two 12A H-Bridge reversing polarity circuits that can be used for such loads as automated engine hatches and passerelles. Like other digital systems, one of this system’s advantages is its scalability to meet the growing needs of any size boat.
Maretron estimates that about 50 percent of mainstream saltwater-boat builders are installing digital switching. Maretron cites the things that the systems can control — lighting, heat and air conditioning, wipers, stereos, security systems, bilge pumps and generator starters — as well as the systems’ ability to deliver critical alarm information to boat owners through mobile devices.
Most digital-switching systems are being installed on new boats, but it’s possible to refit older boats. Although a talented DIYer could manage the installation, this is a job better suited to professionals because of the programming. Maretron offers some online help; the installer chooses the systems that match the components being installed, clicks on the picture to download the configuration files for each device, and then uses an analyzer tool to load each file.
This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue.