Digital switching has been around for more than a decade, but it’s gaining major traction among boatbuilders and manufacturers of electrical and electronic components. Digital switching is becoming ever more common on new boats and in refits.
The term digital switching is generic. It describes a device that can control the power going to connected electrical loads via electronics instead of a mechanical switch. In its simplest form, digital switching turns on and off a light, a pump or any other connected device, electronically.
Although a digital switch might be as simple as a device that turns a load on or off in response to a button press, it’s now common to see advanced functionality. Digital switching modules offer configurable overcurrent protection, light dimming, engine-control functions and more. These features can eliminate the need for separate circuit breakers, dimmers, relays and other specialized components.
Digital switching aboard boats typically uses an NMEA 2000 network to control the device that is turning the loads on and off. Using NMEA 2000 means that circuits can be controlled from many places on the boat, and via multiple types of controls, including touch screens, multifunction devices and traditional physical switches. Although digital switching can control AC and DC circuits, DC digital switching is much more common.
Compared to traditional switching, digital switching offers easy control from multiple locations; reduced cost and weight through less wiring; weather-sealed, solid-state operation; automation and configurability; and simplified operation. For boatbuilders, digital switching’s biggest advantages likely come from the automation and configurability, which bring simplified operation. For example, the ability to automatically dim cockpit lights when running lights are turned on is easily achieved with digital switching, but nearly impossible with traditional switching. Additionally, a digitally switched boat can be easily customized to an owner’s preferences.
This technology is a way for boatbuilders to answer the customer expectation of an on-board experience that mirrors luxury cars. Traditionally, boaters have had to understand each system and how they interact. Digital switching can integrate with control systems and automate control.
Boston Whaler’s director of product development and engineering, Chris Wachowski, says the builder considers digital switching to be part of a larger digital network that forms the backbone of systems control on the boat. That network encompasses the navigation electronics; major systems such as air conditioning, stereos, inverters and generators; and the MyWhaler remote monitoring and control system.
“We refer to it as a digital network because we’re putting switching on it, sensing on it. We’re automating things for the consumer,” Wachowski says. “We’re putting all the tanks on it, all the batteries and lighting. With lighting, we offer a lot more modes. So lights can be grouped together to do things you expect them to do. For example, if you turn on the navigation lights, we can automatically turn off the underwater lights.”
This integration lets Boston Whaler, together with the Brunswick Corp. Advanced Systems Group’s Fathom power system, offer an integrated, genset-free system capable of running cabin and helm air conditioning for eight or more hours on battery power. “On the more complicated boats, there are intangible cost savings,” Wachowski says, “but the driver is definitely the consumer experience.”
Another advantage of digital switching is the decentralization and reduction of wiring. In a traditionally switched boat, there is an electrical panel where all the circuit breakers are located. Especially with DC power, this panel is fed by large wires bringing the power from the batteries to the panel. In turn, all loads are then fed from this panel. So loads in the engine space, such as the engine room lights, are just a few inches or feet away, but other loads require wiring runs that cover many feet. For instance, wires go from the batteries to the electrical panel, then back to the lights.
By comparison, digital switching modules are available as complete small electrical systems. They provide overcurrent protection, distribution and circuit control in one module. That means modules with as few as four circuits can be located throughout the boat, near the loads. Now the engine-room light has a few feet of wire from the batteries to the digital switching module, and then a few feet of wire from the module to the light. On larger, more complex boats, this change can save hundreds of feet of wiring.
Digital switching also allows for deepening integrations with other systems on the boat, as well as richer control of these systems while off the boat. Raymarine’s YachtSense and YachtSense Link are examples of this.
YachtSense Link is a connectivity hub for the boat. It can manage connectivity to the electronics, Internet connections and remote access to the boat’s system. This means a boat owner can connect, check the status of the boat’s systems, and control anything connected to Raymarine’s YachtSense switching modules.
Similarly, Siren Marine’s boat monitoring systems allow for deep integration with CZone switching. These integrations offer remote access and control of a boat, similar to what consumers experience with cars. Air conditioning and refrigeration systems can be turned on and run before arriving at the boat, stabilizers can be spun up, and any other connected loads can be turned on and ready to go when the owner and guests arrive.
Although digital switching brings many improvements, it’s not all advantages for boatbuilders. Digital switching is a new technology that requires new skills. Often, the technicians who handle predelivery inspections and warranty work aren’t familiar with the new systems. This deficiency will require education or new hires for builders and dealers alike.
Boats with early digital switching systems may have left a bad taste for some dealers and owners. I’ve personally worked on a few multimillion-dollar boats that required a $100 jumpstart pack to bring the system back online after the house batteries were discharged. Such weaknesses have long been addressed, but the memory remains.
At this year’s Miami International Boat Show, CZone and Garmin showcased self-contained switching systems. These systems can form the entire electrical system of a smaller boat, or integrate as part of an advanced system on larger, more complex boats.
CZone’s Control X is an IPX7, fully waterproof switching module with up to 27 channels. In addition to typical on/off and dimming capabilities, it can also control RGBW LED lighting, bilge pumps and reversing motors, including windshield wipers. The wiper circuits can synchronize up to four wiper motors and offer three intermittent wiper timers with configurable delays. These capabilities can make Control X a complete electrical system for a smaller boat, or part of a highly integrated, intuitive electrical system on more complex boats.
The Garmin Boat Switch is a 20-channel digital switch capable of controlling 20 different loads, plus monitoring two bilge pumps, two tanks and more. The boat switch can replace what Garmin calls two element systems with fuse boxes or circuit breakers and switches. Each circuit’s maximum amperage can be set, and the circuit will be disabled if the load exceeds the limit.
The Boat Switch will be available to buliders, installers and boaters directly for retrofit installations, with Garmin promoting the switch as requiring no special tools or configuration. Circuits can be controlled on a Garmin multifunction display, or any other NMEA 2000 device that supports NMEA 2000 standard switching messages.
In a retrofit application, digital switching can add control possibilities that would be difficult to accomplish with traditional switching. Let’s take my own boat as an example. It was built well before digital switching was around. So to control a light, there’s a switch with at least two wires running to it. My engine-room lights were controlled by a switch next to the hatch used to enter the engine compartment. But I have cameras that allow me to see my engine room from the helm, and it’s easier to see what’s going on with the lights on. I couldn’t control my lights from my helm unless I ran additional wiring from the cockpit of my boat to both helms, a round trip of nearly 100 feet of wire through some very difficult access points.
Instead, I replaced the original, simple, mechanical switch with a digital switching module. I then added buttons connected to a switch control module to replace the original switch. Then, using a multifunction display at my helm, I configured on-screen buttons to allow me to control the lights. Now I can turn my engine room lights on and off from the previous location, from either helm, or from anywhere else I want to add control. Plus, with an NMEA 2000-to-Wi-Fi module, I can also control the lights from my phone.
In the coming years, expect to see a shift to incorporating digital switching on most boats. Without it, builders can’t deliver the kinds of simplified, one-button control and remote vessel management that today’s boat buyers expect.
This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue.