Switched On

The benefits of digital switching include convenience, shorter build times and trimmer weight. Tech training will have to step up
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Digital switching packages from CZone allow for retrofit installations on older boats looking for an upgrade.

Digital switching packages from CZone allow for retrofit installations on older boats looking for an upgrade.

New-boat buyers experience the benefits of technological integration everywhere in their daily lives. They ask a device in their kitchen to turn on the lights, play music, even order dinner (or toilet paper). So it’s not surprising that they expect to see similar capabilities on their boats.

Boatbuilders are meeting those expectations with systems that let the boater control and monitor nearly everything from a single user interface. Groupe Beneteau has partnered with Scheiber to offer Ship Control. Hatteras has developed Hatt/Con, and many builders are leveraging CZone, EmpirBus, Naviop, Octoplex and other digital-switching brands to deliver unified control of boat systems.

Digital Switching: The Nuts and Bolts

Nearly all these systems come with on-boat interfaces — multifunction displays at the helm and touchscreens in other living spaces — as well as mobile apps to enable monitoring and control from on and off the boat. Boaters can digitally access engines, tank levels, navigational systems, lighting, climate control, stereos, AC power distribution, generators, watermakers and bilge pumps.

The systems alert the boater to a problem and, in many cases, can take action. For example, if a low battery voltage alarm is raised, a control system can turn off non­essential loads to minimize battery consumption. Or if a watermaker raises an alarm about the quality of the water being produced, the control system could shut it down to prevent filling tanks.

 Hatteras’ Hatt/Con allows control of nearly every aspect of the boat from the helm and 

 Hatteras’ Hatt/Con allows control of nearly every aspect of the boat from the helm and 

Digital switching also provides control of circuits from nearly anywhere; allows for reduced wiring and, hence, weight throughout the boat; allows for integrated dimming of lights; and allows for remote troubleshooting.

To deliver this type of integration, there’s typically a centralized controller. One of the challenges to developing these controllers is connecting them to various manufacturers’ engines, climate-control systems, stereos, and switching and other components. These connections may be made using NMEA 2000, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee or proprietary networks, assuming each system that’s going to be controlled has an electronic interface.

So instead of traditional switching, a move to digital switching is required. Instead of a stereo in each room where music is desired, a whole boat audio system is employed. These changes allow the control system to interface and control with each system and control it. A simple on/off mechanical light switch doesn’t have such an interface, but a digital switching system is made for just such an application.

A 10-function digital panel from French manufacturer Scheiber.

A 10-function digital panel from French manufacturer Scheiber.

Less Wire, Quicker Install

Viking Yacht Co. installs Carling’s OctoPlex distributed power control system on many of its boats larger than 60 feet. The system allows Viking design and construction flexibility that’s not found with traditional switches. With OctoPlex, there are multiple AC and DC power distribution units placed throughout the boat to keep them as close as possible to the loads.

“Our goal is to put the panels as close to the load as possible,” says Glenn Weissinger, Viking’s production and new design electrical engineer. “The amount of wire we use went way down because now you’re not making homeruns through the boat. … In the process [we] removed a noticeable amount of weight.”

Weissinger says that there’s real labor savings from the use of digital switching and distributed electrical panels because they can build parts of the interior of the boat as a single unit with the electrical panel already integrated, circuits already wired and whips in place to be connected once the unit is installed in the boat. “This represents a reduction in labor. If you do the work with the unit in the boat, you have two or three builders in a small area. We’re able to set it up outside and then load it in prebuilt; there’s only one person making final connections, and we don’t have someone standing around waiting for access while another technician is working.”

Viking uses Carling’s OctoPlex  power control systems on many models larger than 60 feet. 

Viking uses Carling’s OctoPlex power control systems on many models larger than 60 feet. 

In-House Systems

Groupe Beneteau partnered with Scheiber to build the integrated system called Ship Control. It interfaces with climate control, sensors, chargers, inverters, watermakers, lighting, entertainment systems and more. All these systems can be controlled from a multifunction display at the helm, smaller touch screens, and four- or six-button keypads throughout the boat. Ship Control is installed on boats from about 40 to 70 feet.

Ship Control uses a proprietary network called Scheiber bus to communicate with the modules it controls. This means that most of the components being controlled are connected to this network. So troubleshooting can be very different from component to component.

Hatteras worked with Böning to develop Hatt/Con, which allows control of nearly every aspect of the boat from the helm. Hatt/Con controls navigation electronics, engines, generators, hydraulic systems, lighting, entertainment, climate control, watermakers, fire alarms, tanks, battery chargers, door and hatch alarms, and on-board cameras. The system also includes two 10-inch touch-screen displays in the galley and crew quarters, plus smaller touch-screen displays throughout the vessel. An iPhone or iPad app can provide control of the boat from anywhere.

Digital Retrofits and More

The advantages of converged control aren’t limited to just newly constructed boats. CZone and Maretron plan to offer some of their digital switching solutions for retrofit installations. These products will likely need to be installed by a certified technician, giving all boat owners the option — and advantges — of digital switching.

Siren Marine has announced NMEA 2000 support for its MTC boat-monitoring system. That, plus Siren’s mobile device app, allows remote control of digital switching so a boater can turn on circuits to get the vessel ready for use before he arrives. Siren’s integration with components such as gyrostabilizers can let owners begin spooling up the Seakeeper before arrival.

The Maretron MPower module replaces standard mechanical circuit breakers and switches for digital power distribution.

The Maretron MPower module replaces standard mechanical circuit breakers and switches for digital power distribution.

Circuit Training

Many of these systems allow remote log-ins, which means access for professionals to view and control the systems, and to retrieve debugging logs. Instead of a technician with a multimeter, manufacturers and dealers now need employees with the right software training.

A real-world example comes from a newer boat equipped with Beneteau’s Ship Control that was experiencing problems controlling some systems. The cause eluded technicians until a person familiar with Scheiber bus (and CAN bus, the technology upon which Scheiber bus is built) got on the boat. He realized that all of the devices connected to the network past the lower helm had stopped working. This behavior pointed toward a bad cable or a failed device tripping up the daisy chain of devices.

As it turns out, water intrusion had damaged an audio amplifier; when it was removed, the network functioned normally. For a technician trained on traditional switching, the problem was challenging to diagnose. It’s not intuitive that a problem with an amplifier might interrupt control of an air conditioner. Proper training is paramount for technicians installing and repairing these systems.

With staff prepared to manage the newly converged world, manufacturers and dealers can deliver more convenience, ease of use and safety to boaters. 

Parterning with Scheiber, Groupe Beneteau has developed an in-house, digital-switching interface. 

Parterning with Scheiber, Groupe Beneteau has developed an in-house, digital-switching interface. 

OneNet is Coming

One of the biggest challenges for any boat control system is the sheer number of networks running on board. They can include Wi-Fi, Ethernet, NMEA 2000, J1939, Bluetooth and many proprietary networks.

In the early 2000s the National Marine Electronics Association recognized the need for a single standard that lets marine electronics communicate. NMEA 2000 was developed, but its underlying design is now approaching two decades in service. The number and complexity of systems have dramatically increased, and NMEA 2000 doesn’t have the bandwidth required, leading nearly every manufacturer of multifunction displays to add Ethernet.

Enter the new standard called OneNet, which is designed to pick up where NMEA 2000 left off. While NMEA 2000 supports communications of 250 kilobits per second, OneNet can support 10 million Kbps — and the standard allows moving to even higher speeds.

OneNet is designed to bring NMEA 2000 networks onto the OneNet network with gateway devices. Plus, OneNet uses Ethernet as the underlying network, so it leverages the performance of a ubiquitous network that the world’s largest technology companies developed.

OneNet is expected to be released once a few final steps, delayed by the covid-19 crisis, are completed. It will provide manufacturers a robust, single network to connect to so they can share data about their devices while consuming data from other devices on the boat. Learn more at nmea.org (keyword search: OneNet).

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue.

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