Boat Monitoring Systems

Compatible Garmin virtual engine monitors may be configured to display RPM, battery voltage and other data, depending on the vessel’s electrical system.
Compatible Garmin virtual engine monitors may be configured to display RPM, battery voltage and other data, depending on the vessel’s electrical system.
Compatible Garmin virtual engine monitors may be configured to display RPM, battery voltage and other data, depending on the vessel’s electrical system.

The more we streamline and centralize our vessels’ myriad navigation and propulsion systems in one place, either in the pilot house or in the nav station below decks, the safer crew and vessel are while underway on the water.

The core of any vessel monitoring system must, of course, include today’s standard array of compass, GPS chartplotter, depth sounder, wind direction indicator and battery charge indicator. More advanced systems include engine monitoring, a radar screen and sensors for water and fuel levels.

Battery Monitoring
A small day-sailing vessel with an engine used only for propulsion and nav lights can be well served by a Victron BMV-712 Smart Battery Monitor, which features a small LED charge indicator. This diminutive instrument is easy to install and allows you to make customized settings, monitor battery data on a single screen and view historical data.

You can connect the circular monitor to a current shunt with 10 meters of standard RJ12 telephone cable and fuse. After installing the Victron BMV-712, take advantage of its programmable relay, which turns off non-critical loads and even starts a separate generator if needed.

The Victron records battery usage patterns and critical charging events, including time left for charging, ensuring the overall health and longevity of your vessel’s battery banks. Despite its small profile, the Victron BMV-712 battery monitor and shunt can handle up to 10 amps of power, more than enough for small to mid-size vessels.

You will find a wide selection of control panels at Paneltronics, from their waterproof, six-position DC toggle and rocker switch panels to a 12-position panel with LED charge meter. Paneltronics also produces many custom designs fitted to the specific space allowance and onboard electrical grid requirements of your vessel.

Paneltronics can accommodate virtually any onboard system with a high-quality panel or multiple-panel array, from a basic panel with six rubber-coated toggle switches and amber LED indicator lights to a large, custom panel with over two dozen switches and two charge meters.

Blue Sea Systems, a name familiar to many coastal and offshore sailors, has a wide selection of 12V/24V panels covering a wide range of sizes, from a small-boat, six-position device selling for around $200 to their large, 36-position Blue Sea 8382 DC Panel. While the 8382 normally sells for roughly $1,700, you can occasionally find it at a bargain price of around $1,300 online.

Xantrex as well produces a broad assortment of electrical panels and controls, starting wih their Freedom X/XC remote charge indicator panel, which uses a blue graphic display to indicate battery charge, load measured in watts and three battery lights. The unit is available for roughly $80 and offers peace of mind when we need a quick read on battery charge.

At the upper end of their product line, Xantrex also designs and produces large, custom AC/DC panels for luxury yacht builders. Large arrays come with one or more Xantrex Gateway touchscreen panels, which are customized to meet the demands of large luxury yachts.

Yet another familiar name is Sea Dog, which specializes in panels for small boats. Their six-gang breaker-rocker switch panels come in several styles, from an LED-illuminated panel with power socket to an unlit version with a silicone rubber splash cover.

Each of Sea Dog’s toggle and rocker panels comes with a push-button fuse holder on the front of the panel, allowing for quick and easy access. At under $40 for a product well known to many coastal and offshore sailors, it’s hard to imagine a better buy for a small boat.

For those seeking a genuinely custom switch array on your floating palace, take a look at the electrical panels from AC/DC Marine in Carson, Calif. The company produces a long list of customizable gauges, engine panels and charging systems, giving you a choice of either traditional analog dials and switches or touch-screen digital displays.

While a set of AC/DC Marine gauges starts at $450, a NMEA 2000 touch-screen, multicolor display, including vessel speedometer, tachometer, depth sounder and compass with heading costs just over $1,000, a lot of value for a modest investment.

Engine Monitoring
Having a dependable engine monitoring system is essential to a successful voyage. Normally, your engine will already have a control panel installed. If you are purchasing a new engine, make sure you order the best, highest-priced control panel available, not the cheap one with so-called “idiot lights.”

The panel should have needle gauges for the tachometer, oil pressure, coolant temperature, and alternator, plus an odometer-like engine hour counter. In addition to these standard features, the panel may include alarms and, yes, “idiot lights” for low oil pressure and excessive temperature. Oil pressure in the U.S. is measured in pounds per square inch (PSI), and the alarm is set by the manufacturer at the minimum allowable oil pressure for that specific model. Maximum engine temperatures also vary among diesel engines, but they all tend to lie just below 212º F, the boiling point of water.

If your vessel does not have needle gauges for the engine, you can purchase marine gauges a la carte in a variety of attractive styles from Faria, Sierra, Stewart Warner, and Teleflex (makers of Morse engine and transmission controls). These gauges are waterproof and, since they are sold separately, offer you the advantage of being able to install them in whatever manner you wish, which could be a panel of your own design, tailored to fit the exact spot you have in mind.

Garmin, Lowrance, Raymarine, and other manufacturers of marine electronic controls offer virtual engine panels, each one with a set of graphic meters that are probably easier to read than the gauges currently installed on your boat. The bright, colorful gauges are set against a dark background, making them easy to read at night.

You can access the virtual panel on your GPS chartplotter at the helm or through a remote display at the nav station. Remote panels, such as the Garmin Remote Input Device (GRID), allow you full access to all the functions on the main panel, a feature you will certainly appreciate in the middle of a sustained full gale.

The latest, top-of-the-line engine monitoring technology integrates an incredibly diverse array of systems, including depth sounder/fish finder, radar, weather, iPod and iPhone menus, Sirius SM Satellite Radio, DVD player, stereo speaker controls and various memory functions in addition to the standard GPS and engine panel displays.

Check out the latest monitoring systems at your local chandlery, and invest in the package best meeting your needs and the needs of your vessel. n