Alligator clips in hand, hovering over the boat’s batteries, my buddy glanced up at the bridge and yelled, “Red goes on negative, right?” Ignoring my gut impulse to club him with a bent-butt 80, I told him not to touch anything and scrambled down the ladder to hook up the electric reels on my own. I can understand getting things backwards every now and again, but red-to-positive is just so dang basic — I was floored by the thought that a grown man could get it wrong. Of course, few of us made it through high school without popping a fuse or two because of similar stupid mistakes.
And those mistakes keep happening; only now, they quickly turn a $50,000 navigational system into a heap of melted wires and blank screens.
Do you want to make sure you don’t end up facing self-inflicted electronic ruination? Then don’t pull any of these moves.
Wiping an LCD screen with your salty, bait-encrusted hand
Or with the sleeve of your T-shirt, a rag, a towel, a paper towel or paper tissue. Or while the unit is up and running. Or rubbing hard on the screen with anything. Or spraying it with a cleaner containing ammonia, ethyl alcohol, acetone, toluene, ethyl acids or methyl chlorides.
Your choices for cleaning agents to use on LCD screens are very limited, because the coatings and/or glass that protect them range from breakable to downright weak. First off, always use a microfiber cloth (just like the ones used for cleaning eyeglasses), because some LCD screens are incredibly easy to scratch. Second, always clean them with the unit powered down, because it’s easiest to see dirt, dust and smudges on the black background. Third, never rub or scrub the screen, because that can damage the pixels. And finally, always use a cleaner designed specifically for LCDs. Some manufacturers recommend that you use a small amount of cool tap water, or a 50-50 water/white vinegar solution. You’ll find, however, that these can leave water spots and smears and, in my experience, dedicated LCD cleaning solutions like PixelClean or Klear Screen work a whole lot better.
Failing to cover (or tilt down) the electronics, each and every time you’re done using them
You should protect your electro-goodies with religious dedication. Sure, they’ll probably be fine if you let yourself get lazy just this once, right? Nope.
Wiring with the wrong colored wires
This seems like no big deal at first, because if you wire something in, you’ll know what you did with your own two hands, right? Well, maybe today and tomorrow you will, but three years from now when you look at four black wires all bundled together, you won’t have a clue as to which is which. Yeah, you’ve done it too.
Depending on electrical tape to protect an electrical connection
Ha! Please allow me to laugh again: Ha! Electrical tape may be fine in the home or the car, but on a boat, it should be considered a temporary emergency measure at best. Salt air, much less salt water, begins attacking that connection as soon as you’ve finished taping it up. Always use heat-shrink connectors, backed up by a coat of liquid electrical tape on the ends.
Forcing a card or chip into a slot
Those little SDs should slide right in, with little-to-no resistance. If you have to push any harder than you do when inserting a Q-tip in your ear, then stop, because you’re about to make a round peg go into a square hole.
Cutting and splicing a transducer or GPS antenna
This little bit of madness quickly turns into the kiss of death; the units will never work the same again, if they work at all. Radar wires may as well be added to this list, though in my experience, you can splice those back without a loss in performance if you cross all your Ts and dot all your Is. But no matter how good a job you do with transducers or GPS antennas, it’s almost always a bad move. Yeah, I know: Those plugs are a real pain to fish through pipe work or a tight wiring channel, but if you take the time and effort to snake the plug through without severing it from the wire, you won’t regret it.
Replacing a fuse with a bigger fuse, or wiring around the fuse
Yeah, this can be tempting — really tempting. Especially when you’re 50 miles from the dock and you blow a 10-amp fuse and all you have on hand is a box of 20-amp fuses. But stay cool; you know it blew for a reason. You’ll need to do without, or risk doing the unit in. Some years ago, while making my way home in heavy seas, I had a bilge pump blow a fuse. I needed that pump working, and fast, so without checking on the root of the problem, I used the old tinfoil-smashed-into-the-fuse trick to get it going again. For the next five or six miles, it kept pushing water, but about a mile from the inlet, it shut down again. We were close enough to home that it was no longer imperative, but back at the dock when I went to diagnose the problem, I found that I had melted the bilge pump down into a lump of dead plastic with my little trick. If I had pulled this move a little bit farther out, the results could have been disastrous.
Mounting anything with a faceplate or buttons and wires inside face up on a horizontal plane
It doesn’t matter if it’s a radio, a keypad or a screen — if you mount it on a horizontal plane, sooner or later it’ll suffer from water intrusion. Even on a protected helm, condensation can form. And water always succumbs to gravity. If you have an electronic item that’s horizontal, that water will sit on it until it works its way inside.
Using an ammonia-based cleaner on plastic parts, like a radar array, bezel or control pad
It’s all too easy to spray and wipe when you’re standing next to something dirty with a bottle of cleaner and a rag in your hand. But stay away from those plastic parts unless you have a plastic cleaner in hand. Using an ammonia-based cleaner on these parts will cause the plasticizers to bleed out, thereby reducing their flexibility. Soon, the plastic will turn brittle and yellow.
Mounting a black box in an enclosed area without checking ventilation
If you want to kill a very expensive piece of equipment and invalidate the warranty at the same time, this is a great way to do it. Virtually all black-box brains depend on good ventilation for cooling, yet all too often we try to cram them into small, enclosed spots so they don’t eat up stowage space or get in the way. Make sure you don’t succumb to this temptation, and if you have limited mounting-space options, cut a hole and put in a vent if that’s what it takes to ensure a cool, clean flow of air.
There you have it: 10 great ways to kill your electronics. And by the way, never, ever trust your dyslexic buddy to hook anything to the batteries.