Gauges, Front and Center

Get a clean, uncluttered view of vital engine data.

Originally published in January 2010 print edition

That bigger screen might make room for itself by consolidating analog gauges.

Not too many years ago the cockpit of an airliner was filled with hundreds of gauges. Today, much of this data is relayed to the pilots via display screens. That same technology has now trickled down to the recreational fishing boat fleet.

Instead of wasting valuable panel space on engine gauges, you can shed them in favor of displaying all your engine parameters on your chartplotter screen. Other information like trim tab position and generator status can also be seen when the proper sensors are fitted. Besides freeing up panel space for a larger display screen, a number of other reasons make this type of system advantageous.

It brings additional data about your engines and other equipment into a more readable position. Multi-function display (MFD) units always get center stage on the panel while engine gauges were relegated to an out of the way place. Now you can have your gauges located front and center for easy viewing.
Virtual gauges shown on a modern display screen are not only positioned for better reading, they are by design easier to see. Most MFD makers use large simulated analog gauges coupled with digital numeric output. This gives you the benefits of both types of gauges, the needle swing for seeing trends and the number for precision.

The majority of analog gauges I’ve used over the years had dim, uneven backlighting and were difficult to read at night. Linking your engine data to an MFD ends that problem forever. Most any MFD will have multi-level backlight and contrast adjustment that simply was never available in an individual gauge.
Less wiring is needed to cobble everything together when you couple engine data to an MFD. Normally getting tachometer, oil pressure, water temperature, fuel level, fuel flow, and other data to individual gauges requires a big, heavy wire bundle that can span an inch or more in diameter. Now all that data and more can be displayed directly on an MFD by interconnecting the engine computer, network and display with cable the diameter of a pencil. The real advantages here comes in easier installation and the ability to display data anywhere aboard. By simply adding an MFD in a location like the tower you’ll have every piece of information that is available at the main helm station—all running through a tiny single cable. On a large sportfisher you could even add a repeater type display in a stateroom and have data display full-time.

Appearance can be another important issue for many boat owners. Many times engine and other individual gauges are branded by the equipment maker and do not share the design, shape, and color pattern of your other electronics. By choosing to display engine data on your MFD through a network you can virtually eliminate individual gauges. You’ll finally get to build the clean symmetrical matching electronics package of your dreams.

Of course, an MFD has other important things to display too, like an electronic chart, radar or fishfinder. On most units engine data can be windowed onscreen with a variety of other inputs.

Engine Talking

These days connecting your engine to your MFD will likely be done using an NMEA2000 (N2K) network. Most late model outboards and marine diesels are capable of supplying engine information to an N2K network. Normally the connection is accomplished using some sort of optional plug that connects the engine computer or wiring harness to the network. Once the data is present on the N2K network your MFD should be able to read and display the data. Each engine and MFD maker decides what specific data they output and input so make sure your engine can interface with the MFD of your choosing before you lay down the bucks for the gear.

Flexibility Rules

One big advantage of taking your gauges digital is the flexibility offered. Engine and gear makers output a long list of data, some of which include:

• Engine RPM
• Engine Trim
• Engine Temperature
• Alternator Output Voltage
• Engine Fuel Flow
• Engine Hours
• Battery Voltage
• Engine Load

Having that many gauges, especially on a twin-engine boat would be overkill. However, you could easily have access to that many pieces of valuable data when using an MFD for output. Data points are also used in combination with information provided by the MFD to calculate and then display things like miles per gallon (MPG). On some MFDs you can customize what is displayed and how it looks. No analog gauge can do that.