For (mostly?) better or for worse, touchscreen switching has arrived.

Touchscreen display integrates vessel systems.

Manufacturers of marine electronics were quick to embrace glass touchscreen technology, giving anglers touch-reactive control over sonar, chartplotters and radar. Now, segments of the boating industry are poised to bring the same kind of control to nearly every aspect of the ship’s systems, from battery switches, to nav lights, to bilge pumps.

Traditional electrical systems have long been designed around a series of analog switches connected to a power source. That’s what Florida anglers are accustomed to. When activated, an individual switch sends the power to a particular item to control its function, like a pump or light. The new trend is to integrate switching into a touchscreen multifunction display (MFD), in some cases doing away entirely with push-button or rocker switches.

With a digital switching system, to activate an accessory, the control starts at an interface device. This is generally the same MFD used for your GPS, bottom machine or radar. By way of a NEMA 2000 cable, a signal is sent from the MFD to a switch control module that acts as a relay. The power source coming into the switch control module is then sent to the accessory to be turned on.

What are the benefits of a digital switching system?

From a manufacturer’s standpoint, flexibility in rigging is a big plus. At the helm there is no need to allocate room for a switch panel. The switch control module can be mounted out of the way in the console or under the dash, well out of the harsh effects of a saltwater environment. A NEMA cable carries the signal, and watertight connections on either end will likely reduce warranty claims and speed production. For added safety, several layers of redundancy can be designed into the system including a manual jumper on the control module to power any item. Some manufacturers still include a few traditional
switches to activate things like bilge pumps.

Bringing up menu pages lets you control the vessel systems.

Weight savings is another advantage, by reducing the amount of primary tinned wire needed. The item only has to be wired to the switch control module and not all the way to the helm.

“For now the cost of installation of a digital switching system is twice as much as traditional switches, but we feel over time it will save on warranty claims,” says James Pate of Scout Boats. Scout debuted its 350 LXF at the Miami International Boat Show with a Garmin GPSMAP 8000 Helm Series MFD, sonar and radar. It was equipped with the new CZone switching system from Mastervolt.

The collaboration between Garmin, Scout and Mastervolt was the first of its kind for the boat industry. “The future for Scout Boats is that all of the models will someday have digital switching.” Stands to reason that as more boat companies add digital switching to their models, the cost of components will come down. Programmable control over systems allows a boat builder to consolidate several items that an owner may wish to activate simultaneously. These “modes,” as they are called, may include choices like night fishing and entertainment, to name a few. Touch the screen for “night mode,” for example, and you could illuminate nav and courtesy lights while simultaneously dimming the MFD screens. In fishing mode, the MFD might bring up the GPS, fishfinder and radar while turning on the baitwell and raw water washdown. At the sandbar, entertainment mode could power up the stereo to a preset channel. The possibilities for customization are wide.

As with any emerging technology, there are some hurdles, especially for a first-time user. Any system that you wish to activate, that’s not part of one of the pre-defined mode functions, will take several touches of the MFD screen to access. Let’s assume you have the GPS up on the display screen and you want to turn on a single pump. Closing that screen brings you to the main menu page. Here, you have to choose the switching system, and then scroll down the menu of switch functions. Pick the pump you wish to turn on, select it, then touch the ON function. If you return to the GPS and later want to turn off the pump, you must repeat the whole process.

The next challenge comes with running in bad weather. Using any touchscreen in rough conditions may have you turning on and off several functions before you get the right one.

The final issue is expandability. If a consumer wants to add an aftermarket accessory that requires power from the switch control module, no provisions exist for the owner to integrate that accessory or program
the software to control it. You can, however, return to the dealership and have them add the new item into the programming— provided the switch control module has an unused power port. FS

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