The National Marine Electronics Association sets the standards for certifying electronics installers.
In a big cardboard box in the corner of my workshop sit a dozen radios waiting to be sent back to the client for whom I’ve been testing them. Every one of them—when they were connected up according to the instructions—worked exactly as they were supposed to. I’d have been amazed if they didn’t. Marine electronics are pretty reliable, and it hardly takes a rocket scientist to connect a power supply to the wires coming out of the back and plug an antenna into the socket marked “ANT.”
Twenty or 30 years ago, that was about as technical as most electronics installations got: You cut a hole in a panel or screwed a bracket onto a console, plugged in a couple of wires, and pressed the “On” button. There were a few hidden snags—such as the fact that you can kill the performance of a radio by leaving excess antenna cable in a tidy coil—but at least each piece of equipment used to do its own job, minding its own business, and having no need to discuss anything with other equipment around it. But those days are long gone: Even the simplest VHF radio should now be receiving information from a GPS, and the most basic echosounder may well be outputting data to a half-dozen networked displays.
And in addition to all the data that each instrument does want, it’s also being bombarded with signals that it doesn’t—interference from devices such as mobile phones and laptops and signals from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as well as all the old-fashioned whistles and whines from electric motors, alternators, ignition systems, and lighting.
As David Hayden, the president of the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA) explained it to me: “Now you’ve got GPSs talking to radars and radars talking to AISs and AISs talking to systems and data flowing all over the place. Customers have become aware that they really can’t install this stuff themselves, and it has become necessary to train dealer personnel and technicians in the art of installing marine electronics correctly in the first place, and installing it with the correct-size cable and connectors in a professional way.”
For the past 20 years, customers who want to know that their electronics are being installed and repaired by the best of the best have been able to seek out a Certified Marine Electronics Technician (CMET). Anyone with a CMET certificate hanging on the wall of his or her shop has to have an FCC General Radio Operators License and is likely to have the FCC ships’ radar endorsement, as well as a decade or more of experience. Even with all that training and experience, a CMET tech will still have had to pass an exam to demonstrate the ability to design, install, test, and troubleshoot complete systems and individual pieces of equipment.
But there are fewer than 160 CMET-certified dealers listed in the NMEA directory, and the truth is that you don’t really need an FCC license to screw boxes to bulkheads or poke color-coded wires into numbered holes. So most dealerships employ a few installers who physically fit the equipment and a certified technician who comes along afterwards, checks everything, goes through the wiring, and completes a dockside test and maybe a sea trial.
To provide some stepping stones across the gap between the unqualified installer and the gold-standard CMET tech, the NMEA has introduced two lower grades of qualification: the basic Marine Electronics Installer (MEI) and the Advanced MEI (AMEI). “Now we are trying to get the installer to be a bit of a technician too,” Hayden told me. The MEI is the entry level, for those
with at least one year of practical experience and a good working knowledge of the NMEA Installation Standards Manual—a bulky three-ring binder that contains all you need to know about installing electronics.
The most recently introduced of the NMEA’s personal qualifications is the AMEI. To be rated as an AMEI, an installer needs at least three years of experience and must have been qualified as an MEI for at least a year. More study and another course cover more advanced subjects, such as marine PCs, networked systems, antenna positioning, and interference suppression. The training and study lead up to another exam.
CMET, AMEI, and MEI qualifications all refer to specific individuals, but the latest addition to the NMEA lineup of certificates—introduced earlier this year—is different. As its name suggests, the Master Dealer program relates to entire dealerships. It’s a system in which a dealership is awarded points for qualifications held by its staff—three points for each CMET, two for each AMEI, and one for each MEI—with additional points awarded for those who have attended specialist courses such as the NMEA 2000 course or manufacturer’s training, or have updated their knowledge by attending the annual NMEA-sponsored convention. Only those who score three times as many points as the number of technical staff they employ can claim Master Dealer status.
NMEA has set the bar high in the hopes that it will encourage more dealers to get their installers trained and provide a proper career path for promising youngsters leaving school. Manufacturers hope that better installations will lead to fewer warranty claims and fewer dissatisfied customers when it’s really the installation or setup that’s to blame, while dealers obviously hope that customers will choose a Master Dealer rather than going to that guy who walks the docks at the local marina.
But what’s in it for us? “When a Master Dealer is approved, he ends up with a nice document that he can frame and hang on his wall,” Hayden says. “But it’s actually a consumer Bill of Rights to assure the consumer that he is entitled to professional service. It’s about safety for the boating consumer and knowing that when he puts to sea that his marine electronics have been installed correctly and will work.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.