Monday, October 17, 2011

E-wasting Disease

Wrightsville Beach, NC

Reader Randy asked me to write about electronics problem on board.  Glad to.  We've seen a lot of it.

I call it e-wasting disease.  Consumer electronics especially have a short lifetime.  They seem to die from electrical contacts failing to contact.  In my opinion that is because of corrosion on the contact surface.   Remember that today's electronics are very small and delicate.  That's part of miniaturization.  Part of the problem is that contact surfaces are plated with noble metal only only one thousandth of an inch thin.   Right now my Droid and our digital camera have e-wasting disease.  Both are less than 2 years old.

The other part of the problem is the salt air environment.   On a boat surrounded by salt water, there is always salt in the air.  Usually, you can't see it or feel it, but it's there.   The salt coats everything, and microscopic salt crystals find their way into tiny enclosed spaces.  Salt is hygroscopic -- i.e. salt attracts water.   Salt coated surfaces are perpetually moist.  The salt pulls water out of moist air.  Moist salty solutions on the surface of contacts cause rapid corrosion, and thus e-wasting disease.

It was never so evident as when we sailed across the Gulf of Mexico and back.  Everything inside and outside the boat was salt encrusted.  All our clean clothes in the drawers became salt encrusted.  When you put on clean clothes, they felt wet and they stayed wet 100% of the time.  It was uncomfortable.  Salt also got in to all sliding metal-metal joints such as bearings.  They seized up and forced me to take them apart, clean them, and re-grease them.    That was the worst and most obvious, but even outside the Gulf of Mexico, the same problem exists albeit not so severe.

None of the electronics on board specifically designed for marine use have failed from e-wasting disease.  Our SSB radio, AM/FM radio, pactor modem, wind instruments, GPS, radar, and VHF radios all seem immune.   The difference is in the selection of metals and the size, shape and thickness of electrical contacts.   Seaworthy devices cost much more than normal consumer electronics.  There's a reason.

So, what can we do about it?  First and foremost, I buy cheap.  I figure that consumer electronics on board have a lifetime of only one year.  Anything better than a year and I'm ahead of the game.  Expensive brands do not last longer, so I don't buy them.  That's especially true for computers.  I paid $275 for my current Samsung netbook.  I paid an additional $250 for a 3 year extended warranty.  Perhaps more seaworthy would be the Panasonic Toughbook, but it  that costs 600% more!!!  It's not worth that much.   Buy cheap and don't weep when things fail.  Because of technical obsolescence it's nice to replace stuff frequently anyhow.  I face that with my Droid right now -- should I spend $50 with my insurance plan to get a reconditioned Droid, or should I go for a new more modern phone?  Ditto with the camera.

I might opt for $300 a ruggedized Olympus or Panasonic camera, bI'm a bit skeptical.  Waterproof items are not necessarily e-wasting disease proof.

Randy asked about packing things with desiccants like silica gel.  I've never tried it.  However, if the item will be unpacked for use every day, then I doubt if it would do any good.

Another boat hazard is EMP (electro-magnetic-pulse).  EMP is caused by nearby nuclear explosions.  Hopefully we won't encounter those, and if we do EMP will be the least of our problems.  EMP is also caused by nearby lightning strikes.  Aha! We do encounter that.  

Once in New Hampshire our mast got a lightning hit (or maybe a near hit.)  The current was conducted down the mast, through the grounding wire to a Dynaplate grounding device on the bottom of the hull. Nothing got burned or melted, but the EMP destroyed the SSB, radar and wind instruments.  The repair bill was $8000.  The insurance adjuster said that was modest -- $25,000 claims for EMP damage on sailboats is common.   The lightning doesn't even have to hit your boat to get EMP damage; it can hit a nearby boat and still damage your stuff.

Besides our grounding system we protect things from lightning by putting them in the oven when cloud-to-ground lightning is near.  We can fit the laptop, phones, GPS, and hand-held radio in there.  It would be nice to have room for the radar, SSB, chart plotter and more but they are far too large.

If you don't have an oven, I recommend cookie tins as a Faraday Cage-- like the round tin cans that Christmas cookies come in.  Some experts pooh-pooh that idea, but I think they will provide a decent measure of EMP protection.  When no lightning is around, you can store other things in the tins.

One more thing regarding lightning.  Experts are divided on whether grounding the mast protects you or not.  The real life results of lightning hits are diverse and highly unpredictable, hence many conflicting (yet true) anecdotes.  If you do ground the mast like we do, be sure to route the ground wire inside a plastic electrical conduit where it passes through the cabin.  Without the conduit, when the wire vaporizes, it can fling molten copper in every direction.  Surely you don't want to be in a confined space with naked copper wire.

1 comment:

  1. Good post describing the problems with salt air and electronics.

    One note: I think the word for attracting water is hygroscopic (vs. hydroscopic).

    Enjoying your blog, thank you for continuing it :)


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