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2014-05-14

Putting the squeeze on retail

I don't live in a small country. It's the second-largest on Earth. Its population, however, is similar to California's, and so "consumer options" are, to a certain extent, limited compared to our 10-times-larger neighbour to the south.
Handy, but, apparently, a touch tricky.
This comes into play in the field of boat gear, which, due to reasons of low demand and fairly demanding manufacturing tolerances for weight, non-corrosivity and occasionally specialized uses, is never going to be a cheap pursuit. The joke goes that the prefix of "marine" means "multiply cost by three", and this is in fact sometimes optimistic. Could be worse; could be Australia or New Zealand, where I understand that the exchange rates, the distances, the low populations and the fact that there are few other choices that don't involve import duties combine to make most boat-related things expensive.
Boat restoration sometimes demands single-purpose tools: you should see my prop puller (which can also remove transmission tailpieces, thank goodness)

So I wanted more Powerpole connectors as there's a lot of electrical work ahead of me on Alchemy. Using even my decent Ancor crimper on the little silver connectors at the heart of the Powerpole pieces wasn't working well, so I decided to order, along with a fresh batch of connectors and connector housings (I've wrecked connectors, but no housings, yet), the recommended specialty crimper. The fact that I have a U.S. dollar VISA and didn't require the items immediately made ordering online from the States a no-brainer; while I know (and originally bought my first batch of Anderson connectors) from a perfectly professional Canadian radio shop, it's a distant and uphill bike ride, and their prices reflect, as is typical, the "Canadian markup" to which I'm become sadly accustomed.

Even though I express my Scottish genes when it comes to extracting value from my transactions, I'm not neurotic about it. My wife works part-time at a decent chandlery, after all, and I certainly patronize them and the other local shops (save West Marine, which has little I want) for things I need quickly or which make no sense (like exhaust hose) to order "foreign". Shipping charges and delay factor, of course, into these decisions, but in general, because I usually get free advice in addition to the products purchased, I try to patronize local marine retailers.

But that's not always logical or possible. The Powerpoles are one example; they aren't specifically boaty, and are most closely associated with amateur radio folk. It took me some research to even find them in that realm at the retail level in Toronto; ask for them in the biggest Home Depot and you'll get a blank stare. Even electrical contractor places haven't heard of them, and give the impression they would prefer you got your non-contractor backside out of their shop so they can help the guy with the 15-kilo toolbelt behind you.

That said, I did not expect to go on a retail odyssey yesterday in search of a battery cable crimp tool.  The saga started with the redoubtable "Maine Sail" and his excellent and previously cited primer on making one's own battery cables. His recommendations regarding both gear and technique have yet to steer me wrong, and feelings of child-like devotion illumine my otherwise barnacled spirit whenever I read his screeds on The Right Way to Do Things on a Boat. And he liketh not the "hammer crimper", nor the insufficiently beefy "starter lug". He does liketh the Heavy Duty Power Lug and the FTZ Industries Heavy Duty Non-Ratcheting Crimp Tool. And it was good.
And lo, across the land, even unto the Great Satan, it was out of stock. And low-res.
And if you are moved to read his thoughts, you may concur with me that the man is onto something, and that if you are looking at a few dozen crimps to make a whack of short, thick cables so that the batteries will stay cool and the amps will flow unimpeded, a good, cold-formed crimp is the way to go.

Cold-forming: the copper has been crushed to form a solid mass that is largely moisture-resistant, meaning less resistance electrically. This is actually stranded wire compressed by a hydraulic crimper, one step beyond what I require.
So I started Googling and, having Googled somewhat in vain, for the crimper in question seems to be out of stock everywhere in the States, including the place Maine Sail suggested, I phoned the factory in South Carolina where the crimper is made and asked if they had Canadian distribution. They had, and I phoned them (not, thankfully, long distance). They distributed to a number of contractor-grade places, and, as far as they knew, I could order from the Torbram Electrical Supply outlet on Spadina Avenue, just north of Front.
If not next door, more or less in the direction of the water.
Huzzah! So off I pedalled, as is my wont, and spoke to a nice fellow behind a distinctly industrial-grade counter surrounded by the paraphernalia of the electrical trades. He scowled at my Techspan reference numbers and went off to make a series of phone calls to them. Emails were exchanged. Images of crimpers were sent to and fro, especially as, after the first hour, I insisted on putting "FTZ Industries Heavy Duty Crimp Tool" into Google and hitting "images". Well, it turned out that despite being the FTZ distributor in Canada, Techspan had every crimper BUT the one I wanted. Some seriously weird clamping stuff, including devices suitable for a giant's bris. This was after an hour of hovering around a room with all the ambience of the liquor stores of my youth.
This is actually from 1970 Manitoba, but Ontario's governmental boozers looked much the shame.
Mission: unaccomplished. Time: wasted. After a briefer time working aboard than I had--HA!--planned, I went home and went online. Within minutes, I had found a place in the States...where, I know not, but it's in area code 208...that offers the item I couldn't get in a city of five million. U.S. buck Visa in hand, I ordered it to be delivered to my club. Sorry, retail: I tried, but you and your disparate SKUs and part numbers and suspect inventory control drove me online. I just wanted to support you!

Now, here's where my own countrymen, despite a rep (not entirely deserved in my experience) for civility and politeness, fall down. I placed the U.S. order last night around 1800h. While I've been writing this, around 1230h the next day, I've received a call from a nice fellow named Chad, apologizing that BargainBoatParts does not in fact have the crimper in stock, and that he's been on the phone to FTZ Industries and the delay would be some two weeks, plus five days for delivery...and would that be all right?

Yes, Chad, that's fine. Particularly given I now know you are in freakin' Idaho, a long way from water. I haven't bought the cable or the batteries yet, and the Power Lugs might now extend my original order, because you've proven you want the business of a single boat restorer. U.S. firms seem to grasp on the importance of keeping even "little" customers happy, and I was gratified to experience this mysterious "customer service" of which I've heard so much. And given that every other places was out of the Must-Have Lug Crimper of the Season, I wasn't entirely surprised to hear of the delay. I was surprised to hear of it via a personal phone call. As for retail, even in my big city, sometimes it's just better to shop other than in person, I guess.

UPDATE 14.05.21: The Powerpole gear arrived today, and the crimper appears reassuringly hefty. Will start making up test leads shortly.

5 comments:

Ken Goodings said...

Hi Marc. I've used PowerPole products for shoreside ham radio setups but how are you using them on your boat?

Rhys said...

Hey, Ken: Because the electrical system is proceeding piecemeal, I use the Powerpoles for things I need to power on a temporary basis; I've made up some leads for this purpose that have Powerpoles at one end and ring terminals at the other on an improvised, fused panel I run off a 12V battery. That's how I've got my VHF rigged, for instance.

Down the road, I will have my SSB connected with Powerpoles (fairly obviously), but I can also see this as a good solution for inside the pilothouse sounder, RADAR, main AIS, and power leads for any device or appliance that may have to be removed for service or relocated: items up the mast going to a Powerpole "block" inside the pilothouse, and particularly the wiring runs inside the pilothouse roof, would also qualify. So will the mast as it on occasion may need to come down or be removed from its tabernacle for service. I have nav lights on the side of the pilothouse, for instance, that are best removed for bulb replacement or resealing...it would be nice to simply disconnect them instead I've had spade and similar connectors fail on me before, and Powerpoles seem to fit the bill of "solid, protected positive contact, but easily separated if required." That said, they are overkill for such items that would, in the normal course of events, never be disconnected, such as the fridge, cabin lights.

Probably too long an answer, but that's my line of thought.

Ken Goodings said...

In my experience with PowerPole connectors, the contact surface and contact finger pressure on the pin seemed a bit tenuous for reliable long term use on a vibrating boat with salt sea air exposure. Are the male pins and female spring finger connectors plated (tinned) copper?

Rhys said...

No, they aren't, and while this is a concern, I plan on using conformal spray and small amounts of dielectric grease experimentally. I can't yet comment on the contact pressure, but I have already noticed that a *correctly* crimped pin is far more "grippy" than the few I've clearly done improperly...which is why I've ordered the PP crimper.

Plan B is merely to hardwire everything, of course, but I suspect that confining these sort of connections to inside the pilothouse will make a difference. I have no plans to route wire with Powerpoles to the outside binnacle or even to 12VDC sockets. If they fail for environmental reasons, they aren't hard to sell off.

Thanks for your comments, Ken. You're a bit of a guru to us on these topics. I didn't know you when I was in Ryerson in 1980 (although I do recall a young you crouched over a workbench in a rather narrow room in the old part of Ryerson's main building)and I realize you are the go-to guy for all things electric.

Dave said...

Don't know what you have for power in your boat, but there is a small place in Maine that does a great job for that stuff. I was in asking for an instrument panel one day and Evan reached below his desk and said "Like This?" It was just what I needed. http://www.marinepartsexpress dot com