ZF Marine Propulsion Systems

North America

Mechanical vs Electronic Controls

Posted: March 28, 2016

I get the chance to walk the docks of marinas all over the US. I see is a lot of beautiful yachts, sport fish boats, and cruisers in the 10-20 year old range that are still equipped with mechanical shift and throttle controls. I usually wonder if the person that owns that boat thinks about electronic controls, or if they even care. Boat owners regularly treat themselves to upgrades such as GPS and other electronics, flat screen TVs, a new anchor windlass, new Eisenglass, etc., but what about the main connection to the propulsion system? I wonder if they’ve ever considered electronic controls, or even realize that electronic controls are available for mechanically operated engines and gearboxes.

Tournament LeversI’ve heard people say that they don’t trust electronic controls because there’s no physical connection to the propulsion system. Electronic controls have been in the market place for over 30 years now. The reliability has been proven time and again. In some respects electronic controls might be MORE reliable than their mechanical predecessors. Moving from mechanical controls to electronic can be a really nice upgrade, and it’s not as complicated as you might think.

Tournament LeversOne of the biggest advantages electronic controls have over mechanical is the ability to combine the shift and throttle levers into one. On a twin screw boat, both engines and marine gearboxes can be controlled with a single, compact, two lever electronic control head. Moving the lever forward, there’s a firm positive feel in the lever as it moves out of the Neutral Detent and into the Ahead Detent. There is no mistaking that the gear has now engaged and the throttle is at idle. Continued movement of the lever forward will increase engine RPM right up to 100%. The same actions apply when going into Astern. The detents give the operator clear recognition of lever position, especially helpful when reducing throttle and finding the Neutral Detent. Systems can be configured to make an audible tone when the lever reaches the Neutral position.

I can hear some of you asking “Ok, but how do I start the vessel and run up the engines without putting the transmission in gear?” Today’s electronic control systems include a “Warm up” functionality that allows you to increase engine RPM while locking out the marine gearbox. This is a safer way to bring up RPM for warm up or even hydraulic pump pressure than with mechanical controls. With mechanical systems, the throttle lever can be moved to increase engine RPM while the shift lever remains in Neutral position. But, if the shift lever is accidentally moved while engine RPM is above idle, damage to the gearbox is possible, and sudden and potentially dangerous boat movement can occur. With electronic controls, the single combined lever must be brought back to Neutral before gear engagement is possible.

Tournament LeversAutomatic synchronization is another popular feature that electronic controls offer for boats with two or more engines. Once underway and increasing engine RPM, the system will compare the position of the control levers. If they are within 10% position of each other, the system will automatically match all levers’ throttle output signal. On ZF controls, a green LED on the control head indicates the system is synchronizing.

Automatic sync is also achieved in One Lever operation. This allows for one control head lever, selected by the operator, to operate all the engines on the vessel with equal throttle output signal. This is a really nice feature for multi-engine boats when operating for extended periods. It’s especially nice if you’re having to adjust throttle constantly while making way in adverse seas. ZF control systems allow for single lever control of up to four engines at once.

Other features electronic control systems offer over mechanical include; programmable reversal pause time for emergency direction change (to avoid gearbox damage in these situations), trolling valve control without the need for additional levers, and the capability to have up to 6 control stations including a hand held remote control.

A lot of this may sound obvious to some of you. If you haven’t experienced the pleasure of operating a boat with electronic controls try and get on one, or go to a marine controls dealer and experience it for yourself. I have to say, it’s a nice way to upgrade an important part of your vessel that makes it more pleasing to use, and besides it’s also something you can show off to your dock mates.

To learn more about the right control system for your boat, you can contact one our fine dealers by clicking here or ask me a question below. You can also fill out our Controls contact form. Happy and safe boating.

One Response to “Mechanical vs Electronic Controls”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *