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Using smartphones, tablets and other electrical devices in an external boating context

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What is the issue?
Smartphones and tablets are increasingly being introduced in sailing circles to provide convenient chart plotters, pilotage and information services in the cockpit. Likewise, Bluetooth speakers are often deployed in the cockpit to liven up a passage. But water and electrics do not tend to mix very well and it is difficult to tell how much exposure to water a device can take, the vague marketing term waterproof is difficult to pin down.

Why address this?
Before taking an electronic device above decks on a blustery or rainy day, it is important to know how much of the elements it can sustain.

How to address this?
Fortunately, the vague marketing term waterproof can be more deeply interpreted by understanding a device's IP Code. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), sometimes interpreted as Ingress Protection Marking, classifies and rates the degree of protection a device can sustain to intrusion from various sources such as fingers, dust and water etc. This code provides devices, from plug points to cameras, portable speakers to smartphones and so on, with a mandated international standard. The equivalent European standard is EN 60529.

The IEC standard is expressed by an IP notation followed by two numbers (e.g. IP’XY’) for instance Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and Note8 smartphones have an IP rating of 68 expressed as IP68. Knowing what these two numbers mean will help you gain a reasonable understanding of how durable the devices are.

The first of the two digits in the IP rating (the 6 in IP69) refers to protection against solids, including dust. The second digit (the 8 in IP68) refers to the level of protection against liquids which is the key one for sailing. The digit 0 is used where no protection is provided and higher digits indicate a higher level of protection with certain conditions as summarised below.

First digit: Solid particle protection

The first digit indicates the level of protection that the device provides against the ingress of solid foreign objects:

  • 0 No protection.

  • IP1 Protection against objects up to 50mm. Also, protection against any large surface of the body, such as the back of the hand, but no protection against deliberate contact with a body part.

  • IP2 Protection against objects up to 12.5mm, along with fingers or similar objects.

  • IP3 Protection against objects up to 2.5mm, such as thick wires or tools.

  • IP4 Protection against objects up to 1mm, including most wires and screws.

  • IP5 Dust protected but the ingress of dust is not entirely prevented. It must not enter in sufficient quantity to interfere with the satisfactory operation of the equipment.

  • IP6 Totally dust tight.

So if we use this rating with a standard electrical socket, rated IP22, it is protected against insertion of fingers but you will need to have an IP4 or more to keep sand out.

Second digit: Liquid ingress protection

The second digit is the key indicator to look out for with regard to electrical devices in the cockpit area as it refers to the level of protection against liquids. Here is what each rating indicates:

  • 0 or IPX0 No protection.

  • 1 or IPX1 Dripping water protection. Minimal protection against vertical drops of water, such as very light rain when stood upright for up to 10 minutes.

  • 2 or IPX2 Protected against some vertical dripping water for 10 minutes when the device is tilted at 15° from its normal position.

  • 3 or IPX3Protection against water falling as a spray for 10 minutes when the device is tilted at 60° from its usual position, including rain.

  • 4 or IPX4 Getting closer to occasional benign cockpit use. Protection from sprays and splashes of water from any direction.

  • 5 or IPX5 Durable enough to withstand water splashes all-round. Protection against water sprayed directly from a low-pressure nozzle measuring 6.3mm, from any direction.

  • 6 or IPX6 Protection from high-powered water jets with a 12.5mm nozzle, from any direction, such as a shower. But IPX6 is not meant for going underwater for any prolonged period of time.

  • 6K or IPX6K Protection from powerful water jets with increased pressure.

  • 7 or IPX7 Everything from 7 is what one would consider waterproof being protected for up to 1 metre of immersion for up to 30 minutes, including splashing from a shower or an accidental (and brief) dunking. So if your device stays above a metre and you fish it out of the drink inside a half-hour or less, you should be okay. Any deeper or longer and you’re gambling.

  • 8 or IPX8 Immersion, 1 metre or more depth protection against submersion beyond 1m. May mean that device is hermetically sealed or merely that any water that can get inside will cause no damage.

  • 9K or IPX9KProtected against close-range high pressure, high-temperature spray downs for 30 seconds in each of 4 angles (2 minutes total).

Just one word of caution, it is not safe to assume that the ratings for water ingress are cumulative beyond IPX6. For instance, an IPX7 device that can take immersion in water may not be compliant with IPX5 or IPX6, covering exposure to water jets. A device which meets both tests is indicated by listing both tests separated by a slash, e.g. IPX5/IPX7. It should always be remembered that salt water is much more damaging than fresh water.

Relating this to Elextrical Devices

So with these standard ratings, we can see the Samsung Galaxy’s S8 and Note8 smartphone's IP68 means the devices are totally dust-tight so they can keep out sand and can withstand being immersed in 1.5 meters of freshwater for up to 30 minutes. They are totally safe to use in the cockpit and will be perfectly safe in your pocket if you happen to fall into the water when landing in the dinghy. The iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X lines are all rated IP67, under IEC standard 60529, and are just one level lower but with good waterproof capabilities.

A domestic zippered bag can add a high degree of protection to smartphone or
tablet device at a negligible cost

Photo: Michael Harpur

If your smartphone or tablet device comes up short in its water endurance certification you can buy specifically designed dry bags to protect it. However, for the vast majority of personal use and protection from splashes in and around the cockpit area, a standard domestic zippered bag will afford just as good a protective layer without affecting touchscreen capability. Double bag it if you want to protect a device from going overboard and add an empty plastic bottle or float to the outer bag to help keep it afloat. Just remember Ziploc bags are water resistant, not waterproof.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.
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Add your review or comment:

Paul Ryan wrote this review on Apr 30th 2009:
very clever

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