Buying avionics: The questions you should ask before you write that check

You’ve finally made the decision to add to, or upgrade, your avionics. You’re excited about the possibilities and you’re ready to get the project underway.

The best thing to do at this point? Stop and ask yourself some critical questions.

That’s the advice of avionics professionals around the country, who list just a few of the questions you should ask yourself and the avionics shop before writing a check.

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF

Ask yourself what you want to accomplish, recommends Rick Peavley, president, Vero Beach Avionics in Vero Beach, Fla.

“Don’t just buy it because you want it,” he cautions.

Think about what your goal is, adds Dewey Conroy, vice president and general manager of Pacific Coast Avionics in Aurora, Ore. “Ask yourself, ‘what is my typical mission? If I’m strictly an VFR guy, do I want to equip my plane to go hard IFR?”

Do you already have the right avionics in place — and just don’t know it? Many owners don’t have a clue what’s in their panels, avionics professionals say.

Conroy, and others, note they’ve talked a lot of customers out of upgrading. “We’ll look at a panel and the guy has a good audio panel and intercom, but he wants to add a new Garmin audio panel with intercom that costs $2,800,” Conroy says. “I’ll ask him, ‘why spend $2,800 to get what you already have?’”

Many owners consider avionics upgrades purely on the basis of enhancing resale value, according to Rich Ochs, president of Spirit Avionics in Columbus, Ohio.

While it’s a widely-held belief that an avionics upgrade can add substantially to resale price, Peavley disagrees. “Nine times out of 10 you won’t get out of it what you put into it,” he says. “But it will sell quicker.”

That’s why you should ask yourself how long you plan to own your plane. That’s the first question Peavley asks his customers. “If he is going to keep it, then we move on,” he says.

Also critical in your decision making: What is your budget?

“There’s no point in pursuing a big avionics stack if you can’t afford it,” Conroy advises.

Consider need vs. want, adds Ric Peri, vice president of government and industry affairs for the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA).

“Traffic and weather are nice, but they are not necessary,” he says. “Plus, they almost always require additional equipment and a subscription of some sort. For the average 50-hour-a-year owner, the subscription price amortized against the hourly operating expenses of the aircraft may not make sense for a nice-to-have feature.”

Don’t forget the most fundamental question, adds Ochs. “Does it increase the safe operation of the aircraft?” he asks, pointing out features such as increased situational awareness and better weather avoidance that elicit a yes answer to that question.

QUESTIONS TO ASK THE SHOP

The shop you choose to install your new avionics also should ask you many of those same questions, notes Mike Adamson, AEA’s vice president of member programs and education.

“The pilot should be asked about his type of flying, what type of pilot license and certificates he holds, the type of aircraft and the budget,” he says. “Regulations vary depending on those inputs, but all of those are considerations and are questions our avionics experts will use to help determine the right type of upgrade to your system.”

The shop representative also should ask to see a photograph of your panel, or the panel itself if you are able to take the plane to the shop during the comparison shopping phase of your upgrade.

Many pilots will tell the shop that they own a “standard” Cessna 172 or Mooney, Conroy says. “There’s no such thing as a standard 172,” he says, noting most of these planes are more than 25 years old. “There have been many changes over the years, and some of them may not be visible.”

The photos also will help technicians see how much room you have. “You can’t put 10 pounds of mud in a five-pound sack,” he adds.

Perhaps the most critical question the shop will answer involves compatibility. Everyone contacted for this story emphasized this point.

“Compatibility – compatibility – compatibility!” AEA’s Peri said vehemently.

There are two areas where an installer has to ensure compatibility, he notes. “The product must be compatible with the aircraft it is being installed in. If the product is not TSOed, the installer will have to demonstrate that it conforms to the type certificate standards that the aircraft was manufactured to (or later). This can be very expensive and time consuming.

“The second area is compatibility with the equipment already installed,” he continues. “If the product sends or receives a signal from another device, those devices will have to be shown to be compatible with each other. If the product is TSOed and both manufacturers have compatibility procedures — great. If not, get out your check book — it may be a very expensive ‘cheap product.’”

Spirit Avionics’ Ochs suggest several other questions to consider: “What else do I need to add to the avionics package to get the most functionality out of the newly installed unit? What is the product and workmanship warranty? Will the shop use existing wiring or all new? What’s the downtime? What are the expected delays from the FAA? What will be the final appearance? Will there be scab patches in the panel or new instrument panel/overlays, panel engraving or labels?”

Also consider the status of your airplane’s electrical system, Peri advises.

“They spend $10,000 or $20,000 to upgrade their avionics for safety, reliability and comfort,” he says. “Why would they connect their new avionics to 40- or 50-year-old wires? They wear out, too.”

Don’t forget to do your homework on the shop. Ask for at least three references, Pacific Aero’s Conroy says. “We’ll give you as many as you want,” he assures.

This is especially critical if you are considering a shop that’s quite a distance away. You want to be sure of a shop’s quality before you fly 700 miles for a quote.

When you talk to a shop’s representative, make sure he has a clear understanding of the outcome you expect from the upgrade, Ochs counsels.

“Be very clear in the operational enhancements you are requiring and allow them the opportunity to suggest equipment to meet your needs vs. the other way around,” he says.

SHOULD YOU GO TO AN AVIONICS SHOP OR YOUR MECHANIC?

Of course, most of the avionics professionals say you should go to an avionics specialist.

“If it is more than a few wires to be installed, take it to a professional avionics facility,” Ochs advises.

An important element to consider is that manufacturers often require their equipment to be installed by an authorized dealer. If it isn’t, the warranty becomes void.

And don’t forget the FAA.

“The regulations allow an A&P to install and maintain radios if, and only if, they are qualified to do so,” AEA’s Peri notes. “Most A&Ps were never properly qualified to install and maintain radios. Few have all of the necessary manuals, tools, equipment or calibrated test equipment.”

“I wouldn’t take my plane to an avionics shop to get my engine worked on,” says Peavley, “so why would I take it to a mechanic to get my avionics put in?”

Still not convinced? Consider your bottom line, advises Peri.

“Like any consumer, the aircraft owner should be shopping for the best initial product and the best follow up,” he says. “If the price is too good to be true — it probably is. It has been my experience that if you compare capabilities, the price is almost always similar. Go with the authorized distributor who specializes in your equipment — it will be far cheaper in the life of the product.”

JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN BUY IT, SHOULD YOU?

Too often, owners will walk through a show such as Sun ‘n Fun or AirVenture and be mesmerized by the latest and greatest gadgets. But just because it caught your eye and you can afford it, should you get it?

“So many owners don’t even know if it will interface with their planes,” Vero Beach Avionics’ Peavley says.

That’s where a long-term relationship with a quality avionics technician comes in handy, he says. “Call them from the show,” he says. “Say ‘you know my plane, what do you think?’”

Don’t be lured in by a show special, he adds. “If a manufacturer is having a show special, they’ll pass that deal on to the local shops,” he says.

In walking down those aisles, ask yourself some of the same questions you’d ask for a sophisticated avionics upgrade: “Will it help you make a flight that you couldn’t make before, adding more capability to the aircraft?” Ochs says. “Compare the warranties, features and ease of operation. Ask about customer support by the manufacturer and how long the product has been on the market. How will it be properly installed and certified in the aircraft? How expensive is the installation? Will it interface to the systems it needs to work with in the aircraft for proper operation? Or should I just buy a boat instead?”

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