Monday, January 01, 2007

Avionics Upgrade - Part 3

The cost of avionics is a barrier that many aircraft owners are unable or unwilling to cross. Investing material capital into an airplane that most likely will not be returned on resell is a difficult bullet to bite. In my opinion, the exorbitant cost of upgrades is why so many airplanes are flying around with outdated and inoperative equipment. I thought I'd share some tips I've discovered along the way that have helped me materially reduce the costs of my avionics upgrade.

It is nice to be in a position to walk into an avionics shop and buy new equipment from a dealer; however, new equipment comes with a new price tag. Saving a few bucks isn't the focus for my Mooney project, but keeping the aircraft in line with market value is important to keep in mind. For example, the Vref aircraft valuation service adds $5,000 to the value of 36G if a GNS430 or 530 is installed. A new 430 cost $7,995 at Pacific Coast ($10,195 installed). If you pay full retail you take an immediate 50% loss if you buy a new 430 from an Avionics shop. If you buy a 530 you are loosing about 2/3's your initial investment.

The airplanes we are upgrading are used. Installing good serviceable used equipment is certainly an option for owners with a tight budget or that may want to sell the airplane in the near future. The better the avionics the easier it is to sell a used airplane. One with dated equipment will likely go below market value and/or sit on the market for months.

When I started my TAA project I was surprised to learn that there is a big market selling used and new avionics on eBay. Your first thought maybe similar to mine -- all they sell is junk on eBay. This is somewhat true; however, there are also many deals to be had. In fact, there are quite a few reputable dealers that regularly sell used avionics on eBay such as JA Air Center and Pacific Coast Avionics eBay stores. JA Air Center is the #1 Garmin reseller in the world and PCA is a well regarded avionic and pilot supply reseller as well.

So why would a dealer sell Avionics on the eBay? Because they can. These guys install a ton of new equipment and like most avionics shops they take trade-ins on the old equipment. What do they do with these trade-ins? Sometimes they use them for parts, sometimes they hang onto them for spares and sometimes they sell them on eBay. Many shops will yellow tag (FAA Form 8130) the unit and provide a warranty making the purchase perfectly legal to install in a certificated airplane. You can also purchase non-yellow tagged equipment and take it to a local avionics shop to test and yellow tag for a nominal fee.

Another point of consideration is that Garmin will not let their dealers sell new equipment without installing it (except for the experimental market); however, you can buy used equipment from dealers. It is much easier and quicker for a dealer to turn hardware for profit if they don't have to install it. I was pleasantly surprised to find a good selection of Garmin systems on eBay. You have to be careful, but they are there. In fact, I was able to find a yellow tagged GNS430 (NON WAAS) on ebay from JA Air Center. I bought the unit for $4000, paid $1500 to upgrade it to WAAS and got a full Garmin Backed 1 year warranty. In other words I paid $5500 for a perfect condition unit that would have cost $7995 -- saving $3505!

The key on eBay is to take your time and research the seller and what they are selling. You don't want to purchase stolen equipment. Not only is it illegal to poses, you won't be able to ever get it serviced. A call to the manufacture with the serial number of the unit can tell this tell. If the seller won't give it to you or has a low feedback score walk away.

Dealers are not the only people selling on eBay. You can also sell your old equipment as well. I was able to pull enough equipment out of 36G to make a huge dent in the upgrade cost. The King Silver Crown equipment in 36G sadly is still very much in use. For me a KNS-80 RNAV wasn't very useful, but I got $1500 for it on eBay. The KR-87 ADF is nearly a boat Anchor, but I got $1200 for it on eBay. I even got $100 for the old wind up clock with a broken knob! After selling my dated equipment, I generated enough money to pay for the GNS430 and several other items needed for my Technically Advanced Aircraft project.

To conclude this segment, I want to talk a bit about deferring costs for installation. You do not have to go to an Avionics Shop to install Avionics. They are a good resource, but generally price their work on the high-end. A licensed Airframe Mechanic can also install avionics. Clearly wiring avionics is different than doing a compression check, but you most certainly can find many mechanics that have the appropriate skills to do this work if you ask around.

It is common knowledge that Experimental owners can do just about anything to their airplanes, but you may not realize that owners of certificated aircraft can technically install avionics and even do major repairs as well. An owner can do anything to their plane they like -- they own it. They just cannot return it to service. An Airframe Mechanic can supervise the work and complete the paperwork necessary to return the aircraft to service. Many mechanics are happy to work with owners on projects like these. I've known people that have completely dismantled their airplane and put it back together again without a license. You don't have to hold an A&P to be a skilled craftsman. You simply need to have someone that is appropriately licensed to asses the workmanship, regulatory compliance, and complete the paperwork.

Some owners, however, may be a bit reluctant to get into complex wiring or they don't have all of the specialized crimp tools required to complete the job. There are many company's that sell avionics to the experimental market, such as Pacific Coast Avionics, that will build the harness for a nominal fee. The advantage to doing this is that you know it will work when you get it and it will considerably reduce the time required to complete the project. Outsourcing the harness build will effectively turn an Avionics upgrade project into a remove and replace operation. Connect power, headset plugs, antenna cables, mount the trays, etc. and you're done.

The next step in the series is to plan the install...