IBEX 365 News

2023 IBEX Innovation Award Interview with ARCO Marine

With Zeus, ARCO Brings a Bluetooth-Connected High-Energy Alternator Regulator

There’s not much innovation in today’s alternators. An engine belt spins a rotor inside a stator, and the magic of magnetism moves electrons to charge a battery. It’s a principle that was discovered in the 1830s and a technology developed many decades ago for cars and trucks.

But boats are different from cars and trucks. Boats have house loads. And house loads like deep-cycle batteries with chemistries that differ from engine-starting batteries. Each battery chemistry and type—lead-acid flooded cell, absorbed glass mat, lithium-ion—has its own charging profile. And that’s where the regulator comes in. On today’s boats even the ubiquitous 12-volt system is being replaced more often now by higher-voltage systems, sometimes with the goal of eliminating a dedicated generator. Onboard power systems are changing swiftly.

Into this fray comes ARCO—a company that’s been building starting and charging systems for boats since 1960—and its innovative Zeus high-energy regulator.

ARCO Zeus High Energy Bluetooth Alternator Regulator

What problem was ARCO’s Zeus High Energy Alternator Regulator designed to solve?

Alternator design hasn’t changed much in the last several decades, and external regulation has lagged in terms of usability and an interface suitable for the sophistication of savvy operators and technicians. On a grand scale, the ARCO Zeus Bluetooth Alternator Regulator was designed to safely optimize the power output of any alternator with any battery chemistry from 12 to 48 volts. Moreover, the Zeus Regulator makes the best case for generator replacement of any regulator on the market.

For the technician and boater, Zeus was designed to solve quite a few pain points that exist on every other regulator out there. We needed to create a digital interface for configuring the system, monitoring data, and communicating to the technician or boater via password-protected Bluetooth connectivity. All other regulators require the technician to access old-fashioned dipswitches or tap with magnetic pens to configure settings. Those interfaces are archaic. They require the technician and end user to access the regulator itself, which is probably buried deep in a hot engine bay in hard-to-reach areas. This costs time and money‚ not to mention frustration.

Communications and updates on the Zeus are wireless—literally configured and updated from the comfort of your air-conditioned cabin in the middle of the summer, or from the office of your boatyard or shop. Once the physical regulator is installed, you never need to access it. To update or configure the Zeus, there’s no need to open an enclosure (which would compromise your waterproof rating). There’s no need to locate cords. Our product has a digital communication center which informs you of charge status, metrics, faults, and other information. There is no need to read Morse codes blinking on an LED at the regulator to determine faults as was the norm before now. If there’s a problem, our system literally tells you what it is. This is going to save technicians and boaters a lot of headaches.

Lastly, we wanted to streamline the buying experience. With the next closest incumbent’s product, people are often caught thinking that the price that they see for the regulator is the all-in material cost. But if you wanted to power on those regulators, you need to buy a cord as an extra. Did you want to use an NMEA 2000 port? That connecter costs extra. How about programming the regulator? You need a USB-A cable and a Microsoft-based computer on hand. We simplified all that. With the Zeus, there truly is one price for one box for everything.

The regulators for most automotive alternators apply field voltage to the negative brush; these N-type alternators are universally available. But many marine alternators add the safety of overcurrent protection by applying the field voltage to the positive brush (P-type). We sometimes hear from long-distance cruisers that they can only find one alternator type when replacement time comes but not the other. Does the Zeus regulator offer something to those boaters?

Our harness, included with the ARCO Zeus Bluetooth Alternator Regulator, universally handles N or P type out of the box. We can do that by changing the circuitry on our regulator digitally by way of our Bluetooth app. We solved the problem for the cruiser who is in one corner of the ocean, had their N-type alternator fail after years of service, and can only find a P-type replacement. With our regulator: No problem! You can switch from one type to the other with a flick of the button. With the incumbent, you might have to change your harness (parts and labor) and wait for it to be airmailed. We changed the game by making your purchase easy by offering peace of mind as a cruiser looks for redundancy.

Who is the target market for Zeus alternators?

Zeus targets several markets: the end users who want to set it and forget it; the technically savvy end users who want to optimize their alternator’s performance; and the technician or business owners who know the cost of not having the features that we have. That’s the beauty of the Zeus. It offers Bluetooth capability, paired with a best-in-class intuitive app that appeals to those who love monitoring their energy production OR who just want to use their boat with the confidence that the regulator is always performing at its peak. In either case, Zeus instills confidence and the peace of mind for which ARCO is well known.

Who is currently using Zeus alternators?

Since shipping at the end of November, there are well over a thousand in the field all over the world. We hear how much our external regulator has been adapted to all types and industries (marine and RV, as well as commercial and military). The first thing that we hear when someone calls or emails is, “Wow, I can’t believe ARCO allows such easy access to support and engineers.” People love that.

What feedback have you received from people in the field?

We’ve come to realize that some of the most important features aren’t necessarily the ones we had anticipated. While we can log, update wirelessly, and import configurations over the air (and from halfway around the world), one of the most widely used features is the basic communication that simply highlights the main regulating factor at a given time. (It could be one of five.) If you view this very intuitive and visual communication from your phone, it tells you that, for example, the battery voltage is the limiting factor; therefore you will not be able to achieve any more power production from the alternator. This basic communication cuts out so many calls and the general need to even send logs and configuration files to begin with. We just saved you a lot of troubleshooting time. It’s great to have those features, but the highlight of the limiting factor is so powerful.

Does Zeus respond to any larger trends in the boating industry?

Absolutely. The initiative to optimize your power production is huge, and it’s just now becoming more prevalent. The ability to harness the lightning-fast absorption of lithium-iron phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries can only be consistently achieved with high-output alternators (e.g., ARCO Zeus A275L) used in conjunction with an advanced external regulator such as the ARCO Zeus Bluetooth Regulator. You would have to put several inverter chargers together—at two to three times the cost—to achieve the same charge output found with an ARCO Zeus high-energy bundle.

For cruisers there is also the need for redundancy in power production, and you will not have a more consistent source of power generation than through the alternator that’s already attached to your main engine. Solar panels can be clouded over; your wind turbine might be becalmed; and generators are notorious for being ornery and unreliable. In fact, one of the biggest trends in boat power-system design today is eliminating generators. Some catamarans over 50 feet are being delivered brand new without generators so that they can be fitted with our ARCO Zeus products.

In general, there is a perfect confluence of LiFePO4 technologies with ever-increasing power densities, the cost of that technology coming down, the use of more and more electronics on boats (thus increasing power demands that warrant the latest battery technology), and the need to charge it all reliably and safely. The ARCO Zeus Bluetooth Regulator is squarely in the middle of these trends.

How does Zeus fit into a boat-wide integrated electronics system?

Very easily. We can either be integrated directly on NMEA2000 networks, Victron (VE-Can), Lithionics (RV-C), and others. Alternatively, you can achieve a stand-alone installation without the requirement of ancillary systems. It is super easy and largely plug-n-play. I suppose what’s notable is how typical integrations have become. They are performed literally every day with great success.

What obstacles arose during the R&D process?

Ha, too many to count! We were years in development, and we had to hit the ground running. Besides churning through a lot of code and circuit boards, the biggest challenge was to find the right balance of creating a technical product that appealed to end users, technicians, and business owners. At first, we struggled with understanding the right mix of inputs to determine the best development plan. Was it for the electrical technician, the business owner, the tech savvy end-user who consumes data? Or for the boater who wants to set-and-forget? Left to their own devices, our engineers could design something to perfection, but maybe not for the general public. If the technicians had their way, our engineers might design something that was perfectly compliant with ABYC recommendations and easy to install, but perhaps lacked innovation.

The innovative ideas that we were coming up with had to be appreciated by all parties. There is limited sense in coming up with technical advancements that only PhDs can set up. What would that maintenance or support look like if they weren’t around? On the flip side, if you water down the features so much that anyone can use it, you’ve likely created nothing innovative, and the product probably won’t serve its purpose. We had to appeal to people who understand the value of time (for business owners, as well as for customers). In the end, we were fortunate enough to strike a balance with engineering talent, a business strategy, and an incredible technical advisory board composed of seasoned professionals in the marine and RV fields. They know the importance of getting the balance just right, and we listened. Then we executed. Each member of the advisory board knows advanced electrical systems, owns or operates a business, works with end users or technicians daily, and has a passion for furthering the performance and safety of the systems on the market. We really created the ARCO Zeus regulator for them, and it took some time to find such a great team.

What impact do you see Zeus having on the boatbuilding industry?

Peace of mind. I think that the ARCO Zeus has shown a real foothold in the industry by adapting to all sorts of use cases, safety measures, performance standards, and to the needs of individuals out at sea or the OEM who wants to be worry-free as it relates to alternator power generation. The user interface—absolutely intuitive and immediately responsive with its Bluetooth connectivity—is a first of its kind and is. We’ve already heard about the impact the ARCO Zeus is having on the industry. It goes something like, “Where have you been all these years?!”

What plans are in place for the future of Zeus?

We have built a great development and support team around the ARCO Zeus Bluetooth Alternator Regulator, and we aren’t stopping there. We have and will continue to reach out to industry experts to continue to develop best-in-class products needed by pros and end users alike. In May of this year, we are launching our latest development: the ARCO Zeus High Output alternator line. To start, we are launching small and large frame 12v alternators (A275L and A225S models). This summer, we will be launching Zeus 24v High Output alternators and by the end of this year we will have Zeus 48v High Output alternators. We have additional Zeus regulator products coming this summer and we have development plans for another entrant in next year’s IBEX Innovation Awards. We are greatly encouraged by the overwhelming response from the industry, and we’re just getting started.

The IBEX Innovation Awards showcase outstanding marine product development to the recreational boating industry and beyond. The program, managed by the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) and judged by Boating Writers International (BWI), is one of the marine industry’s most prestigious honors recognizing manufacturers and suppliers who bring new, innovative products to market.

ARCO Marine

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Proven dependability makes ARCO the trusted source for OEM quality or better alternators, inboard starters, outboard starters, and tilt/trim motors. Nearly 60 years ago, ARCO set the gold standard for marine engine parts. We test and retest every unit manufactured beyond normal operating conditions. That’s how we know we deliver the highest quality, most reliable parts available.

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