Have we reached the end of the Steam Gauge era?

HomeBuiltAirplanes.com

Help Support HomeBuiltAirplanes.com:

jwmflying14

Well-Known Member
Joined
Oct 9, 2014
Messages
87
Location
Tucson
Hello fellow builders!

I have reached the point in my Dragonfly build that it is about time to start thinking about, planning (and saving) to outfit the project with avionics, instruments, radios, etc.

The purpose of this thread is to kick off a discussion about the pro's and con's, of going steam guages vs an EFIS system.

Obviously, most of us dream of an EFIS system, and a simple, clean, panel, however most of us are also financially constrained. I for one was originally planning a steam gauge outfit to "save money" and get my build in the air. After a fair bit of looking around, I shot out an email to a few EFIS mfg's, for simple quotes. Then, I started pricing together required "steam gauges."

My most reasonable quote was right at about $5000 to outfit my plane with an MGL EFIS-Lite system. The quote includes intercom, radio, engine management, and your basic AHRS instrument set up all in one easy touch screen display. (Which would also be easily expandable for the 2020 ADS-B requirements).

Then, I started to price out the steam gauges. I quickly realized that the price difference (once you include ADI, HI, VSI, ASI, CHT, EGT, Eng Oil, Oil Pressure, etc) is rapidly decreasing below $1,000. More like a $600 spread, with factoring low-mid range components.

It also sounds like I would be gaining weight and losing most, if not all, of my ability to gather data, keep logs, etc, when going with a "traditional" (steam gauge) panel.

What are your guys' thoughts and experiences?
 

FritzW

Well-Known Member
Log Member
Joined
Jan 30, 2011
Messages
3,855
Location
Las Cruces, NM
You should have asked about a less controversial subject like religion or politics :gig:.

Hell no we haven't reached the end of the steam gauge era! "To each their own" but IMHO, depending on the kind of flying your REALLY going to do, less is more. The FAR's don't require ANY instruments for a single seat, day VFR homebuilt. The only thing your Dragonfly would require is an ELT if your going to fly it more than 50 miles from home.

Common sense, resale value and the kind of flying your going to do will dictate what your really going to NEED, what you WANT is a whole different matter.

If your a Ray ban and leather jacket kind of guy put in all the EFIS/EMS "glass" you can afford. But for the kind of flying I like to do, CHT, oil pressure, a watch and a Texico road map is plenty. ...and, of course, a sleeping bag, can of spam and a six pack of PBR ;)
 

TFF

Well-Known Member
Joined
Apr 28, 2010
Messages
12,627
Location
Memphis, TN
I like round gauges in classic like planes like biplanes or traditional homebuilts for home area flying. Cross country, I would try and get what glass I could afford. Engine gauges are easy for mechanical, but cross country with everything on the screen in front of you just makes the job easier.
 

jwmflying14

Well-Known Member
Joined
Oct 9, 2014
Messages
87
Location
Tucson
Whoops! Didn't mean to start such a controversial topic.

I guess my intent was to point out that there is seemingly very little, if any, cost savings going "steam." If you are comfortable with all glass, it seems as if they can be relatively close to the same price, lighter weight, and significantly more functionality. Keep in mind, the Dragonfly is a great XC machine.

Really, I am trying to make sure I am on the right course. Am I somehow JUST looking at expensive steam guage, or are the prices REALLY that close?

That said, I do believe steam guages have their place, and trust me, for something a bit more stick and rudder (cub, or other low and slow flyer), I would opt for simple guages....
 

Toobuilder

Well-Known Member
Log Member
Joined
Jan 19, 2010
Messages
4,687
Location
Mojave, Ca
If you are going all new, then there is not much, if any, difference in price for comparable functionality. Glass will be lighter, and easier to install, however. But, there is also the used glass factor... One generation old glass is very affordable and has most of the function of new.
 

FritzW

Well-Known Member
Log Member
Joined
Jan 30, 2011
Messages
3,855
Location
Las Cruces, NM
Glass panels are like google searches: If you want to know how to fix a toilet do you really need 32,672,334 pages (data points) of information? ...do you really need and/or want 50 data points when you only really care about a few of the "biggies", the rest is just eye candy. IMHO go with what YOU want, the cost difference isn't really significant (especially over the life of the airplane).

"Cessna pilots are always found in the wreckage with their hand around the microphone" (add "EFIS page scroll button".) :gig:
 

Grelly

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 27, 2010
Messages
252
Location
Surrey, UK
In the UK, we are required to have three steam gauges - An ASI, an altimeter and a compass (unless they changed the rules when I wasn't looking). Anything else is optional.

So, if I was looking for a budget instrument panel, I'd get those three and supplement them with a tablet+software EFIS solution.

Just my two pence worth :)

Grelly
 

rbrochey

Well-Known Member
Joined
Oct 17, 2010
Messages
1,503
Location
Gallup, New Mexico USA
Well... after fours years and two tours in WestPac in the Navy as a signalman in 1969 and 1970 I was discharged and sent to the reserves... since there weren't any Navy ships in western PA and I didn't want to sit around doing nothing with my reserve time I switched to the Air Force and they gave me a test and asked if I'd like to work on C-123 aircraft... so off I went to Chunute Air Force base in Illinois where I studied avionics and received a certificate an Avionics Systems Specialist... this was in 1977... so my fondness of "steam gauges" is still with me!! For logs I'll take a number two pencil and a scrap of paper... ;)
 

Pops

Well-Known Member
Log Member
Joined
Jan 1, 2013
Messages
7,905
Location
USA.
If budget was not a factor I would most definitely install glass panel displays!
But those of us who Likes to fly minimalist airplanes, that requires electric to power the glass panels, and that means adding a lot of weight in an electrical system. To get the max performance out of a minimum airplane, you just can't go in that direction. 35# increase in the 480# EW of the SSSC is a very large increase for me. I look at saving ounces not pounds. Long live steam gauges.

In post #2, Fritz, add a couple Moon pies and 2 cans of RC cola :)

Pops
 

Riggerrob

Well-Known Member
Joined
Sep 9, 2014
Messages
1,376
Location
Canada
AVWEB recently published an article about instrument panels in LSAs. They concluded that many LSA buyers were ordering basic airframes with the newest and shiniest and fanciest and most sophisticated electronic instruments. Fancy flat screens drive the cost of an LSA up into the $150,000 range.

My gut feeling is that a few steam guages are best for low-and-slow flying. Let's compare traditional steam gauges with Belite's tiny, electronic equivalents.

A basic GPS moving-map is the best for avatar cross-country flying (aka hundred dollar hamburger hunting).

IFR is best flown with all-singing, all-dancing EFS.

The next question requires dividing the market into those 3 different missions, then re-comparing the 3 different instrument panels to determine which is less expensive: steam gauges versus electronic.
 

Dan Thomas

Well-Known Member
Joined
Sep 17, 2008
Messages
5,256
Not all glass is light. Garmin's G1000, complete with standby battery, is around 48 pounds. No steam-gauge/radio stack collection will approach that.
 

rv6ejguy

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jun 26, 2012
Messages
3,749
Location
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
As Toobuilder said, older glass is cheap and used steam gauges cheaper still. For basic day VFR, all you need is a portable GPS (used again if you want) and some used steam gauges. If you look and spend carefully, I'd expect you could equip adequately for under $2k minus radios. VFR folks should be looking out the window for traffic rather than the show going on in the panel. I can't believe what some people spend on glass for day VFR airplanes but I guess that's your choice. Seems the panel is more important than the airframe to some builders.

I have steam in my RV because it was built 15 years ago and glass was expensive and not so capable then. The stuff has all been reliable to date. I have a few new steam backups like a DG in boxes if the present one fails.

If I ever decide to spend on a panel upgrade to reduce weight and clean things up for better function and maintenance accessibility, I'd go with some used glass probably.
 

Toobuilder

Well-Known Member
Log Member
Joined
Jan 19, 2010
Messages
4,687
Location
Mojave, Ca
Not all glass is light. Garmin's G1000, complete with standby battery, is around 48 pounds. No steam-gauge/radio stack collection will approach that.
While that may be true, the G1000 does not even come close to an accurate representation of what has been available to the homebuilder for the last few generations of glass.

If I was to do something light and inexpensive and wanted the basic flight instrumentation and engine monitoring, then a used Dynon 180 is hard to beat. I paid $1300 bucks for the one in my Rocket and it replaces EVERY instrument on my panel.
 

Topaz

Super Moderator
Staff member
Log Member
Joined
Jul 29, 2005
Messages
14,092
Location
Orange County, California
Glass panels are like google searches: If you want to know how to fix a toilet do you really need 32,672,334 pages (data points) of information? ...do you really need and/or want 50 data points when you only really care about a few of the "biggies", the rest is just eye candy. IMHO go with what YOU want, the cost difference isn't really significant (especially over the life of the airplane)....
^ This. It really comes down to how you'll be using the airplane, IMHO. If you're just going to be doing "fun" flying and light (relatively short) cross-country, then I would go "steam gauge", and I'll tell you why in a moment. If you're serious about putting in long trips on a relatively regular basis, then I would go "glass".

Toobuilder is right - these days, the price difference between glass and steam gauge is small and getting smaller. Someday soon, if not already, a basic "glass" panel will be less expensive than a "steam gauge" one, and will offer a breadth and depth of information that the old-style mechanical gauges can't match. Invaluable for long-range navigation, etc. However, a mechanical gauge will never suffer a software glitch, a blown component due to static electricity, is more-easily repairable even if the parent company has gone out of business, and keeps right on working when the power goes out for any reason at all. That's a nice set of qualities to have, too.

Modern electronics are very reliable; I'm not arguing otherwise. But mechanical gauges are a step above even that. There's a reason mechanical gauges are used as "backups" for the glass in so many cases. If your Dragonfly will be used as a "fun flyer" where you don't regularly need the benefits a glass panel can provide, then I, personally, would go with a no-muss, no-fuss, lasts-forever mechanical panel. Your mileage may vary.
 

Toobuilder

Well-Known Member
Log Member
Joined
Jan 19, 2010
Messages
4,687
Location
Mojave, Ca
...Modern electronics are very reliable; I'm not arguing otherwise. But mechanical gauges are a step above even that. There's a reason mechanical gauges are used as "backups" for the glass in so many cases. If your Dragonfly will be used as a "fun flyer" where you don't regularly need the benefits a glass panel can provide, then I, personally, would go with a no-muss, no-fuss, lasts-forever mechanical panel. Your mileage may vary...
There is an equally compelling flip side to this argument... If we are talking about an airplane where the panel is "optional" i.e. A VFR airplane, then the reliability argument is a wash. However, for the vast majority of the time that the glass will NOT fail, it is providing you vastly more information - likely with a more favorable weight, price and complexity fraction to boot.

Yes, its easy to poke fun at the pankake breakfast flier who has the latest triple redundant large format big screen glass, but if one simple box can give you some reasonable, useful functions on the cheap, why not?

like it or not, the "wow factor" of the latest glass IS A COMPELLING REASON for a growing segment of the new homebuilders. Some just love to do a panel remodel every season. I dont get it, but I'm more than happy to take advantage of their seriously discounted hand me downs!
 

Little Scrapper

Well-Known Member
HBA Supporter
Log Member
Joined
Jan 3, 2014
Messages
5,664
Location
Wisconsin
I'm old school all the way but I'm continually amazed how these glass panels are becoming more affordable. They offer quite the value these days.

I don't want electric in my Cassutt so I'm stuck to the steam gauges but it is awfully tempting to try and figure out a light weight electrical system for an inexpensive glass display.
 

Wanttaja

Well-Known Member
Joined
Sep 15, 2013
Messages
1,434
Location
Seattle, WA
I'm certainly a traditionalist at heart, but I'm looking at a glass panel for my potential Fly Baby build.

One can certainly beat the price buying used steam gauges, but a Dynon isn't that far off if you're going to buy new...and a lot of the new steam stuff is basically junk. Yes, there'll be a lot of stuff I don't need, but if it gives me the basic Part 91 VFR gauges, I don't care what else is included.

To me, the big advantage is in installation...one big item to install, instead of a bunch of round things with funny-shaped holes. Probably lighter, ultimately.

There also what an editor friend of mine called "The Nut Factor": The attraction of having thing like that in a old-fashioned aircraft.

The downside is the power. If I build my own Fly Baby, it won't have a generator. It'll have something like a Odyssey battery for spinning the starter and running the comm radio. If I incorporate a Dynon, I'm considering removable power packs. Think of something like the packs used on portable shop tools.... have a socket in the airplane, and a couple of them charging on the bench. With a Fly Baby, loss of instruments wouldn't be a critical event, anyway.

Ron Wanttaja
 

Topaz

Super Moderator
Staff member
Log Member
Joined
Jul 29, 2005
Messages
14,092
Location
Orange County, California
There is an equally compelling flip side to this argument... If we are talking about an airplane where the panel is "optional" i.e. A VFR airplane, then the reliability argument is a wash. However, for the vast majority of the time that the glass will NOT fail, it is providing you vastly more information - likely with a more favorable weight, price and complexity fraction to boot.

Yes, its easy to poke fun at the pankake breakfast flier who has the latest triple redundant large format big screen glass, but if one simple box can give you some reasonable, useful functions on the cheap, why not?

like it or not, the "wow factor" of the latest glass IS A COMPELLING REASON for a growing segment of the new homebuilders. Some just love to do a panel remodel every season. I dont get it, but I'm more than happy to take advantage of their seriously discounted hand me downs!
Oh, I definitely see your counter-argument. Remember that I posted above as someone who is likely going to use flight software hosted on an Android tablet as the primary flight display on my DS54, if it ever, ever gets built. But I may also use steam gauges, simply because used ones still are a fair amount less than glass (you'll recall the project is on an extremely tight budget, I have absolutely zero need nor desire for all the extra information the glass panel provides in this airplane, and all my other arguments still hold: That "one simple box" better have a darned good backup battery that is regularly tested, or a simple power loss kills the entire avionics stack in one fell swoop.

In the end, there's still enough "gray area" that it really falls to personal preference.
 
2
Top