Struggling to stop houseboat deaths; firms try safer venting methods
By Judd Slivka
The Arizona Republic
January 15, 2001

In trying to solve a design flaw that has led to the deaths of seven people on Lake Powell houseboats over the past decade, one manufacturer may have developed a fix that's as far from the cutting edge as possible.

Four wire clamps and 3 feet of flexible 2-inch pipe.

Somerset, Ky.-based Sumerset Custom Houseboats, which produces about 125 boats a year that vent exhaust to the side, has come up with a retrofit kit for the estimated 2,500 company boats that were built with rear-venting generators before the mid-1990s, when the company began venting its generators out the side.

Total cost of the fix: About $30, including postage.

In the wake of revelations that houseboat generators that vent beneath swim platforms can create "death zones" for swimmers and boaters, the U.S. Coast Guard has asked houseboat manufacturers to come up with suggested remedies.

The companies have until Jan. 29 to comply.

The $30 fix is Sumerset's.

A flexible hose is clamped to the generator's exhaust manifold and runs to the side of the boat, where it vents to the outside, just like the company's current boats.

But the final answer may be something completely different. Although several companies are changing their exhaust designs to vent carbon monoxide through the side of the hull, that approach has its critics, as well.

"It doesn't make that much difference. You can't move the air with the wind not moving," said Rod Parrish, vice president of Albany, Ky.-based Thoroughbred Cruisers, which produces about eight boats a year. All of its boats vent at their sides.

Monticello, Ky.-based Stardust Cruisers, an industry giant, has been mum about its changes. But company officials have been publicly strident that venting out the back is safer than venting out the side. If two boats tie up together and one has its generator operating, side-venting boats can push their exhausts onto each other.

The real problem, Stardust officials said, is engines that produce too much carbon monoxide.

"As long as you're producing carbon monoxide, you create a danger," said Donya Clark, the company's comptroller. "In moving it from the back to the side, you're just moving it from one place to another. That's something we're dealing with."

A better fix, Clark said, would be to convert all generators to diesel, which produces less carbon monoxide than gasoline-burning generators. But it is difficult to mix gasoline engines and diesel generators -- the two don't like each other's fumes, and present flame hazards.

A Florida company recently introduced a diesel generator that can sit in a gasoline-engine environment. However, the cost is more than twice that of a gasoline generator.

"There's not a lot we can do about that," Clarke said. "Except to keep encouraging our customers (to buy boats with diesel power plants) and ask the marinas why they don't carry diesel."

Sumerset, too, acknowledged that shifting the exhaust from the back to the side just moves the carbon monoxide from one place to another. Its engineers are trying a new tack: venting the carbon monoxide off the houseboat's roof.

Within the next month, the company will experiment with pushing a flexible hose up on one of the roof's support struts.

The technique already is being questioned, however. What about a wind change? Would that then blow the odorless, colorless generator fumes onto the people lounging in the most comfortable section?


"It's not going to be rocket science," said Lyndon Turpin, the company's chief operating officer. "It's just trying to make something that works and won't create a fiasco on the roof."


    Copyright 2001, The Arizona Republic. All rights reserved. This article graciously provided courtesy of The Arizona Republic.