Houseboat deadline nearing but generators still emit deadly carbon monoxide
By Judd Slivka
The Arizona Republic
January 19, 2001

As houseboat manufacturers approach an end-of-the-month deadline to find ways to fix a potentially deadly design flaw in their boats, they are coming up against this hard fact: As long as generators produce carbon monoxide, there will be the chance of death.

Changing the design of a boat's exhaust can only minimize, not eliminate, the danger of carbon monoxide fumes while the generators and engines are running, experts say.

The colorless and odorless gas has contributed to the deaths of nine people and injuries to 102 others on Lake Powell alone over the past decade.

Generator manufacturers are saying there is no quick fix. As long the generators burn gasoline, they will produce carbon monoxide, a byproduct of incomplete combustion.

"It's an internal combustion engine, and in terms of trying to modify it to reduce the carbon monoxide, we can only reduce it so far," said Carl Bryant, chief operating officer for Taunton, Mass.-based Westerbeke Corp., which manufactures the majority of houseboat generators. "The only way you can bring it down so much further is if you get into sophisticated and expensive electronic monitoring systems, like a fuel-injector in cars." Those systems could potentially add thousands of dollars to the cost of the basic $7,000 20-kilowatt generator, called a "genset," now found in houseboats.

Some have suggested scrubbing the genset's emission through a catalytic converter, but the catalyst can burn at temperatures upward of 1,000 degrees. And even if successful -- Westerbeke has successfully put a water jacket around a catalyst on its smaller generators -- it still produces carbon monoxide.

It's the same story with diesel or propane fuels: Though they produce less carbon monoxide, they still produce it, just as cars still produce carbon monoxide from their engines despite increasingly stringent federal emissions guidelines.

"We're looking for incremental change," said Jane McCammon, a public health expert from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, who has been researching the carbon monoxide problems. "What we're after is carbon monoxide (buildup) that won't kill you in three breaths. It's still a hazard, but it's a hazard that can be reduced manyfold."

Within days of the initial reports connecting carbon monoxide from generators to deaths on Lake Powell, Westerbeke went on the offensive, sending copies of the federal government's report to its distributors across the nation. Along with the report came educational materials for the distributors, intended to be passed on to customers.

Westerbeke also is trying to create a low-emission generator for its next generation of houseboat power plants. The design is still on the drawing boards, Bryant said, and probably will not be available for at least 12 months.

Unlike, say, the auto industry, which orders vast quantities of engines, the houseboat industry lacks the leverage to demand cleaner-burning engines. Estimates of how many houseboats are produced each year range from 500 to 1,500 boats.

"About 90 percent of the boats are cruisers and runabouts," said Lyndon Turpin, chief operating officer for Sumerset Houseboats. "Houseboats make up a very small part of the market. If we went to them and said that we wanted them to go to a 100 percent different generator for 3 percent of the market, they'd laugh at us."

As the company designs a new generator, it must take into account that the usage of houseboats has surpassed the technology.

The generators were not designed to vent into confined spaces beneath extended swim decks, which are becoming more and more common on today's houseboats.

But they do, creating what federal researchers have called a "death zone," where fumes accumulate in the cavity beneath the swim platform. Swimmers are quickly overcome by the fumes.


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