Company to fix own, other makers' houseboats
By Maureen West and Judd Slivka
The Arizona Republic
January 20, 2001

One of the nation's largest houseboat manufacturers is voluntarily recalling houseboats it sold with a potentially deadly design flaw and is offering to fix its competitors' boats, as well.

The chief executive officer of Sumerset Custom Houseboats, one of the two largest makers of houseboats in the country, told The Arizona Republic on Friday that his company will voluntarily repair an estimated 2,500 houseboats it built from 1953 to 1996. The boats were built to vent carbon monoxide from generators under the swim platform, where deadly, odorless, carbon monoxide fumes can accumulate and overcome swimmers.

A federal government study released in November found seven deaths and 74 injuries related to houseboat carbon monoxide exhaust on Lake Powell during the 1990s. Authorities are studying deaths at lakes around the country, and the Coast Guard has asked the nation's 85 houseboat manufacturers to come up with fixes by Jan. 29.

"We don't need a mandatory recall; we are going to do a voluntary recall," Tom Neckel Sr., president and CEO of Sumerset, said in a telephone interview on Friday from Washington, D.C., where he has been meeting with senators and Coast Guard officials about the problem. "It's really not a big job. It's really not rocket science," he added.

Sumerset has produced about 2,500 boats that might contain the design flaw. In 1996, the company began venting exhaust out the sides of boats, and has had no reports of injuries or deaths since then.

A congressman, the Coast Guard, federal researchers and a non-profit boating standards group cautiously praised Sumerset for taking the lead. "Maybe it will shake up those other ma-and-pa manufacturers who are making bad boats, and tell them: 'You can't do that. You can't kill kids,' " Neckel said.

"It is a one-hour job costing $120 or $130." The retrofit uses four wire clamps and 3 feet of flexible 2-inch pipe. The work takes about an hour. "We have created a plan not only to convert our old boats, but any boat out there that vents at the center under the swim platform," Neckel said. "We're going to have our own people do it. We don't want to trust this to an entrepreneur, who uses defective materials and ends up dumping carbon monoxide into the boat. I've authorized (my company) to start scheduling visits today, and once we get three or four set up, we'll send people out there."

Sumerset will do the retrofits free for purchasers of their boats or boats made by its predecessor, which produced boats dating to 1953.

Owners of boats made by Sumerset competitors will be charged $120 or $130, the cost of parts and labor, Neckel said.

He estimated the company could end up retrofitting as many as 4,000 boats. Boat owners can call Sumerset's toll-free number (1-888-SUMERSET) to find someone in their area trained to make the repair.

Taking a cue from several smaller companies, Sumerset also is producing a video that all new houseboat owners will be required to watch, Neckel said. It will tell them where carbon monoxide is vented and review warning signs.

P.J. Cappel of the Coast Guard's Office of Recreational Boating Safety said he was pleased and surprised by Sumerset's offer. He said he has never known a company to offer to fix another manufacturer's boats.

Still, Cappel said the Coast Guard can only take the Sumerset offer under consideration for now. Most houseboat manufacturers have not yet responded to the service's deadline for ways to fix the carbon monoxide problem.

And some manufacturers might challenge the contention that venting at the side of a boat is safer than the back.

Tom Hale of the American Boat and Yacht Council, a non-profit organization that sets industry standards, said the Sumerset move is "generous" and "a great move in the right direction."

The organization has pushed manufacturers to make the change to side vents over the past several years. "It does appear that exhausting out the side near the stern is the best alternative for most boats most of the time," Hale said.

But he and Neckel said side vents may not be the ultimate answer. More tests need to be done on venting carbon monoxide elsewhere, such as the top of boats, they said.

One of Sumerset's main competitors, Stardust Cruisers, has insisted that venting out the back of boats is safer. Company President Bob York said he's not convinced that the side exhaust design is safer.

"No safety design is simple," he said. "They all come with tradeoffs."

The company is still working on its response to the Coast Guard.

Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., who in late December called for a recall of houseboats, said the manufacturers' responses will determine his next step, including possibly holding hearings on houseboat safety issues. Meanwhile, his press secretary, Josh Penry, said the Sumerset offer could "create some competitive pressures in the industry that will lead the manufacturers to address this problem themselves."


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