Mark Runia is the proud owner of the world's first hydrogen-powered boat and at least for now he can also say he has the only one, too. A year ago, Mark met Sheldon Graber, president and CEO of Destination Yachts, at the Utah Boat Show. Graber mentioned to Mark and his older brother Bob that a new hydrogen fuel technology was now available and it could be applied to help power houseboats.
"My brother laughed when I told him I was thinking of buying a houseboat, but I told him I was serious after we walked around and looked closely at a boat at the show," says Mark. "Sheldon mentioned that he wanted to do a hydrogen system and that perked our interest quite a bit. So with that, we started penciling in some figures."
The thought of possibly owning a houseboat to the reality of doing it, quickly moved forward, and soon the Aqua Knotty, a 75- by 18-foot hydrogen- and gasoline-powered houseboat was conceived. The hydrogen system is manufactured by Hydro Phi Technology from Georgia, and the system supplements a 40/60 ratio with gas.
"If we go out for 10 hours, four of those hours will be with the hydrogen system," says Bob. "But you still need the generator to power the system, because it needs power to run."
Adds Mark, "The way we look at it, if you run it for 24 hours a day, every third day is free."
How It Works
Basically the system passes an electric current through water, splitting or decomposing the H20 molecules into oxygen and hydrogen gas. The hydrogen is then injected along with gasoline in the exact same engines that are being used today on other boats. Since hydrogen burns hotter than gasoline, it helps clean up unburned hydrocarbons and nearly eliminates harmful environmental emissions. Also, the system doesn't store any hydrogen. It gets burned as it's produced and any excess gets released after the engine is shut down.
The system works side-by-side with the existing fuel injection and all that needed to be altered to the twin MerCruiser 4.3L engines was to re-drill the injectors so the hydrogen and fuel could work together. The brothers are completely satisfied and feel that it works harmoniously with the fuel systems that are available today.
"We hope to see many boats with this system, that's our dream," says Bob. "With $4 gas, if you can take 40 percent off, that's worth talking about providing the price of the product doesn't take away from the savings on the fuel side."
There are a few misconceptions, so it's important to note that Hydro Phi is not a fuel cell company and not even a hydrogen-powered solution. It is the manufacturer of an onboard fuel system that you don't need to pump or buy bottles for.
"We're not violating any laws of science," says Rod Aguillard, who is the CMO and VP of Business Development for Hydro Phi. "Were only taking existing science and packaging it."
Making Life Easy
From a scientific standpoint, the hydrogen system from Hydro Phi could be considered quite complicated. But according to the brothers, the actual application is relatively simple.
"Isn't that what we're all really looking for, simplicity in a product?" asks Bob. "We want results that are beneficial, plus safe."
Bob, who is a State Farm Insurance agent, was pleased to learn there were no issues or concerns when his brother went to insure the unique houseboat.
"It's actually a lot safer than other houseboats so as far as insurance is concerned, being hydrogen-powered was a non-issue," says Bob. "In fact the exhaust comes out as water vapor so it's a lot safer."
Graber felt the MerCruiser 4.3L engines were ample enough horsepower and Hydro Phi felt it was sufficient as well, so the brothers trusted their opinions and went with the twins.
"So far with the performance we've seen with the boat, they were both right," says Mark. "For a 90,000-pound houseboat, it does really well."
Adds Bob, "When we were planning with Hydro Phi we told them we wanted the same performance or slightly better that what a gasoline-powered motor could do. We weren't interested in super charging it, we just wanted it to perform in a way a MerCruiser should, and that's what they did.
Although Mark had never owned a houseboat prior to having his Destination Yacht custom-built, the boating lifestyle is something that has always been a part of his life. His parents owned a houseboat in the 80's and 90's and he can recall spending a lot of time on Lake Powell in Utah with his two brothers and three sisters.
Mark and his wife, Annette, grew up in Utah, but moved to California when their children were young. One of the advantages to moving back to Utah after 15 years was the chance for Mark to take his son Zach and his daughter Kylee to Lake Powell where he grew up boating.
"In 2005 we took six days and went from Bullfrog to Wahweap and our kids were in awe of Lake Powell," recalls Mark.
Zach and his friends wanted to rent a houseboat in 2009, but couldn't come up with the money, so Mark and Annette stepped in and rented it for them. They chaperoned the group, which also included their daughter Kylee and her friends, and after seeing how much fun everyone was having on the rental houseboat, it got Mark thinking about wanting to own one of his own.
"That rental experience led me to wanting to buy a houseboat," say Mark. "I mentioned to my wife that this is something we should do and she said, `I wish we would have done this a long time ago.'"
The Right Builder
Selecting the manufacturer to build the houseboat was a decision Mark didn't take lightly, and after careful consideration, he knew that going with Graber and Destination Yachts made the most sense.
"Dollar-for-dollar, this is by far the best value that we can find, hands down," says Mark. "I would absolutely recommend them because I always knew that Sheldon would take care of me."
Adds his elder brother, "For the money spent, the value is there and it's a quality value that was well-thought out. The end-product is remarkable."
"We're known for not following or copying other companies; lead, follow or get out of the way," says Graber. "We're not the million dollar boat builder; our roots are in price-point boats."
Another great feature on this boat is the new patented hybrid MonoCat hull design, which tracks better in cross winds. Plus the design provides taller ceilings and room to stand up for those in the lower cuddy.
Custom Means Custom
Working with Destination Yachts was a great experience because Mark felt he was given every opportunity possible to provide his input on the design. The desire to build something unique went beyond just the hydrogen system.
"Mark was very involved in the design, including the dual staterooms with the side porch so each stateroom could have a view of the lake," says Graber.
The president of Destination Yachts went to the design table to help give the brothers what they wanted, especially Bob, who likes to sit in bed in the mornings and look at the lake.
"That's the beauty of working with Sheldon. We told him what we wanted, for example the two master bedrooms, and he came up with the idea for the side porch," says Mark. "He presented the idea that I had never seen before and I figured since we're being a little different with everything else with the hydrogen system, why not go with the side balcony as well?"
The angled side porch could have been straight-lined with the boat, but Graber felt it would be nice to put it on an angle to make it a little more unique, and the brothers liked that. Even with the diagonal hallway floor plan, they knew they'd give up some square footage, but Mark wanted to add some creature comforts for his brother. He also had an ulterior motive for this design himself.
"We can also pull up our ski boat and unload on the side of the houseboat," says Mark. "That's why we put a gate there, plus a door so you don't need to go through Bob's bedroom to access it."
Letting customers incorporate their own designs and ideas into the finished product has helped Destination Yachts grow over the years. Not only does the Indiana-based manufacturer allow its customers to come to the shop while their boat is being built, they highly recommend it.
"It wasn't something we asked for to go out to the plant and see the boat being built, Sheldon insisted on it," says Bob. "It's a shop where the customer gets to be involved."
The brothers each made a trip back to Indiana during the building process, but it wasn't just about checking on how it was coming together, but also about seeing the effort that was being made by those in the plant.
"When we went back to the factory we had free reign to talk to the workers and to see our boat being constructed," says Mark. "I watch an Amish craftsman, Ivan, do the trim work and he was adamant that it be perfect. There is a lot of craftsmanship that goes into a houseboat that you don't see in today's society because everyone is about time and money. I really enjoyed seeing that in person."
For The Environment
Deciding to go with a hydrogen-powered houseboat was more than just a conscious decision to help be more environmentally friendly, although it is something that is a part of who Mark and Bob really are. Both own hybrid vehicles and they feel that if everyone did their part it would help us all. But they also recognized that the price of fuel isn't getting any cheaper these days.
"We think it's something that is going to come sooner or later," says Mark. "As gas gets to $5 and $6 a gallon at the lake, more people will start looking into this system."
The brothers pride themselves as being pioneers for this technology, plus they have a guarantee from Hydro Phi that if any new technology becomes available that they'll be the recipient, so the boat will continue to be upgraded.
"Hydro Phi has gone above and beyond what could be expected," says Mark. "They flew a guy out just to do the fine tuning on this boat and to me that says quite a bit."
Like building a home, you'll never be able to truly build the perfect houseboat, but that doesn't mean there is a lot the brothers would do differently if they were to build another boat today. The 75-foot length is already at the limit for Lake Powell, but Mark feels going with a 20-foot width instead of 18 would be one thing he'd do differently. And maybe adding a little more storage in areas like the head, but overall he's quite pleased.
"I would like to see the bow thrusters go all the way through like a tunnel design," says Mark. "It might work just fine back east, but on Powell I wish it would go all the way through for better control. The stern works great, but it could work better in the bow."
Destination Yachts is willing and ready to build another hydrogen-powered houseboat, as well as Hydro Phi, who before this project didn't really see this part of the industry as a strong market for them.
"Our founder felt it could be a hit for the boating industry, but we never would have focused on houseboats," says Aguillard from Hydro Phi. "I'm from Louisiana and we see these as man caves that aren't used a lot from my perspective. I never would have indentified houseboats as a target market."
Well the system is a hit in the houseboat industry, at least for two brothers that are pioneers of this technology and leading the way for others to follow. And of course with the concerns over the rising price of gas, they won't have the only hydrogen-powered houseboat for very long.
"The next time it will be all plug and play," says Graber. "We learned a lot from this hydrogen project and we'd love to do another one."