CO2 Safety on Houseboats

Published in the February 2009 Issue January 2019 Multimedia Janet Groene with Gordon Groene

Houseboats were in the safety spotlight some years ago when people were poisoned by carbon monoxide as they swam. The culprit was generator exhaust that lingered over the water. Thanks to the houseboat industry’s design improvements and education campaigns, CO is less a problem today, but that doesn’t mean liveaboards are immune. You may never swim off the boat and may never be downwind from exhaust fumes, but CO’s dangers deserve a fresh look.

It was once believed that children were more susceptible than adults, but studies at Brigham Young University found that some individuals are simply more sensitive than others, regardless of age. There is no test to tell if you’re at an added risk, so it’s “like playing Russian roulette with your life,” says BYU’s Dr. Ramona Hopkins. More than 2,000 people still die each year from the “silent killer.”        

About a quarter of victims are children, another quarter are elderly. Half are ordinary folks in the prime of life. Worst of all, new studies found that about 25 percent of victims were left with permanent brain damage such as memory loss, nerve damage, depression, anxiety, cognitive disorders, and even personality changes–even if they had been treated with oxygen or hyperbaric oxygen.

The solution, says Dr. Hopkins, is prevention through using CO alarms throughout the boat. “You can’t see it, smell it, taste it or touch it, and it’s non-irritating,” says Dr. Hopkins. “You don’t know it’s there unless you have a CO alarm.”

Symptoms, if you have any before you black out, are usually mistaken for flu. Although most CO poisonings occur when a heater or other fuel-burning device is hooked up incorrectly, you could be at risk on a houseboat while burning charcoal on a covered deck or while running a generator in an enclosed harbor on a breeze-less night.

Here is how to protect your family 24/7.

  • Smoke detectors can’t “see” carbon monoxide. You need separate sniffers for smoke, CO, gasoline and propane. Look for the new electrochemical CO sensors. They are more stable during humidity and temperature changes and they are less likely to react to common household chemicals that can cause false readings
  • Get battery-operated CO alarms so you’re protected when shore or generator power goes off.  While some alarms have a chirping sound to warn of low battery life, don’t rely on it. Replace batteries yearly on a special date such as your birthday or anniversary.
  • *When shopping for a CO detector, look for UL listings including UL approval of the stated accuracy level.
  • It’s especially important to have alarms in sleeping compartments. If you’re getting gassed, you’ll wake up groggy and achy and will want only to go back to sleep.
  • Newer CO detectors have a backlit display that can be seen in the dark and they record “peak” CO level, thus providing a record for medical professionals who treat CO poisoning. Install detectors at least 15 feet away from stoves to prevent false alarms.
  • Vent fuel-burning devices properly and make sure vents stay free of wasp nests or other obstructions. Don’t burn charcoal in the boat while under any cover, not even an open cockpit cover, nor near an open patio door or window where fumes could drift into the cabin. Don’t use the gas stove or oven to heat the boat. 
  • If the CO alarm sounds, get everyone into the fresh air at once. It may be hard to persuade victims to leave their beds if they’re feeling ill.
  • Understand that the “station wagon effect” underway can suck exhaust fumes into the cabin.  People on deck are unaffected and don’t realize that people inside are getting harmful doses of CO.
  • Choose a CO alarm with a test function, and test it periodically. Watch the marketplace for new technology and replace detectors every few years to take advantage of better protection.


About the Author

Janet Groene’s books include Creating Comfort Afloat, Living Aboard and ABCs of Boat Camping.  Contact her at or

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