Striking Back At Carbon Monoxide

May 2015 Feature Jeffrey V. Shirts

At the turn of the millennium, a new situation—for a short while—posed a threat to the houseboating industry and community. Carbon Monoxide (CO) pooling from gasoline-powered generators tragically claimed the lives of a handful of people. When this tragedy struck, the reports started an industry and community-wide quest that lead deep into innovations and controls to ensure that such a situation never occurred again.

When faced with a new problem or regulation, industries always react with a growth of innovation that leads to new successes and gains in what was once a troubling or difficult field. The same is true with the reports of CO poisoning. The first hurdle the industry overcame was to determine where the CO originated. This was rather easy to tackle, as a known byproduct of gasoline-powered generators was CO and all houseboats rely on their generators to power the electronics. After determining where the CO originated, it was important to understand how the CO exhaust was affecting swimmers in the waters.

The Phantom Threat

The atmosphere is 99 percent nitrogen gas and oxygen, and less than one percent of other trace gasses. Unfortunately, both nitrogen and oxygen weigh less than CO, which means that when CO enters the atmosphere it sinks rather than rises. This was the genesis and at the root of the situation surrounding the unfortunate incidents.

Inquiry into what caused the situation revealed that nearly all houseboats have their generators at the back of the houseboat, typically at or below water level with their exhaust close to the water level. Generators produce CO exhaust, which could then gather around the boat, forming a mist that could lead to potential CO inhalation.

The Industry Strikes Back

As soon as the CO situation struck, the industry took immediate actions to mitigate the effects of recurrence. With CO exhaust pooling near water level, the first approach by the industry was to redesign the boats to pipe the exhaust out of the top of the boat. Rerouting the exhaust from near-water level to a higher elevation greatly reduced the risk of amassed CO pooling. However, that was not the only action taken by the industry. Further, the industry ensured that all new houseboat models included emission safe generators, reducing CO output of the generators.

Other actions taken to mitigate CO buildup included adding an emissions control devices and interlocks. Emissions control devices reduce CO output through various means. Perhaps the most easily understandable emissions control device is the catalytic converter on gasoline-powered automobiles which convert Carbon Monoxide into Carbon Dioxide. Interlocks also help reduce CO emissions that might potentially pool in the air and water by automatically shutting down the generator if CO levels surpassed a set threshold, typically 10 percent air saturation. Additionally, most models of houseboats installed CO sensors and alarms to warn of CO buildup and pooling. Rerouted exhausts, emission control devices, and generator interlocks combined lead to a reduction of over 99 percent of CO buildup and pooling, according to the CDC. All of the solutions, with perhaps the rerouting of the generator exhausts, were easy to retrofit into older models.

A New Approach

Not only did the industry take immediate actions to rectify any potential CO situations, they launched an informational awareness campaign. This specifically designed campaign educates current houseboat owners to retrofit their generators with emission control devices and generator interlocks, and increases their awareness of CO exhaust and buildup.

Information about better houseboating practices included having a heightened sense of awareness to their CO exhaust. This meant either turning off the generators before swimming, or moving the houseboat to avoid buildup. Houseboater education also points to other ways to minimize risk of CO buildup. The CDC lists and explains signs and symptoms of CO exposure that can help anyone identify dangerous exposure to CO pooling. They also recommend keeping exhaust outlets free from blockage to prevent CO buildup in the houseboat. As a final safety precaution, they recommend docking, beaching, or anchoring at least 20 feet away from the nearest boat that is operating a generator as well.

Through improved products and changes to the layout and design of houseboats, the industry was able to respond quickly to any CO buildup situation and has worked tirelessly since then to ensure that no one suffers from overexposure to CO emissions. Advances in technology and awareness have reduced the number of CO exposure incidents since the late 90s and early 2000s, and continue to improve both the quality of houseboating and the safety of the houseboaters.

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