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Carbon Monoxide Hazards on Recreational Boats

The Facts

Carbon Monoxide can be a "silent killer" on houseboats and other recreational vessels. Each year, boaters are injured or killed by carbon monoxide. Virtually all of the poisonings are preventable.

Carbon monoxide is a by-product of combustion of carbon based material such as gasoline, propane, charcoal or wood. Common sources aboard boats include main and auxiliary engines, generators, cooking ranges, space heaters, and water heaters. (Note: Cold and poorly tuned engines produce more carbon monoxide than warm properly tuned engines).

Carbon monoxide can collect within a boat in a variety of ways. Exhaust leaks (the leading cause of death by carbon monoxide) can allow carbon monoxide to migrate throughout the boat and into enclosed areas. Even properly vented exhaust can re-enter a boat if it's moored too close to a dock or another boat, or if the exhaust is pushed back by prevailing winds. Exhaust can re-enter boats when cruising under certain conditions the station wagon effect especially with canvas in place. Exhaust can also collect in enclosed spaces near the stern swim platform.

What To Do?
  • Schedule regular engine and exhaust system maintenance inspections by experienced and trained mechanics.
  • Be aware that dangerous concentrations of carbon monoxide can accumulate when a boat, generator or other fueled device is operated while the boat is at a pier, seawall or alongside another boat. Do not run engines or equipment for extended periods of time under these conditions or without continuous monitoring.
  • Keep forward facing hatches open to allow fresh air circulation in accommodation spaces, even in inclement weather.
  • Keep people clear of the rear deck area and swim platform of the boat while either the generator or engines are running. Always monitor the swimming area.
  • Do not confuse carbon monoxide poisoning with seasickness or intoxication. If someone on board complains of irritated eyes, headaches, nausea, weakness or dizziness, immediately move the person to fresh air, investigate the cause and take corrective action. Seek medical attention, if necessary.
  • Install a carbon monoxide detector in each accommodation space on your boat. Check the detectors periodically to be sure they are functioning properly.

Each Trip:

  • Make sure all exhaust clamps are in place and secure.
  • Look for exhaust leaking from the exhaust system components evidenced by rust and /or black streaking, water leaks, or corroded or cracked fittings.
  • Inspect rubber exhaust hoses for burned or cracked sections. All rubber hoses should be pliable and free of kinks.
  • Confirm that cooling water flows from the exhaust outlet when the engines and generator are started.
  • Listen for any change in exhaust sound that could indicate a failure of an exhaust component.
  • Test the operation of each carbon monoxide detector by pressing the test button.

Do not operate the vessel if any of these problems exist!

At Least Annually:

(Performed by a qualified marine technician)

  • Replace exhaust hoses if any evidence of cracking, charring or deterioration is found.
  • Inspect each water pump impeller and inspect the condition of the water pump housing. Replace if worn or cracked (refer to the engine and generator manuals for further information).
  • Inspect each of the metallic exhaust components for cracking, rusting, leaking or looseness. Pay particular attention to the cylinder head, exhaust manifold, and water injection elbow.
  • Clean, inspect and confirm the proper operation of the generator cooling water anti-siphon valve (if equipped).

Regular maintenance and proper operation of the boat are the best defenses against injury from carbon monoxide...

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