If you are like most designers or installers, I would wager that you have never read the installation manual for the piece of equipment that you design or install. You should because you may be held responsible for any recommendations made in the manual that are not implemented

I was performing research for an upcoming boiler safety class and saw an article about a deadly pool heater in a North Carolina hotel. Due to a malfunction in the pool heater, three people lost their lives. In recent years, several hotel accidents from carbon monoxide poisoning have resulted in fatalities. Carbon monoxide poisoning results in about 50,000 visits to hospitals each year. And each week you hear stories about carbon monoxide accidents.

But this one is different.

A hotel owner had a five-year-old commercial pool heater installed in one hotel and he wanted to transfer it to another of his properties. In the fall of 2011, the maintenance staff for the hotel owner removed the propane pool heater from one hotel and installed it at the other hotel. No permit was acquired or inspection done of the installation as the owner thought he did not need one.

In March 2012, the owner hired a contractor to convert the pool heater from propane to natural gas. The contractor had the pool heater inspected when the conversion was completed. No flaws were noted but the inspector did not know that the heater had been relocated.

On April 16, 2013, a couple in its 70s was found dead in room 225. The reason for their deaths was unknown. The state medical examiner was tasked with investigating cause of death. Unlike television crime shows that show immediate laboratory results before the next commercial break, the findings of the medical examiner were sent to county officials on June 1, 46 days later.

On June 8, an 11-year-old boy and his mother, staying in the same hotel room, were hospitalized from carbon monoxide poisoning. The boy died and the mother survived.

The cause of the boiler malfunction, resulting in three deaths, appears to be from several holes in the flue and an inoperable induced draft fan. The flue gas accumulated in room 225. This could have been so much worse. I guess this resonated with me as I stayed at one of the hotels with my family on the way to vacation a few years ago.

The part of this story that rankles me is that the newspaper reporter covering the story downloaded a copy of the pool heater installation manual and read it. In the manual, the manufacturer suggests that carbon monoxide detectors (see Figure 1 above) be installed in the room where the heater is located. He blamed the lack of carbon monoxide detectors for the reason the people were sickened or died.

I guess it has nothing to do with the holes in the flue, broken induced draft fan, no record of maintenance and, most likely, a misadjusted burner with an incorrect fuel-to-air ratio that produced carbon monoxide. This causation theory has taken legs and the local television station is now reporting the same.

The frustrating part is that someone who knows nothing about our industry can make assumptions about what is required to make a piece of equipment safe to operate. Due to these accidents, as well as another in which two women were sickened in a different hotel in North Carolina, the state is trying to enact a law requiring carbon monoxide detectors in hotels. At the time of the installation, the state code did not call for a carbon monoxide detector in the boiler room.

If you are the designer or installer of a water heater that is being moved from one building to another, could you be held responsible for the improper installation? Please know that I am an advocate of carbon monoxide detectors but they would have simply masked the real cause of this tragedy. I would rather see a law requiring service to be done yearly. If this had been serviced on a regular basis by a competent service technician, lives may have been saved.


Protect your company

I am a believer in documentation to cover yourself. I use a combustion analyzer with a printer that documents the conditions at the time of my visit with a time and date stamp. You can see an example in Figure 2 above. If the unit uses a thermal printer, they sometimes fade. I recommend making a copy onto plain paper and storing it in the customer file to protect your organization.

Include equipment model and serial number on your documentation. Moving equipment from one location to another is more common than you would think. Make sure that the startup report displays location address, model and serial number. If it is ever moved, the model and serial number can indentify if this was the one you installed.

Many boilers also have a National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors number which is unique for each boiler. We had a client who replaced the power burner on one of the boilers that we sold him with a used one with the same model number. He then tried to get a free startup of the used equipment by saying that we did not properly perform the startup.

Our technician had a bad feeling about it and checked the serial number and found it to be from a unit we sold the client about five years prior. The unit was a different Btu rating than the new one. Remember Ray’s Rule No. 5: Some clients lie.

My children laugh at me because I now carry a portable carbon monoxide detector with me when I stay in hotels because this carbon monoxide issue seems to be occurring more often. It was almost a duplicate of the accident I mentioned previously that took the life of a man staying in a hotel in South Charleston, W.Va. It was reported that the owner of this hotel also replaced his pool heater using his own maintenance staff.

 Stay safe.