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Boone hotel heater came with warnings, but detectors never installed

Rick Rothacker, Ames Alexander & Gavin Off
rrothacker@charlotteobserver.com aalexander@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • July 13: Turmoil came before the tragedies
  • June 17: Pool heater was installed without permit
  • Timeline: Boone hotel deaths
  • Best Western timeline

    •  Fall 2011: Appalachian Hospitality Management maintenance staff moves pool heater to the Best Western from the Sleep Inn. The Boone inspections department is not asked to review the installation.

    •  March 2012: Inspections department approves conversion of the Best Western pool heater to natural gas from propane.

    •  April 16, 2013: Washington state couple Daryl and Shirley Jenkins die in Room 225.

    •  June 1: State medical examiner’s office sent a report to Watauga County Medical Examiner Dr. Brent Hall showing a lethal amount of carbon monoxide in blood of Shirley Jenkins, according to the state.

    •  June 8: Jeffrey Williams, 11, of Rock Hill, dies in Room 225. His mother, Jeannie, is hospitalized.

    •  July: Best Western reopens after receiving permission from inspections department.

    Rick Rothacker


  • Who inspects your hotel?

    A wide array of agencies and organizations inspect hotels in North Carolina, all focusing on specific areas.

    Local Code Enforcement Department

    During construction, code inspectors see nearly all aspects of the hotel – including those hidden behind a wall or underground.

    Inspectors review the building’s structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and zoning features. They inspect renovations and equipment replacements.

    Inspectors did not know Best Western replaced the hotel’s pool heater in fall 2011. In March 2012, inspectors did review and pass the heater’s conversion from liquid propane to natural gas.

    Local Health Department

    The department inspects hotels annually or after a complaint is filed. It inspects lodging, food and pool areas.

    A 33-point checklist guides inspectors as they review the pool’s water quality, maintenance and equipment and dressing rooms.

    Health officials do not inspect pool heaters.

    Local Fire Marshal

    The fire marshal inspects hotels annually and after a complaint. Inspections can last more than two hours and review everything from evacuation plans and lighting to sprinklers and kitchen exhaust systems.

    It does not test for carbon monoxide.

    N.C. Department of Labor

    The state Department of Labor inspects elevators and some large mechanical equipment such as water heaters, refrigeration equipment and kitchen cookers.

    Most objects are inspected every two years, a department spokeswoman said. She said the state had no knowledge of the heater that leaked carbon monoxide in Boone.

    The Occupational Safety And Health Administration

    OSHA, the agency that regulates workplace safety, conducts some random inspections and inspects hotels after a complaint or incident.

    Inspectors are free to check the entire hotel for workplace safety issues.

    Hotel Owners

    The American Hotel and Lodging Association compiled a 12-page safety and security checklist for hotel owners.

    Topics covered by the checklist include hazardous materials, kitchens, swimming pools, rooms and public areas, housekeeping areas and fire safety.

    The checklist does not mention of pool heaters or carbon monoxide alarms.

    AAA

    AAA awards a Diamond Rating to top hotels. The rating system concentrates mostly on aesthetics, amenities and service, a spokeswoman said.

    Hotels must meet basic standards for security, comfort and cleanliness.

    Better Business Bureau

    The Better Business Bureau accredits hotels after reviewing government actions, complaints and pattern of complaints, among other issues. It does not do its own safety inspections, a spokeswoman said.

    Gavin Off


  • More information

    This warning appears prominently in the installation manual for the brand of pool heater that has been identified as the source of the carbon monoxide that killed three hotel guests in Boone.



Despite clear warnings on an owner’s manual, a Boone hotel did not put in recommended carbon monoxide detectors when its maintenance staff installed a pool heater now suspected of leaking the dangerous gas that killed three guests this spring.

Best Western staff moved the heater from another hotel in 2011, an attorney for the hotel told the Observer. But they did the job without getting a permit or inspection, an apparent violation of the N.C. building code.

A state official now says the work was improperly done.

Local officials missed a chance to catch problems in March 2012, when a contractor hired by the hotel called them in to inspect the heater’s conversion to natural gas, new documents and interviews suggest.

Earlier this year, investigators found serious problems – but only after hotel guests Daryl Jenkins, 73, and Shirley Jenkins, 72, and 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams died in a room directly above the pool heater.

Police have identified a number of locations where the ventilation system was leaking. And a ventilation fan designed to pull dangerous gases outside was not operating, Boone police Capt. Andy LeBeau said.

Professionals in the pool and building industries contacted by the Observer warned against transferring an older heater and stressed the importance of reading the owner’s manual when installing equipment.

In April, the Jenkinses died in room 225 of the Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza, but officials did not immediately suspect carbon monoxide was the cause. Less than two months later, on June 8, Williams, of Rock Hill, died in the same room. Williams’ mother, Jeannie, was hospitalized and is recovering.

The new findings add to the list of things that went wrong at the hotel.

Fire officials did not test for carbon monoxide at the scene of the Jenkinses’ deaths. The Watauga County medical examiner, Dr. Brent Hall, did not visit the scene and did not ask for a toxicology test sent to the state medical examiner’s office to be rushed. The state says it sent a report to Hall on June 1 – a week before Jeffrey Williams’ death – indicating Shirley Jenkins had a lethal amount of carbon monoxide in her blood but apparently no action was taken.

Boone police are investigating the deaths and working on a report for the Watauga County District Attorney to determine whether criminal charges should be filed, LeBeau said. Police are working as quickly as possible, but the primary goal is to produce a “fair, thorough and objective” report, he said.

Prominent warnings

The Best Western moved the heater from a Sleep Inn run by the same company in fall 2011, but didn’t take out a permit because it didn’t know one was required, said Paul Culpepper, an attorney representing Appalachian Hospitality Management, which runs the Best Western and other hotels in Boone.

The N.C. Department of Insurance told the Observer a permit and inspection are required to reinstall or relocate commercial pool heaters.

It’s unclear whether the hotel’s maintenance staff read the pool heater’s owner’s manual when it moved the five-year-old appliance.

Based on the model number of the heater, a customer service representative at the manufacturer supplied the Observer an owner’s manual for a Jandy Lite2 pool and spa heater.

The front page of the manual carries a warning that says that the manufacturer “strongly recommends” installation of carbon monoxide detectors near the appliance when used for an indoor pool. Another warning inside the manual says that improper installation could cause “severe injury or death” from carbon monoxide.

A spokeswoman for the manufacturer did not respond to a request for comment.

Culpepper said it was unlikely that the staff read the manual because they were moving a heater to a pool that already had a heater.

In a new revelation, he said that the hotel’s original plans called for carbon monoxide detectors in rooms that had fireplaces, but the contractor instead installed monitors to detect combustible gas. The hotel didn’t discover the mistake until after the deaths, he said.

Room 225, where the three guests died, had a natural gas fireplace.

“My client relied on the architects, contractors and engineers for the design criteria that was needed,” Culpepper said.

In February 2012, months after moving the heater, Appalachian Hospitality hired a company called Independence Oil and Gas to convert appliances at its establishments.

Culpepper said Independence was recommended by Frontier Natural Gas for the conversion. The contract required Independence to take out permits, test systems and install new equipment if the appliances could not be converted, according to a contract provided by the hotel.

“The management company relied on them to determine if the appliance could be converted to natural gas,” he said. “For example, the management company was told by Independence Oil the gas logs at the Best Western could not be converted to natural gas, and the owner purchased new gas logs for the hotel.”

A report provided by Appalachian Hospitality shows the gas conversion at the Best Western passed the town’s inspection.

Bill Bailey, head of the Boone planning and inspections department, declined to comment on the March 2012 inspection.

In June, one of the department’s inspectors told the Observer that the town did not inspect the heater when it was installed. But the inspector did not disclose the 2012 inspection for the natural gas conversion.

For weeks, the Boone inspections and police departments have declined to release documents related to inspections at the Best Western, citing the ongoing criminal investigation. The Observer has made repeated requests for the documents, saying they should be considered public records.

Darryl Knight, general manager at Frontier Natural Gas, declined to comment, citing the possibility of litigation. His voicemail says he is with Frontier and Independence Oil and Gas. He declined to explain the relationship.

An Independence Oil service manager also declined to comment.

The heater’s inspection is part of the investigation, but it’s just “one part of many,” LeBeau said. He said he had no indication that the conversion caused the deaths.

Doing job right is crucial

Often called “the silent killer,” carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that inhibits the blood’s ability to carry oxygen and can cause severe illness or death in minutes. It’s emitted by cars and other fuel-burning machines and appliances.

In July, the General Assembly passed a law that will require hotels to install carbon monoxide detectors in every enclosed space with a fossil-fuel-burning heater, appliance or fireplace – and in every hotel room that shares a common wall, floor or ceiling with such spaces. Those requirements go into effect in October.

Industry professionals told the Observer that pool heaters need to be installed carefully and stressed the importance of using the correct equipment.

Dean Bowling of Aloha Pools, a company that designs and builds residential pools in the Charlotte area, said that if he had been asked to move a five-year-old pool heater from one commercial location to another, he would have said no.

After five years of commercial use, he said, most pool heaters are at the end of their lifespan. “They just don’t last that long,” said Bowling, who previously worked as a manager for Jandy’s parent company, servicing and selling pool heaters in Florida and the Carolinas.

He also said he would have reservations about moving a heater from one pool to another. If a heater is replacing one of a different size, it would require new ventilation. In addition, a different sized heater would likely be required if the size of the pool were different.

He would have advised the owner to buy a new heater, he said. Typically, a heater that size would cost a little under $2,500.

Converting a heater from propane to natural gas isn’t enormously tricky, Bowling said. But it requires some new equipment. Natural gas is delivered at lower pressure, so larger orifices and different control valves are required.

Jeff Simpson, owner of JM Simpson Engineers in Monroe, has been inspecting buildings for about 25 years.

If he were to inspect a pool heater conversion, he said that he would review the N.C. building code and check the equipment’s owner’s manual, which would list possible dangers and safety precautions.

Simpson also has a personal protocol. “If you have a fuel-burning device that has a potential for emitting carbon monoxide,” he said, “you need to have a carbon monoxide detector installed nearby.”

Rothacker: 704-358-5170 Twitter: @rickrothacker
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