N.C. Medical Examiners

Boone hotel heater came with warnings, but detectors never installed

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.”

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