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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Powerboat Smoke

Air Date: Week of

Some people call powerboats stinkpots, because many two stroke outboard motors burn a mixture of gas and oil that produces a thick and smelly exhaust. But one New Hampshire man says he has a practical answer to this marine pollution: power these boats with propane gas. New Hampshire Public Radio's Trish Anderton reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Lake Winnipesaukee is one of the most popular recreation spots in New Hampshire. Thirty-five thousand boats are registered on the state's biggest lake, and often in the summer marine harbor traffic rivals rush hour on a big city freeway. Some people call power boats stinkpots, since many two-stroke outboard motors burn a mixture of gas and oil that produces a thick and smelly exhaust. Until recently, even four-stroke marine engines had few pollution limits. The Environmental Protection Agency has unveiled new rules aimed at cutting these emissions, but one man says he has a better answer: get those boats to use propane gas. New Hampshire Public Radio's Trish Anderton reports.

(Rubbing sounds)

ANDERTON: When it's sitting at the dock here in Meredith, Wayne Swanson's 20-foot supra ski boat looks pretty much like any other motorboat on Lake Winnipesaukee. The obvious difference is a hand-lettered cardboard sign on the bow that reads "Propane Powered." When he fires up the engine, you instantly smell another difference: the boat doesn't cough up a cloud of exhaust fumes. And, Mr. Swanson proudly points out, there's no colorful streaks of gas and oil on the water around the engine.

SWANSON: (Motorboat in background) What we have to get rid of is the rainbows on the lake. They belong in the sky, but they don't belong in the water.

(Motor continues)

ANDERTON: Wayne Swanson is an unlikely crusader: a soft-spoken guy in a blue polo shirt with a wispy thatch of gray hair. He grew up on Lake Winnipesaukee, and remembers boating with his father as a child.

SWANSON: We had a small boat with an outboard motor, and the motor would just leak oil, gasoline into the lake. And even back then I said, Jeez, this isn't right, you know? And it really bothered me. So maybe this is my calling. I don't know.

ANDERTON: During the 1970s, Mr. Swanson got interested in alternative fuels for cars. He started tinkering with carburetor-based propane engines, which burn up to 70% cleaner than gasoline engines but aren't as fuel efficient. Mr. Swanson eventually patented a propane fuel-injection system he says is 20% more efficient than comparable gas engines. He tried to get the automobile industry interested, but the response from Detroit was cool.

SWANSON: After 10 years I got the message, and I've always loved boats, and I see the lake getting damaged by motorboat pollution. And I thought, well, here's another way to approach a similar problem.

(Motors continue)

ANDERTON: In fact, motorboats are in some ways a worse problem than cars. For years boats have operated without any restrictions on their emissions. Many carry inefficient two-cycle engines that inject as much as a third of their gas and oil, unburnt, directly into the water. Jody Connor of New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services says these pollutants create problems in the lake, especially under heavy traffic areas like marinas.

CONNOR: The hydrocarbons that are dropped down to the bottom of the lake affect the growth of organisms that are key to the aquatic food chain.

ANDERTON: While most people agree a clean lake is important, many balk at the idea of switching to Wayne Swanson's four-cycle propane engine. Some boaters fear propane's explosive power, even though propane tanks are heavier and stronger than gas tanks. They complain adding a propane tank to a boat uses up valuable storage space. And as Barry Dickson of the nearby Meredith Marina points out, there is no place to refuel a propane boat on Winnipesaukee.

DICKSON: You have to manage your fuel supply a little bit more than you would just normal gasoline. Inasmuch as when you are out, you're out.

ANDERTON: The American Petroleum Institute argues it would be more effective to pursue cleaner gasoline technologies than to try to switch reluctant boaters to propane. Barry Dickson confirms boat owners are resistant to change where their prized possessions are concerned.

DICKSON: It's really going to have to be a new adventure-type person.

ANDERTON: But Meredith police chief John Curran says he's not an adventurous person. He was nervous about converting the town's police boat to propane last year. Now he's glad he did.

CURRAN: I'm thrilled with it! It runs much better, much quieter, much cleaner.

(Motors continue)

ANDERTON: Wayne Swanson says that's a typical response. People who try his boat are impressed with its power and performance. On a recent weekend, when he took it to top speed with a full load of passengers, other boaters on the water got excited.

SWANSON: You know, waving, thumbs up, really got a lot of ovation and everything. One person yelled out, "Grill me a hamburger, too!" Which was really (laughs) interesting.

ANDERTON: Mr. Swanson has applied to the state of New Hampshire for subsidies to help boat owners switch to his four-cycle propane system. And he's working on setting up a propane boat fueling station. He hopes a decade from now, 5% of Winnipesaukee's boats will be running on propane power. For Living on Earth, I'm Trish Anderton in Meredith, New Hampshire.



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