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Boats stink. Really, they do, and the primary reason is that they must be watertight. Ventilation is limited on board, and it’s virtually nonexistent aboard a boat that is unoccupied. Any odors that make their way into a boat or are generated on board tend to stay there and become concentrated.
Interestingly, odor problems can be worse on a new boat than on a boat that has been in use for some time. The materials used to build and repair boats are a veritable witch’s brew of volatile chemicals, many of which are classified as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs include such substances as paints, varnishes, glue (but not epoxy), cleaners, fuel, exhaust-gas components, solvents, and fiberglass resins. Everything from carpeting and upholstery to headliner adhesives can emit these compounds—it’s what you generally smell when you step aboard a new boat. I recall working aboard a new boat that was literally impossible to board after it had been closed up for any length of time. The air inside was so thick with a chemical odor that it was very difficult to breath. The boat had to be opened up and aired out for 10 or 15 minutes before boarding. While this was an extreme case, many boats possess similar odors that are difficult to exorcise.
Then there are the plain, old odors that result from standing bilgewater, not-so-tight sanitation plumbing fittings, fuel, engine and generator crankcase gases, and galley “fumes” like fish, onions, and garlic. Once again, because of the airtight nature of boats, these odors cannot dissipate or become diluted with fresh air. Simply put, boats are smell incubators.
A SOLUTION TO THE ODOR PROBLEM?
There seems to be no shortage of “magic bullet” marine products when it comes to fuel filtration and odor mitigation. When a product’s claims are too remarkable or all encompassing, I immediately become suspicious. Many manufacturers simply exaggerate or downright fib about their product’s capabilities, drawing in unwary boat owners looking for a quick, easy, and inexpensive fix to a complex problem. It’s the late-night TV infomercial approach with a marine spin.
Thus, when I was introduced at last year’s IBEX conference to Heath Schuman, the proprietor of Nautic Air (www.nautic-air.com), a manufacturer of air purification systems, I listened to what he had to say with a healthy dose of doubtful realism. As a technical journalist and marine industry consultant, I had tested a number of air purification systems over the years and had yet to write about one that met my litmus test for scientific basis, safety for the user, and practical application.
After listening to Heath’s presentation and inspecting a working Nautic Air unit, I must admit, there were no magic, silver, or any other kind of bullets involved—just good science, excellent applicability, and, best of all, downright simplicity. Here’s how the Nautic Air units work: They rely on a process called photocatalytic oxidation, or PCO (invented by two researchers at Tokyo University in 1969), which accelerates the decomposition of organic matter, including VOCs. A light source—in this case, UV light (fluorescent light also will work, but not as effectively)—is used to react with a titanium-dioxide-based catalyst and produce hydroxyl radicals and superoxide ion oxidizers. (Sounds like hokum, but it’s not; more than 6,000 patents have been granted worldwide using this process.) These oxidizers, which Heath likens to “Pac-Men,” convert the VOCs, as well as harmful microorganisms such as bacteria, mold, pollen, and viruses (including the flu), into harmless carbon dioxide and water.
The intensity of these oxidizers really is quite impressive; their oxidative capabilities are four times stronger than that of pure chlorine and 1.5 times as powerful as ozone, without the harmful side effects. The “Pac-Men” continuously attack and destroy all organic molecules in their vicinity (remember, most odors and microorganisms are made up of organic molecules). However, unlike purifying gases or chemicals, these oxidizers only occur at the surface of the titanium dioxide catalyst in the presence of light and water. (Enough water vapor is contained in the air moving through the catalyst to sustain the reaction.) In addition, their half-life is billionths of a second, so they never leave the Nautic Air unit and can never accumulate inside a closed space or cabin area; thus, there’s no odor or sensation associated with the process. The photocatalytic process is capable of nullifying the toxic-gas phase of a variety of VOCs, including formaldehyde, exhaust fumes, benzene, toluene, and odoriferous chemicals such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. On the lighter side, it’s also capable of removing the aforementioned fish, onion, garlic odors, as well as other cooking odors.
The beauty of the catalytic process is that the catalyst, titanium dioxide, much like the catalytic converter in an automobile’s exhaust system, is never used up. As with all catalysts, the titanium dioxide simply accelerates the chemical reaction.
The other half of the Nautic Air equation utilizes polarized media filtration, or PMF. (This component is not a part of every Nautic Air unit, as I’ll explain shortly.) Essentially, this is an active electrostatic field that polarizes the fibers of the media pad, the center screen of which is carbon-based and is charged to +7,000 volts DC, as well as the particles. The media itself, even without the electrostatic charge, acts as a conventional filter, offering passive filtration. Passive filtration, however, tends to create an accumulation of debris on the high-pressure side of the filter. In contrast, the polarized fibers attract debris of the opposite charge in all directions, making them very efficient and especially good at capturing and holding submicron-sized air contaminants. A phenomenon known as Brownian motion—rapid, random motion of particles about 0.1 micron and smaller—aids the filtering process. In addition, charged particles attract each other, forming clusters that are more easily captured by the filter. Those at Nautic Air refer to the marriage of the two processes—photocatalytic oxidation and polarized media filtration—as PolarClear Technology.
THE STORY BEHIND THE COMPANY
The inspiration for Nautic Air came from Heath’s daughter, who suffered with severe allergies. In his quest to stem her discomfort, he happened upon PCO technology, which he then tried in his home. His daughter’s allergy problems were virtually eliminated, and he was sold on the concept. As the owner of a marine detailing business, Heath was privy to just how pervasive odor and air contamination problems are aboard cruising vessels; he had listened to his customers’ complaints on countless occasions. Heath set to work developing a system that utilizes PCO for marine applications, and Nautic Air was the fruit of this labor.
Heath has installed more than 300 Nautic Air systems of varying sizes and configurations. Some larger yachts are equipped with as many as 30 individual Nautic Air units. In 2008, Nautic Air was presented with the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s Innovation Award at IBEX.
Two types of Nautic Air installations are available: stand-alone units and those that are integrated with a vessel’s HVAC system. In the former case, the tabletop unit, called the NA30, is simply plugged in to a conventional wall socket. It can be used anywhere power is available—afloat, at home, or in your office. The NA30 utilizes PolarClear Technology. Units designed to operate with HVAC systems, of which there are two models, essentially are installed inline with ventilation ducting. The NA Marine uses PCO technology alone, while the NA20, which is designed for household use but also can be used aboard larger vessels, uses PolarClear Technology (the combination of PCO and PMF).
The NA Marine is extremely compact, requiring only about 8 inches of linear duct run, and it’s fully automatic. Heath Schuman’s testing has revealed that it will remove 90 percent of all mold spores in just the first hour of operation. The only maintenance required for the marine unit is an annual UV lamp replacement. Units equipped with PolarClear Technology include a filter whose frequency of service is driven by the quantity of airborne contaminants. Typically, the filter requires service quarterly.
Nautic Air offers a creative solution to an age-old problem using scientifically proven technology. Nautic Air’s products are simple and effective, can be used aboard virtually any boat (or in any home or office), and require very little energy and maintenance. While I’ll avoid using the phrase “magic bullet,” if odors and mold plague your boat or your crew suffer from allergies, Nautic Air may have the neatest solution yet.