Andrew Carlson's basement bedroom was closest to the propane boiler used to heat his family's brand-new house in North Branch.
As the 17-year-old slept on the night of Dec. 4, 2006, his family's first in the home, deadly carbon monoxide built up, the result of faulty installation of a direct-vent boiler. The next day, his disoriented parents, also suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, found Andrew dead in his room.
Andrew died because a heating contractor who installed the boiler did not completely hook up its combustion ducts, according to a state report recently made public. A city inspector had signed off on that work.
Andrew's death put a focus on a longtime lack of standards for such inspections. A year later, a measure to prevent such deadly mistakes is in the works.
In 2006, the Legislature passed a law requiring the state labor commissioner to make sure building inspectors are competent to enforce construction codes.
Last week, Administrative Law Judge Kathleen Sheehy, who was asked to review the proposed rules, found defects in their wording. A chief administrative law judge now will review the rules, which then will become public. But several months of such bureaucratic steps could follow before the changes are final.
Tom Joachim, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, said that under the rules, inspectors hired after today will be required to have national certification that documents competency to ensure furnace installations are up to code or must, within one year of hire, obtain such certification.
"In the long run, the consumers will see a difference," he said. "It provides some assurance that the people who are out there doing inspections aren't the brother-in-law of the mayor."
Not a full solution
There are 1,500 or so municipal inspectors in the state, but the rules won't apply to those already employed or to those communities, mostly rural, that haven't adopted the state building code, said James Honerman, spokesman for the Department of Labor and Industry.
Still, it's a step welcomed by attorneys for the Carlson family, who sued the furnace's installer, Indoor Comfort Systems Inc. of Wyoming, Minn., and its owner, Chris Friend, and the boiler's manufacturer, NY Thermal Inc. of Canada.
The city of North Branch should also be held accountable for the actions of its inspector, said Carlson attorney Richard Thomas, but under current case law, municipalities are considered largely immune from such litigation.
Mark Jones, the North Branch inspector who issued the certificate of occupancy for the Carlson house, left his job Dec. 14, a little more than a year after the tragedy. Jones, now an inspector in Anoka County, did not return calls.
The installer, Friend, declined to comment for this story, but has maintained in legal papers that he was given improper installation instructions during a seminar by NY Thermal representatives. Friend contends that he was told he didn't need a kit to convert the boiler from natural gas to propane use. That was, in fact, a fatal mistake, according to the suit.
Clifford Taite, NY Thermal's sales manager, declined to comment recently. In an interview shortly after Andrew's death, however, he said the Trinity Boiler was improperly installed by the heating contractor.
Taite and Thomas both spoke of the need for state-mandated training and certification of inspectors, as well as heating contractors.
Disorientation and death
Mitch Carlson, Andrew's father, said he always thought laws existed governing heating contractors and inspectors. Only after Andrew died did he learn otherwise.
In North Branch, Jones had issued a certificate of occupancy for the Carlsons' new house, and they moved in by Dec. 4, 2006. Not only was the new direct-vent boiler installed incorrectly, there was no carbon monoxide alarm in the boiler room, as the manufacturer required, the state report says.
"It wasn't even close" to being hooked up right, Mitch Carlson said recently.
With deadly velocity, carbon monoxide was being discharged out of an exhaust opening, nearly flush with the house exterior -- and being pulled right back inside through a hole for fresh-air intake. The two holes were only about an inch apart. Inside, in the boiler room, a large segment of combustion piping for fresh-air intake was not attached to the boiler, but was simply missing.
The entire family of five had fallen sick shortly after they moved in that first weekend in December 2006, but nobody suspected that the house was filling with carbon monoxide.
About 12:30 a.m. on Dec. 5, Mitch Carlson left to drive 3 miles to a gas station for cigarettes. At the station, he crashed his car.
Police arrested him on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, though it wasn't clear to them what he was on. His blood was tested at Wyoming Fairview Hospital. He was booked into the Chisago County jail and later got a ride home with his brother. Once there, he and his fiancée, Penny Pliscott, left to try to get his impounded car. By 6:30 a.m., they returned to a home smelling a bit odd, and getting cool.
Pliscott found their son, Andrew, dead. Horrified, she and Mitch gathered up Pliscott's two younger sons and drove to a gas station 8 miles away to call 911. They were hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning.
That's what killed Andrew.
Inspections more complex
Joachim and others say they support a call for a law that would require heating and other mechanical contractors to be licensed, just like electricians and plumbers, a safety measure in addition to the planned state inspection rules.
Industry officials were pushing for such certification long before Andrew Carlson died, Joachim said.
"The technology ... is so much different than what it used to be 25 years ago with a furnace," he said. "Every furnace, no matter which brand you installed, had the same criteria: You had a chimney, and you had a gas pipe hooking it up, and you hooked it up to the duct work.
"Now ... there's such a variety of installation criteria. ... That leads back to the competency of the inspector, but also to the competency of the installer."
Meanwhile, the Carlsons had a second Christmas without Andrew.
"We're trying to struggle through that," Mitch Carlson said quietly. "It ain't going to get much better."
Joy Powell • 612-673-7750