One captain’s mission to ‘bullet proof’ his A/C system
Nov 9, 2020 by Lucy Chabot Reed
After more than 30 years playing with, working on and running boats in several sectors of the maritime industry, one thing about yachting made Capt. Herb Magney nuts: how the air conditioning only breaks when guests are aboard.
The last time it happened to him, thankfully his crew was dynamic — stews distracting the guests with shoreside activities, engineers applying band-aids, deck officers calling in reinforcements — so the guests didn’t really know what had happened.
But he did, and he was determined that that last time would be the last time.
“The last condenser I had didn’t last six months; It was supposed to last a couple years,” Capt. Magney said. “I want it bullet proof. I know it’s out there. I’ve used it in industrial applications. So I was calling around for a replacement and I notice they are all calling the same guy in San Diego. So I called him.”
Tim Mournian, owner of Texas-based Titanium Marine Technologies, has spent decades working in the offshore commercial fishing industry. Those mariners and boats depend on their refrigeration systems and ice chests to hold their catch until they get ashore. When a condenser breaks out there, weeks of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars are lost. So they were keen to consider a fail-safe method, even at triple the cost.
“I can safely say we changed the way the tuna fishing industry keeps their catch,” Mournian said. “But it’s a declining market. Once it [a titanium condenser] goes in, it never goes away. So we’re always in search of new markets.”
He has expanded to working with the fishing vessels in South America and Mexico and other parts of the world. And then Capt. Magney found his website in July 2019.
“The yachting market is exciting to us because they respect quality,” Mournian said. He offers a warranty of 10 years on his heat exchangers. “By then, the boat has changed hands. They never fail.”
The failure in these traditional systems is a simple matter of chemistry. The metals that most condensers are made of — copper and nickel — tend to corrode when in contact with seawater. Zincs can keep that at bay, and will work when preventative maintenance is followed rigorously. Let it lapse, even a little, and the results can be unforgiving. Over time, failure is inevitable.
“Anything we have a failure on, we’re pushing titanium,” said Jeff Wells, service manager with Elite Marine Air Conditioning in Fort Lauderdale, which is working on its ninth vessel installing titanium heat exchangers. “From our standpoint, it’s a liability. When the metal fails and fills the circuit with seawater, it’s worthless. It could be tens of thousands to repair. We’re pushing titanium for anyone who wants to change.”
He noted the delivery time for custom titanium units has been faster than traditional custom cupro-nickel units, about four weeks versus eight weeks, but often faster.
On M/Y Ocean Club, the 161-foot (50m) Trinity Capt. Magney runs through the charter seasons in the Med and Caribbean, the standard set of condensing equipment historically lasted two years.
“Four years ago, I got on, and they were replacing them then and they were already going bad a year later when the new boss had a survey done,” he said. “We replaced it all two years ago in July, in the middle of the Med season with lots of stress and a huge amount of extra cost.”
After about six months, one of the condensers began to fail again, so he sent it for analysis. It was determined there was a factory defect. When he asked the factory about it, “they said, no, you must have done something wrong. But the other one was running just fine. This was less than a year.”
That’s when he started looking around for a better solution.
“I said this is ridiculous, let’s take it up a notch,” Capt. Magney said. “We can find another manufacturer, coat it, something. I found titanium when I researched industrial and other commercial shipboard applications. Fishing boats will lose everything without ice, so I’m looking to them. They’ve all gone with titanium.”
At first, he thought titanium was out of reach. The first couple estimates came back at $25,000-$30,000, even $40,000, with six month deliveries. Then he found Mournian.
“We’re putting it in for about $16,000, in the U.S., direct from Tim,” Capt. Magney said.
So why hasn’t the industry embraced this panacea before now? Primarily the cost. Titanium parts can be up to three times the price of their copper-nickel cousins. Mostly that’s because the metal is hard to work with. Welding titanium takes an argon gas environment and usually cannot be done at sea. It’s for that reason the U.S. Navy uses titanium in its non-critical applications, but not on the systems on a destroyer, where at-sea repairs are critical.
“But yachting is an interesting market because it’s not quite so cost sensitive,” Mournian said.
Of course, long-term yacht owners would consider the total cost of ownership, he said.
“If you are replacing these things every two-to-five years, how much is that over the life of the boat?” he said.
Still, it’s a big nut up front, one perhaps more easily digested after a mid-charter crisis. Here’s the story that broke Capt. Magney’s A/C condenser back:
“Two years ago, I had a Colorado family onboard. He was the owner of a 50m Christensen charter boat for three years. He knows the business.”
This was when the A/C was about to fail.
“We’re hustling all over, collecting bits and pieces. We had the condenser shipped to Naples. Other parts to other places. It was like herding cats, in Europe, in the middle of the Med season, at the end of June/beginning of July. I’m just praying to God this A/C system, please, makes it one more week.
“We get down to Sicily and we’re all good. We’re moving to Syracuse on Friday night. Three-quarters of the way down the coast, the engineer calls up, the whole engine room is in a fog, there’s sprayed oil mist everywhere. The A/C has sprung a hole.
“Great. Can we bandage it? I tell the girls to control the heat, don’t open doors, yada yada. I do what charter captains do. We get to Syracuse and I tell the guests, here’s what’s going on. We send them ashore and, many hours later, the repair is made. By 2:30 am, we’re starting to cool down.
“We had a great time in Syracuse, then a couple hours out of Capri, we got another leak. We divert to Ischia. We get tours set up and send the guests ashore. Got an A/C repair man. The agent had gear and guy there fast and had the repair made.
“Then we head to Sardinia to have the whole thing replaced. It took a lot of technical welding in a cramped space. That part alone, just the tech, was 3200 euros. I had to put all the crew in houses ashore. It was an $18,000 job.”
Mournian said he is excited to begin working in the yachting industry. He’s delivered about 10 units to large yachts thus far, and he’s begun calling on builders as well as packagers of A/C units to include titanium condensers as an option.
“The value is in the fact that it won’t wear out or corrode or erode with fast water,” Magney said. “Titanium doesn’t care how fast you put the water through. And we don’t have to change out the zincs every two weeks. We’ll never have to replace it. It’ll last longer than the boat.”
His second condenser is on order and he’s working with Mournian to manufacture and replace other parts that tend to corrode and fail. Next up, replacing the expansion tank and engine cooler on his electical generator.
Pretty soon, he’ll only have the key worry all charter captains and crew have — how to keep the clients engaged when the weather turns.