Marine Toilets: The Basics

marine head
Moving up to a boat with a fixed toilet is a great step forward for your family and friends.

One  difference between a “guys’” open boat and a boat intended for mixed company or the entire family is a marine toilet or head. Graduating from peeing over the side or, in a pinch, using a bucket, to a boat with a fixed head means you can stop worrying about the inevitable call of nature for you and your guests, and just relax. If you’re looking to buy a boat with a head, here are some things to consider.

When I managed a large yacht yard, we had a full-time, year-round staff that dealt with marine sanitation systems. It was a nasty job to fix or unblock someone else’s toilet, but it was always in demand, and that group of dedicated pros saved many a vacation by getting the head(s) operating again.

There are three basic types of marine head: self contained porta-pottys that usually cost less than $150, fixed plumbing systems with a holding tanks that cost $1,000 or so, and complex systems that can treat raw sewage so it’s safe to pump directly overboard. These are even more expensive, typically have both power and fresh water connected to them, and unless you’re really handy, generally require service by a trained professional to repair and maintain. For more on this, read Marine Heads, Portable and Pump-Through.

marine sanitation
A simple toilet with a holding tank setup may require hose replacement after a number of years.

Holding tanks are the most common setup, with treatment-system heads usually reserved for larger live-aboard vessels. The trouble with holding tanks is that the typical plastic tank and plumbing hoses can acquire a smell after a few years that permeates the boat, even when the tank is empty. There are a number of deodorizers that you can put directly in the toilet and pump through the system, but on boats over 10 years old you may be better off replacing the tank and/or plumbing than trying to mask the smell. This is not difficult to do and most DIY boaters can use the old system to template a replacement for $200 to $300  dollars. Anyone buying a used boat of any age should consider this one of those inevitable maintenance issues. Tanks are available in almost any size or configuration and if necessary can be made to order. My one suggestion here is to use the higher-grade hoses in your replacement project, the kind that does not absorb the smell easily—and don’t forget to replace the vented loop hose and make sure the vent screen is clear, too. Holding tank systems usually use raw water from whatever you are floating on. The heads in saltwater boats can tend to have more smell than those in freshwater boats, just from the critters and seaweed that pass through the system.

For more details on all of these issues, refer to these three articles:

A self-contained porta-potty may do the trick on a smaller boat for around $100, provided you have some privacy. You’ll have to empty the tank yourself, but many harbors and camping areas now have pump-out stations that can deal with porta-pottys as well as traditional holding tanks.

If you’re considering a boat with a sanitation system that treats sewage before discharge, I recommend you look at the boat’s service records to determine if the system has been kept up to date. Inspection by a qualified pro with that particular brand may keep you from trying to save your vacation down the road. It is absolutely amazing the things landlubbers will try to flush down a marine head, and which ultimately bollux up the works.  A pre-trip word with your guests about toilet etiquette onboard will save you many an uncomfortable discovery.

  • Use biodegradeable toilet paper only!
  • Use in moderation: If it is yellow, let it mellow, if it is brown, flush it down.
  • The fines for overboard discharge of untreated sewage are rising; protect the environment you use for recreation; get acquainted with the local pump-out facilities and personnel.
  • One part bleach to 10 parts water should kill any bacteria in any cleanup.
  • Prior to haulout flush, clean, and pump dry your holding tank. Once on the hard, drain any water in the toilet to prevent freeze-up damage during winter storage.

It’s good to give your family and guests  a more refined approach than a bucket.


An earlier version of this article appeared on Boat Trader in April 2013.

 

Four Tips for Avoiding Marine Head Woes

We’ve recently talked about the various types of marine toilet that are available, and about the holding tank systems they discharge into. Now it’s time to talk about how to keep everything working and smelling right.

Here are some simple steps you can take:

Flush your head using fresh water, not raw.
While it’s certainly easier to use the ample raw water that surrounds your boat for flushing your head, using freshwater is one of the top things you can do to keep head odors down. Since seawater contains microorganisms that interact with human waste and produce foul-smelling byproducts, using fresh water helps reduce this interaction, and in turn, odor.

Flushing your head with fresh water helps keep odors at bay.
Flushing your head with fresh water helps keep odors at bay.

Try keeping a few half-gallon jugs filled with water in the head compartment. Use a full one for each time you flush solid waste, and about half of one for flushing urine. Make sure you have the intake selector lever or pedal on your head pushed to “Dry Flush” or “Dry.”

If you don’t have room for more than one jug (or don’t want your head compartment filled with containers), just keep one handy that can be filled up at a nearby sink for each use. Have a VacuFlush head? Those can easily be plumbed to use freshwater from your boat’s tanks, if you have sufficient capacity.

I always run a few gallons of fresh water through each of my heads before I leave the boat for an extended period of time (more than a few days). This keeps nasty raw water and waste from sitting inside the head and discharge hoses, where they can make a big stink.

Never flush anything that didn’t come out of you.
This one’s pretty easy. Hopefully you already know that the only thing that should go down your marine head is human waste and toilet paper — with no exceptions. But the likelihood is that your guests have no idea. Unless you want to be picking dental floss, feminine hygiene products, or old parking tickets from a clogged-up head, make it clear to your guests that if they didn’t eat it first, it doesn’t go down the head.

The only things that should go in your marine head are human waste and toilet paper. Illustration courtesy of Jabsco
The only things that should go in your marine head are human waste and toilet paper. Illustration courtesy of Jabsco.

Now, there’s no delicate way to put this, but if you or a guest end up having to make a large deposit with a lot of toilet paper, flush when half-way through and then again when finished to avoid a clog. Moving a little through at a time is much less likely to cause a clog than trying to flush everything down at once.

Maintain your head early and often.
Most boat owners adopt the “set it and forget it” mantra when it comes to their marine heads, but that’s a sure-fire way to find yourself without the use of your head on your next cruise. Just like any piece of gear with moving parts, a marine head needs occasional maintenance to work well. Make sure you keep a repair kit for your particular make and model aboard. A repair kit usually contains seals, flapper valves, joker valves, and any other key parts that have a tendency to fail.

Marine head parts kits come with a variety of parts you might need to make a repair. Inspecting and replacing worn or leaky parts once a year is a great way to prevent failures during the season.
Marine head parts kits come with a variety of parts you might need to make a repair. Inspecting and replacing worn or leaky parts once a year is a great way to prevent failures during the season.

While some folks think this is excessive, I always disassemble my head during the off-season. Once I have it broken apart, I can check and replace any defective seals, valves, or other parts while lubricating it at the same time. That means I can go confidently into the spring season, knowing everything inside the head is in tip-top shape.

It’s only a two-hour job at most and it goes along way to preventing an unpleasant weekend afloat without any means to dispose of your waste. If you have a more complicated system, such as a VacuFlush system, make sure you have a pro check it over at least once a year.

Use additives, but don’t expect miracles.
Take a walk through any marine supply shop and you’ll likely find an expansive display lined with marine head chemicals somewhere among the aisles. Some additives are nothing more than liquids made of heavy fragrances designed to mask nasty head odors, while others contain enzymes or chemicals designed to make the inside of your head and hoses squeaky clean.

This head and holding tank treatment uses a nitrate additive to help reduce odors and break down waste at the same time. It also has a lubricant to help keep things operating smoothly and efficiently.
This head and holding tank treatment uses a nitrate additive to help reduce odors and break down waste at the same time. It also has a lubricant to help keep things operating smoothly and efficiently.

In my experience, the heavily fragranced additives are good at suppressing odors for a short time, but aren’t much good at anything else, such as breaking down waste, or lubricating your head’s insides. A better bet is an additive that contains enzymes or nitrates to break down waste and prevent odors, and also with some sort of lubricant to keep things operating smoothly.

A good additive helps, but keep in mind that it’s not going to take the place of good everyday operating procedures, or make a head that hasn’t been maintained in two years work nicely all of the sudden. There’s no replacement for good care and maintenance.

No one likes a smelly head, and I certainly don’t know anyone who wants theirs to break down during a peaceful weekend on the hook. Follow even a couple of the aforementioned tips and you’ll be well on your way to enjoying a more harmonious relationship with your marine head.

Dealing With Waste Aboard: Holding Tank 101

Back in the bad old days, having a marine head aboard was a relatively trouble-free proposition—you simply pumped the head and flushed the waste overboard. That was until the government banned the direct overboard discharge of sewage in 1972. From then on, having a marine head aboard could be more of a headache than a convenience.

Here’s the CliffsNotes version of the law: If you have a boat equipped with a marine head and operate it on inland and coastal waters, or inside a distance three miles from an ocean coast, you must have your head plumbed to a holding tank.

A marine holding tank.
A marine holding tank.

You can find holding tanks at any good marine supply shop and the pros there can also help you with any questions you may have about hooking it up. While there’s no getting around having a holding tank, there are some options available to you when installing one.

Holding Tank for Coastal Use

The simplest setup is one where the discharge from your head is plumbed directly to a holding tank. With this arrangement, waste travels from the head down a length of hose and into the tank—there’s no option for overboard discharge at all. Once the tank fills up, you have to find to a pump-out facility to have the tank emptied.

A simplified version of a coastal holding tank setup. Waste is pumped into a tank until such time as it can be sucked out at a dockside pump-out station.
A simplified version of a coastal holding tank setup. Waste is pumped into a tank until such time as it can be removed at a dockside pump-out station. Illustrations courtesy of Jabsco/Xylem Flow Control.

This is a great option for boaters who never plan on going beyond the three-mile offshore limit, where it’s legal to pump waste overboard. That said, it also marries you to the ritual of having to find a pump-out facility when the tank is full. When the tank is full, that’s it–you can no longer use your head.

Offshore/Coastal Hybrid

If you do plan on making any offshore hops beyond the three-mile limit, you may want to consider giving yourself the option to discharge waste both overboard or into a holding tank. This requires using a fitting called a Y-valve.

Installing a Y-valve allows you to divert waste either to the holding tank when you’re in coastal waters, or to an overboard discharge when you’re beyond the three-mile limit.

Easy, right? Well, the U.S. Coast Guard and most marine law enforcement agencies are a bit fussy about Y-valves. They generally require any Y-valve that is plumbed to an overboard discharge be padlocked to the holding tank position when a vessel is operating in coastal waters. While a cable tie seems a sufficient way to secure the valve in the correct position, the law doesn’t agree. Luckily, almost all Y-valves come with a means to attach a padlock.

The hybrid holding tank option gives you the ability to either pump your holding tank overboard (when it's legal), or have it emptied at a pump-out facility ashore.
The hybrid holding tank option gives you the ability to either pump your holding tank overboard (when it’s legal), or have it emptied at a pump-out facility ashore.

Yet another variation of the coastal/offshore setup introduces an additional Y-valve to the equation. With this system, the Y-valve diverts the holding tank contents either to a deck-mounted pump-out fitting, or to a manual or electric pump connected to an overboard discharge. This allows you to pump the holding tank out when you’re beyond the three-mile limit. Keep in mind that this setup comes with the same regulations with regard to securing the Y-valve when you operate in coastal waters.

Treatment Systems

Installing a treatment device is one way of getting around using a holding tank. There are a few on the market, but the LectraSan by Raritan is perhaps the most popular. It uses electrical current to turn the saltwater mixed in with the waste into an acid that kills harmful bacteria. Next, a macerator chops up the waste into an easily dispersed liquid before pumping it overboard.

A LectraSan treatment device. This unit uses electrical current to kill harmful bacteria in waste before macerating and discharging it overboard.
A LectraSan treatment device. This unit uses electrical current to kill harmful bacteria in waste before macerating and discharging it overboard.

You can install a saltwater feed tank to work with your LectraSan if you boat in freshwater lakes or rivers, but Raritan also manufactures a treatment device called a Purasan. It’s designed exactly for situations where no saltwater is present. There’s another treatment device manufactured by Groco called the Thermopure; it uses low-level engine or electric heat to kill waste bacteria before macerating it and dumping it overboard.

All of these treatment devices are legal in coastal and inland waters except in areas designated as No-Discharge Zones (NDZ), where the overboard discharge of any sewage (even treated) is prohibited. Visit the EPA website to find out if your boating locale is a no-discharge zone, or not.

No matter which system you choose, maintaining it properly will go a long way toward keeping it odor and trouble free. Keep an eye out here for an article covering the basics on marine head maintenance including which additives, cleaners, and snake oils work best.

Marine Heads: Portable and Pump-Through

Figuring out what to do when nature calls on the water has been a problem since man started messing about in boats. At some point, we even decided to become more “civilized” by using marine toilets. But that’s when we also overcomplicated the whole business.

Today there are all sorts of marine sanitation devices (MSDs), and there are also lots of regulations that dictate how you can and can’t install and use them. It’s a subject that’s constantly confusing boaters, so let’s get right down to demystifying the most basic part of any sanitation system on a boat: the marine toilet, or “head.”

Short of a bucket, the simplest device to deal with onboard sewage is a portable head, aka porta-potty. This type of MSD has its own integral holding tank and refillable freshwater supply tank. You simply do your business, actuate a hand- or foot-operated pump, and then the water flushes away the bowl contents into the holding tank. When the tank is full, you take it ashore and empty it into a suitable toilet, or give it to a pump-out facility equipped to handle it.

A portable toilet has both water supply and holding tank incorporated into a single, compact design.
A portable toilet has both a water supply and holding tank incorporated into a single, compact design.

A manual marine head consists of a porcelain bowl, a hand-pumped raw-water intake, and a discharge elbow. Once the user has made a deposit, he or she actuates the pump by hand a half dozen or so times. The up stroke of the pump draws water into the bowl and flushes away the contents, while the down stroke expels the waste through the discharge elbow.

A manual marine head. Note the hand pump on the right side of the bowl.
A manual marine head. Note the hand pump on the right side of the bowl.

An electric head incorporates an electric pump that creates suction to pull in water and also expel waste from the bowl. That pump usually macerates (chops) that waste as it  is being discharged, too. The user just presses a button until the bowl is clear. Another type of electric head uses an electric pump to create a vacuum that pulls waste from the bowl back into a tank for holding—simply step on a foot pedal and everything in the bowl magically vanishes. SeaLand’s VacuFlush is one brand of vacuum head you may have heard of.

An electric flush marine head. The macerating pump for this model is situated to the right side of the bowl, at its base.
An electric flush marine head. The macerating pump for this model is situated to the right side of the bowl, at its base.

And yes, believe it or not, there are even composting and incinerating toilets that can be used on boats, but they are certainly specialized, and not the norm. Portable, electric, manual, vacuum—all sounds easy enough, right? Well, not so fast.

You can’t simply install one of the aforementioned marine heads and have it discharge overboard. Since it is illegal to discharge untreated sewage into pretty much any body of water in the United States, that means these heads must be plumbed to a holding tank or treatment device. Which, unfortunately, requires Y-valves, vented loops, specialized hose, and more words to explain than will fit in this short blog.

A basic marine holding tank. It looks innocent enough, but installing one requires some planning.
A basic marine holding tank. It looks innocent enough, but installing one requires some planning.

So, once you’ve had a chance to check out all the different types of marine heads out there, keep an eye out here for Part Two, when we’ll discuss the legal ways to install a new head and holding tank, or retrofit an old one to comply with overboard discharge laws.