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Entries in head (9)


talking turkey about marine sanitation devices (a.k.a. heads)

This topic will be of no interest to any land based readers, so feel free to x out this right now. But for sailors, especially those who live on their boats, and especially those who live on their boats in foreign waters, this topic is very important. Every week or two I get someone sending an email asking about it and I've been putting a lot of them off, so hopefully this addresses everything in one swoop.

In 2007, I removed our first head. A manual "wet" system that had a big ass holding tank.

Still in 2007, we then installed a Lavac. Another manual "wet" system, but more durable and with less moving parts.

In 2010, we ripped out the Lavac and installed a Nature's Head composting head. With it went the 25 gallon holding tank and all the hoses. We plugged all the various holes through bulkheads and two thruhulls were shut, their bronze barb fittings staring up unused in the bottom of a compartment.

In 2012, we threw the Nature's Head into the trash and put a Raritan SeaEra electric "wet" system in place with a fairly straight forward holding tank. The head discharges into the top of the tank which sits above the waterline, and there's a single drain hose from the tank to a thruhull fitting. In the right setting we keep it open, in the wrong settings we keep it closed. Regarding the "complexity" of an electric unit, there are a gazillion other moving parts on a modern boat so the religiousness by which some folks want to stick with manual is beyond me. It's noisy, but you get used to it. It's also easier on the plumbing and you can use normal toilet paper.

Here's the details:

The Nature's Head is terrific, but we had a massive bug infestation. Mind you, this is after we used it successfully for nearly a year. We're not filthy people, we followed all the rules, but at the end of the day you are creating an environment that is perfect for organisms to flourish in, including disgusting little bugs. Once they are in, they are extremely hard to get rid of. Very few boats have this problem. We have a friend who got hit by a whale in an anchorage: weird shit happens. For us, we experienced a huge bug infestation and I didn't want to go through it again. We're talking about millions of barely visible white worm like creatures all over the boat.

Other than the bug problem, the Nature's Head was terrific and we would still be using it today. If you live on the boat the solids compartment will not be composted fully and chances are you'll be staring directly at a turd or two. But there is no smell, it's extremely benign, and even emptying the wet container every day or two is no big deal. Just don't spill when moving it around through the boat in a seaway (ask me how I know). Regarding throwing solid waste in the trash, I've heard people call human feces "hazmat". Well, take a look at what a diaper has in it from every human child.

The Lavac is terrific but in a holding tank environment it pumps A LOT of water so you will either a) scale your hoses by not pumping enough or b) fill up even a large holding tank quickly.

Regarding holding tanks, let me be honest and tell you over the vast majority of the world pumpout situations simply do not exist or happen. After having been in Mexico I've seen a lot of boats, hundreds by this point, with folks living on them that rarely leave the slip. No one is pumping out. They dump the tanks at night. No one will tell you this. The marinas want to pretend that no one does it because it's gross, owners don't want to get in trouble, and no one wants to be the guy in the room that farted. But it's the reality.

The reality is that with a blend of judicious holding tank use, shore facilities for the dirtier of the two human movements, day sails, and outbound tides at night, you can be a fairly responsible citizen regardless of whether or not you're in an area that has pumpout systems. And again, the odds are about 10,000 to 1 that you'll have access to pump out systems.

I'm disabling comments on this entry because I don't want to get into an Internet argument about pumping crap overboard, whether or not we should have used COIR or peat moss, or whatever else people can come up with. We have a holding tank, we use it. Pump out systems don't exist in most of Mexico, and from the folks I've talked to in the South Pacific and Asia you'll find nothing there either. In the Med and other heavy areas of "yachting", I'm sure things are little different.


the point of no return with the composting head

There comes a point in a journey when it takes longer to go back to the beginning than it does to continue onward: the point of no return.

Three years ago I installed the Lavac head that is now sitting at the bottom of a dumpster along with every element that makes up the wet plumbing system. We purchased a new Nature's Head composting toilet that I'll be installing in a few days time and one of the first courses of action was to yank out all the wet plumbing. 

The boat smells much nicer now. :-)

There is some interior work that I'm doing and quickly the new composting head will get installed right afterwards.


oh wet plumbing system, how foul and disgusting art thou

i dare you to full screenI'm currently in the middle of redoing the head compartment. Rot in the bulkhead, switching out the toilet to a composting head, pulling all the wet plumbing, sanding / painting, and various plumbing enhancements. Needless to say the boat smelled like an open sewer for a bit and I've been a bit busy.

I'm going to take a while to write everything out, but I thought I'd share this little picture as a teaser of sorts. That's a marine sanitation hose (a.k.a. "shit pipe"), and the nasty vileness is mineral deposits.

Amongst other things, that's a "urine scale" buildup, and happens when some of the stuff found in urine combines with some of the stuff found in salt water.

Rest assured that your marine head is slowly but surely becoming that. No matter what you do, the pipes will clog and you will get to spend a day cutting into shit pipes. Theoretically you can just take this hoses off their fittings, bang on them overboard with a hammer to break up the gunk, and you're back in business. If you can do that, you're more than me. The only way I know to install these things is with a heat gun and brute force, and removing them is via a razor or saw. 


boat toilet paper in bulk

 In my never ending penny pinching quest, we found a cheap(er) toilet paper option. West Marine toilet paper will set you back $1.50 a roll.

However, is selling an RV/Boat edition for $1.01 a roll in packs of 12.

Okay so perhaps it's not the most entertaining blog post we've ever made, but it might just be the most personal ones that touches you in ways no other will. Yes, I just made that joke.


Replaced the bronze anti siphon

Just thought some of my maritime friends might appreciate this shot. It's an old anti-siphon for the head sea water intake, with the new one sitting next to it, and a lighter for scale. The big knob on top of the new one was completely gone on the old one.


my dance with marine sanitation: act 2

I've taken a bit of a hiatus from my regular blogging, because of work, play, social responsibilities, and reading. I also have a new business idea in the works, but I don't want to jinx it just yet. Colin asked me a good question however, so it's time I get my act together and discuss the current status of Eric and Charlotte's toilet.

The stink remains
I've learned a few things lately, all centered around Peggy Hall's article, which you should absolutely read and commit to memory. It caused me to create this thread, where I believe I know what I must do in order to remove the stink as much as possible. Let's break down exactly what problems I have right now.

Insufficient Air Flow

Peggy Hall states:

Sewage contains both aerobic (need oxygen to survive and thrive), and anaerobic bacteria (thrive in an airless environment); neither can function in the other’s environment. Why is that important? Because only the anaerobic bacteria in sewage produce foul-smelling gasses! Aerobic bacteria break sewage down, as does anaerobic bacteria--but aerobic bacteria do not generate odor. So as long as there is a sufficient supply of air to the tank, and an aerobic bacteria treatment is added to aid that which naturally occurs in sewage, the aerobic bacteria thrive and overpower the anaerobic bacteria, and the system remains odor free.

This is very important, and it makes sense what's happening in my tank. I have a tiny little vent that has far too long of a run, and is no where near sufficient to support aerobic activity (ask yourself: could you breathe in a space with the vent your current holding tank does?). This is very noticeable when our head is flushed, as the air coming from the vent line smells like death. Normally the wind blows it away from us, but at night the wind circles back around on us, and it comes down the forward hatch into the v berth: very much a bad deal.

To that end, I am getting ready to get very serious with this problem. My solution consists of these parts:

ThruHullPlastic.jpg ThruHullBronze.jpg 


These are all 1 1/2" interior diameter, representing a plastic thru hull, a flexible hose with a smooth interior, and a bronze thru hull.

Given the fact that we don't have enough air going into the holding tank, I think putting two 1 1/2" vents in should do the trick. It will be a gross job, and the more I think about it the more likely I'll be that I'm going to get a new holding tank to do the installation. Probably a good time to get a new holding tank anyway.

So I cut two holes for the plastic thru hulls, one on each side of the holding tank (closest to outboard). Then I cut two holes in my topsides, and put the bronze thru hulls in. I'm not planning on putting sea cocks on them, since they're above the waterline. But I'll probably find some type of valve that shuts them off if I want to. Run the hoses between the two, and whalla! I'll have an excellent cross breeze going through the holding tank. 1 1/2" is a pretty damn large vent, and with any kind of breeze that should work wonders for moving air around.

Insufficient Air Flow, Again (in the hoses)

I'm not positive about this one yet, but imagine a scenario where you have a dip in a hose. What happens is that stuff gets into the dip, and since there probably isn't any airflow in there, carbon dioxide begins to form, which kills off the aerobic bacteria, and you're back to the stinky anaerobic stuff again. Those gasses will travel wherever they can, which in my case is out my manual overboard pump. So I'll be needing to redo my hose run on that, which really will be no fun.

Sea water stinks

This one there isn't much I can do about to be honest, but the Lavac really helps mitigate it. Sea water has a lot of stuff living in it, and it dies rather quickly, once again giving off gross gasses. Properly ventilated with aerobic bacteria, this isn't an issue. But in the intake line to your head, it will stink to hell and back when you put that water in the bowl to flush if you haven't flushed in a while (you'll notice it in the mornings, and late at night if you haven't used the head all day; certainly on the weekends or whenever you head down to the boat as well).

With the lid closed on the Lavac (how it spends most of its life), the smell is trapped under the seal. This is the major reason people use fresh water for their heads sometimes; no smell at this point.


Head install weekend is over, successfully.

Adios, M.F.
The new head I've wanted for a while finally arrived a few weeks ago, and this last weekend, it got installed. It was, absolutely, the most brutal and horrible job I've ever done on the boat. I put all the pictures up, because I want to remember this savage weekend.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Working with sanitation hose is insanely painful and difficult. I found that using a pan of boiling water, a heat gun, and all the strength in the world was almost enough to do what had to be done.
  • A Japanese saw was used for cutting the sections, of which there were about 15.
  • It took in total about 20-30 hours of labor.
  • The hoses that had effluent sitting in them the longest were the ones most destroyed. The calcium (or whatever mineral that was) had blocked up maybe 1/4" - 1/2" thick all along the interior of the tube; it was really amazing. It looked almost like gills; pure white.
  • My friend Ryan came and helped both days; I have no idea how I would have accomplished this without him.
  • Some of the "head stink" is still here, but that's okay. The head is now made up of component parts, all of which are independent of the other, and can be worked on or replaced individually. My next thing to replace is the vent hose, which I think might be plugged up, and then I'll probably bag wrap the Y valves. My guess is that replacing the vent hose will solve a lot of these problems.

Smile for the camera
It completely trashed the boat, and since a trace of the stink is still there, it looks like this weekend will be dedicated to the head as well, although it will be much less brutal than the first time around.


4:00am + sore throat = time to get the new head

This little cold of mine doesn't want to quit, and this morning I woke up with a raw and painful throat. I tried my best not to wake Charlotte, but boats are really noisy to walk around in. The wood (which is everywhere) creaks under your foot. Every breathe you take creates noise. I think I understand why the Navy made me such a sound sleeper: there are so many noises on a boat that you will never get any rest until you can completely ignore them.

The new Lavac!
Either way, it's time to order the new head, which I might try to install next weekend (or the weekend after). I've had a dream of owning a new Lavac Popular head for a while now. As you can see in the picture, there is no pump attached to the head. In fact you only use one of the two pumps shown (although you can use both if you have deep pockets). Maybe you're not familiar with the joys of marine sanitation systems, so please feel free to get an overview of how to use a boat head before you have to.

The awesomeness of the Lavac is its simplicity. It is just a bowl, and when the lid is closed, it's airtight. It works like this:

  1. When you open the lid, there will be a bit of water in the bottom, like a normal toilet.
  2. You put whatever it is you wanted to put in there (the reason your using it in the first place), plus some marine grade toilet paper.
  3. You close the lid, thereby generating an airtight seal.
  4. You operate the pump, which is sucking whatever is in the toilet, at the same time it's causing sea water to come into the toilet and act as a flushing system.


That's it! You're done! No more flipping the "dry/flush" switch like we do on our Raritan PHII. The simple nature of this head has me sold. Only one machine, the pump, which is manually powered, and is separate from the toilet itself. The pump itself is built like a brick shithouse, consisting of the Whale Mark 5 manual bilge pump. These things are as ubiquitous as water on boats.The real pain the ass factor with heads comes from having to work with the sanitation hose, which costs around $10/foot. Not so much a hose as a rather inflexible pipe, getting those pieces to fit is the constant complaint of those who have worked on their own heads.

I need to get un-sick before I can start on any of this, but I don't need much energy to order the head online, which I can at least get started with today.


Awesome Experience #459: tracking down fecal odor in the head plumbing

The most pressing issues at the moment, on the boat, is the lack of a usable stove, and the smell of rotten fecal matter that permeates our lives. Let's start with the latter of the two.


We always knew that the head smelled a bit, but as to how much, where, and why, those were mysteries. I suppose I chalked it up to the idea that boats tend to stick in general, so this just one of the aspects. As I found out, boats shouldn't really stink at all if you do it right, and certainly not the head.

To summarize, there are two things going on that I (and my friend Ryan) helped identify. There is an initial stink factor that happens on salt water plumbed boats. Salt water is teaming with biological life, and you pump it into your hoses. You then seal the sea cocks, and seal in the living creatures into your hoses. They die, and generate some extremely bad gasses. So when you use your boat on the weekends only (or less frequently), you can be promised a rather disgusting blast of gas in your face.

head2.jpgWhen you blow into a straw in your soda, bubbles come out the top. The same goes for when you pump waste water into the holding tank; the air you're displacing needs to go somewhere. To address this issue, a vent is always installed, that usually terminates in the bow or just above the waterline. Obviously the air in the poop tank is disgusting, so when it goes out the vent (caused by your flushing), it can really knock the wind out of you.

So the first thing I needed to do was determine that the vent was working, otherwise the air can leak directly into the boat, which is absolutely gross.

The next thing I checked was the connections. My friend Ryan would pump, and I would dribble soap suds all over the connections, looking for bubbling. Didn't find any. Then I bagged the manual pump and the Y valve, hoping that the smell would vanish, and I could reproduce it by opening one of the bags.

Under the bags, everything smelled fine. So where was this nasty stink coming from? The vent, connections, and tank itself seemed fine. We've been using the head every few hours over the last couple of days, so the dead-sea-water-living-things-nasty-gas issue shouldn't be present.head3.jpg

Then we smelled it: two of those hoses smelled like hell. One of them is the long run from the head to the tank. There's a sag in it, which would have allowed waste water (fecal matter + sea water) to hang out, probably for months, in that pipe. The same goes for the outbound pipe, which sits lower than the tank, also letting gross stuff hang out in it for way too long. All the other hoses smelled like plastic, but those two smelled like shit.

At nearly $10 per foot, good sanitation hose is not cheap by any means. Ryan and I were commenting on how we get it now why so many people just do direct discharge overboard. It's not only illegal, but for people like myself with sea water pumps installed in the galley, rather unsanitary as well. In the big blue ocean it's not really an issue, but in a harbor, it's completely unacceptable. Even still, looking at such a gross project that will cost so much money, when flipping a Y valve to "direct discharge" would solve it all, makes you consider it for a split second.

So that's my little story of my stinky head. I've gotten much more familiar with my boat, and although this is a gross thing and I'm not done with it yet, I like knowing that I'm a little bit smarter than when I started this process. Also, as a trick if any of you have the problem of stinking hoses but you need to deal with it for a few days before you can fix it, wrap them in plastic trashbags (the thicker the better), and tape them up nice and good. We taped them off, and then sealed a couple of the big holes into that space (for storage access) with painter's tape and some trash bags; completely removed the smell. Certainly not the long term fix, but it made for a good night's rest.