Start with the right toilet then add the waste-management method that works best for you
Sailors like refitting sails, rigging and electronics, anything but heads. Heads are not sexy, not fast and not fun. But the high-tech advancements in toilets and marine sanitation systems restore bragging rights to the heads. Let's face it, for a weekend of coastal cruising a nice head could be more important than a new suit of sails.
There two main parts to most marine heads. The first the part is the toilet, and the second part holds or processes whatever comes downstream from the toilet. For the most part, it's possible to mix and match the two components, putting an electric head with a holding tank, or a hand-pump head with a waste treatment system.
Holding tanks are perhaps the most common system found in larger boats, but they have the obvious disadvantage of requiring regular pump-outs at the dock. In some coastal areas untreated waste can be pumped overboard beyond three miles offshore, but not in no-discharge zones like the Great Lakes.
Instead of discharging overboard or holding waste in a traditional tank, composting toilets are U.S. Coast Guard approved and considered an environmentally sound alternative to traditional holding tanks because they convert waste into environmentally friendly compost, just like garden refuse is composted at home. They work by draining liquids into a two-gallon catch bottle, and then the solids and paper drop into the composting tub. The tub contains peat moss or coconut fibers which dry the deposit. Dry solids are decomposed by olfactory-friendly aerobic bacteria. The onboard smell is described as either nonexistent or musty.
To aid the drying process, composting toilets run a low-amperage fan with external venting. The fan runs 24/7. Larry Stearn, of Nature's Head, said that in some cases an old holding tank pump-out hose and deck port can be conveniently converted into a vent.
The installation and composting concept is relatively easy, but what to do with the composted remains? Most weekend sailors can use the tub all season without emptying it, and live-aboards can get two or three weeks, depending on air temperature and humidity.
Composting works above 55 degrees, but really cooks above 70 degrees. Still, composting takes time, and recently deposited waste will be raw. Geoffery Trott, of Air Head composting toilets, recommends continued composting in a dry garbage can at home for three months before dispersing the compost on flowers or trees, but never on food crops. A few marinas have composting bins, but according to Trott, "The infrastructure is not yet developed," for easy handling of compost.
Avoiding holding tank horrors
If composting toilets commune you a little too closely with nature, then holding tanks systems are an alternative. Bad odors are the most common problem in holding tanks, followed by a range of mechanical failures and operator errors.
There are two ways to combat the evil smelling anaerobic bacteria. The first is adding something to the tank. Peggie Hall, also known as "the Head Mistress," suggests reading chemical safety labels and choosing an additive that is not harmful to humans. Raritan's KO is one such product.
A non-additive, mechanical choice for an odor-free tank is Groco's Sweettank, a low-amperage, aquarium-style bubbler that aerates holding tanks. It works best on rigid tanks and can be installed in almost any brand tank. The oxygen introduced by the bubbler lets the aerobic bacteria overwhelm the anaerobic bacteria, reducing holding tank odor. Like the composting toilet fans, the bubbler should run all the time.
Pick your flush
After choosing a particular sewage system, pair it with a compatible toilet. The electric toilets, like Jabsco's Lite Flush (which also has a slow close lid), demystify the marine head flushing process. Simply push the foot pedal once to fill the bowl and once again to flush.
Flushing is even easier with Raritan's Elegance toilet using the Smart Flush control system. It is a great choice for boats that often sail with guests because it can be filled and flushed with the push of a single button on a control pad. The programmable control pad will also fill only, flush only or fill and flush with half the water.
Another easy-empty technology is vacuum flush, the kind of toilet used on airplanes. A vacuum system is sealed until a foot pedal or electronic control panel opens a valve at the bottom of the bowl sucking the contents into the holding tank. Sealand's VacuFlush vacuum toilet uses one pint of fresh water which reduces the stagnant saltwater smell. Sealand makes a special holding tank for sailboats combining vacuum pump and vacuum reservoir into a hull-conforming tank.
There's nothing stagnant about Thetford's Tecma X-Light toilet. Made from carbon fiber, it's the perfect match for a carbon fiber boat. This fast and sexy toilet is also fun-who wouldn't smile sitting on the X-Light at 25 knots?