All About “Heads”
The term “Head” comes from the days of sailing ships in which the toilet was at the head or bow of the ship.
Have you ever been to that dock party having a nice cocktail, eating some fine hors-d’oeuvres and found yourself talking about “Heads”? It seems the conversation always starts out with introductions, tales of salty travel, then starts to veer towards boat systems and who has what for anchoring, charging systems, docklines, etc….then….. it takes the nosedive to toilets, and while you are sipping your sundowner, cracker and cheese in hand, you are talking about this like you are talking about the symphony. Of course, there’s no better sound than a smooth flushing toilet.
With a lifetime of boating experience and 2 decades of owning boats with heads on board, I have learned quite a few tricks to help prevent and solve problems on one of the most necessary systems on a boat. Having lived aboard for so many years and having a small frame (I’m 5’3” 105 lbs and my husband is 6’5” 265lbs), I became the obvious choice for handling many projects on our various boats. The fact that I am mechanically inclined, curious, and (like most boaters) can’t afford to pay someone to come to my boat every time something breaks, makes knowledge like this essential for a successful boating lifestyle.
Here are some of the most practical tips that I have learned over the years.
First off, if possible, always do a pump out on your boat before trying to take any system apart. I have seen some nasty explosions occur due to built-up pressure. If there is a clog in a line, you may not be able to relieve all of the pressure…so proceed with caution. Gloves are always a good idea and, if feasible, a water hose close by. Paper towels and spray disinfectant(with Clorox) will help with any emergency cleanup.
By far, the worst of the problems that I hear of- and have encountered personally, or have found on heads that I have worked on is a toilet paper problem. When someone tells me their head is not working properly, the first thing I ask is, “Do you flush toilet paper in your boat?”. If the answer is yes then I tell them to stop doing that. It doesn’t matter if you have the most expensive quick dissolving paper or Charmin, you will at some point have to take your entire system apart and deal with a paper clog. If you are lucky, it will be at an easy access point on the boat, which there are few of. They will normally ask what are they supposed to do with the paper. Being a woman that raised a daughter aboard, we always kept a small trash can lined with a paper or plastic bag tucked in an inconspicuous place for paper disposal. This bag is then disposed of daily along with your regular trash aboard. Now before you say, “that’s disgusting”, it is not near as bad as taking apart the entire system that is now clogged, trust me! When your paper does make it to your holding tank, it expands, therefore, limiting the amount of tank space. Always use the toilet “on the hill” at the marina you are staying at as much as you can to prevent overuse of your system.
Salad Dressing for your Head
— Scaling Over time your head system will build up scale in the hoses and also on the joker -valve. Heads with fresh water flushing systems seem to have less problem with this, but they do over time get scaly build up. To help prevent the buildup of scaling, I keep a supply of white vinegar aboard. Once a week add 1 part vinegar 3 parts fresh water to your head and flush. As this solution goes through the system, it works as a kind of astringent for your valves and hoses. White vinegar also helps prevent odors from saturating your hoses, in turn prolonging the lifespan.
— Seals/Valves The saying around boats, “If you use it, its gonna break, and if you don’t use it, its gonna break” could not be more fitting for a head. Letting a head sit for long periods of time without use can cause the seals and valves to dry up. This will make for trouble flushing and for manual heads, a very stiff handle. To help prevent damage to your seals and valves, before leaving your vessel for extended periods of time, add a tablespoon of mineral or vegetable oil to your head and flush very briefly. While you are away, your seals and valves will stay lubricated. Boating stores like West Marina sell a head lubricant, which is a mineral oil based product and very expensive. It’s just as easy to grab a little olive or vegetable oil from the Galley. You can also do this anytime your flushing mechanism feels stiff.
— Joker Valves Spares, spares, spares! If the head that you own has a joker valve, this will be an item that you will want to stock 2 or 3 extra on board as spares. The joker valve is a one-way valve that keeps your head from backing up. It is normally the first piece that comes off of the base of the head before it goes into the exit hose, depending on the model. If you have flushed your head dry and you go back and liquid has returned, then the first course of action is to replace the joker valve. You can usually pop out the old one and put in a new one easily once you take off the piece holding the valve. Again the vinegar solution will help clean this valve, the oil lubricate, and prolong its lifespan.
Salt or Fresh Water Flush
— Salt(raw) Water Flush Salt water flushing heads have many advantages, the first is that you are not using up your freshwater stores. When you are cruising and staying on anchor or get down to the Bahamas where water is at a premium price, you may not want to buy water to flush your head. Watermakers (desalinating systems) are very expensive systems(5-7 thousand dollars) to have installed on board and can take up a tremendous amount of space, plus have certain power requirements. Also, if you have a Lectra Scan system aboard, salt water is required for this system to function properly.
The biggest disadvantage to saltwater flush can be the smell, especially if you boat in an area with very organic water. The micronutrients in the intake hose can die before they make it to the head and cause the sulfur smell. If the head is flushed often, this may not be a problem, but if it sits for many hours, days, or weeks, it can be quite unpleasant. Installing a strainer on the intake to the head can help strain any barnacles, sticks, mud, or silt and help prevent it from passing through to the head itself. It is also a good access point to be able to flush the system with a hose forward and backward. You can add Barnacle Buster, Salt-Away, or distilled vinegar to this strainer to periodically give all of the lines a good cleaning.
— Fresh Water Flush There are so many heads to chose from. If you scan through the catalog of your local marine store, you will see the many choices available. Many power boats have fresh water flushing heads installed. The obvious advantage to this is that it is fresh water, therefore no silt, sand, mud, or plankton will be running through your system. One of my good friends on s/v Que Sera sucked up a small fish through his intake one time. Unfortunate timing for the fish.
If you have a Lectra San system with a fresh water flush, you will need to add a salt feed to the system to have it operate as it should.
Important note: If you are converting your salt water flush to fresh, you must install proper valves to the system and ensure there is no way for the intake water to siphon back into your fresh water tank. Some heads are built specifically to only be used with salt water, so check all specifications before changing this system.
Lectra/San System by Raritan
This is a USCG approved waste treatment device for boats. This may not be used in a NDZ(No Discharge Zone) which are most lakes and some rivers where there is little tidal flow. This device uses salt water, electricity, and a macerating system to sterilize all waste. This system can be used instead of a holding tank, or you can set it up with a y-valve to have all waste go to the holding tank if you are in a NDZ. It is required that the power source be hooked up to your 12 volt system and the plates in the unit will occasionally have to be cleaned with a muriatic acid solution. This is a system that I would not introduce a lot of toilet paper into, as it can be an all-day process to take this device apart for service. They are expensive(2-3 thousand dollars) to initially set up, but if maintained properly, will last for many years. For detailed information on the Lectra/San and NDZs go to:
Composting heads are now becoming more popular among cruisers. These heads eliminate the need for any water intake(no through hulls). A very big plus is no holding tank, which increases your storage capacity by not having the tank and getting rid of all the hoses that come with regular boat heads. Composting toilets work by using aerobic(using oxygen)decomposition. The solid waste mixed with peat moss, bacteria, and aeration creates an odor-free head. I know of at least 3 boaters at my marina that have converted to composting heads and love them. If used correctly, there is absolutely no smell. These heads can cost around $1200.00 depending on the brand. There are quite a few out there to choose from. Do your research and make a lot of measurements to find the best fit for your space. Some composting heads have a big footprint, so modifications may be in order. Here are links to some popular boat models.
There are many different treatment options on the market to break down waste and eliminate odors(Nitrates, Enzymes, Bioactives, and Chemical). I would go for the most environmentally friendly product that breaks down all of the solids, not just masks the odors. The Captain of OLOH swears by a product called Zaal Noflex Digestor which he has used for years. He adds 1 Tbsp per person aboard every other day and no other holding tank treatments at all. This product break down everything to liquid (even paper). This product also helps with cleaning the hoses as well as eliminating any odor. At the time of this entry the Captain and Admiral have been virtually full time cruisers for almost 5 months now and having recently spent a lot time on OLOH, I have not encountered any head smell, This product may seem expensive, but if it works as well as the reviews state, then it is well worth the approximately $20 you can find it for with a quick web search (the Captain buys it from Marine Sanitation and Supply, linked above).
Note: I am still not a fan of putting toilet paper in a head, but in this case, the No Flex seems to be breaking it down quickly. This is also being used with a Vacuflush System, so no macerator blades to jam. Hopefully, success with this product will continue and the wench with a wrench will not have to be called.
Happy Cruising and Smooth Flushing,