How to Poop in the Ocean

When we bought Miss Teak at the end of last spring we knew the previous owner had her head plumbed to go directly overboard. For those of you who aren’t hip to boat terminology the “head” is boat speak for the toilet. In the United States, it’s against the law to dump black water within 3 nautical miles of shore. Although this is against the law many boaters choose to ignore this for convenience and to save money and effort to the debatable detriment of the marine environment. This wasn’t a big deal last year when we were going on day sails or short overnights when a bucket on deck was a simple solution for short stays. Just like a camping trip!

Once we made the decision to move aboard we knew we’d have to find a remedy. During these first few weeks it’s gotten REALLY old REALLY quick for all of us walking in the late winter wet weather the 100 yards or so to the marina bathroom facilities EVERY time we have to go. We’d have to bundle up, put on a raincoat, put on a life vest, get the dog collared up since it’s an ideal time to let him stretch his legs each trip and make our way through the weather (sometimes urgently) to get to the toilet. Replacing the head system very quickly shot to the top of our project list.

Most people think the only solution is what the Coast Guard refers to as a Type III marine sanitation device (MSD). This consists of some sort of holding tank which is plumbed to the head and which is periodically pumped out at a pump out station when it gets full. I should note the pump facility then submits the waste to the municipal treatment center which then (hopefully) treats the waste before transferring it directly into, you guessed it, the ocean. A y-valve exists in the head plumbing system to allow waste to be directed overboard when beyond 3 nautical miles from shore however the Coast Guard requires you to have the valve locked in the holding tank position when within that distance threshold.

On our boat, there is a location under our v-berth, where my pretty wife and I sleep, suitable for a holding tank. To put it simply, the common solution is to put a big tank of sloshing waste water under our bed which we store until it gets full at which point we either pump it out ourselves or pay someone to do it for us. If properly installed with quality hoses and connections, theoretically speaking, any smells or problems should be minimal or non-existent. However there is a level of maintenance that comes with this setup to ensure this remains the case. Additionally, as mentioned, there’s a level of effort with periodic pump-outs else you can choose to pay for the convenience of having a professional service come handle the pump-out for you.

One of our mottos during this transition to boat life has been to simplify as much as a possible whenever possible. To this end I began researching options.

Given that the most common option for boaters is a Type III MSD, one naturally wonders what a Type I and Type II might be. Turns out they’re both essentially the same thing albeit for different size boats. Type I and II devices are flow through devices which essentially disinfect the waste and macerate it (mush it up :-| ) so no visible solids are left behind before sending the whole sanitized lot is sent over board. No holding tank, no pump-outs, just environmentally friendly treatment before sending the waste over board. The difference between Type I and II is that Type I is for vessels under 65′ in length. Type II is for boats of any size however are typically more complex, larger, (think expensive) systems reserved for large yachts and cruise ships.

Here’s some information from the EPA explaining the difference.

Another option are composting toilets made especially for boats. These are technically classified as Type III devices since they have a holding tank to keep the waste while the composting reactions are taking place. The benefit of these beyond the environmental aspects is the lack of pump-outs. You need only remove the disease free compost made from solids periodically while dumping liquids separately. No pump-outs but it seems to me one is trading one level of effort for another. In addition to this it means swapping out our existing head with another and drilling a vent hole through our deck to allow composting gases to escape. The thought of drilling more holes through our boat makes my ass twitch.

There aren’t a ton of Type I devices for smaller boats but luckily Raritan makes one which has been in use on boats for the past 30 years although it’s a little pricey. We are very quickly learning when it comes to boat life, everything of true quality which will drastically increase our safety, peace of mind or quality of life tends to be pricey. It works by mixing the waste with salt water then running an electrical charge through the whole mess which converts the salt water to a type of chlorine. A macerator removes solids before converting the liquid back to salt water and then the sanitized waste gets flushed overboard next time the head is flushed. A report from the EPA testing this device shows traces of bacteria from the treated waste range from non-detected to more than 99.99% removed. In many cases, this is far better treated than most municipal treatment centers. Awesome. Since we’re already plumbed directly overboard it means removing the hose leading overboard and attaching it to the device and then adding another hose from the device back to the overboard thru-hull. A little bit of electrical wiring and we’re done.

After weighing our options and recognizing that any improvements we make to Miss Teak are improvements to our home we made the decision to go with the Raritan Electro-Scan device on Friday and by this evening I’ve got it finally installed.

The evening is filled with little joyous moments when we know we have to go to the bathroom and the dread of having to depart the boat begins to creep over us before we’re flooded with realizing we can now use our fully functioning and legal head on our little floating home.

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