The Cruising Chronicles: Part 14 (On toilets)

To pump or compost? We

To say I have an aversion to outhouses is putting it mildly.

My mother still laughs hysterically when recalling the time that she took me, then about 3 years old, to an outhouse during some wretched camping trip or another. I got within a few feet of it and my gag reflex kicked in, presaging what would become a lifelong horror of the dreaded, smelly structures.

To this day I refuse to set foot in an outhouse. I’ll happily walk a mile out of my way to find a regular flush toilet. The odor of outhouses, the lack of hand-washing facilities, the gaping black hole — it all makes my skin crawl. A 2005 incident in which a man was found hiding in the tank under a women’s outhouse in New Hampshire — after a teenager girl went to use the toilet and saw a face staring up at her — further underscored the creepiness of outhouses to me.

So the notion of a composting toilet on our boat initially seemed out of the question. I envisioned a crude device that our guests would be loathe to use, that would pollute the entire boat with its vile odor. And emptying it? Oh, no. Out of the question.

But alas, our onboard facilities have issues that are forcing our hand. The previous owner installed a too-small holding tank that requires pumping out every few days, and the holding tank hoses have become what Marty politely refers to as “permeated” (in other words, my sensitive sniffer can detect a distinctly shitty smell wafting through the boat).

So at the recent Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival, I figured we might as well check out the composting toilet display, for curiosity’s sake if nothing else.

We stopped by the Air Head Composting Toilet booth and asked for a demo. The man there happily obliged, showing us how liquids and ahem, solids are separated into two different tanks. An enzyme mix is added to the peat moss or other composting material in the solids tank to initiate the composting process and a Z-shaped metal arm inside the tank churns up the contents via a hand crank on the outside.

The liquid tank needs to be emptied every few days, the man said, but the solid tank will only need to be emptied about once a month for a couple living aboard, or once a season if the boat is used just on weekends. A 12-volt fan that comes with the unit pulls moisture out of the air. The toilet is easy to install and best of all, he assured us, there’s little or no smell involved.

The horror. The horror.

No holding tank, no rank hoses and no smell? I must have looked a little incredulous, but the owner of a boat with an Air Head onboard happened to be standing next to us and invited us to come and see it. Off we went a few hours later to find the lovely 1958, Ed Monk-designed boat, Hobnob. Owner Brad Mace was inside and welcomed us onboard, at which point it occurred to me just how odd it was to seek out a perfect stranger to ask him what he thought of his crapper.

Mace, it turned out, was an ideal person to consult with on the topic. His significant other so hated the porta potty that came with the boat that they removed it, choosing a long trek to the marina bathroom in the wee hours over the porta potty. Their boat was kept at the end of a dock at Elliott Bay Marina for a time, and anyone who’s stayed there knows just how long those docks are. Clearly, this woman was a kindred spirit, as was Mace.

“I hate pumping out. I hate hoses. I hate the idea of it,” he said. “This smells enough like a boat anyway. Why add one more layer of smell to it?”

A year after installing the toilet, Mace said there have been no complaints from guests. He and his girlfriend are happy with their Air Head. “She loves it,” he said. “With the fan, there is virtually no smell.”

We poked our heads inside their head and indeed, smelled nothing. If Mace and his girlfriend are happy with their Air Head toilet, maybe we could be as well.

The idea of getting rid of our holding tank and putrid, permeated hoses makes me almost giddy. We still need to install a heater on Three Sheets, but I’m almost tempted to put the head project first. Heat versus no holding tank and smell? It’s a tough one.

An Air Head toilet isn’t cheap; the unit is listed on Air Head’s website at $969, plus about another $330 for parts and supplies (a competing brand named Nature’s Head is listed at $850). But neither are the larger holding tank and OdorSafe hoses we’d want to buy if we stick with conventional heads. We have two of them, and would have to install about 40 feet of new hose, at a cost of about $7 a foot.

All this has made me acutely aware of the boaters’ elephant in the room. We may not want to talk about onboard toilets, but we all have to deal with them. In a house or other land dwelling, the unpleasantness disappears with the simple flick of a handle. On a boat, you’re either pumping out or making fertilizer. There’s no way around it. Earthier types might point out that regular toilets merely obscure and sanitize what is a perfectly normal function. Well, yeah. And that’s fine with me.

And forget about privacy. What’s normally hidden discreetly down a hallway and behind a couple of walls is often separated by less than an inch of door on a boat. Any sounds or other indication of what’s going on behind that door may be, depending where the head is situated, immediately apparent to guests or whoever is onboard. Suddenly, that forward head on our boat makes a lot of sense.

The tentative plan at this point is to decommission the forward head and get a composting head for the main head off the salon. If we like it, we could get a second one for the forward head.

These are considerations I never imagined I’d be contemplating, just as I once thought that the idea of moving aboard a boat, which we’re also considering, was crazy talk. But I could soon become something I never thought I’d be: the owner of my very own composting toilet.

Do you have a composting toilet? If so, we’d like to hear your thoughts on any pros and cons.

6 Responses to The Cruising Chronicles: Part 14 (On toilets)

  1. Juli March 20, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    We live aboard and have a composting head, works very well for us. We built our own from a kit. It’s been a year and we’re still happy with the unit.

  2. capt bruce December 6, 2010 at 10:20 am #

    a boat
    with humans on board, will always leave a smear of brown and yellow in it’s wake.
    it’s a natural occurence.
    when a boat heels over in a happy wind,,what happens to the “soild and liquid separating tanks?
    a check valve somewhere in that line WILL fail sometime in the future and WILL need to be replaced.
    heads stink.
    they always have and always will when they have to hold poop and pee in a tank,churning,heating,cooling,venting,giving birth and living,the dieing ,,oh no heads are like a ship-born purgatory with hell just under the bilge boards waiting for oxygen to pro-create and send the scent of rotten hoses and solids,macerator pumps with burned-out empellers or motors from a few errant tampons and you with the gasket kit,,,the knowledge of how to fix it and the fact you know it will be you . no matter how well you plan,you’ll forget a tool,
    or your assitant will object to the smell of a holding tank at a 15 degree heel.
    or,, you could something you could never have your life
    you could just pee over the side, or in the scuppers.
    hey,millions of marine mammals can’t be wrong.
    don’t try to get me started on diapering the fish.
    i won’t go there.

    if a boat stands moored,,a composting “toilet” could entertain several guests.still, the solids and the liquids would have to be held,and eventually moved.

    my thoughts,
    if you are going on a boat,away from the comforts of doors that close, tossing the scent of lavender and dried flowers and the sound of fresh running water and scented soap to wash your hands,,,,
    then you should use the “shore facility”.

    over many years of hauling 10’s of thousands of passengers and guests on boats under my command,i have yet to have anyone offer to carry-off the #2 they left in your holding tank..
    or even to clean up the breakfast of eggs and chorizo that just blew-up in the owner’s wife’s cabin.
    so,,i short,pee ashore,leave nothing on board that you wouldn’t eat[unless it was run through a fish]and help clean up the vessel that has carried you so elagantly in the last few hours.
    then,hurry ashore and empty your bulging bladder

    • Marty McOmber December 6, 2010 at 2:38 pm #

      Very good Capt. Bruce. You definitely have a lot of experience on the subject.

      The nice thing about the marine composting heads are that there is no connection between the liquid tank and the sold tank. So there is no check valve to fail. It helps if gentlemen sit down in order to make sure the liquid arrives at its intended destination. But even if some gets into the solid container, it isn’t an issue.

      We’ll let you know how it all works out — so to speak 🙂

  3. Carolyn October 30, 2010 at 9:25 pm #

    Deborah, I chuckled out loud at your story, the description of your reaction to the dreaded out house brought great laughter!I think installing an air head toilet may be a great thing to do.

  4. Bill Ray October 12, 2010 at 11:31 am #

    Unless you have guests a lot you might not bother with a complete second head. I carry a basic portapotty as an emergency backup in case our one Techma macerator head fails, but the Techma is simple and well behaved (kn-kn).

  5. pacificsailors October 12, 2010 at 10:10 am #

    Love this topic! We have a composting head and it has been great. You can find more of our thoughts and comments in the Three Sheets forum and here:
    Happy to answer any questions!

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