ArticleBoatingService Repair

Stinky Situation

A marine toilet, or head, is a necessity on any boat where passengers will be onboard for extended periods of time. Actually, Florida law requires a toilet if the vessel exceeds 26 feet in length and features a galley and sleeping quarters. However, with this convenience comes the potential for unsanitary conditions and embarrassing stench. Possible causes are many and may include a full holding tank, sludge build up, clogged vent or pump out hose, or maybe even a faulty macerator pump. Yet even when the entire system is operating as intended foul odor often lingers.


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From plastic porta potties to ceramic toilets, heads must be kept clean. Photo: Century

Before we jump into Toilet TLC 101, lets take a quick peek into the pages of maritime history. Long before you and I were born, primitive sailing ships did not have bathrooms. Instead, toward the bow of the ship there was a section of deck that was cut out and covered with grating. Sailors needing to relieve themselves would do so over the grating where the waste would fall to the sea. Keeping this in mind, in nautical circles the term “head” refers to the top, or forward portion of a vessel. The head of the mast or the command “dead ahead” are good examples. So when a sailor needed to go he would simply say, “I need to go to the head.” The terminology has since stuck.

Use of household solutions like bleach and toilet bowl cleaners to combat odor will only attack the plastic, rubber and metal parts in your toilet system and should be avoided.

Technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in this area, and today virtually every reasonably sized vessel has some sort of bathroom facility. These range from a cramped porta potty concealed under a hatch somewhere to enclosed heads with all of the amenities of home.

A porta potty is fairly easy to deal with and can be taken ashore and emptied with a variety of disposal systems. Newer porta potties even feature cartridge systems for minimal inconvenience. Larger recreational vessels are more complex and must have an operable marine sanitation device (MSD) if the boat has a permanently installed toilet.

Type I and Type II MSDs are both flow-through devices that treat sewage through maceration or disinfection before it can be discharged. A Type III device is the most common and describes a toilet system with a fixed holding tank where sewage is contained until it can be properly disposed of at a pump-out facility. Otherwise, holding tanks may be discharged outside of state waters more than three nautical miles from shore along the Eastern Seaboard, and nine nautical miles from shore in the Gulf of Mexico. A Type III MSD is typically equipped with a discharge option in the form of a Y-valve. The Y-valve allows the boater to direct the flow of sewage into the holding tank or directly overboard. Large convertible and express style sport fishers are even more complex, with vessels over 40 feet required to have a written waste management plan, which contains information regarding policy and procedures for handling the vessel’s sewage. Regardless of vessel size, one thing is universal—your head must be kept clean and disinfected.

Cleaning the toilet, inside and out, is really the last thing anyone wants to do. This is especially true when you consider that no abrasive cleaners can go into the holding tank or down the drain due to environmental restrictions. Add to that a confined work space and cleaning the head is a task that’s easy to leave for another day.

After more than 20 years as a boat owner, the simplest solution I’ve found is spray foam bathroom cleaner/sanitizer. I believe it’s called Scrubbing Bubbles, and it’s available at every supermarket. I keep a can in the head along with a roll of super absorbent paper towels and disposable gloves so everything is handy when I need it. I start at the top of the head compartment aboard my SeaVee 390 and work my way down, spraying everything along the way including counter, sink, backdrop and interior and exterior of the toilet. While the product isn’t environmentally friendly, by using paper towels to thoroughly wipe clean nothing enters the holding tank and nothing goes down the drain. The method is easy and there are no harsh chemicals entering the environment. It only takes two minutes if everything is handy and as a result the head always smells fresh.

Even with a regular cleaning regiment heads often stink! This is where additives and deodorizers in the form of tablets, liquids or crystals come into play. Use whatever you’d like, but ODOR FREE ( is a proven favorite as it uses a time-release granular system. This environmentally friendly product is also effective at breaking down sludge so that pump out is complete and I believe it contains tissue digesters to further break down toilet tissue. There are a lot of different products on the shelf at West Marine or BOW for you to choose from.

Use of household solutions like bleach and toilet bowl cleaners to combat odor will only attack the plastic, rubber and metal parts in your toilet system and should be avoided. You run the risk of suffering from increasingly poor performance and when you have to replace the damaged parts the cost will far outweigh any savings in time or money that you may have gained.

Following these simple cleaning steps will ensure your head always smells welcoming. If foul odor lingers, you may very well have a problem somewhere in your plumbing that requires further investigation.

Avoid Clogged Toilets

Don’t put anything down the toilet that doesn’t belong there including feminine hygiene products, paper towels or food items. Additionally, using single-ply biodegradable marine toilet paper is by far the best way to go as it breaks down in the holding tank. It isn’t super soft, but it gets the job done.