Leaving Things Better Than you Found them Part 2… Heads

What is the most important appliance in your house? It is your toilet. You can live without basically everything else but everyone needs a place to put “that” stuff. On boats we call the toilet a head, not sure why but I think it is because when there is a problem you pound your head on the wall because it isn’t going to be a fun job. My first ever real boat project was a toilet job when I tried to fix the Y-valve which directs flow from the head to either the tank or the ocean. I disassembled the valve because it didn’t “feel right.” While trying to clean out salt deposits from the valve I washed the o-rings that seal the valve into the Key Largo canal without realizing it.

Wayne (from Celebration) and I have a joke about toilet failures – it usually involves either potential or actual shit water. His last head failure was due to operator error and actual shit water. This one did not, but I re-assembled without o-rings and it leaked on testing, only potential shit water so not so bad. I ordered new parts but the replacement parts leaked worse than using the old ones, so an iterative process ensued until a combination of new and old parts resulted in a leak free valve… 10 months and counting……………

For those of you who live on land and can take toilets for granted, a marine head is different from a land toilet. The first thing is that they are smaller than land toilets and have a handle beside the bowl. Most sailboats come with a manual head with means that the user, or some unlucky parent, must provide the power, via this handle, to pump clean water in and product out of the bowl. A Y-Valve downstream of the toilet directs the flow either overboard or to a tank. To prevent back flow from discharge lines, a joker valve is installed after the toilet. When this leaks you get awful smelling liquid in the bowl and that sucks. If you are discharging to ocean than you always pump the lines clean of product but if you are in tank mode, you would fill the tanks up in a day if you pumped that much water per use so the joker valve becomes very important.

Viatori's head system simplified.

Viatori’s head system simplified.

We had a leaking joker valve which we replaced and that has helped somewhat in preventing backflow from the tanks.

Leaking Joker Valves suck when you are on tank mode!

Leaking Joker Valves suck when you are on tank mode!

The tanks are mounted behind the walls which means to check the level you need to remove the wall panels which we don’t do. Instead we usually listen to the sound of the product falling into the tank when you pump to try and guess how far it is falling as a gauge for how much room is left. If you overfill the tank it should drain out of the vent line and down the side of the boat, accompanied by a wonderful smell. The previous owner of Viatori once overfilled the holding tank and then unfortunately plugged the vent line which then pressurized the holding tank to the point where you could not pump the toilet anymore. He, of course, didn’t consider the consequences of a pressurized holding tank but found out when he removed the deck fitting and earned the nickname poop-man. I always remove the deck fitting slowly to ensure this never happens to me.

How Jonathan earned the name Poop-man.

How the previous owner, Jonathan earned the name Poop-man.

When it is time to empty the tanks we call the marina office and they bring a boat with a vacuum pump and then hand you a hose which has been used a thousand times before… You “gladly” accept the hose and then you connect to your boats deck sewage fitting; Viatori has two so you get to do this twice. They hit the button and the pump runs, a clear portion of hose lets you know what you are sucking and then when the last of the “product” is gone you get to disconnect the hose which isn’t necessarily empty from your boat. Gingerly you undo the hose clamps and slowly lift the hose, hoping that any residual drips (there are always some) fall into the tank fitting instead of on the deck. You then either walk the hose to the next deck fitting or throw it overboard to get cleaned before they reel it back into the pump out boat.

With Viatori, we have two sewage tanks,each with a threaded deck connection. The pump out boat uses a hose fitting but will hand you an adapter from threads to hose fitting to connect to the boat. This means that you use a “clean” fitting for the first tank and if you don’t flush it a “dirty” fitting for the second tank. The hose from the pump-out boat is usually clean when they hand it to you but when you move it from deck fitting to deck fitting it isn’t and sometimes drips on the deck. This is by far the least glamorous part of owning a yacht.

Last time I pumped out, the pump-out boat guy laughed that this is one thing they don’t tell you about before you buy the boat at the boat show.

We have two heads aboard Viatori, one is designated a male head and one is for females. Needless to say the male head needs cleaning nearly every day but the female head only needs cleaning once a week – though I am sure it gets cleaned more than that. Some boats use the the rule “all performances require sitting” but we don’t on Viatori mainly because we have two heads. However, with four users, the male head sees a lot of usage and has over time started to wear out.

Conservative wisdom for cruisers is to complete a head rebuild on an annual basis but some boats wait for a failure before repair. To date we haven’t had a in-service catastrophic head failure but there have been times where the plugger would get stuck while trying to pump product into the tank – so far a quick switch to over-board mode has alleviated the problem.

However, whenever someone comes to me saying “the head won’t flush” my heart rate starts to elevate and I begin to fear the worst. One of my favorite youtube videos is a guy on “SV Delos” trying not to hurl while disassembling his head during an in-service failure. So far, thankfully, a combination of swearing, pushing and pulling on pump handles and perseverance have paid off in no in-service head failures.

The latest “I can’t flush it down” problem and an increasing level of looseness in the plunger handle led me to believe that it was time to change out as many of the parts of the male head as possible. I pumped a bunch of seawater through the lines and disassembled the head – only potential shit water this time – and replaced the plunger and handle assembly. Once removed, the old parts went into a bag as emergency spares and stowed away hopefully never to be needed.

The old, now emergency spare, head plunger.

The old, now emergency spare, head plunger.

Well, that has to be more than you ever wanted to know about marine heads!  Just another example that no project on a boat is ever simple and no system is without its faults.  But we fixed it and we left it better than we found it.

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