Aug 102012

Of all the facets and issues of living on a boat on the water, none causes more problems, more headaches, and more fines than the issue of proper disposal of waste.  And by waste I mean the kind that we humans ingest and deposit later on.  It’s highly illegal to dump raw sewage over board in the inshore waters but that rarely stops anyone from doing so.  Dumping raw sewage is a health and environmental issue and the rules are enforced with the utmost care.  Fines are high and the reputation of live aboards dumping waste overboard, particularly those who live on the hook or out in mooring fields is suspect at best.  While the means to store and properly dispose of waste are there, many chose to be lazy or not care where the crap flows, as long as it’s not within sight or smell of them.  Checking to see if vessels have the proper means to store and get rid of waste is an ongoing mission of the waterborne law enforcement.  It’s common for the water police to board boats at inopportune times, like 3:00 am and do impromptu inspections.  (Remember that the law needs no warrant nor reason to board a boat and look for whatever they want at any time of their choosing.  Your constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure end where the land does).  To avoid all this hassle is pretty simple though, outfit your vessel so it can legally store and get rid of waste.  Here are the basics:

The marine toilet, or head as it is called, is very different from the land based versions.  They are smaller and may require either a hand pump or electric pump in order to operate.  Here is a typical example of the hand pump kind:

In order for a marine toilet to function it needs water so you will need a feed to provide water.  Salt water works just fine so you will need to add a pump that draws seawater in from outside.  Here is where a problem sets in.  Marine toilets are notorious for clogging up so the rule of thumb is to never put anything in a marine toilet that you haven’t eaten first.  If you are drawing in seawater for the toilet to function, and it clogs up for some reason, the pump may continue to run and fill your boat with seawater.  Not a pleasant experience.

Anyways, once you have the toilet set you need someplace for the waste to go.  But in between the toilet and waste tank, you may want to add a macerator.  This is simply a sort of garbage disposal which takes all the solid matter and churns it up into a more manageable liquid state.  As for the storage tank, here is where most people get into trouble.  A typical vessel will have what is called a “Y” valve built in after the the toilet.  One end of the valve goes to an onboard storage tank.  The other goes through the hull and dumps the waste over the side.  There is a gate that can be moved to either direction.  If you are inshore, at a marina, or mooring field, by law you will have to have the “Y” turned in the direction of the onboard storage tank and locked so it can’t be moved back.  If not, and any waste sneaks over the side, you are in deep doo doo.  A favorite tactic of law enforcement is to come on board and drop a packet of dye in your toilet, and flush.  If any dye appears along side of the boat, get out the checkbook and start writing lots of numbers.  (No word on how toxic the dye is).

So, assuming you have followed the rules, and all your waste is going into a storage tank, what do you do when the tank is full.  Simple, you sell the boat and start over.  Actually, at this point you become up close and personal with pump outs.  Pumpouts are the marine version of dumping stations for rv’s.  They are the means to empty out your waste tank.  There are many ways to get a pump out, all of which cost money, another reason why some don’t follow the rules as they pertain to sewage.  Most marinas will have a pump out station, or a portable pump out available at the docks or slips.  Just roll it over, stick in the hose, and suck out the waste.  More fancy marinas may even have a sewage system at the slips where you can plug directly into the sewers, but these are rare.  For everyone else there are the county pumpout services.  Here in Monroe County, which covers the Keys, they have several boats that do nothing but hit all the marinas and moored boats every week and pump out the tanks.  The county recognizes that sewage disposal is a problem so they have been pro active on putting a program together like this using grant money and fees from the boaters.  A typical pumpout may cost about $5 and up depending on the size of the boat.  It’s a nice little service that the county provides and well worth the cost to legally and properly dispose of the waste.  Too bad most people don’t care or are too lazy to take the time to do so.  As for my situation here on the Fritter:

What I have:  Nothing.  Whatever was originally on the boat for a toilet and storage is long gone.  Where the toilet used to sit is now the cat’s litter box.  I have to use the bathhouse which while it’s clean and all, is sometimes a bit far to go, especially with my over active bladder.  For emergencies I keep an empty gatorade bottle handy.

Here is an interesting tidbit…In the 5 years I have lived in the Keys, for about 8 months out of that I have had my own toilet.  All the rest of the time I had to use a shared bathroom.

What I want:  I looked closely at composting toilets in the past.  These folk at Airhead have an interesting design.  The issues with composting toilets are initial cost, around $1000 and where to take the compost.  They are also larger than the standard marine toilet so may not fit in some places.  These are things I haven’t fully researched yet. The advantages of composting is it uses no water, the waste stays in the tank below the bowl, and the whole system is very simple to operate and maintain.

Reality:  It all comes back to money of course.  To put in a simple manual toilet, macerator, and storage tank will run about $500 or so.  It’s not a particularly difficult project.   A porta potty is ok for day trips but doesn’t meet standards at most marinas and mooring fields.  If I stay where I am for now I can continue to use the bath house and put up with the inconvenience.  Should I move, then installation of some sort of head will be necessary.

Unlike land based living, when you move onto a boat you will become up close and personally responsible for your waste.  It’s something that many people don’t want to deal with due to the icky factor or just plain laziness.  But it is important.  Improper disposal of waste affects the water and all who live on or under it.  It don’t take much to spend a little time and money to keep it clean and legal for everyone.

Capt. Fritter

  2 Responses to “Living Aboard, Marine Sanitation…”

  1. wow. makes you wonder about all the cruise ships that are sailing around with about 3,000 people on each of them for weeks at a time. that’s a pretty large “holding” tank. one can only hope they’re operating in oceanically responsibile ways. i would imagine until recent times… when we’re now supposed to be more aware of destroying the health of the oceans… they probably just dumped it into the sea. neptune must be reeling.
    and… i had no idea authorities could come aboard your vessel at any time and search!
    maybe a throwback from the old pirate days?

    • Yeah, about them cruise ships. Once you are out to open sea you can dump anything over board as long as it ain’t plastic.