Your marine toilet is the one system you do not want to have problems with.
By Capt. Ken Kreisler
Let’s cut to the chase here shipmates. You DO NOT, under any circumstance, shape, manner, or form, want to, pun obviously intended, mess with your marine toilet. I’ll take dealing with sopping up bilge water rather than hear the dreaded news that something is wrong with the boat’s toilet system.
My worst experience? Luckily we were in the dock when a backed-up MSD, being attended to by one of my crew members, coughed up not only the clog, which in this case was caused by a significant plug of way too much toilet paper, but whatever else was sent down on its way to the holding tank as well. A long, hot shower at the marina, and a complete change of clothing was necessary before we were able to continue on our way. Not fun.
The best way to prevent any problems, no matter how small, is to become familiar with the particular operation of your system, its parts, how they work, what can go wrong and why, and what you can do to head off any confrontations with it.
For most of us, our concern is with a Type III U.S. Coast Guard approved Marine Sanitation Device designed to simply hold waste material for pump-out into a shore-based facility. Whether you have a simple portable unit or a top-of-the-line electric system with multiple locations plumbed into a holding tank and utilizing a macerator, you will want to make sure it is properly maintained and cared for..
With smaller boats, the most simple and easy-to-care for unit is the basic portable unit like that of the Thetford Porta Potti® 550P. As with all similar models in the marine line, this compact system requires only minimal care, including proper replenishing of the deodorizing chemicals and cleaning, to ensure trouble-free operation. “It’s always advisable to keep the slide lock seals between the upper and lower parts properly lubricated as they do tend to wear,” said Thetford’s Scott Mason. However, as a vessel’s length increases, so does its need for a more sophisticated system and in there, to quote the Bard, is the rub.
One of the biggest problems is the result clogging the system by using way too much of the aforementioned t.p. or throwing something down there that, as with your toilet at home, just does not belong. This includes tampons, sanitary napkins, paper towels, and baby wipes. It’s best to use t.p. specifically made for marine use that is both biodegradable and fast dissolving.
“The number one trouble maker is using improper tissue,” agreed Dometic’s Bill Friedman. “Household products are hard to break down, especially going into a pump or with systems using level indicators.”
If you use a saltwater flush, you are going to have to deal with the possibility of pipe and hose
scale forming within the system. A careful check of the bowl and even any accessible hose or piping, making sure all seacocks are shut, will help. For scale buildup on the discharge side, you can dump the proper agent down the bowl. On the intake side, remove the intake hose from the thru hull—make sure you shut it off first—and, in a bucket filled with a decalcifier, pump the liquid through the system as well. And regardless of fresh or saltwater operation, you should regularly check all hoses, connections, clamps, and fittings for leaks and wear. If found, or at the very least, suspect, replace them as soon as possible.
“Over time, odor is going to be a problem due to organisms being brought in and constantly replenished by the saltwater,” said Mason, adding many a service call for a leak was actually the odor of decaying sea life in the lines. While you can try and mask the smell with deodorants and air fresheners, obviously switching to a fresh water system will alleviate this problem.
General wear and tear can also be trouble and in the case of most electric systems, there is not too much you can do. It’s best to keep an eye on things and pay careful attention to your owner’s manual for scheduled upkeep. Most of the major manufacturers such as Dometic, Thetford, Headhunter, and Raritan, all have convenient service centers and dealers in the major boating areas.
As far as macerators are concerned, today’s units are fairly robust and, but for the errant foreign object—again, tampons and sanitary napkins for the most part—forcing an electrical pause and being unable to start up again, you should have uninterrupted service for many years. However, should that EFO (errant foreign object) finds its way into the system, and if you are not the kind who can follow the schematics in your owner’s manual, it’s time to call in the experts.
Odor and flushing problems can also be caused by a tank vent and filter being clogged by water or debris. Check both these on a regular basis and swap out that filter according to the manufacturers recommendations. You also might want to consider having a yearly cleaning of your holding tank as sediment can settle on the bottom and build up over time. “To help keep it somewhat clean, you can also try sending a couple of capfuls of liquid laundry detergent into your holding tank, filling it with water, and then doing a proper pump out at your marina,” offered Friedman.
Your best bet in preventing problems with your marine toilet is make sure everyone aboard knows how to properly operate the system and what does and does not belong in it. Check all hoses and connections for leaks and try to keep your holding tanks relatively empty whenever possible. In this way, you will have one less thing to worry about while enjoying being on your boat.
For more information about proper MSD operation, it’s always best to contact your specific manufacturer. With those mentioned here, it’s http://www.thetford.com; http://www.dometic.com; http://www.raritaneng.com; http://www.headhunterinc.com