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The Marine Head

The most talked about and least used device on a boat.

Because we all need to access a toilet now and then, most boats have a head on board. The story of why they're called "heads" goes this way: Small enclosures, shaped much like the outhouses of old, were placed far forward on one or both sides of the bow. In order to use the toilet, a crewmember had to proceed to the bow or head of the boat, hence the name.

There are three types of marine sanitation devices (MSDs) in use these days. The type you use will depend on the size of your boat, and how and where you use your boat.

  • Type I MSD - A flow-through treatment system that disinfects fecal coliform bacteria to no more than 1,000 parts per 100ml and discharges no visible floating solids.
  • Type II MSD - A flow-through treatment system that disinfects fecal coliform bacteria to no more than 200 parts per 100ml and discharges no more than 150mg per liter of suspended solids.
  • Type III MSD - A holding tank which performs no treatment, but simply holds waste material for pump-out into a shore-based facility.

On boats under 26 feet, used basically for day trips or over-nighters, a portable head with its own built-in holding tank will probably be your best choice.

They are not, however, legal in some locations, so be sure to check the state or provincial laws where you plan to go boating.

For the owner who plans to spend considerable time cruising, or who frequently has guests aboard, a Type I or Type II treatment system may be the best choice if you are operating outside a Declared Federal No Discharge Zone. If you plan to operate inside a No Discharge Zone - the entire Great Lakes, for instance - you have no choice. The boat must be equipped with a Type III system. All sewage, whether treated or untreated, must be kept in a holding tank and emptied only at a shore-side pump-out facility. No Discharge Zones mean exactly that. Failure to comply can result in major fines and/or jail time.

Besides types of MSDs, you may also choose between a manually operated macerator/pump and an electrically operated macerator/pump. Electrically operated heads are very nice, but bear in mind that, if you lose power, you won't be able to use them.

Odor from holding tanks can be a real problem. Make sure your holding tank is properly vented. I have heard horror stories where unvented tanks have exploded on a hot day. Seriously.

Treating your holding tank with chemicals is a must! Which chemical is best? Ask ten different boaters that question and you will most likely get ten different answers. In my opinion, the chemicals that actually alter waste composition, rather than merely masking the odor with perfume, are the best choices.

One of the best ways to ruin your whole day is to spend it dismantling your marine head in order to get it unclogged! Here are some tips to prevent that from happening:

1. Periodically check all the head's hoses and clamps.

2. Use only toilet paper made specifically for use in marine heads.

3. Show and tell for new guests:

  • Demonstrate the proper way to operate the head's pump.
  • Ask that they use as little toilet paper as possible.
  • Ask that they don't put anything down the head that hasn't first been eaten.
  • Ask that, if access to shore facilities is available, they use those instead.

4. If you have a holding tank, empty it often!

We hope that this information helps you stay ahead of the game!

Heads - Manual Heads - Manual
Traditional reliability
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Heads - Electric Heads - Electric
Modern convenience & ease of use
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Heads - Portable Heads - Portable
Ready to go aboard when you are.
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