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A head that works

Apr 13, 2012
Y-valve has three connections: The toilet hose at bottom, the holding tank hose at back of valve and the overboard loop in foreground  to seacock.

Y-valve has three connections: The toilet hose at bottom, the holding tank hose at back of valve and the overboard loop in foreground to seacock.

Dick de Grasse

To the editor: My wife Kathy and I have been cruising and living on our Tartan 34 Endeavour off and on, on both sides of the Atlantic, for more than 25 years. Finally, we’ve got the head working properly and can offer a few hints that work.

First and foremost, all sailors contemplating buying a new or used boat should inspect and diagram the head plumbing very carefully. Most sailors we know discover head problems six months into the cruise — or six months after they buy the new boat- because that’s just about how long it takes for the head to stop working properly as the hoses plug up with calcium, the holding tank smells and small leaks develop. It seems like at the start of past cruises we tried something new and blissfully sailed-off hoping that our head would work as it should for the entire cruise. Heads that work properly are even more important especially now that “no overboard discharge” areas are appearing everywhere and you must use a holding tank and pump-out regularly.

We’ve heard of and tried most of the holding tank odor reduction additives and head cleaning solutions; some help a little, but most just don’t do much at all. We’re very reluctant to use hydrochloric acid-based cleaners — which are supposed to dissolve the calcium in the hoses — for fear they will dissolve more than we bargained for: hoses, the internal workings of the toilet itself, the plastic Y-valve or even the rubber joker valve. If we dilute the hydrochloric acid-based cleaners — as directed — nothing happens. If we ever dissolve hoses, eat up the internal workings of the toilet, screw-up the Y-valve, or burn a hole in the bottom of the holding tank, we’d be in big trouble.

Long hoses are one of the principal causes of head problems. They calcify quickly, are nearly impossible to remove and clean, and require more pumping pressure. Holding tanks are many times located in the stern while the head is forward. In between is what seems like miles of inaccessible plumbing. It would behoove the owner to study it carefully and consider rerouting the hoses or even relocating the holding tank.

What works for us may help fellow sailors. We have a standard Raritan head feeding a Whale diverter Y-valve through an 18-inch long, one-and-a-half-inch diameter hose. The Y-valve can direct effluent to either the 20-gallon holding tank or overboard. The hose from the Y-valve to the holding tank is a nearly straight 10 inches. The overboard hose is a 24-inch loop from the Y-valve to the seacock — the overboard hose is looped up above the waterline to prevent seawater from overflowing the toilet bowl below the waterline in the event the joker valve fails. When in “no discharge” areas, the Y-valve is locked in the holding tank position.

A 20-gallon holding tank is normally sufficient for a week’s worth of waste for two people. (We use Odorlos to reduce the odor. It works reasonably well.) The holding tank can be emptied in two ways: from the deck or from the bottom of the tank through a macerator pump. From the bottom of the tank, I have a 10-inch long, one-and-a-half-inch diameter hose to a shut-off valve; from the output of the shut-off valve, I feed a five-inch straight hose to the macerator pump. The macerator pump feeds directly into a one-and-a-half-inch T fitting in the overboard discharge hose. That’s it. All the hoses are as short as possible with all bends as big a radius as I can make them. The macerator pump switch is right next to the pump.

To make your head work reliably, you’ll need to do some maintenance. Roll up your sleeves and remember no one has ever died from cleaning head plumbing. When the boat is laid up on the hard, I take all the head hoses and the Y-valve off the boat and beat and wash the calcium deposits out of them. I don’t remove the toilet, the holding tank or the top and bottom emptying hoses (we do rinse out the holding tank with seawater when we’re more than three miles out). I remove and clean — or replace — the joker valve each cruise to prevent seawater from backing up in the bowl. In the yard, I insert a 24-inch long paint stirrer rod up the head seacock as far as possible and wiggle it around knocking out the calcium deposits.

When everything is clean, I put the hoses back on. For those who have tried and failed to reconnect head hoses in tight locations, let me make a suggestion: buy a cheap heat gun (a hair dryer works, but it takes forever) to soften the ends of the hoses and they will go back together, no problem. Hot water works too. Be certain to double clamp everything as half the head plumbing is below the waterline.

With clean hoses and Y-valve you are almost guaranteed a trouble-free voyage — providing all the hose clamps are tight.

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