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Plumbing & Ventilation
Selecting a Sanitation System
What laws apply in your local
All boats operating in US waters with permanently in-
stalled toilets are required by federal law to have on
board a Marine Sanitation Device (MSD) that either
stores human waste until it can be transferred ashore,
or reduces the coliform count to such low levels that
discharged sewage poses no public health hazard
even in populated harbors. While the MSD must satisfy
Coast Guard regulations, the boat owner still has a lot
of choices of product types and overall system design.
First, you need to familiarize yourself with the laws as
they apply to your local boating area.
More than three miles from the coast
it is legal to
discharge raw (untreated) waste overboard, either
directly from the toilet or by emptying the holding
tank. We think the most sensible sanitation system
design gives you the choice of both a dockside
pump-out and the ability to empty the tank yourself
when offshore (see illustrations below).
Inside the three-mile limit
, it is illegal to dump
raw sewage. In these areas, boaters may dis-
charge waste only if it has been treated by an
onboard treatment device like the Raritan Electro
Scan (Type I or II MSD). Otherwise, it must be
contained on board in a Type III MSD-a holding
tank-and transferred ashore at a pump-out sta-
tion (which, in many cases, sadly, means it will get
a modest amount of treatment before finding its
way back into the water).
All non-navigable inland freshwater lakes and
the Great Lakes
(under an agreement with Canada
that predates US federal marine sanitation laws) are
No Discharge Zones
(NDZ) under federal law. All
navigable interstate inland waterways-except for a
few specifically designated NDZ such as impound-
ments that are municipal reservoirs-are areas where
treated discharge is permitted, making Type I and II
MSDs legal to use. In NDZs overboard discharge of
any kind is illegal and subject to fine. This means you
must have a holding tank. And in some places you
may not even be allowed a Y-valve, (common in salt-
water regions) between the toilet and holding tank for
emergency pump-outs or a macerator to dump the
tank. Installing a means of locking the Y-valve in the
tank position may or may not satisfy local authorities.
A rapidly increasing number of coastal areas have
been designated as No Discharge Zones. To qualify
under the federal Clean Waters Act, states must show
that sufficient pump-out facilities exist for boaters to
empty holding tanks.
What are the waste storage options?
There are a variety of ways to deal with waste on board,
including recirculating, composting, and incinerating
toilets, but by far the most common are toilets plumbed
to holding tanks. These range from the simple and
inexpensive self-contained heads (portable potties)
to fairly complicated systems incorporating multiple
valves, pumps and hoses. Any way you look at it, car-
rying around sewage is an unsavory business.
While dumping raw sewage is
not illegal offshore, you need an approved MSD for
inshore and inland use. Direct discharge is ugly,
and inside the three-mile limit, illegal. Don't oper-
ate your head without a means to contain or treat
waste on board, and in foreign countries don't pump
your waste overboard within 100 yards of the beach.
This is harmful to swimmers and those who eat the
local fish and shellfish. Just because the hundreds
of Caribbean charter boats have little, if any, sewage
treatment systems on board doesn't mean it's okay
for the rest of us to dump in the otherwise pristine
waters regularly used by snorkelers and swimmers.
This is a solution for thousands of
"weekend" or trailer boats that need a way to hold small
amounts of waste (usually limited to six gallons). They
aren't fun to take on shore and dump (usually in a ma-
rina toilet), but they eliminate the need to install perma-
nent plumbing, are almost impossible to clog and are
inexpensive. If you add a deodorizing chemical to the
tank, these heads are reasonably odor-free.
Holding Tank without a Self-Discharge Option:
For areas with adequate pumpout facilities, a holding
tank connected between your head's discharge and a
thru-deck fitting is a fairly simple, inexpensive installa-
tion, and meets the requirements of the law. We offer
holding tanks as small as three gallons, although we
strongly recommend installing a larger tank if you have
the room. A full crew in party mode can fill a small tank
in no time, especially if they are vigorous flushers (ac-
tually recommended to keep waste from collecting in
hoses). The drawback with this method is that you have
no place to go if your tank is full and you cannot find
a pumpout station fast. Boaters on the Great Lakes,
however, have been successfully living with these re-
strictions for decades, so it can't be that bad.
Holding Tank with Optional Overboard Discharge:
In addition to the standard deck pumpout fitting, a
Y-valve between the toilet and tank allows you to
pump directly overboard when beyond the three-mile
limit. In harbor, use the holding tank. Offshore, dump
directly overboard. There are two serious drawbacks
to this approach, however: The risk of accidental
discharges (which is why some authorities frown on
Y-valves upstream of the holding tank), and the in-
ability to empty the holding tank at sea.
Holding Tank with Multiple Discharge Options:
Our favorite method. All of the waste is pumped into
a holding tank, yet you have the option of pumping it
overboard when legal and logical. There's no Y-valve
between the toilet and tank to upset authorities. In-
shore and inland, the tank is emptied via the deck
pipe. Offshore, you can empty the tank yourself using
a manual or electric pump. A Y-valve downstream of
the tank allows you to choose between the two.
As with most any system, a clogged valve or hose
can make for an ugly service job. And you run the
risk of not being able to use the toilet until the sys-
tem is freed. A Y-valve between the toilet and tank
solves that potentially embarrassing predicament
(go ahead, get out the cleaning bucket!), but again
could get you cited by the potty patrol.
Considerations in selecting a marine head
Manual vs. Electric Head
On smaller boats, manual heads are most common
due to their simplicity and low cost. But it has always
amazed us that builders of even expensive yachts
often install the lowest cost heads. Because toilet
trouble at sea is extra nasty, we think this is one
piece of equipment worth spending a little extra on.
Here are some features to look for:
This is the rubber valve through
which waste passes with each manual throw of the
pump lever. The larger the valve, the less chance
of a clog.
Pump handle throw.
Most people find a horizontal
throw (back and forth) less tiring than a vertical
throw (up and down). The extra linkage, however,
drives up the cost slightly.
Ease of rebuilding.
Frequently-used marine toilets
generally require rebuilding (pump leather, springs,
gaskets, etc.) every year or two. Always carry a re-
build kit and instructions for doing the job; in an
emergency, easier and faster is better!
Sitting on the head while underway,
Deodorizing the tank
Selecting a marine head
Waste storage options?
Few tasks work as effectively in the opposite di-
rection from "making boating more fun" as having
to deal with problems with your boat's sanitation
system. Problems with marine heads, macerator
pumps, Y-valves, holding tanks or other parts of
the system built for the handling of human waste
are, well, unmentionable. Other than replacing
your boat with an aluminum outboard fishing skiff
or a Laser sailing dinghy, there are some ways
to minimize the time and hassles associated with
this nasty topic. First, the regulations we live with:
What laws apply?
1. Raw water to head
2. Marine head
3. Discharge to tank
4. Holding tank
5. Tank vent hose
6. Vent fitting
7. Waste deck fitting
9. Thru-hull discharge
10. Macerator pump
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