Choosing a marine toilet, also known as a head system, is not an easy feat. There are a variety of marine sanitation systems that all work a little differently and come at a range of price points. Once you’ve chosen the head system for your boat, you need to keep up with maintenance — while the overall upkeep is similar, the specifics ultimately depend on the type of system you choose. Plus, you need to know the laws surrounding head systems and when and where you can and cannot dump waste.
The best thing you can do is educate yourself on the types of head systems available, how they work and the laws surrounding the use of head systems. We’ve included information on all this below to help you get started.
While there seems to be an endless number of head systems, we can group the majority of them into three main categories based on their structure and function — self-contained portable toilets, fixed plumbing systems with holding tanks and marine sanitation systems.
If you’re limited on space and need a way to hold a small amount of waste — usually a maximum of six gallons — and aren’t feeling disgusted by the thought of manually taking that waste off the boat and onto shore to dump, a self-contained portable toilet may work for you. This type of marine toilet is a small porta-potty for your boat — no permanent plumbing needed, low risk of clogging and the most inexpensive type of marine toilet.
The cons? Deodorizing chemicals may not be able to tackle the smell, and you’re going to have to physically carry the container with the waste off the boat to dump — either in a marina toilet or to a pump-out facility where personnel will dispose of it for you.
If you aren’t keen on the upkeep of the porta-potty, the next step would be a fixed plumbing system with a holding tank. Within this category, there are a few different options. All of them share a few things in common — a holding tank and a system of hoses and valves. Where each of them differs is in the operation and discharge options.
Once you’ve decided which type of operation you prefer, the next step is to choose a plumbing system configuration — that is, what discharge options you want to have.
The third type of head system is marine sanitation systems — these systems do not need a holding tank because they treat the waste to eliminate harmful bacteria and contain a macerating pump, which grinds the waste into sludge and discharges it overboard. Due to the complexity of these marine sanitation systems, and their price tag, they are usually on large, live-aboard boats. Despite the fact that these systems sanitize the waste, and make dumping waste legal in most cases, boaters with these systems are still required to observe the No-Discharge Zones designated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Unless you’re interested in a porta-potty or own a large, live-aboard yacht, choosing a marine toilet often involves learning how to use and maintain a holding tank, also called a waste tank. While these tanks are certainly manageable, they are not something boat owners can afford to neglect. Here are a few key things to keep in mind if you have a head system with a holding tank.
Regardless of which marine head system you have, keeping your marine head in the best possible shape comes down to proper use and regular maintenance — and replacement, as needed. If you are diligent in these areas, you will be able to avoid marine toilet problems and extend the life of your head system. Here are a few specific tips we have for maintaining your marine head.
As a boater, it is your responsibility to know the federal regulations, as well as any local regulations regarding marine head systems and discharge in your area. We can’t speak to all the local laws where you live, but we can give you an overview of the federal regulations.
Federal regulations on marine head systems came from concerns regarding the bacteria and pathogens in human feces. Many people swim in and drink the water inland and in coastal waters — so the federal government determined it would not permit the presence of this untreated sewage in these areas.
In 1972, the government banned the discharge of untreated sewage into inland waters — including rivers, lakes, etc. — or coastal waters within three miles of the shore. That means unless you have a marine sanitation system, which translates to treated sewage, you are not allowed to discharge any waste within three miles of the coast and in rivers, lakes and other inland waters.
The EPA has also established No-Discharge Zones, where no discharge of any waste — treated or untreated — is permitted. Make sure you know the No-Discharge Zones in your area and avoid discharging any waste in those areas.
If you have a marine head system with a Y-valve between the toilet and the holding tank, the U.S. Coast Guard and most marine law enforcement agencies require the Y-valve to be padlocked to the holding tank position while in use in coastal waters. This requirement is meant to protect against accidental discharge in an area where the discharge of untreated sewage is illegal.
By familiarizing yourself with the federal and local regulations, you can ensure you’re operating your marine head system safely and legally and doing your part to keep the environment clean.
Selecting a head system for your boat is essential, as you want to make sure you have one that gives you what you need to abide by the regulations, but also to add convenience to your boating adventures with family and friends. As a boat manufacturer for more than 40 years, we have experience with a variety of head systems and have selected those that are the best balance of convenience, affordability and safety for our customers.
Formula Boats gives you the ability to customize boat models, empowering you to choose everything from the head system to the paint. Get started with our online boat builder. When you’re ready to take the next step, find the dealer closest to you to begin bringing your custom boat to life. Have questions in the process? Our team is here to help. All you have to do is contact us.