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toiletA marine head or toilet, is a necessity on a boat if you are going to be on board for more than a few hours at a time. The larger the boat, the more room in the head and on larger boats, there can be two or more heads providing convenience for the boat owner and guests. However, one or more heads requires cleaning along with the vanity and quite often the shower.

Why is the “Head” called a “Head”?

In "the olden days", ships did not have bathrooms. As unclean as it may sound, their system worked for them at that time. Toward the bow of the boat there was a section of the deck that was simply covered with a grating, and was open to the sea below. Sailors needing to relieve themselves would do so over the grating and any waste fell through to the sea, keeping the area clean. This was a simple and effective system for the times.

In nautical terms, head refers to the top or forward portion of a vessel. The head of the mast or the head of the bowsprit or the term dead ahead are examples. Back then, when a sailor needed to relieve himself, he would have to go to the grated section in the forward part of the vessel. So when he wanted to go forward he would simply say, "I need to go to the head of the ship". That terminology has stuck with us and to this day boaters still refer to the bathroom as the "head". The word head confusingly refers to both the room and the toilet.

Using the toilet

Educating your family and guests on the proper use of the toilet, can eliminate a lot of problems and cleanup. One of our guests wasn’t sure about how to pump the toilet to empty the bowl and ended up unscrewing the handle from the shaft causing the shaft to fall inside the pump mechanism resulting in no toilet for the rest of the trip and hours to fix. Even though we had explained the procedure, he obviously didn’t understand. We now spend a little more time making sure everyone knows how to use the toilet.

A tip to suggest to the males on board is to go down on one knee and aim from that height rather than standing. Usually the accuracy is much greater and the splatter is greatly reduced when the source is closer to the bowl. If the boys are too short, get them to sit. When the head is small, some First Mates have an “everybody sits” rule because there isn’t enough room to stand or kneel.

object-in-toiletUsing a single-ply marine/rv toilet paper is best so that it will break down in the tank. It isn't as soft or thick as household toilet paper, but it is much friendlier to your holding tank.

Remind your guests to avoid putting anything down the bowl, other than what the toilet is intended for. (no feminine hygiene products, no kleenex, no paper towels, no cleaners, no food etc.) Any of these will only cause trouble.

Cleaning the Bowl

Cleaning the toilet (inside and out), the vanity and the shower stall can be a daunting task when you consider that no cleaners with chemicals can go into the holding tank or down the sink or shower drain into the lake for environmental reasons.  Add to that a small working space and the requirement of a pail and scrub brush, rubber gloves, etc. and it is a task that is easy to leave until another day. No one we spoke to liked cleaning the toilet and would prefer to postpone it as long as possible.

Most suppliers of cleaning products have environmentally friendly cleaners for the inside of the bowl requiring a brush to complete the job. To clean the outside of the bowl and surrounding area (wall or bulkhead, plumbing, floor—the whole splatter zone), their cleaners require a pail of water, cleaning cloth and gloves. This procedure requires preparation time, cleaning time, cleanup time and somewhere to store the pail and supplies. Many boaters we talked to don’t like cleaning the head so they do it as seldom as possible.

disposable-glovesMy simple solution that I recommend as one of hundreds of tips in First Mate 101 to keep the head clean, is to use a spray foam bathroom sanitizer available at most supermarkets. I keep a can in the head along with a roll of paper towels and some disposable vinyl gloves so that everything is handy when I need to clean.

I start with the counter and sink by spraying them with the foam, then cleaning up with paper towels. Then, I empty the toilet bowl and spray inside the bowl and the underside of the seat, then lower the seat, spray the top of the seat and the underside of the lid, then lower the lid and spray all over the toilet, around the toilet and the floor.

toilet2Using paper towels, I clean up all the foam starting with the top of the lid, the outside of the toilet and the splatter zone, lifting the lid and cleaning the underside of the lid and top of the seat, then lifting the seat and cleaning the underside of the seat and the top of the bowl, then the bowl itself. Then I put the paper towels into the garbage bag. Once the toilet is clean, I wipe the floor and wall around the toilet and put the paper towels into the garbage bag and wash my hands.

Using this method is easy, fast and there are no chemicals going into the holding tank or down the sink or shower drains. It only takes a minute if everything is ready and handy and can be done easily. As a result, our head is always clean and free of odor.

Unfriendly Cleaners used in an Environmentally Friendly Way

Cleaning the head is one job where we feel that using an “unfriendly cleaner” is appropriate.  We believe in “environmentally friendly” products, but also believe that there are times when something heavier is required. When this is the case, it should be used in an environmentally friendly way. Spraying the foam and wiping it up with paper towels and disposing of them in a responsible way doesn’t have any effect on the holding tank (none of the cleaner goes into the holding tank) or the lake (none of the cleaner goes down the shower or sink drain) and the garbage is disposed of on land in the proper way.

The head is clean and sanitary, eliminating germs, dirt, odor, mold etc. leaving a healthier room for you and your guests.

The bonus--It's faster and easier than using pails, cloths, mops and several cleaners--so can be done often.

Look after your head and it will look after you!

happy-faceDon’t let your head get away on you.

Simplify procedures so you can stay ahead of your head and eliminate your head woes!

Wouldn’t you rather be out enjoying boating?

What about the Holding Tank?

Holding Tanks are a necessary evil on boats and there is so much you should know before you go boating this summer. See article on "Does Your Holding Tank Really Stink?. It includes different methods of treating the tank as well as how to add the tank treatment and the pump-out procedure. It also has some suggestions on controlling odor.

Comments (12)

  1. Rita Lehto

Loved the article about cleaning the head and looking forward to reading about the holding tank operations to keep it odor free!!!

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  1. Martin Cook

Thanks for the cleaning tip. Now I don't dread the deed.

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  1. Richard Crowder

Brenda / Doug: Congratulations on a heads-up article on keeping ahead of the cleaning of a head. You have both simplified and clarified the daunting task of how to effectively clean while remaining environmentally "clean." A clean job well...

Brenda / Doug: Congratulations on a heads-up article on keeping ahead of the cleaning of a head. You have both simplified and clarified the daunting task of how to effectively clean while remaining environmentally "clean." A clean job well done! Richard.

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  1. All about Houseboats

My wife and I are houseboat liveaboards, and we agree totally with this great article, on a subject that usually isn't discussed often.<br /><br />Since we live onboard, we find that doing frequent pump-outs during the really hot summer months...

My wife and I are houseboat liveaboards, and we agree totally with this great article, on a subject that usually isn't discussed often.<br /><br />Since we live onboard, we find that doing frequent pump-outs during the really hot summer months reduces many issues.<br /><br />If you're using the head often, it is important to stay up-to-date with the maintenance of parts and seals.<br /><br />Again, an excellent article.<br /><br />IAN from http://www.all-about-houseboats.com

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  1. Nancy Robinson

As a fairly new first mate, the artical on cleaning the head was great. I have struggled with pails, rags ect. This sound so sencible and easy. Thanks for the info. Looking forward to care of the holding tank. Also could you give information on...

As a fairly new first mate, the artical on cleaning the head was great. I have struggled with pails, rags ect. This sound so sencible and easy. Thanks for the info. Looking forward to care of the holding tank. Also could you give information on care of the hoses from head to holding tank. We own a 20 year old Chris. and I'm wondering what problems we may expect in that direction. Thanks Nancy

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  1. Johnny G

any articles on the holding Tank

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  1. Brenda Dawson

Yes Johnny, we do have an article on the holding tank. You can see it at http://www.boatingwithdawsons.com/boating-articles/does-your-holding-tank-really-stink.html

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  1. Capt. Tim

Even if you don't use the 'head' all that often, isn't it best to flush and use the toilet from time to time...to ensure it's operation - when needed? <br /><br />Also, is there any mechanism(s) that needs maintaining, adjusting or lubricating?...

Even if you don't use the 'head' all that often, isn't it best to flush and use the toilet from time to time...to ensure it's operation - when needed? <br /><br />Also, is there any mechanism(s) that needs maintaining, adjusting or lubricating? <br /><br />I recall that 'straight or smooth' septic piping was suggested between the bowl and holding tank, and not the ribbed or accordian style piping in order to avoid some 'solids or tissue' from being trapped behind in the pipe itself....and to use a good portion of water to ensure an adequate flush.<br /><br />Can you recommend any maintenance tips TO THE MECHANISM?<br /><br />Curious in Lagoon City...<br />Capt. Tim

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  1. Boater Doug

Capt. Tim,<br />I checked with our industry expert. He says:<br />Best practice is to put a few ounces of head chemical in the toilet at the end of each week or trip and flush through to the holding tank. This ensures the lines and holding tank...

Capt. Tim,<br />I checked with our industry expert. He says:<br />Best practice is to put a few ounces of head chemical in the toilet at the end of each week or trip and flush through to the holding tank. This ensures the lines and holding tank get some treatment on a regular basis. You always want some residual head chemical in the system before you do add waste.<br /><br />Smooth inside bore piping is best with adequate flush each time.<br /><br />Always add a small amount (1OZ) of food oil lubricant to the head itself and the manual pump piston on a regular basis. (Some boaters use salad oil)<br /><br />Most important to Head-O-Matic “Shock Treat” the head prior to the last trip of the season to help whistle clean pipes,walls and ceilings of holding tanks so the last pump-out will be efficient.

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  1. Wendi

Great way to clean if your at a marina, but what if your out to sea with no land fall expected for a few weeks, where do you put all the paper towels? There must be a better way. Vinegar and baking soda? Any Ideas would be much appreciated.

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