Use Your Head and Holding Tank!


Boat builders design boats to accommodate boaters’ needs; most with a head and galley. Some are small while some are quite roomy, but all are fully functioning.

Galleys have running water, cooking stove of one kind or another, frig/ice box and storage so that you can prepare meals and clean up afterwards. Galleys are meant to be used.

Heads are the same. Builders install a marine sink with running water and a toilet connected to a holding tank for the black water that is later pumped out through a fitting on the deck (similar to motor homes). Heads are fully functioning and they also are meant to be used.

Many owners of bowriders and outboards are eagerly waiting to trade up to have a boat with a head and galley, so they don’t have to use facilities elsewhere or wait.

So, why do we hear from boaters around the world that they don’t use their heads?

Some say it is the “splatter factor”. They say it causes unpleasant odor. There is a simple solution to this problem. insist on the “one knee pee”. Have the guys go down on one knee—the splash is greatly reduced when the source is closer to the bowl. If the boys are too short, get them to sit. If there isn’t room to kneel, have an “everybody sits” rule. More in the article “Head Sense = No Scents and  First Mate 101.

Some don’t like the head odor. Another easy solution. Use Brenda’s method of cleaning—simple, fast and effective. Use spray foam and paper towels. The foam sanitizes and deodorizes and you can wipe clean with paper towels leaving nothing to go into the holding tank. Brenda’s method only takes a couple of minutes with no preparation, no pails, and no clean up afterwards. It is covered in detail in First Mate 101.

Leaky toilet or plumbing. The simplest solution is to get it fixed ASAP. Here are a few quick checks you can do before having your system serviced:

  • Discharge Hose – Sometimes the discharge hose ages and becomes permeable causing an unpleasant odor. To check to see if this is the source of your odor problems, rub the hose with a clean damp cloth, then sniff the cloth. If there is an odor on the cloth, the hose needs to be replaced with proper sanitation hose. It can’t be fixed.
  • Leaking Connections – Check all connections with a clean cloth as above, as well as the seal around the piston rod. You may fix the problem by tightening the seal. If not, it must be replaced.
  • Dirty Intake Water – Sometimes grass or other debris from flush water gets trapped in the bowl. In this case, you may have to put a strainer in the intake line.
  • Everything else – If it isn’t a simple obvious fix that you can do yourself, the best advice is to have it serviced ASAP.

Stink from the Holding Tank – Another easy solution. Pick the method you intend to use and stick to it, to make sure you have the proper balance of waste and treatment. See your choices in the article “Does Your Holding Tank Really Strink?”

It’s too much weight to carry around. Easy fix. Pump it more often especially before a long cruise or race. A full tank is only the weight of a small person.

I Don’t know when the tank is full. Knowing when your holding tank is full is most difficult if you don’t have a level monitor. Some boats come with one that instantly tells you how full your tank is so you can schedule a pump out. Boats without a monitor or a monitor that no longer works, cause a lot of frustration and guesswork.The simple solution is to go to your local marina and ask them to install a holding tank level monitor. For those who are handy and want to do it themselves, there are several on the market that you can purchase and install. Then, you can have peace of mind and schedule pump outs to eliminate the worry of reaching the “full” level in the middle of your holiday or the middle of the night or other inopportune times.Some monitors require drilling holes in the tank, some newer ones have patches that attach to the outside of the holding tank and are wired to a gauge placed in a convenient location. There are even some wireless monitors so you don’t have to run a wire from the gauge to the monitor or drill any holes in the tank (preferable).

Toilet Paper


Many boaters believe they shouldn’t put toilet paper in the marine toilet because a friend told them not to. But, they don’t ask “why not?”, so they never really know why, they just keep putting dirty toilet paper into a waste basket. Some believe it will clog the toilet. But, RV/Marine toilet paper is designed to break down or dissolve easily and rapidly and not clog the toilet. If you use the right toilet paper, you CAN put it in the toilet and it won’t clog the system.
For marine toilets, you should use a biodegradable RV/Marine toilet paper (usually single ply) that will break down or dissolve easily and rapidly preventing blockages and damaged valves. The soft 2 and 3-ply toilet paper intended for home use is not suitable and will cause damage and a lot of inconvenience as well as cause a costly repair.
To test your toilet paper to see if it is biodegradable and suitable for your head:

  1. Fill a 12 oz glass half full of water
  2. Drop in a couple of pieces of clean toilet paper
  3. With one hand on the top to seal it and the other hand on the bottom, shake the glass two times vigorously (but no more). Set the glass down.
  4. Look to see if the toilet paper has dissolved/disintegrated.
    If the toilet paper has disintegrated, it is safe to use in your head. If the toilet paper is still in large pieces, don’t use it.


It is most important to read the owner’s manual for your toilet and follow the instructions. If you don’t have a manual, google your brand of toilet and get one online. On most manual pump toilets, there is a pump handle accompanied by a lever that moves from left to right to open or close a valve. Move it to the left to pump flush water in or wet the bowl (Wet position). Move it to the right to empty or dry the bowl to the holding tank (Dry position).
Ideally, you want to keep a little water in the bowl to prevent any odor or gas from coming from the holding tank to the toilet bowl.

Wet and Dry positions for pumping the head.

• Pump with the lever in the empty position (right) to empty the contents of the bowl
• Pump with the lever in the wet position (left) to bring in flush water.
(Don’t overpump because you’ll just be filling the Holding Tank)
(Don’t underpump because you’ll leave waste in the line between the toilet and the tank
Over time, you’ll get used to how many pumps and how much water is just the right amount for you.

Saving your dirty toilet paper

An abundance of information is readily available on every topic these days. Of course, the internet has an unlimited supply of articles, blogs, newsletters, emails, forums, opinions, news, posts, tweets, books and more. So does everyone including your boating friends and neighbors. All you have to do is ask.
Our society is so accepting of anyone and everyone being an expert on everything. They speak and write and post daily or hourly. So the problem that results is “what is accurate and correct and what isn’t?
We found this to be true about using the toilet on your boat. So many boaters now believe that you shouldn’t use the toilet on your boat unless it’s an emergency and some believe you definitely shouldn’t flush toilet paper into the holding tank. Boaters then think they are doing the right thing by putting dirty toilet paper in the garbage bag, but is just isn’t necessary.

thumbs down

The toilet and holding tank system is designed for efficient use. Just don’t deposit anything in the bowl other than clean water, biodegradable toilet paper (small quantities) and anything you have eaten first. NOTHING else! Then, flush properly. No need to save your dirty toilet paper, package it and wrap it up or travel with it in some bags.
In a quick search on the internet, we found no end of “experts” (some of whom had written books) on the subject, saying everything from 2 pumps to 16 pumps. 2 pumps in most cases, wouldn’t be enough. 16 would probably be too many, as it would fill the holding tank in no time.
The toilet and holding tank system was designed to be used. It works very well when used properly, so use it properly and boating will be a lot more fun.

What if you don’t use your head?

We talked to a marine service technician who told us that lack of use, creates a mess in the tank. The waste dries and cakes inside the tank like brown cement and it is very difficult to break it up and clean the tank. “It is better to use it and pump it often” he said.

Use It! Be Happy!

happy face

Whatever the reason is, that you don’t use your head, there is an easy fix. We make sure our head is always clean, odor free and useable and, as a result, our head is never a reason for discussion. We use it all the time as the boat builder intended, even when in a marina.

Enjoy the convenience—Use your head!

See also:

Does Your Holding Tank Really Stink?

Head Sense = No Scents

First Mate 101 – Lots of tips on interior and exterior boat management

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