Everybody Poops

Remember that composting toilet? I’ve gotten a few questions about how our toilet works, and if we are still happy with our decision to replace the traditional marine head with a composting toilet. So far, I think we are happy with it, although that may be easy for me to say, because Capt. Mike is in charge of emptying the compost. If this post is TMI, I won’t be offended if you skip on to the next one……

Our Nature’s Head toilet functions by separating the liquid and solid waste, therefore keeping the odor down. It works by desiccating, or drying, the solid waste, killing bacteria and resulting in material that is the color and consistency of potting soil. A small fan circulates air through the head at all times, requiring very little battery power. We do need to remember to close the toilet vent each time we are under sail, to avoid getting ocean water in the vent, and we also unplug the fan so that it doesn’t overheat. These steps; unplugging the fan and closing the vent; and opening the vent and plugging in the fan are now part of our regular sailing checklist.

Number One:

We empty the urine bottle every one to two days. This is the only part of the process that does have an odor. Not in the bathroom itself (the Nature’s Head design works really well to contain the liquid waste and accompanying odors) but when we remove the bottle and it isn’t capped. In a marina, we empty the bottle into a toilet. When we are three nautical miles out to sea, we empty it overboard. In a crowded anchorage, we wait for a better opportunity to empty it. We have a second, spare bottle to let us go longer between emptying in those situations. We rinse out the bottle each time, and put a few drops of dish detergent in the empty bottle.

Oh, and then there’s the “pee tack”. Based on the direction that the toilet is installed, Sanitas must be flat or heeled over to port for the toilet to function correctly to separate liquid and solid waste. That means that if I need to use the head while we are underway and on the wrong tack, I need to raise my hand like a school girl to ask permission. Then Capt. Mike steers into the wind briefly to flatten Sanitas out so that I can go in comfort. It’s my least favorite thing about the composting head, honestly. What does Capt. Mike do if he needs to go while we are underway? I’ll leave it up to your imagination. It’s so much easier being a man!

Number Two:

We know that it is time to change the compost, when the handle used to stir the mixture becomes difficult to turn. That indicates that the coconut coir composting medium has done its job, and has absorbed all the moisture that it can hold. No sense pushing it past that point! We tend to have another bag of coconut rehydrated, crumbled, ready, and waiting. So far, we have used three bricks of coconut since we left St Pete in January. We have five blocks left in our stores which should be sufficient to last until we return to the states to wait out hurricane season. If we were continuing south through the Caribbean, we might have to get creative and use a different composting medium, such as peat moss, sawdust, or wood pellets. We prefer coconut because it stores in a very small space, is an extremely renewable resource, and is less likely to contain dormant insects or eggs than other forms of compost.

We simply take the lid off the toilet, and dump the solid waste into a garbage bag. I’ve included a few closeups. You’ll have to take my word for it, but I swear it does not stink! It smells like good garden dirt, but nothing worse than that. This part of the process would be a lot easier if we had more room to maneuver. We barely had the space to install the composting toilet in Sanitas’ head (and in fact, we had to remove some of the teak trim to make space) and there isn’t enough room to gracefully tilt the cover back like they show in the manual. Welcome to life on a small, narrow-beamed sailboat. Everything is just a little bit trickier than planned! We stored the used compost in a cockpit locker until the next opportunity to throw it away ashore.

We use this opportunity to give the head a thorough cleaning, using bleach water to disinfect the toilet base, floor, and sink. But we don’t bleach or even wash the compost compartment of the toilet. Nature’s Head says that good bacteria develop and remain in the residue in the corners of the container, helping the coconut compost medium work better next time, and helping to break down waste more quickly.

We’ve been lucky so far, and have had no issues with flies or gnats in the compost. We do add septic tank additives and a bacteria marketed to remove gnats. Whether they really do any good, I can’t tell, but why mess with success? The best part about this head, is that we can pretty much plan to do the regular maintenance when it is convenient for us, and don’t have to deal with unexpected failures or really messy leaks and breaks. And we never have to search for or pay for a pump out. I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but along with our solar power, and water maker, the composting head helps keep us independent and off the grid.

It’s not exactly a vacation

Several of my girl friends have told me how jealous they are of my exotic tropical vacation. Well ladies, this post’s for you!

Today we arrived at the Marathon City Marina in the Keys, and it is wonderful! For $123 dollars, we get a week on a mooring ball in Boot Key Harbor and access to the marina facilities, including dinghy dock,WiFi in the lounge, a laundry room, and showers. So I took a long, hot shower for the first time since I left Marco Island eight days ago. Yep, you heard me. Ocho. Now I am not a complete savage. During that time, I have washed my hair in the galley sink, taken sponge baths, and sat in the cockpit under a trickle of cold water from a bag. But until today, I have not had a hot shower. So this was the best shower I have experienced since my last long_distance backpacking trip.

Here is the site of this amazing, even spa-like experience…

And, just for fun, here’s a pictures of the “hygiene center” where we dump the liquid from our composting toilet. Still think a cruiser’s life is glamorous? Lol…

More than you ever wanted to know about our toilet

Ok, remember that decision to install a composting head? Well our Nature’s Head composting toilet finally arrived and is installed. We decided to use coconut coir as the composting material because it is very renewable, and is less likely to harbor bugs than the peat moss alternative. Following advice from Carolyn of The Boat Galley, we choose Planter’s Pride Beats Peat coconut coir. It took almost a week of allowing the coconut to sit in the sun, with one cup of water to achieve a big zip lock bag of dry and crumbly coconut husk. I just kept thinking of pina coladas! Then we filled the composting compartment of the toilet, and we’re good to go!

They say we should never experience odors or other unpleasantness, as long as the liquids and solids are stored separately. But just in case, I am well armed with every possible odor deterrent, insect fighter, and wetness absorber. Take that, nasty smells and gnats!

Of course, installing this toilet sounds simple, but….

  • We had to address the boat wiring to hook up a ventilation fan
  • Found a leak in the pump out deck fitting with rotten deck core that needed to be resolved,
  • Had lots of pipes and holes and sea cocks to fill,
  • And had to build a platform to support the toilet so that it would actually fit in our teeny, tiny bathroom (head)

Just another example of how one project begets another project and another project and another …..

Tool of the Day …. Bilgkote

Final step of reclaiming the black water holding tank of tool box storage consisted of several coats of bilgekote; a very thick paint. This did a good job of sealing the hold surface after sanding, and removed any remaining waste odor. It worked so well here, that I continued to paint all of the hold storage compartments and the entire bilge. A mask was key! At one point I think I came very close to passing out while upside down in the hold, breathing in those fumes!

And just for fun, a few gratuitous boat / tool chaos pictures! I’m grateful that we decided to rent an Airbnb instead of trying to live on the boat during these initial project stages. It gave us a place to escape to every evening to shower, eat, sleep and then start all over again the next day. PLUS, we had internet access to research all of our questions about the next step in each project.

Tool of the Day…. Jigsaw (and a lot of bleach)

So we made the decision to tear out the traditional marine head and to replace it with a composting toilet. Before you call us crazy, here are our reasons:

No need to find a pump-out

It is illegal to dump toilet waste within three miles of shore, so all waste gets stored in a holding tank until far out to sea or until pumped out at a marina. Our holding tank is small; only about 14 gallons which won’t last long for two people living on a boat full time. We don’t want to be in a beautiful anchorage in some tropical paradise wishing to stay off the grid for days or weeks at a time and feeling the pressure to find a pump-out service.

No maintenance

Even the highest quality marine toilets require a lot of maintenance to keep to hoses clear, the pumps in good working order, and to prevent clogs. When a marine toilet does go wrong, the results are notoriously messy. I’ll leave that to your imagination! In theory, the new generation of composting toilets require some monitoring and periodic emptying, but there are no moving parts to fail. We shall see.


We are really being optimistic, and decided to turn the old holding tank into additional storage for tools. Although it was tempting to seal the whole thing off and pretend it never existed. So we pumped out the contents of the tank, and cut off the top to see what we had to deal with. Keep in mind that this tank lives directly below our bed ……

Hmmmmm….. pretty. Some bailing and scooping was also required to get to the goal of an empty tank. And rinsing, and scrubbing, and sanding (as we have already discussed). All of this was my job, so Mike says I get a pass on emptying the toilet for the next four months. I think it should be six months!

We also pulled all the hoses, and plugged the through-hulls where the hoses used to run.

Every project requires a nearly infinite array of tools and results in a gigantic mess. The boat looked like this 99% of the time while in the yard.

Step #1 of this toilet project was successfully completed when the old toilet was removed, the tank cleaned and painted with a coat of very thick paint, and Mike fabricated a new cover for the additional storage space. Now to select, order, and install the replacement toilet!