Potty Talk

Ariose’s previous holding tank, fresh as a daisy and ready to be re-purposed.

Warning – this Ariose Note contains content that may be offensive to some.

Our last Ariose Note ended on a cliff-hanger… how will Tim and Shirley deal with their bodily waste now that Shirley has decimated Ariose’s facilities?

Let’s start with a quick review of digestion 101.  We all take in nutrients and water, and our bodies undertake an amazing process of removing what we need and excreting what we don’t.  Poop, crap, ka-ka, shit, dump, BM, defecation, number 2, feces, droppings, … whatever you know it as, we expel this solid waste. And a colourful lexicon is not reserved for our bowel’s products, we also expel liquid waste, otherwise known as urine, pee, piss, number 1, whiz … your choice. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how such a natural process, with so many synonyms, is something that we so rarely discuss.

In the “civilized” world, what do we do with our waste?  We mix our liquid and solids, drown most of the bacteria that would naturally break it down by adding lots of water, and not just any water mind you, but water that has been well processed.  We then send this toxic slurry off through a maze of pipes to be dealt with at waste treatment facilities out of sight and out of mind. To make matters worse, most cities in Canada only conduct primary treatment. During high rain periods or maintenance requirements, many places are forced to dispose of minimally treated waste in the local waterways. It happens here in North Bay on a regular basis. I just got home from Montreal this morning where I was reminded of its recent massive “dump” of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence. What incredibly high costs – financial, energy, environmental – when we consider the infrastructure and processes involved in supposedly safely treating our waste. There are other alternatives most of us can relatively easily choose.

Tim’s fancy washroom facilities.

I’m not advocating that we return to tossing chamber pot contents out second floor bedroom windows to the streets below. Modern sanitation is probably had a greater positive health impact than any medical advance.  When there’s an opportunity to take personal responsibility for our own waste management, though, and to do so with a lighter impact on the planet, that seems to be the way to go.

Tim’s been living off-grid for years, and is quite comfortable taking a stroll up the path to the outhouse when needed. This was a familiar option for me, too, from cottage days.  I thought that when I came to live with Tim a few months ago, that I’d want something more convenient, but I’ve also come to appreciate the simplicity of the outhouse.

Tim and I were inspired a couple years ago when we were invited by a friend, Lynn, to check out her recently built home. Among other environmentally wise options she incorporated into its design was an attractive home-made indoor wooden toilet box that allowed her to simply collect her waste for composting.  It was an indoor outhouse, and to our surprise, it was odour free!  There is an increasing shift toward composting options, both on land and on the water for lots of good reasons. That cost to our environment, to our money as taxpayers, and so on is not the only reason to go green.  I have recently paid more attention to this topic in my random readings, and came across an online back-issue of a magazine – Mother Earth News, of course – that describes several interesting larger scale “humanure” projects. In Chicago for example, 3 months of solid waste from a couple dozen participants, in a project fittingly titled “The Great Giveback”, lead to the participants receiving bags of fluffy compost (that tested negative for fecal bacteria) to add to their gardens.

Our excrement is full of nutrients.  Although the soil in the immediate vicinity of the outhouse is likely enriched, overall, our waste is wasted.  And as lovely as the walk to the outhouse is, and as pleasing as the view is that it offers, when it’s mid-winter and 30 degrees below zero, an interior option would be nice.  We’ll be creating an indoor composting option once we return from cruising, and will better inform ourselves about the implications of the not-so-good stuff we excrete (i.e. heavy metals, pharmaceuticals if we’re taking any) when deciding what to do with the product. Wouldn’t it be amazing to get to the point collectively where we look back on how wasteful we used to be when we flushed it all away.

Ariose’s head “before”.
Ariose’s head “before”.

I’ve strayed a bit from the immediate concern of how we’ll deal with our waste on Ariose.  Let me pull it back. Sailors deal with their waste in a variety of ways. There’s the option of the traditional bucket that’s then dumped overboard method, and yes, it is still in use. Then, there’s the other end of the continuum of options. I’ll quote from a website advertising one marine toilet model to give an example of what us regular folk are missing in our everyday experience: “a sophisticated high-tech design with elegant Italian styling…includes the convenience of an electronic, multi-function bidet …with a wireless remote control [including] a five-setting variable warm-water spray [that] delivers an Intensive Impulse Pulsation massage [note this is capitalized… clearly an important feature!] …heated seat and dryer, both with a choice of temperature settings…”. Wow!  Something a little closer to the bucket option is making a resurgence . There are now several models of well-designed composting head for marine use.

So, what are we doing for toileting facilities? On Ariose, as with many boats, we had a traditional marine pump head.  After completing our business, we’d pump water from the lake to flush our waste into a rather small holding tank. That holding tank was the odourous villain of our previous Ariose Note. Many boats also have the option to flush the waste out, and we’ve heard horror stories of anchorages contaminated by excrement, leaving nasty rings on the boats, where anyone brave (or foolish) enough to take a dip could only do so when the tide has flushed out the most foul of the waters. As you have likely surmised, we are going with a composting head.

Composting heads, which are really more accurately described as desiccating heads since the composting process will only have time to get started while on board, are uncomplicated and offer many benefits over the traditional heads beyond feeling good about being environmentally responsible. Essentially they are just a bucket and a bottle housed under a traditional toilet seat. They separate the urine via a diverter in the bowl, and store solid and liquid waste separately. It’s the mixing that causes most of the unpleasant issues in terms of keeping things smelly and wet, and preventing natural break-down. That diverter, we’ve read, works really well for all regardless of anatomy, but can be a bit of a challenge for females in heavy seas, where at times, liquid waste makes its way to the solids. I’ll practice the correct pelvic tilt alignment and if we still have an occasionally smelly head, it is still far better than a constantly smelly one.  Another huge benefit is that there’s no plumbing to get clogged. Non-cruisers may not appreciate how great a feature this is.  Imagine, working in a confined space, 12 inches from your bed, boat rolling with the waves, while taking apart plumbing containing raw sewage. We don’t think we will have any regrets about never being able to commiserate with fellow cruisers about having to deal with these messy occurrences.

Collecting sawdust to use as desiccant.

In our model, the C-Head, a desiccating medium is used on the solids. This can be coconut coir, peat moss, or as we’re prepared to use to start, wood shavings. I’ve been gathering up, drying, and bagging them from our winter firewood cuttings, ready for our departure this fall.  A simple handle connects to a paddle which stirs the newly deposited solids into the shavings. The waste is then stored on board. Jugs are perfect for the urine (a small amount of sugar is said to eliminate the odour), although I’ve made a mental note to ensure we label these well to prevent mistaken identity of contents!  We’re bringing a few plastic lidded 5-gallon pails for temporary storage of the solids (and no odour here either as it’s dried). We expect each pail to hold 4-6 weeks of our droppings. Traditional heads can only be used to the point of the holding tank reaching capacity, and remember it’s filled with waste and water, so on smaller boats like ours, this happens quite quickly when living aboard full-time. With our composting toilet, when a responsible option for disposal arises, we will empty the containers. This might involve dumping the partially composted waste once we’re beyond legislated distances offshore, or disposing in marina waste facilities, or burying it well in a suitable location to naturally complete its composting process, or treating it with bleach and disposing it in any waste container.

Whatever option works, it will be far easier for us to just have to haul the waste we’re disposing from time to time rather than needing to constantly search out facilities and take the entire boat there on a regular basis for pump-out, not to mention paying for the privilege of doing so! It will be easy to be good environmental stewards. With traditional systems, it’s understandable that even conscientious cruisers can give in to the temptation to release their holding tank under the cover of darkness. We look forward to this toilet being part of what will free us to stay where we want to stay – that lovely isolated out of the way coral fringed cove perhaps – rather than being forced to remain close to marina facilities.

Are there cons to a marine composting toilet? Yes, some might consider there to be an “ick” factor to dumping waste, although, if managed correctly, it won’t be smelly. We think this is far outweighed by the freedom it gives us, not to mention the boost of moral superiority and environmental self-righteousness of taking on responsibility for our own waste! Secondly, composting toilets aren’t good options if (when?) seasick, as watery stomach contents contribute too much moisture. There is also the small inconvenience of needing to keeping a drying medium on board whereas with traditional marine toilets , you don’t need to plan or store what you use to deal with your waste as you are surrounded by it (i.e. water).   The only other con we can think of, and it is a significant one, is that composting heads can be pricey. The one we purchased, the C-Head, is about 4-5 times the cost of a lower end flush model, and it is the least expensive option.  At the same time, we won’t be incurring ongoing pump-out costs.

C-Head with lid up and removable cover on.
C-Head with lid up and removable cover on.

Right now, I’m preparing the head area on Ariose. In our “Meditations on destruction” post, I talked about the process of removing the holding tank and I probably shared more than most would like to know in last week’s “Getting into it” post. The project is actually coming along well… and I’m almost good enough with Tim’s router to trust myself in starting to use it to make the finishing moldings. I’m really pleased about fit. I had dedicated a winter evening to constructing a cardboard mock-up model of the C-Head, and have spent more time than I’d like to admit to working my quads as I squatted on it trying not to bear weight while determining the fine line between efficient use of a small space and inducing claustrophobia in users.  We brought the real thing on board this week to be sure it will fit before I work on the final touches.  It’s perfect! It looks like it’s been custom made, and I’m patting myself on the back for tailoring the surroundings to fit the toilet so well. We’ll actually install it closer to the time we’re setting sail to protect it from errant sharp tools and paint. Here’s a mini-gallery of photos – just click on any one and then scroll through if you’re interested.  You are free to speculate on why I’m suited up in a PFD in the trying-it-out photos. There’s more I’d like to share about that, but it will have to wait for a future Ariose Note.

Making a cardboard mock-up
Drying wood chips to use as drying medium.
Inner workings of the C-Head: bucket at rear with paddle (right side of photo), liquid container to the front.
Checking out the new head.

So, to end, here’s a photo of a lovely red trillium from Tim’s woods early this spring.  It has no relevance to this topic, but rather is a small reward for anyone who has stuck with the last 2 posts and has made it to the end of this one. If that’s you, you deserve to be left with a beautiful image after all that!


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