Clog-Free Head

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2013 • all rights reserved

A clogged head usually means a nasty job where you have to take the toilet halfway apart.  Many cruisers follow this rule and go years without a clog.

What to do with used toilet paper on board — flush it or not?

You’ll be a lot less likely to have clogs if you don’t put toilet paper down the head.  Instead, do as people in many parts of the world with undersized sewer systems do:  use a lidded wastebasket lined with a plastic bag, and burn it or otherwise dispose of it daily. A few drops of eucalyptus oil or other air freshener will cover any smell.  Tell guests with a polite sign in the head (see below).

Yes, this is a photo of our head.  We always put the TP in the trash and so did almost all cruisers in the Sea of Cortez; the joke was that when we’d make a trip to the US or Canada, we’d have a hard time remembering to flush the TP!

I know, a lot of people are going to say “yuck!” and others will say they’ve flushed the TP for years without a problem.  Dave’s and my feeling was that inasmuch as Que Tal had only one head, and neither one of us was very wild sweating over an un-flushed toilet in 90+ degree temps, and even less wild on the idea of having to use a bucket during the process, not flushing was the way to go.  If you’re willing to risk having to unclog it — in most cruising locales you can’t just call a plumber and let them deal with it — your choice may be different.  I’ve also heard of boats that allow flushing but impose a 2-square limit . . . I find that idea MUCH more repulsive than putting it in covered container!

Here’s a close up of our sign — we had two copies of it, one above the pump handle and one where they’d see it while sitting on the toilet.  Of course, your flushing instructions will be different but it’s good to post them (ours were particularly strange due to a strange siphon break).  Every head is slightly different and even other cruisers may want instructions on how to use yours.  We had the signs laminated so they’d last longer (as you can see, it’s time to re-do them!).

A clogged head usually means a nasty job where you have to take the toilet halfway apart.  Many cruisers follow this rule and go years without a clog.

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  1. Good idea. It’s a worry when you have guests onboard how to explain potty training.

  2. Love the sign. We’ve never put TP in the head, but had the TP trauma earlier this week anyway! Solved now though! 🙂

  3. Here in the Philippines not flushing TP is standard. Initially I was surprised at the lack of odor expecting otherwise. Apparently the TP removes the moisture from the fecal matter on the paper by capillary action relatively quickly and this prevents odors.

    The use of TP is a luxury for most in third world countries and they use a ‘tabo’ – a plastic sauce pan as a dipper to rinse with; pouring with one hand while washing with the other. Not having mastered this trick as I am new to this procedure, I have modified the rinse procedure by using a small plastic watering can with the sprinkler removed to provide a more controlled stream of (sea) water – I just fill the can on the way to the head. This eliminates the whole hassle (and expense) of buying and storing TP. One never thinks of this while in first world countries as we have been taught differently our entire lives.

  4. My sign says:

    “Nothing goes in the head
    that hasn’t been eaten first.”

    Please be seated.”

    On the lids of my toilet paper cans it says:

    “Toilet paper here.
    There are no plumbers at sea.”

  5. Gail Johnson says:

    Why do you put your finger over a hole?

  6. A Lavac head! Love it!

  7. Yep! We hadn’t used one before we bought Que Tal, but loved it. In almost seven years, our only repair was to replace the gasket/seal on the lid once.

  8. My wife loves it because you don’t have to get close and personal. Just close the lid and goodbye!

  9. Agreed!

  10. AkMary – it depends, a smart finger flick will get rid of most of the drops and then the boxers get damp but soon dry in the heat; in a swim suit it makes no difference but if more layers the dampness usually doesn’t show and is soon gone. If you were worried about a damp spot showing, you could use a towel – but that raises complications: does everyone use the same towel? separate towels? (more washing) – so far the towel thing hasn’t been an issue. Probably a personal preference thing.

    • I find that a can of Coke in the head once a season clears any blockages. To make the pump run smoothly use 1 Tbsp cooking oil in the bowl & flush through.

  11. Christopher Rasch says:

    What do you think of composting toilets like Nature’s Head:

    • I’ve used various brands of composting toilets on friends’ boats (we didn’t have one) and talked to many others about them as well. Everyone who has one seems to like it — the biggest thing seems to be finding the absorbent material (whether it be peat, coconut husks or something else) in some out of the way places. One friend uses sawdust which she says works well and they’ve been able to find everywhere.

      If they’re done right, there isn’t any smell and there is nothing to clog. Just have to find a place to dispose of the bag. From what I can gather, a composting toilet is legal in no discharge zones where you otherwise have to show proof of pump outs (but don’t just take my word on this — check where you are and where you plan to cruise — as I did a quick general check, not specific to any particular place).

  12. Where do you burn it?

  13. We’d burn it with the rest of our burnable trash (or if you’re in an area with good trash disposal ashore, you can put it with the rest of your trash). More on how we burned trash:

  14. A tablespoon of vegetable oil every day or so in in the head, does wonders in keeping the seals lubricated and makes the flushing job a lot easier!

  15. That looks like a lavac head? I don’t understand the finger over the hole instructions. What is that all about. I have a lavac on Skalliwag-no hole.

    • It’s in the anti-siphon valve, non-standard, and the anti-siphon works so well that it won’t draw water unless you cover it up. Since no one else has ever seen anything else like it, have to give directions or else it won’t flush.

  16. no TP in the head and vinegar twice a year to brake up the calcification from the salt water

  17. When we first started sailing we just got into the habit of not putting TP in the head.

  18. Carry a bottle brush for use in cleaning the head. It also helped us one evening with a friend who had some constipation problems and clogged the head. It got pushed thru,
    Ok, maybe TMI but it happened.

  19. Since I put my arm & hand to the bottom of the full holding tank & pulled a clog from the pickup tube everyone is banned from flushing tp. Yuk.

  20. Peter Craig says:

    When I bought my yacht, the surveyor/shipwright said the manual toilet was leaking and suggested putting in an electric toilet that I assume macerated the stuff as it flushes it into the holding tank or over the side depending on the settings. As this was my first yacht I just went with his suggestion and had it installed. Do you still have problems with toilet paper with an electric toilet? It also has a macerator to empty the holding tank.

    • I’ve never had one so can’t say with any certainty. I know that aboard a friend’s boat, with an electric head, they also follow the no TP in the head rule, but I don’t know if it’s for clog prevention or if they just don’t want it taking up space in the holding tank.

  21. I’ve done charters for over ten years and know that the vast majority of my clients would not like this approach. Neither do I, and I’m a farm boy and very familiar to yucky things. We have used Charmin Basic, or some other cheap, one ply tissue for years and never had trouble with the macerator or pump out. We tell folks to use a minimum amount and that if it plugs up they will help us clean it out or go over the side. Peggy Hall’s (Queen of Crap, Head Mistress) test: put a couple sheets in a jar of water and shake it up. If it falls apart, it’s OK.

  22. Debra Adkins says:

    If it didn’t go in your mouth, it doesn’t go in the head!

  23. I keep a spray bottle next to the toilet and a hanging plastic shopping bag for the toilet paper. Mix about a 10 to 15 % solution of water and vinager and add 3 or 4 oz of dawn to this. Spray toilet after use and paper in bag. No odor, disinfects and lubes toilet.

  24. Cheri Ogden says:

    We have a couple of rules on our cruiser. Even though we don’t cruise great distances, the thought of my husband (yep, I’m not gonna do it) having to work on a smelly, stopped up toilet it not pleasing. Our first rule for people who are on board with us is similar to another posting: “if it doesn’t go in here (pointing to your mouth) it doesn’t go in there (pointing to the head) and secondly our standard rule of thumb is that no toilet paper goes into the head. All TP goes into a plastic garbage bag hanging in the head but we keep sandwich baggies in the head for putting “dirty” TP inside before placing into the plastic garbage bag. I have found this will contain most odors when the garbage is emptied every day or two.

  25. This entire thread is proof that people can get used to anything. I refuse to put TP into a bag for future disposal. The daily aggravation of having to deal with that sort of thing is far greater than an occasional clog – and in 12 years have had one clog, which was due more to calcification in a hose more than anything else.
    Here’s how you deal – don’t use a ton of paper. Let it get good and wet before pumping it down. Pump ALL the way through to your holding tank (or overboard where applicable).
    And if worst comes to worst – have an elbow length set of plastic gloves on board… ;>)

  26. Wow! Is that REALLY the flush process for a Lavac toilet? What a pita! I have been using a vacuflush for fifteen years as a live aboard. Using normal hose hold tp protocol. Never once a problem–ever.

    I had been thinking of switching to a Lavac before leaving for a long term cruise. This article is seriously changing my mind…

    • I think that you mistook my description of flushing a Lavac head — ours was a slightly unusual installation with a non-standard siphon break that required us to put a finger over the hole as we pumped. A normal installation does not have that.

      In seven years, we never had a problem with the Lavac head other than once changing the seal on the lid. Never had a clog or had to change the joker valve. Never had a time when it couldn’t be used.

      Don’t decide against one based on how we had to flush — look at a standard installation. I’d much prefer it over the Raritan in our current boat!

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