Shit Happens – A Nature’s Head composting toilet review!

Thats right, it happens.  And when it happens on land, most of us barely give it a second thought – push the button, flip the lever or pull the chain and voila, problem gone!

unrelated photo to distract you from the topic

There are of course a few more considerations involved for us live on a boat folk.  The way things are, you pretty much have 3 options…

1. whoosh, and it all goes through a hose and out the side of the boat, letting nature clean up for you.  Not so bad when you’re under way or out a sea somewhere, but not the most desirable option for your neighbours when in a crowded anchorage or marina.  In fact in most parts of the civilized world, this can be illegal and you’ll get fined if caught out, guess they don’t police that kinda thing here in Ensenada….

2.  Similar beginning to the first option, but this time it gets pumped through into a holding tank on the boat to be carried around with you until you find a pumpout station, get out to sea where it will soon be washed around with the rest of the ocean, or if you’re lucky some crazy guy will have put a big vacuum cleaner on his little boat and will come and suck it out and take it away for you!

3. a relative newcomer to the boat scene, the composting toilet.  Basically a fancy bucket with a handle and a bottle to separate liquid and solid waste.  The idea is the solids are mixed with peat moss (sphagnum) to help it break down, and after a few weeks it pretty much turns into dirt which you can then dump almost anywhere.

So, each of these options is readily available and most boats tend towards a combination of numbers 1 and 2  combined – using a holding tank in marinas and inland waters and then letting it out somewhere where it won’t be a problem.  This is great so long as nothing leaks… normally it isn’t likely you’ll discover Mr Hanky swimming in your bilge, but there will be a nasty smell hanging around that kinda puts you off hanging out in the head (bathroom) too long.  This could be any number of things going wrong, and can make trouble shooting smelly, messy and often pretty gross…

the original aft head

When we bought Sea Raven, she had 2 heads installed, I guess a boys and girls, fore and aft on the port side, which both ran into a holding tank  near the engine listed as being about 30 gallon capacity on the survey.  For some reason I assumed that it had been pumped out, I know I wouldn’t want to sell a boat full of shit, and as she went straight into dry storage, I didn’t give it a second thought….

Flash forward to a year and a half later, and I’m in the water again and settled at our new marina.  I decided to get the mobile pumpout guy to come buy and rinse the holding tank out and make sure I was definitely at the empty tank starting point.  When he showed up the first time he took nearly 80 gallons out of the tank!   A double surprise as I though it was only 30gl for one and empty at that!  When you do the math, I had been carrying round almost 800lbs of someone else’s mess! Nasty!

Around then, or maybe a little before, we had decide we wanted to go the composting route, I think we were trying to be greener or something – less power consumption, no holding tank chemicals, and no dumping lincoln logs out in to the sea.  not to mention not carrying gallons of your poo everywhere you go.  After looking around online, I coughed up a reasonable chunk of change and ordered the Nature’s Head composting toilet.  Reading their site and reviews online, it seemed the best option available.

When it arrived it sat there uninstalled for a few months, while I ran around doing other things. in the meantime, I sold the old heads, well pretty much gave them away, I was surprised people wanted to buy used toilets for boats, but  these were top of the line models retailing at over a grand each.

Didn’t really start using the new head until I left San Francisco. The first round was bad… the head had been used by 5 guys for 3 days in  a rough sea on the way south, and I guess the solid and liquid separating process didn’t hold up to the test, think it nearly got me divorced when my beautiful wife donned a mask and gloves and dealt with it….  Hmmm, wasn’t sposed to do that I thought, thats ok, round 2 will be better, just the 2 of us, using it properly in a marina.  I guess that went better, but the biggest problem with the composting aspect is IT TAKES TIME!  When you live aboard a boat, having to not use your own toilet and walk up to the marina facilities for 2 weeks while your environmentally friendly bucket with a handle does its thing, kinda defeats the point of having a toilet on board in the first place, right?  Ok, they sell a separate base unit for the head, which means you can take the lid and seat off the used base, put a lid on it and start from scratch, great!  now you have a 12″ x 12″ bucket of composting shit to store somewhere for a few weeks… not appealing even with the amount of space we have.

getting ready for the new install

So now, with a lighter wallet and the advantage of hindsight, we are ordering a new regular marine head and I am modifying the holding tank and installation so we can control it ourselves.  All roads (pipes) lead to the holding tank, including the shower, which is then either pumped out below the water line while at sea, or saved up for the guy with the vacuum cleaner.  We would have rather made the holding tank smaller, and partitioned off a section as a shower sump, which was then pumped over board, but my mind was changed when I opened the access panel on the holding tank, and saw the inside.  I’ll spare you the gory details, lets just say the guy in the states missed some, and there was no way I was crawling around in there to fiberglass and plumb anything in!

just look at all those little corners for stuff to stick in!

In conclusion, the Nature’s Head does what it claims to do – it takes your breakfast, lunch and dinner, and over time turns it into dirt.  The reality is though, for  people who live aboard, it doesn’t do it quickly enough, and the options given; the second base unit, or dumping the base into a trash bag and letting it sit somewhere to do its thing, aren’t really appealing on a moving boat, the last thing you need is to have something spill when you are out sailing and have to deal with it.  Also the liquid bottle in hot climates is not a pleasant thing to deal with either, it gets funky and stains easily, and dumping it over the side every day or so gets old real quick.  so sorry guys, but no thumbs up from the crew of Sea Raven, with just the two of us on here, it was bad, with the prospect of guests using it as well, it just got straight up scary!

Apologies for the post this week, was just a load of shite i know, but such is the life afloat!

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13 responses to “Shit Happens – A Nature’s Head composting toilet review!

  1. Option Number 2 please. :) Sailing with comfort, we were going to go with Option 3 but I think I know who will be emptying the containers so I definitely think the holding tank is the best way. Thank you for sharing your knowledge about such delicate matters. :)

  2. this is still by far our most hit post! I was wondering if those of you out there who find it while searching for reviews of the natures head find it useful or not? Would love to hear your stories/opinions!

  3. My experience with the Nature’s Head is quite different. I don’t find emptying the urine bottle every day over the side to be a chore at all. What does it take – 60 seconds? The solids bin takes about 4-5 weeks to fill up, with my wife and I using full time. Around week 3, we start keeping an eye open for a place to empty it. This is sometimes a pit toilet ashore, or in the water if we are an appropriate distance offshore. Last resort is always the garbage. Again, this is only once every 4-5 weeks.
    I’ve been cruising for 30 years, and I think this is the best system yet. Compare it to having an expensive and complex holding tank system (which always stank for me). The Nature’s Head never stinks. I never have to look for a pumpout station. The inconvenience of emptying the NH is small compared with pumpout stations. Then at the pumpout station, some would always spill. Yuck. I’ve got all that storage where the holding tank was. There is zero maintenance. I love the thing!

    • Thanks for commenting James, and I’m glad it worked out for the two of you. As I said, it does what it claims to do, it just takes time, and I’m sure if it were able to sit longer, the emptying process would not be as much of a hassle as it was for us. I’m not sure where you are cruising, but the warm humid air around here doesn’t help with smell and bugs! With our new head installed, we are glad to be using our current system. I use no chemicals in the holding tank, and add the micro-bacteria that is usually added to new septic tanks to get the natural breakdown cycle rolling. These bacteria will eventually leave nothing toxic behind, and as our holding tank is pretty big, we can go a while between empties. Which is usually done on the way to our next anchorage.

  4. Also, consider that in most places you cruise outside of the USA, there will be no pumpout station for miles – maybe hundreds of miles. So, are boaters really pulling up the anchor and sailing miles offshore when their little holding tank fills up, every week or two? I think not. They are probably flushing in the coastal waters, which is an immoral act which puts all users of that water at risk.

    • Correct! There are no pumpout facilities around here in Mexico, in fact the only one I’ve seen being used looked suspiciously like a long hose going to the other end of the dock and little more. The fact is most of the towns and cities around here don’t have sewage treatment plants either, so the majority of them also pump out into the sea, a fact you can smell at certain times of the night, especially in La Paz. While we are careful to try and pump out at the right time and place, not everyone is, I’ve dinghyed into marinas and hit a wall of obvious holding tank pump out, inconsiderate to say the least. In costal waters and most larger anchorages though, I don’t think its so bad. So long as you aren’t constantly dumping chemicals into your holding tank to try and control the smell caused by incorrect installation, use or ventilation, you aren’t adding anything into the eco-system that it can’t already handle, think whale size and you may catch my drift. Again thanks for taking the time to comment, several people a day read this thread, and no one else lets me know what they think! Have a great New Year from the crew of Sea Raven

  5. Do you really have to wait for one deposit to compost completely? Can’t you continue using it, maybe adding a bit of peat here and there, and turning the handle to mix around each time?

    • if you keep adding to it, you are adding new material that needs to be broken down, and mixing it through. Eventually you have to empty it, and if you are using it full time, there is normally something fresh in the mix.

      • Right, but what I’m trying to get at is – does that matter if there’s fresher material in there? My understanding is that there’s no bad smell because it’s been separated from the liquids. Is your argument against it that when it’s finally full; that all the material that’s there isn’t fully composted, and you have to wait for the whole amount to compost?

      • it depends on what you are doing with it when you empty it. Uncomposted material isn’t the same as fully composted as far as you can just dump it in a garden somewhere. If you are throwing it overboard at sea, it really isn’t any different to having your head pump straight out. The liquid/solid separation helps with smell, so long is it is done correctly, if anyone else uses your head, chances are they will mess it up (learnt the hard way :( ) and then it is REALLY nasty. It also isn’t the easiest head to empty, and has a lot of little corners and crevices that things WILL get stuck in…. It really depends on you and your level of comfort, where not precious in anyway, but it was too much for us – so we now are back to using the holding tank, and much happier!

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