DIY: In Search of a Push-button, Freshwater Flush

As part of a general refit of the boat, I wanted to install a toilet that was somewhat more streamlined and—more importantly—used fresh water for flushing. Boat toilets have a reputation for being smelly with a tendency to clog.
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The new throne, in all its glory

The new throne, in all its glory

The Groco sea toilet on Seaglass was state of the art when the boat was manufactured, but that was 25 years ago. The venerable Groco had started its life as a manual toilet, but at some point in the past it had been upgraded to electric operation by a previous owner. The head still worked, but there were a couple of things I didn’t like about it. All the pipework, for example, was on display below the bowl, giving the installation a rather industrial look and making it hard to clean.

As part of a general refit of the boat, I wanted to install a toilet that was somewhat more streamlined and—more importantly—used fresh water for flushing. Boat toilets have a reputation for being smelly with a tendency to clog. There’s a reason for this bad rap, but it’s not all the toilet’s fault. Correct use and maintenance are critical for the proper operation of any sea toilet. The plumbing hoses must be top quality and yes, nothing should be flushed down the toilet that has not been eaten first.

Nonetheless, the sulfurous smell that is found in many heads and often mistakenly attributed to waste in the tank and pipework, is usually caused by the seawater used for the flush. Seawater contains millions of tiny micro organisms, and as these die and decompose they start to give off that rather evil smell that, sadly, is all too often considered a unavoidable part of life afloat.

Walking the aisles at the Miami boat show earlier this year, I spent some time looking at the offerings from various manufacturers, but one caught my eye. Raritan is well known to many boat owners for its water heaters, but the company also manufactures a range of toilets. After some deliberation I settled on the Elegance model, which can be flushed with seawater, freshwater or a combination of the two. Other options include a straight or sloped back, high or low seat height and a choice of white or bone color. As these toilets are electric flush control there are options here too, from a simple push-to-flush switch to a programmable control. All these options mean that there are few vessels where these toilets could not be used. The macerator pump is built into the back of the toilet, concealed behind the china, and as if this were something from a Star Wars movie, it has what Raritan calls “Vortex Vac flush technology,” which chops up waste and pushes it into the holding tank more effectively. Who knew sea toilets had become so sophisticated?

After some careful measurements—electric toilets usually take up more room than manual versions, and you want to make sure they’ll fit—I opted for the white low-seat model with freshwater flush and programmable control. The other thing that I had not considered until my wife pointed it out to me is that the toilet looks and works just like the one at home and does not require an engineering degree to flush—it’s great for non-sailing guests, because you simply tell them where to press the button. The electronic control takes care of the rest, and there is no more “move the little lever to this position, give five strokes, close the lever then pump 10 more times.”

The installation took me three days in total which included stripping out the old head and pipework, making good the fiberglass pedestal base that the head sits on, and then installing the new toilet, plumbing and electrical connections. This is a fairly advanced DIY project, and you need to be confident of your skills. However, providing that you have a decent tool kit, patience and a methodical approach, it is within the reach of a skilled amateur. Every boat is unique of course and circumstances differ, so although the final result may be similar the method may be slightly different to what you see here. Here’s how I did it. (Many thanks to the folks at Raritan, especially Dale Weatherstone.)

The old head worked, but it leaked, was noisy, used sea water for flushing and I disliked the exposed plumbing, so it had to go.

Step one was to turn off the power and close the seawater intake. As I was installing new plumbing and electrical wiring, I simply cut these out of the way. The raw-water intake pipe was cut off adjacent to the intake seacock, which was later repurposed for an anchor seawater washdown.

I disconnected the waste pipe from behind the bowl. Although this was being replaced, I did not want to simply cut it as I had no idea what treats might be lurking inside!

With the bowl free of all connections, I unbolted it from the pedestal and removed it from the boat.

I now had a free space, and although the new head would be going into the same position as the old toilet, the holes through the fiberglass for the water intake and waste hoses were in the wrong place. They had to be filled and gelcoated and this was done later. The new toilet was placed into position so I could check that there was proper clearance for the seat to open correctly.

Once I was confident the toilet was in the right place, I made a pencil mark around the perimeter and at the centerline of the bolt holes to correctly align the stainless steel mounting bracket.

After double-checking my measurements I bolted the bracket in position in accordance with the instructions. The pencil line previously drawn around the base and at the hole centerlines is required for this step as a setback measurement is required from these marks.

I had to drill extra holes for the water intake, waste and electric wiring. Sizes are given in the instructions, and a sharp hole saw makes short work of this job. If the pedestal is close to the hull be careful not to drill too far and go through the bottom of the boat!

Connecting up the electrics is straightforward, but you must follow the instructions with regard to wire sizing. I installed the electronic relay in the locker behind the head. This black box is wired differently depending on how your particular toilet is configured. There are connections for a tank level monitor and automatic start for a Lectrasan or other sanitation treatment tank if your vessel is so equipped.

As I was installing the fancy programmable control I chose a position on the side of the vanity. A 11/2in hole was needed for this, so I drilled a 1/16in pilot hole first to give the the hole saw’s guide drill something to follow. The vanity is very slippery and drilling a pilot hole ensures that the large drill will not slip and mar the finish.

I mounted the control using the supplied mounting screws and then ran the cat 5 cable to the black box and plugged in. I was careful to ensure that all wiring connections were secure, using crimped connectors where appropriate and neatly clipping back cables to prevent them from sagging.

With the wiring complete I turned my attention to the plumbing. As I was installing a fresh water flush I had to tee into the cold water feed to the heads faucet. My boat is plumbed in PEX style semi-rigid piping so this was a fairly easy job. Had I been using a raw-water flush model I would have simply replaced the hose that runs to the seacock.

I had to wrestle the waste hose down through the pedestal and through a bulkhead into the engine bay before finally connecting it to the waste holding tank. A helper would definitely have made this job easier, but I finally prevailed. I used new sanitation hose from Raritan, which I ordered with the toilet—do not be tempted to use flexible corrugated hose made for water tanks. It may be easier to run in, but it will smell and trap waste.

I connected the hoses to the back of the toilet using new pipe clamps, then turned on the water and checked for leaks. You can just about make out the screwdriver tightening up the water supply hose clamp. At this stage the toilet bowl is also finally bolted to its bracket, but you need to be careful as over-tightening will crack the china. Now turn the power back on, and if all is well the toilet should flush.

The finished job, neat and tidy with no ugly pipes on show.

RESOURCES

Raritan raritaneng.com

Jabsco xylemflowcontrol.com

Dometic dometicsanitation.com

Thetford thetford.com

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