5 Types of Marine Heads: Which is Better?

If you have ever been on a train, airplane, or other forms of public transportation and had to use the bathroom, your nostrils have probably never forgiven you for the experience. In addition, your elbows may still be calloused from smacking up against the sides every time you had to make a minor adjustment.

Unfortunately, this had been a reality for sailors and boat passengers for far too long. Thankfully, sanitation standards and new head technology has made going to the bathroom pleasurable again.

That said, I hope to flush out the old perceptions of shipboard potties. This article aims to inform you of the different types of marine heads you can pick from when choosing a bathroom package for your new boat or if trying to decide on a replacement for your older vessel’s sanitation system.

What Is A Marine Head?

What Is A Marine Head

If you haven’t guessed it already, a head is a mariners term for the bathroom. The word derived from sailing vessels of times past when the crew’s nature center was towards the bow (front) or the head of the ship for strategic cleaning purposes.

Different Types of Marine Heads

I’m going to spare you the details of how sailors in the past flushed away or discharged their waste. Instead, I would like to have us explore the different types of marine heads together and discuss how each of them works.

The 5 Types Of Marine Heads include:

  1. Porta-Potti
  2. Manual Head
  3. Electric Head
  4. Vacuum Head
  5. Composting Head

1. Porta-Potti


You have likely seen or even used some model of the Porta-Potti, whether when passing a construction zone or attending a more significant public event outdoors like a state or county fair.

In any case, the Porta-Potti is a comfortable, durable, and self-contained toilet that is entirely portable-requiring no permanent plumbing system.

Porta-Potties are an excellent option for cabinless boats that do not have the allocated space for a fully installed sanitation system. You should consider investing in this useful tag-a-long accessory if you own a smaller fishing or recreational boat and plan on being out on the water for the majority of the day.

The Porta-Potti 145 is Thetfords medium-size portable toilet fit with a bellow pump and capable of holding up to 12 liters of waste. You can easily find one of these toilets for less than seventy-five bucks, which is worth the investment.

Thetford offers luxury models in their portable toilet line-up with a range of different flushing options. However, remember that you will have to physically empty the contents within the holding tank once back on dry land.

Although it sounds like a reasonably unpleasant job, if you follow the manufacturer’s instructions, nothing should poop up the process.

2. Manual Head

Manual Head
Image Credit: amazon

The next tier above the Porta-Pottie is the manual head. As the name implies, you utilize a hand pump to draw up water (post-use) and flush down the generated waste into a holding tank.

There are many different size holding tanks available; however, the most suitable size for your bathroom setup depends on several factors:

  • the space you have available on your boat
  • boat capacity (a manual head system adds at least 25 pounds of weight to your boat)
  • how many passengers are on board, and
  • the time you plan on being away from a marina

The physics being operating a manual head is pretty straightforward. Still, some preferred techniques to implement to ensure your sanitation system maintains clean and clog-free lines (and odor-free is always lovely too).

PRO-TIP: David Schmidt, from CruisingWorld, suggests, “users pump a small amount of water into the bowl, complete their business as normal, and then flush by first flipping a selector switch (typically mounted by the pump), and pumping the handle to drain the bowl.”

Manual heads do not require power and are reasonably easy to maintain and repair, even while out at sea. In addition, manual head systems are usually the least expensive option next to portable toilets.

Remember, you will empty your manual head’s storage tank at your closest marina’s pump-out facility. Consider ABSCO as your trusted manufacturer of manual marine heads.

3. Electric Heads

Electric Heads
Image Credit: seabits

We all like the convenience of controlling something by the press of a button- an electrical head utilizes power to drive waste down into your sanitation systems holding tank after performing your duties at sea.

Running an electric head off a separate circuit would be wise; each flush will use a brief load burst of approximately 20 to 30 amps. So you may want to still store a Porta-Pottie somewhere on board in case you lose power while out at sea.

One excellent feature that comes standard with most electric heads is a macerator that works to prevent clogs- a group of blades that shred up waste before passing through the boat’s sanitation system lines.

Though manufacturers are constantly seeking ways to improve electric heads, they are notably loud and more challenging to maintain due to having more moving parts than more basic marine head types.

4. Vacuum Heads

Vacuum Heads

Vacuum heads also utilize power to operate the systems vacuum pump activated upon flushing the toilet. Typically, the vacuum pump will remain on until the system repressurizes and automatically s off (about one minute).

Vacuum heads clean out the toilet’s contents with freshwater, sucking down waste up to speeds of seven feet per second.

Vacuum heads are a preferable sanitation system to consider if you upgrade your boat’s outdated mechanical toilet. To install one of these systems on your boat, you need three main parts:

  • a toilet
  • a vacuum pump and accumulator, and
  • a holding tank

VacuFlush is an industry leader for these types of marine heads.

5. Composting Head

Composting Head
Image Credit: cruisingworld

There is no better alternative for the most environmentally conscious than the composting head. Typically composting heads have two chambers: one for liquids and one for solids.

Nature’s Head is likely the most popular solution for outdoor enthusiasts and naturalists, no matter if you live aboard a vessel or out in a small cabin in the woods.

As a sailor, you will be happy to hear that this particular brand is also USCG certified. In addition, composting toilets eliminate the need for electric power and give you back that precious storage space you surrendered for installing the holding tank on your older sanitation system.

With composting toilets, you save on weight, space, complicated mechanics and get to skip out on waiting in line at the marina pump-out station as well.

The process is pretty simple- you go to the bathroom and let nature take care of the rest. Then, you sprinkle some peat moss into the solid waste chamber. As it sits, a natural healing process occurs, which eradicates dangerous bacteria.

In the end, the only remains of your waste will be a blackened powder that you must dispose of onshore or use as a sustainable fertilizer for non-edible garden landscaping.

Marine Sanitation Laws To Be Aware Of

Marine Sanitation Laws To Be Aware Of

Suppose you choose a permanently installed marine head for your boat. In that case, you must comply with various USCG regulations that regulate disposal and discharge procedures to protect the environment and others.

The Environmental Protection Agency establishes No Discharge Zones where discharged waste is prohibited. You can see a list of the No-Discharge Zones (NDZs) by State here. In addition, you cannot discharge treated or untreated waste in freshwater lakes and some rivers.

Be sure not to discharge waste within three miles from shore unless it has been treated by “U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type I or Type II MSD. Alternatively, sewage may be stored onboard in a holding tank (Type III MSD).”

If you have any doubts, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the United States Coast Guard or contact your region’s EPA Ambassador for more information.

Quick Tips For Using A Marine Head

  1. Although permanently installed sanitation systems can generally use freshwater or saltwater for flushes, experts recommend freshwater. Freshwater flushes help control odor by eliminating any interaction between your waste and tiny marine organisms.
  2. Use biodegradable toilet paper and refrain from flushing any other foreign objects down the toilet- Keep It Natural, so you don’t have to deal with the nasty job of clearing out clogs.
  3. Stick to marine-only cleaning chemicals and other additives. House products can significantly reduce the lifespan of plastics, seals, and other marine head hardware. If you decide on revamping your vessel’s bathroom with a composting toilet, remember only to use organic sphagnum peat moss.
  4. Schedule a regular cleaning and maintenance program for your marine head. Stick to your manufacturer’s guidelines and only treat or clean with approved products.
  5. Use It But Don’t Abuse It- the best way to ensure a marine head that lasts.


Investing in the most suitable marine head involves considering several factors, including an individual’s sustainability index, available onboard space, and intended boat use (extended trips vs. a couple of hours out at the lake).

As you think about your boat’s capacity and sanitation needs, please do not hesitate to leave any questions or concerns you may have in the comment section below.

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