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Presenting an article on marine sanitation, holding tanks, etc. on yachts
originally published in Teltales Magazine , April 2001, p. 39-45.


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by Jay Stormer SAMS-AMS, NAMS-CMS
In the bad old days when I was a boy, there was a funny routine performed with ethnic dialect in "minstrel" shows. The story involved an argument about which animal was the meanest in the world. To bring this story up-to-date for these politically correct times, I'll change the setting to a yacht club bar, and change the names of the characters to Biff, Jason, and Bubba.
Biff sips his Martini and starts the conversation: " Of course the male lion, King of Beasts, is the meanest animal. A documentary I saw on PBS last night showed how he lets the females do all the work making a kill, then chases them from the carcass to gorge himself first."
Jason interrupts: "That is reprehensible behavior no doubt, but not quintessentially mean. Contrast that with the Siberian Tiger. HE marks a territory of hundreds of square miles with his urine and rips any intruder to shreds…. Bubba, Which of these species do you think is the more mean?"
"They're both pretty mean all right… (Bubba takes a pull on his longneck) But neither of 'em even comes close to the crocagator for down-right dirty mean."
Biff interjects: "Come on now, I never heard of such an animal, and I took Zoology 101 at Harvard!"
Bubba goes on: "Well, the crocagator lives in the swamp half underwater. Hardly anyone's ever seen one. But, the way I've heard it, on one end the crocagator has the sharp snout of a crocodile with beady eyes and hundreds of sharp teeth. At the other end of his body is the scaly head of an alligator with powerful, bone-crushing jaws."
Jason jumps in: "That’s preposterous, an alimentary impossibility? With a head at both extremities, how could it defecate?"
Bubba, looking momentarily puzzled: "Oh, you mean, how does he s_ _t. Well, he don't. That's what makes him so MEAN!"
Retention of bodily wastes has been a creating "meanness" among boaters for at least 25 years, since Federal Regulations (CFR-159) mandated the installation of marine sanitation devices (MSD). The regulations are clear - unless you are more than 3 miles offshore (that means the ocean, not the middle of the bay) you can not legally dump it.
We have all heard statements like: "If the whales poop in the water I can too." "The city of [name any] puts tons of sewage into [nearby body of water]; my contribution is a drop in the bucket." … Or even: "Those jack-booted water-Nazis will never make ME!" All of these and similar statements have an element of truth. Of course, anyone with any grip on reality knows that in the political poker game a million registered homeowners beats a hundred yachties any day. I also think we can all agree that one whale wouldn't cause a problem. But, if a thousand whales regularly used Clear Lake for a latrine, waterfront property would be a lot more affordable.
During the mid-seventies with the wisdom often associated with governmental regulation, CFR-159 went into effect without much consideration of the fact that it was virtually impossible to comply. Pump-out facilities were rare even in Florida until the 90's. In Texas they were non-existent. Everybody talked about the pump-out from hell - "…cost $35 and they just pumped it out and into the water across the pier". This, of course, generated widespread circumvention and flaunting of the regulations and resentment of the rule. . Many of us still gripe about MSD regulations and proliferating "No Discharge Areas". As a marine surveyor I still see a lot of "creative" boat plumbing
But, let's forget about CFR 159 and jack-boots for a moment, and consider boating aesthetics.
Imagine a quiet early weekend morning in the marina. You and your mate are enjoying coffee together in the cockpit, watching a glorious sunrise. Suddenly your reverie is interrupted by the sound of a groaning mascerator from the boat in the next slip. With a sulphurous belch, a brown cloud spreads in the water beside you…
Imagine a perfect day of sailing on sparkling waters. It is a wonderful introduction to the joys of the sport for your guests who are new to boating. You come to anchor in a secluded cove surrounded by wooded shores and sandy beaches. In the hot afternoon sun, the clear cool water is inviting, and the guests go below to change for a swim. As you are standing on the rail ready to dive in, you notice a cluster of brown lumps gently bobbing in the wavelets close aboard…
Is it time to reconsider the role of the holding tank in boating etiquette? I think so.
Things have, in fact, changed in the past few years even if our attitudes haven't. In most popular boating areas, including Clear Lake, free or low-cost pump-out facilities are available now. Most of the marinas in Clear Lake have a pump out. Alternatively, one can contract for regular visits from a pump-out barge at your moorings for a relatively modest fee (little more than the price of pizza and beer for the crew).
Technology has also given us new and effective holding-tank additives, as well as superior hoses, fittings, and tanks. A properly installed and maintained holding tank system should be no more onerous or odorous than your fuel or freshwater systems.
The biggest change of all is that anchorages and moorings are becoming more and more crowded, not only here at home, but also in "the out-islands" where the CFR's don't (yet) apply. If we don't want to wallow in our own waste, we need to develop a boating ethic which leads us to hold our effluent for disposal ashore, well offshore, or at least somewhere where it will be well dispersed. In the words of another fictional swamp dweller " (Walt Kelly' s cartoon character Pogo) "We have seen the enemy and he is us".
Save the crocagator - Use your holding tank!
Facts and FAQ's
1. I'll just lock the valve closed (or disable the pump) when I see law-officers coming. - Maybe they will let you slide. But if they don't happen to like your looks, the regulation says: "After January 30, 1980 no person may operate any existing vessel equipped with installed toilet facilities unless it is equipped with a [certified MSD or holding tank]." In other words, if you have a head compartment or toilet bowl you better also have a certified MSD. Most importantly - this should be done for the benefit of US not for fear of THEM.
2. I'll just put in a Type I then "nuke" it and dump it. - Great! Let's go out and get a fresh juicy cow-pie, and microwave it till it's sterile. You're still not going to want to step in it. Type I MSD's do provide electrical/chemical sterilization. But, let's face it - you are still dumping people-pies even if they are typhoid free. We are not experiencing plagues here. We are having a problem with nutrient overload. This is what is encouraging algae blooms, killing reefs, and nauseating neighbors. Even when nuked, sewage is still nutrition for algae and not very appetizing to us. And, if you are in Clear Lake, the Florida Keys, whole states in New England or any other "NO DISCHARGE area " you may have to cross your legs and hold it with a Type I. While these may have a limited holding capacity, why have an expensive, power-hungry, maintenance-prone system with all the disadvantages of an inadequate holding tank?
3. How about a Porta-Pottie? - Semantics aside - a portable toilet is a holding tank system and meets the requirements of CFR-159 even if it is not technically "installed". It also meets the spirit of our new ethic. Just don't go dumping it over the side. And, don't spill it all over the marina restroom.
4. Don't I need a USCG certified MSD? - Yes BUT you can "roll your own" certified system. "Any [holding tank system] is considered certified under this section if: (1) It is used solely for the storage of sewage and flush water at ambient air pressure and temperature; and (2) (CFR159.12b) …designed to prevent the overboard discharge of sewage or any waste derived from sewage. (CFR159.53c).

You can build, or anyone else can build for you, a holding tank type system and it is automatically considered "certified" so long as it meets the requirement of (2) above. If you are a handyman, check out "Build a One-off Holding Tank" by Mark Parker (Good Old Boat Magazine Nov/Dec 1999) or "Consider a Stitch and Glue Holding Tank" by Norman Ralph in the same issue.
"Our Favorite" MSD system 5. Why would you want to "home-brew" a holding tank? - I think that there are a number of criteria for an optimal holding tank system that are hard to meet with off-the-shelf tanks.

(1) You must minimize the length of any hoses and have no low spots that collect fluid. I achieved this by building a custom tank to fit into the cabinetry in the head within inches of the toilet.
(2) All fittings should penetrate only the top of the tank so that they will not be continuously bathed in sewage. The inlet and the vent fittings are no problem. The tank discharge can be made this way by fitting a pipe through the top of the tank that extends very near to the bottom (SeaLandTM makes a tank with this feature).
(3) For as complete an evacuation as possible, the area of the bottom of the tank should be small relative to the volume. My homemade tank is wedge shaped to fit the side of the hull and thus has a very small volume below the outlet pipe.
6. What is wrong with a "Y" valve? - Basically it is one more leak prone fitting. You are probably not going to be in an offshore dump zone much of the time, so you are going to be using the tank anyway. Why not route all effluent to the tank and eliminate the "Y"-valve? If you get rid of the valve you don't have to worry about "locking" it to be legal when inshore. Many, if not most, new boats now come with a "Y"-valveless system. A popular boating store company describes such a system as "our favorite" in their catalog.
7. How can I empty the tank in an emergency? - Lets just say I have a "friend who told me" that there is a second use for those gray plastic hand pumps. You know the ones about 1-1/2" in diameter and 18" to two feet long that you use to pump out your dinghy. A short piece of 1-1/2" rubber hose can be duct taped to the bottom of the pump and forced into the deck outlet fitting. You won't believe how slick this works - In a dump-legal zone, of course.
8. Can I find some more goodies on the "Net"? - Of course! Here are a few URL's:
http://www.epa.gov/owow/oceans/vessel_sewage - The EPA's site dealing with marine sewage;
http://www.dnr.state.md.us/boating/pumpout/systemsguide - Some good advice especially on system design from Maryland's Dept. of Natural Resorces;
http://www.raritaneng.com - Raritan has some interesting information on MSD regulations. Keep in mind that it may be somewhat slanted toward selling their $700+ Type I MSD's;
http://www.goodoldboat.com - References to the tank building articles cited above and ordering info for back issues;
http://www.tc.gc.ca/Actsregs/csa-lmmc/csa91.html - They have this problem in Canada too.
"Get Rid of Boat Odors - A Guide To Marine Sanitation Systems and Other Sources of Aggravation and Odor" (Link to information on a book by Peggy Hall which updates and expands on a previous article.
Jay Stormer is a marine surveyor, SAMS-AMS, with Dixieland Marine Surveyors & Consultants. He has been boating, sailing, racing, and cruising since the 1950's, and lives with his wife aboard their Pearson 365. See the web site at www.dixielandmarine.com for more.


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Marine sanitation philosophy and the "Crocagator"Jay Stormer, Dixieland Marine - Yacht Inspections, Marine Surveys, and Consulting Services. Serving the Gulf Coast from the Houston - Galveston, Texas area (Kemah).