Head aches: It’s a dirty job but …
Posted on 29 November 2011
Written by Tom Neale
All you ever wanted to know about heads would probably fit into the eye of a needle. But when what’s passing through your head encounters difficulties similar to the difficulties of that camel trying to squeeze through the needle’s eye, you’ll wish you knew more.
Having owned boats for more than 50 years and having lived aboard since the late 1970s, I’ve developed a dubious area of expertise in this field. The first time I fixed a head I knew all about how to do it. I’d read some books and talked to a bunch of experts around the dock. They were all happy to advise me, but none seemed to want to help. It wasn’t an unusual problem. Actually, it had nothing to do with the head being “broken.” The head wasn’t broken. It’s just the term we like to use when one of our beloved guests (never you or me) has put too much in it — or put the wrong thing in it.
On the occasion of which I speak, the head was “stopped up.” Most of us have experienced this. Someone is pumping away, and it gets harder and harder to pump. If you have an electric head, circuit breakers start popping, macerator motors start making funny noises, more water comes in than goes out, and a lot of other really fun things start happening, depending on your head and your problem. The sensible thing to do when any of this happens is to stop pumping and head back to Miami, even if you’re halfway to the Azores, then find a yard that will deal with it and develop the mindset that you’ll pay whatever it takes for them to deal with it so that you’ll be able to forget about it. Most of us, however, want to be heroes. As did I.
I had learned from a friend that all you needed to do was pump a solution of muriatic acid and water through the head and its plumbing, then just sit back and let it do its thing. The important thing, I had also heard, was to be sure to begin this treatment while there was still at least a little water getting past the blockage so you could get the solution to the spot where it was most needed. It made sense, and I issued an order from the bridge that no one was to even go near that head, let alone use it, until I had a chance to cleanse its innards.
I mixed the acid solution — 50/50 as near as I can recall — and poured it in as its fumes burned my nose and throat and gave me a clue I didn’t have the sense to catch. I heard gurgling and bubbling as I slowly pumped the stuff down through the plumbing. I’d been told by an expert friend that I would need to let this go on for a while to give the solution a chance to do its stuff to the blockage.
As I sat there thinking — I’ve since learned to not do that — I remembered that the through-hull was open, and any solution in the downward hose run would run right out, rather than working on whatever might be lurking there. Wanting to be thorough and do the job right, I hastened to close the through-hull valve, wondering why my friend hadn’t told me about this part of the job.
I didn’t wonder for long. I started hearing not only bubbling and gurgling but also a subtle groaning. It was kind of like those old submarine movies when the depth charges come too close and the sub is going down deeper and deeper and the plates are groaning and moaning. That’s a terrible and insensitive thing to compare this with but, unfortunately, that’s what came into my head (the one on my shoulders) at the time.
I began examining my head (the one bolted to the deck) and its plumbing whence the sounds were coming. I wasn’t reassured when I saw the hose bulging in and out, kind of like it was breathing. I was even less assured when I saw the joints on the head seemingly moving a bit; they weren’t supposed to. So I looked closer to try to figure out what was going on.
I’ve never appreciated the fact that I wear glasses. They’ve always caused problems. When I was a kid, other kids called me “goggle eyes.” Glasses fall in the muddy water all the time, they get in the way when I need to put my head really close to a diesel part needing attention, salt spray gets on them, and they fog up a lot. This particular day, however, I really appreciated the fact that I wear glasses. The head, with a sickening whoosh, exploded as I was intently watching. Head contents, head water and a solution of muriatic acid, now thoroughly diluted with the first two contents, spewed all over everything, including me, my clothes and my hair. Luckily, it was summer, and the water wasn’t too cold as I dived over, swimming to the bottom and wondering whether I ever wanted to come up, let alone go back into the head compartment to deal with the devastation.
The problem, as I know you’ve already figured out (unlike me at the time), was that muriatic acid creates gas as it reacts with calcium and, well, stuff. When I closed the through-hull valve, the gas had no more space to expand, so it took its natural course. I could have been hurt very badly, but thanks to my glasses and my quick dive overboard (at which point I lost my glasses) I survived with little damage, except having to explain it all.
Now, before the enviro-cops and lawyers and righteous-of-the-world pile on me and say that this is a terrible thing, let me say that, yes, it is. Don’t ever do this. Not only can it hurt you, but it also is not good for the environment. But none of us have been perfect all our lives, and some of us knew less many years ago than we do now. And this was many, many years ago (so long ago that all statutes of limitations have long passed). And I’ve never been very perfect at any point of my life, although I try. And, by the way, I’m not sure why it’s OK for so many swimming pool owners to use muriatic acid to service their pools, and where they think it ends up.
Love what you’ve got
My hour of fun happened not only because of my lack of savvy in fixing the problem, but also because of poor plumbing maintenance. Maintenance of the head itself is also important. There are parts that wear or break, and if you don’t keep on top of it they’ll break at the worst possible time. All heads aren’t the same. Some operate quite differently from others, and thanks to competition and ingenuity, improvements come regularly. Maintaining and fixing your head begins with being familiar with what you’ve got.
Here are a few examples of the types of delights awaiting you. I won’t go into intimate repair details because this will vary, but your head probably came with good repair and maintenance instructions in its literature.
My favorite head is the manual Raritan PH II. Raritan makes a lot of other great heads, as do other companies. This is my favorite because it doesn’t require electricity; pumps very well; I find it easy to understand, diagnose and fix; and I’ve had a huge amount of practice. This unit exemplifies a tried-and-true type of head, although it has many improvements over the original types.
It operates on the concept of a piston pump and valves. Pull the piston up with the handle, and it sucks stuff from the bowl into the cylinder under the piston as it expels into the bowl the clean water it sucked into the cylinder on top of the piston on the previous down stroke. When you push the piston down with the handle, a valve closes, another opens and the contents under the piston are expelled into the discharge line as new clean water is sucked into the top. The valves are particularly important, but they’re easy to replace and the instructions are pretty clear. Changing a few seals, valves and O-rings every few years keeps this type of head happy. Keeping the system free of deposits also helps, with this head and others.
Other pumps operate with the use of macerators, which, according to the specific design, chop up everything (hopefully) as they move dirty water out and, again depending on the design and valving, suck or pump in clean water. An electric motor runs the macerator. With this type of system it’s important to check the electric motor and any seals protecting its shaft from that nasty place where the macerator blade is spinning. It’s also important to be able to easily access the macerator and clean it out should the unthinkable happen, which it will.
If you have a head with a macerator pump, you should have less likelihood of a blockage in the downstream plumbing because the pump macerates material before it goes downstream and the pump will generally warn you if it’s getting into trouble. Different noise, strained operation and circuit breaker popping are a few clues. Some macerator heads actually have a clear (well, it’s clear when it’s new) plastic window so you can see into the macerator chamber to get an idea as to the horrors awaiting when you remove the access plate. This has the added benefit of giving you something better to watch than television.
Another type of head creates a vacuum in a tank under the head or elsewhere. The “bottom” of the bowl opens up, and the vacuum quickly sucks down the water and contents of the bowl. It then goes into plumbing and storage areas, depending on the setup. Sometimes a macerator is also involved. This idea is also simple, but there are still things to maintain. For example, the seal around the trap door in the bottom of the bowl must be tight. Wear, damage, deposits, drying out or debris could adversely affect this. Also, the vacuum is created by a pump that must be maintained. When the seal starts leaking, this pump cycles on and off even when no one is using the head. I’ve temporarily fixed leaking seals simply by feeling them with my fingers to check for deformities and deposits, cleaning them and then smearing some silicone along the seal.
And then there’s the bucket. So you’re thinking, Hey, that’s my type of head. Nothing to break. I hate to say it, but you’re very wrong. Consider the handle.
Where the action isn’t
Whatever type of head you prefer, the problems usually aren’t in the head itself but somewhere in the hose downstream. Locating a blockage in head plumbing is where the fun really begins. Each and every one of us has the same desire: to get the job done as quickly and cleanly as possible. So there’s a temptation to start just below the head. Of course, you could start by pulling the head apart. Sometimes you’ll have a pretty good idea that this is the root of the problem, as when the macerator pump burns up or you hear some really strange noises coming from there. Seldom are we this lucky.
But starting near the top can bring disastrous results. Normally when there’s a blockage, whoever was using the device had a moment or two of horrifying denial and continued pumping or running the system for a while. If the blockage is downstream from the point where you break the line — as in loosening the hose clamps and wrestling that cursed white hose off the barb — the pressure that’s built up will probably come exploding out, covering everything that’s around, not the least of which is you because you’re trying to wrestle that hose off the barb. Because of this, I often close the through-hull valve first and try to start down there, working my way up until my plumber’s snake feels something that’s not a curve or until my flashlight doesn’t shine through to the other side.
Some of us, and I’m not blameless in this regard, try to guess the location to avoid all of that time poking from the bottom up. Anywhere there’s a bend in the discharge hose or other plumbing (the fewer bends the better) there’s a greater likelihood of a blockage simply because of the constriction caused by the bend. Also, on many boats there is a vented loop well above the waterline to prevent back siphoning, a situation that makes one magnificent mess but also auto-corrects by sinking your boat. This vented loop, by its very design, is a prime suspect for blockage.
If you want to take some risks by not starting at the bottom, look in these areas. You can open the vented loop (normally plastic) by wrestling the hose from either side. Frequently the blockage will be on the side between the loop and the head. This is because the water column, in theory, overflows the loop at its top and runs back down, having a tendency to keep the hose surfaces from that point to the tank or discharge port cleaner. The column between the head and the loop often has standing water and/or waste in it, resulting in greater likelihood of stoppage. I normally remove the hose from the downstream side of the loop first because there’s less likely to be pressure there.
Having thoroughly whetted our appetite for this sort of thing, let’s consider another esoteric feature of the system: the hose itself. It’s important to buy hose made specifically for this use. In a classic oxymoron, these have traditionally been white. Official head hose is less likely to let odors through. Some use black hose, such as fuel or exhaust hose. This not only is more likely to be smelly, but there is another problem with it. Head hoses typically begin to accumulate a deposit on the inner surface. The deposit is, loosely speaking, a calcium-like substance. It can build up very quickly depending on the circumstances, into which we won’t go here.
Proper head hose is smoother on the inside surface and tends to resist this buildup much longer than black hose, even if it has a rubberized interior. But even with the best hose, it’s going to eventually happen. If you pull out an old hose you may see that what might have been an inch-and-a-half-size passage is now down to maybe half an inch. The deposit is more likely to occur where water is standing, for example, in the run between a vented loop and the head discharge, but it can occur throughout the hose, with the least likely area close to the through-hull or tank entrance.
Deposits eventually cause blockage because of the gradually diminishing passageway, but they can do much worse. If a section of calcium breaks off the inner wall, it’ll pass downstream until it reaches a bend and suddenly block whatever is following behind it. Sometimes the deposit breaks off without help, but chunks frequently break off if you move the hose.
You can slow the development of this deposit by pumping a lot of water through so that there is as little waste water as possible standing inside the hose. Of course, if you’re pumping into a holding tank this becomes a problem, as the tank will fill much more quickly and I have never seen a holding tank gauge that works well for long. There are also now better products than muriatic acid. For example, Raritan markets a product called CH (for “cleans hoses”) that it says is biodegradable, does no harm to the environment and, with proper use, takes care of the deposits. Using fresh water instead of the ambient salty or brackish water around the boat is also said to result in less deposit.
One new head, Raritan’s Elegance, anticipates many of these problems. It uses a high-power macerator and allows you to choose (or alternate) between salt- and freshwater flushing, and control the amount of water used. Practical Sailor made it a best choice among the electric models it tested in an article published in February 2011.
The best way to deal with the hose issue is to replace the part every few years, depending on your usage. This also alleviates the problem that no matter how good the hose and how great the care taken, odor is going to permeate it eventually. The next best solution is one I formerly used. Sometimes I’d just pull out the hose and flail it against a piling until all the calcium broke loose and fell out or, better still, on the hull of that boat that anchored too close to me. I don’t think either of these methods amount to acceptable behavior these days, but what else is new?
Wrestling the white python
I’ve rather cavalierly mentioned removing hoses, but one of the most frequently asked, most anguished questions in all of boatingdom is: How do you get the old head hose out? There are two basic types of head hose problems. The first is getting the hose off the barbs on the through-hull, holding tank, head, vented loop or whatever. If, as usual, it’s been on for years, it can be a huge problem. The second is getting the hose out of the boat without dumping its contents.
Tricks of the trade will help you remove that hose. Usually, after removing the hose clamps, I get a heat gun and carefully apply heat all around. Too much heat will harden the hose, making it unusable in the future, or cause it to melt and open up, or destroy it and the underlying barb completely. It can also weaken the hose so that sometime in the near future, after you’ve reattached it to the barb, it’ll split at the worst possible moment. The key is to go very slowly, applying only a small amount all around and working gradually to the point where the hose is flexible enough to come off. Take care not to burn anything or create an electrical hazard. And remember that before you begin the job you’re going to have to be able to put the hot heat gun down in a safe area between attempts to wrest off the hose.
A safer tactic is to heat some water in a pot (don’t tell your wife you used her favorite saucepan) and place a small towel in it. Then wrap the towel around the hose where it covers the barb. You might need to apply several hot towels. Lately I’ve been using an oscillating saw to make precision cuts of the hose, over the barb’s surface, without cutting that surface. Careful use of heat also helps get a hose back on the barb, although sometimes smearing the inside of the hose with dishwashing soap will do the job.
Good protective gloves are important for a better grip and to keep you from getting burned, but I recommend wearing supple work gloves for any head hose work. Cuts in the skin while doing these jobs aren’t a great idea. If you use heat, examine the hose carefully to be sure it is safe to use again. If it is impaired or you’ve had to cut the hose along the length of the barb, you can get a short piece of hose and, using a straight coupler, splice in a new section … unless, of course, you want to pull out the entire length.
Now there lies a real problem: How do you replace a length of hose? If your builder was nice and cared about those who must work on their boats, this may not be a problem. But boatbuilders frequently prefer to lay the hose and then install bulkheads or other structures around and over them. Head hoses are rigid, and sometimes you just can’t pull them out. Even if you can, there’s almost always a belly or two in them full of not-so-nice fluid that you don’t want to dump as the hose slithers from the nether reaches of your boat.
The best and only course often is to get out a Sawzall or oscillating saw and make the necessary cuts in bulkheads or other structures to install a new hose, leaving the old one in place with the ends securely plugged with PVC caps. Beware of lurking electrical lines and plumbing when you cut. If you plan to remove the hose, usually it’s necessary to plug both ends to avoid spills as you pull it out. I normally use wooden plugs, which I hammer in and, if needed, seal with silicone glue. I don’t use PVC caps because these usually extend beyond the outside diameter of the hose and need hose clamps, all of which requires greater clearance. Get some help. You’ll normally need both pushing and pulling to work the hose through the holes. With a lot of patience you can usually get the section out.
Remember that anytime you cut a head hose you run the risk of having not-so-nice water squirting out, either because there’s a belly where you cut it or a standing column. Get a bucket that will fit in the space under the hose and many towels. Get another bucket in case the first isn’t big enough and into which you can throw dirty towels. Then make a small cut in the lowest section with which you’re working. If no water comes out, gradually make it bigger. If water exits, let it drain. This could be necessary several times as you encounter more bellies in which dirty water is lurking. You could have pressurized air escaping because you’ve been pumping against a blockage. Usually this’ll stop soon and may even help you diagnose your blockage.
Theoretically a hacksaw is a great tool for cutting head hose, but there is seldom room. A serrated knife is also good but takes a lot of time. An oscillating saw is very helpful but, as with the heat gun, always be careful with electricity around the work area.
There’s good news on the hose front. Raritan has recently started marketing a new head hose called “Saniflex” that they say is much more flexible, more supple and with a 5-year odor-permeation warranty.
As you might have noticed, I’ve given this subject a lot of thought. Far too much thought. I’ll stop now. I can barely type because my hands hurt so much from recently replacing hose on Chez Nous. Fortunately, it was regular maintenance after which I could take a nice long, hot shower. Unless we’re serious about regular maintenance, our headaches will usually occur far at sea when long, hot showers are a scarcity and we have to make that choice between the Azores and Miami.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” and his two-disc DVD, “Cruising the East Coast With Tom Neale,” at www.tomneale.com.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.