Monday, March 2, 2009

Mr. Peebuddy

Author's note: This article was written in 2005, prior to installation of a separation composting marine sanitation device. Mr. Peebuddy continues to live aboard in harmony with the Airhead expanding capacity and posture options....


Legend has it that most drowned males are found with their fly down. Ulyses call of the Sirens may have in fact been more truthfully related as the call of nature. True or not, the sensible precaution seems to be to bring the activity of peeing over the side safely inboard until completion of the more ‘hands on’ portion of the performance. (Of course it goes without saying that this is in reference to traversing waters where it is legal to relieve one’s self directly into the ocean.)

Enter the ancestor of Mr. Peebuddy. Nothing more complex than a bleach bottle cut into the classic shape of a dinghy bailer then spliced to a length of line and attached to the boat. After the curtain falls on the final performance, the whole works gets the heave ho and the plastic parts are retrieved in compliance with the MARPOL treaty. Rinsed and ready to go next time you are.

For at least 30 years boats with accommodations have been required to have approved marine sanitation devices (MSD’s) installed. This has typically been a case of law without means of compliance as until recently there’s been no place to empty them. Federal grants have helped solve this issue in some places with grants for pump out boats. The resulting convenience has helped take the MSD from ‘compliance only’ status to that of a real functioning ship’s system. It is, however a fairly maintenance intensive system.

Head Troubles:

It’s no news to the ‘hands on’ sailor that problems with the MSD are some of the least welcome on board. They rate just astern of fire and marital problems for expense and potential impact on longevity of the lifestyle. The problems a typical marine head and holding tank are subject to are as numerous as the people who are interested in fixing them are few.

Odor from leaky connections, vents and the general combination of waste and salt flush water is the most common complaint since holding tanks began to ‘hold.’ A well installed system, frequent pump out and flushing will help but never fully resolve this. Leaving fresh instead of salt water in the bowl over periods of disuse helps a lot too.

In the long term, the build up of a sort of cement like plaque inside the walls of hoses, valves and fittings is the biggest maintenance problem. The already small passages shrink in inner diameter and flow suffers accordingly. ‘Y’ valves stop rotating. Check valves become obstructed and allow flow in the wrong direction. The only solution is to remove the system entirely and break up the deposits in each component before reassembly. Partial disassembly will only leave pieces lurking just around the corner to stop the works when you least expect it. This is roughly equivalent in labor to installing an entire new system. The interval of this service depends on many factors. In full time cruising it can be as little as every 2 years.


One solution becoming more common is the composting head. The units practical for marine installation are of the diverting, or liquid / solid separating type. This allows the process of composting to take place without the need for evaporation and its energy demand. A small air fan is all that is required and this is well within most available energy budgets on board. The additional benefits of simplicity and elimination of large through hull fittings enhance this option. But somewhat large size, along with required physical modification to the head space have delayed my pursuit of this solution until at least my next drydock.

Meanwhile I decided to dip my toes in the waters of this new idea by doing some of my own waste separation. It’s not always polite or allowable to apply the outdoor expedient, so I decided to create an indoor companion product. Enter Mr. Peebuddy.

The standard bleach bottle dinghy bailer became the ‘receiver.’ The criteria for selection here is a matter of balancing space available against your aim. A brass cup hook at the right height and bungee chord loop around the base of the bleach bottle holds the assembly up. Down in the neck of the bottle I installed a plastic round flap with perforations to guard against gurgle splash back as the vent and drain are one. The tank at the other end is a clear spring water bottle. The principle qualifier here is how well the cap threads on and seals to prevent transport mishaps. In between is the appropriate length of PVC hose to suit your particular height requirements, with a plastic shut off valve installed just below the urinal bleach bottle. The specifics of the connections are best described as a combination of materials at hand. I found 1/2” hose barb by ½” pipe thread adapters worked well when inserted through the bottle caps and backed with ½” female pipe threaded fittings. Bushings work well here, but the only way to “do it yourself” is to walk around the plumbing section with your caps and or bottles and see what will fit. In the bottom of the bleach bottle urinal I decided to fill the space around the fitting and cap with epoxy to eliminate a collection pocket. My shut off valve is a plastic stop cock from US Plastics, but any type will serve. The idea is simply to contain the odor within the tank bottle and hoses between uses. A second spring water jug and cap is the reserve tank so one is always in place while the other is in transport. An old canvas bag disguises the transport tank for the socially conscious who prefer to do less explaining on the way ashore. Total cost is around $2 if you get a cheap valve and recycle the rest from other uses.

It will be obvious to all by now that this was a solution conceived in a male microcosm. But before dismissing it as only such, I would suggest that the flexible hose connection and some reconsideration to the shape of the bleach bottle might possibly lend toward a Mrs. Peebuddy, or at least some gender ambiguity in the installation. If you’ve got the room, a plastic hose barb “Y”, another bleach bottle and a bit more hose could even result in a “his and hers” installation.


The most noticeable advantage to the system has been vastly extended time range for the existing holding tank. Without flushing urine and seawater several times a day, it provides capacity for weeks in stead of days. In places where pump out is not available, this means longer stays between visits to pump stations or discharge legal waters.

I expected a reduction in deposit build up through lower use of the main MSD, but I did not expect it to have ceased almost entirely. It seems that the compounds most related to this problem are those in liquid waste. Time will tell, but one year later the system connected with the installed marine head are showing no signs of build up.

I suppose the most important benefit, though, has been the reshaping of an old and deeply ingrained mindset. It’s not easy to get away from the concept of making the undesirable disappear with minimum effort. The cigarette butt out the car window, plastic instead of paper, and the general removal of the evils of a convenience based society to a place “not in my back yard” can’t be reconciled on the water. It’s all my back yard there. Getting used to a solution that does not depend on municipalities and specific location has provided a satisfaction level far more compatible with the limitless nature of sailing in general.


  1. Hello Chris. So: We converted a water tank on SUNDANCE into a holding tank. It's probably 30g or so, and as a couple we can go at least 2 and often 3 weeks without pumping. We do have the ability to gravity-dump about 1/3 of the tank overboard simply by opening the sea valve. (The top of the tank is about 1 ft above the waterline. Tank is under the V-berth.)
    I fill the lines with vinegar once a month (takes 1/2 gallon) and this seems to hold the scale build-up to a tolerable rate.
    I carry a spare entire W-C pump assembly, so if the pump fails I have a good one ready to swap in. But this would still mean replacing while in use, so I try to prevent that by doing a preventive pump change-out annually.
    OK, so: In light of this level of performance, what do you think of the urinal? Is it worth developing one to extend range? How about using a "bladder" instead of a bottle (say, an old 5-lieter wine 'haggis.') Then when you go ashore you aren't carrying around an old bleach bottle all day while you poke in the tidepools - teh bladder could be rolled up and stowed in the fanny pack, etc.
    Appreciate your comments, and am musing on adopting your idea here!
    Chris McKesson

  2. Excellent idea! And a solution at the ready for unpleasant port officials- share the wine! I think waterless makes complete sense for the urinal. My original holding tank was small and the separation of acts 1 and 2 provided an much better than linear expansion of range. I think even the best flush head sends more ocean into the tank than urine. I considered a fuel jug, but knew someone would think I was trying to blow up the yacht club. these days non-tox antifreeze bottles are easy to come by.

    Yes, I remember well head games. I would bet myself capable of a rebuild on the model I used for 15 years faster than a marine could field strip his weapon. But it never seemed to be required unless the tank and lines were full and all public facilities were locked up like fort Knox...and after a big southwest cuisine feast. In short, I have never looked back on anything with less fond memories than the pump head. I was warned that my dating horizons would shrink to women wearing burlap, but alas, even this was landlubber fear mongering.

    Besides, some women look nice in burlap.