How Do Marine Toilets Work? (VacuFlush, Vetus, Jabsco)

Written by Elizabeth Harris in Beginner Info

So you want to know how marine toilets work? It’s a fair question! Whether your concerns are functional, hygienic, or environmental, it’s a good idea to get to grips with how your marine toilet works before installing one to make sure your poop is going in the right place!

How do marine toilets work? Similar to toilets on land, most marine toilets have a seat, a bowl and flush with water. However, as there is no sewage system on a boat, marine toilets store waste in a holding tank until it can be disposed onshore. They generally come in two forms: cassette toilets and pump-out toilets.

Read on to find out more about marine toilets and the best way to spend a penny on board!

What Types of Marine Toilets are There?

There are two basic types of marine toilets available on the market: cassette toilets and pump-out toilets.

Cassette toilets store the waste in portable tanks that need to be carried to a disposal point on land for emptying. If you opt for a cassette toilet, you will need to keep one or two spare cassettes on board to avoid a situation where your first tank is full, and you are still miles away from a disposal point.

Pump-out toilets offer a more refined marine toilet experience. They flush the waste into a built-in tank, which is much larger than a cassette tank, and the tank is emptied using a suction-hose at a specialist pump-out facility.

The best marine toilets not only do the job of flushing, but they also rinse the bowl and prevent nasty odors. Ideally, they should use minimal water and electricity and will not be super noisy when flushed (especially important for any midnight loo stops).

Electric vs Manual Flush

Broadly speaking, there are two types of flush for marine toilets: electric and manual. Manual flush involves using a hand pump that is built into the side of the toilet. Moving the hand pump allows you to pump waste out of the toilet and pump fresh water in, draining the toilet using a switch valve. These tend to be cheaper and easier to maintain than electric toilets, but they can also clog more easily.

Electric marine toilets don’t require any manual pumping, the process happens with the push of a button. As a result, electric marine toilets are more akin to the experience of going to the toilet at home and they are easier to use for first-timers. The main drawback for electric toilets, however, is their electricity consumption.

Ah, the olden days ...

The Average Cost of a Marine Toilet

At their most basic, a marine toilet can cost as little as $100. These cassette models are usually extremely simple and tend to be very compact. Pump-out toilets are normally more expensive compared than cassette toilets and can cost around $1000, going up in price according the complexity of the system.

What are the Benefits of a Cassette Toilet?

Cassette toilets are favored for their affordability and simplicity. They are compact and reliable.

Whilst cassette toilets can be integrated, where they are built in to your boat, they can also be freestanding. This means that a cassette toilet does not have to be a long-term decision. You can put a cassette toilet in and take it out as needed, perhaps depending on the length of your voyage or the needs of your family. There are even models designed like a box which can be tucked away out of sight beneath a seat.

For integrated cassette toilets, the rinse water is drawn from your boat’s water system. In the case of freestanding cassette toilets, the water is contained in the upper part of the toilet structure. The waste disposal for both types is the same, however. You need to manually transport the waste holding tank to a disposal point for emptying.

This manual emptying feature is seen as a benefit for some people as it means you don’t need to transport your whole boat to the waste disposal point. On the other hand, the waste disposal aspect is also one of the major negatives of cassette toilets. The tanks can be heavy, smelly and there is a risk of splash back. Enough said.

What are the Benefits of a Pump-Out Toilet?

Unlike the portable cassette toilet, pump-out toilets are permanent, and the waste tanks are much larger. You can opt for a tank directly beneath the toilet or a remote tank where waste is transported from the toilet to the tank through a network of pipes.

The key difference between these two types of toilets is in the waste disposal process. Rather than carrying the tank to a disposal point, you will need to use a pump-out facility in a marina. In most cases, you should not need to do this more than once a month and the cost is relatively low, usually around $20.

This simple difference comes with some major benefits, however. There tends to be less smell from the tank on board and the emptying process is much more sanitized. You don’t have to watch your waste leaving the tank, it goes out through a hose.

For pump-out marine toilets, your holding tank needs to be positioned in the center of the vessel. This helps to maintain balance and preserve your boat’s trim even when the tank is full. As pump-out toilets are fixed, they also come with a wider range of designs that mimic the feel of a real toilet at home. You can opt for porcelain and wood, for instance, for the ultimate throne effect.

Marine Toilet Maintenance

When you are choosing a marine toilet, look out for models that are relatively easy install. At the same time, you will also want to find a toilet with straightforward maintenance requirements in case anything goes wrong and you’re far away from help. Unless you have a dedicated, specialized team on board to help fix any faults in your system, it’s best not to opt for anything too advanced.

That being said, make sure that you know how to fix basic problems in case something goes wrong with your marine toilet. Try to get into the habit of checking your toilet function regularly as this will help you to identify any faults before they turn into a major storm.

VacuFlush toilet

VacuFlush toilets offer something a little bit different to traditional pump-out toilets. They use a vacuum to suck waste out of the toilet and into the system. A major benefit of this kind of marine toilet design is that the waste is completely cleared which means there is less chance of a lingering odor. On top of that, the vacuum uses much less water than traditional flushing toilets.

VacuFlush toilets market themselves on their flush efficiency. Many models use less than 0.5 liters for each flush, greatly reducing water consumption and improving the efficiency of the holding tank. Unlike electric toilets, they also use very little power.

Vetus toilet

Vetus produce electric marine toilets that are compact and lightweight. Electric toilets tend to be much noisier than other pump-out designs but Vetus has models that are designed to be super quiet. If you opt for an electric pump-out model, you will need make sure you keep your batteries charged to allow for an effective flushing action and avoid blockages.

Jabsco toilet

One of the most popular brands of marine toilet, Jabsco are best known for their manual flushing toilet. Jabsco models are well-known for being extremely reliable and easy to use. They are small, quiet and affordable. The design is also simple enough that you can fix many common problems without the need for expert input.

A note on toilet paper…

To help keep your marine toilet system in tip top condition, choose your toilet paper wisely! Most marine toilets won’t be able to handle the luxury quilted paper you can now find in many stores. Instead, it is a good idea to use cheap, lightweight toilet paper that is biodegradable. Not only will this help you to save money but more importantly, it will help you avoid blockages.

Toilet paper blockages on pump-out toilets require expert help and can be expensive to fix. Cheap paper is key.

Going green with your toilette marine

If you have environmental concerns around how marine toilets work, there are some options you can explore to help limit the impact of your waste.

One of the most pressing issues when it comes to marine toilets is the use of liquid chemicals to mask the smell of the waste tank. These are either added to the tank directly or mixed with the rinse water and they are often harmful.

Eco-conscious swaps include:

  • Nitrates
  • Enzymes
  • Bioactive treatments

There are also greener alternatives to traditional, water-based marine toilets that negate the need for use of chemicals at all. Compostable toilets and incineration toilets are both becoming more popular because of their waterless design that transforms waste into a harmless, biodegradable product.

Compostable toilets break waste down into a natural mulch, a lot like what you would put on your plants. Incineration toilets burn waste at a high temperature, converting it into sterile ash which is biodegradable and can also be used as fertilizer. If you are looking for an eco-friendly marine toilet, you might want to explore these options.

Choosing the right marine toilet

The experience of using a marine toilet will differ according to the type of toilet you choose. This is because not all marine toilets work the same. The key differences are in the waste tank design and the corresponding waste disposal process. Before you purchase a marine toilet, it’s a good idea to know how it works so you don’t find yourself in deep

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Daniel O'Connell

Hello Elizabeth,

I read your article about marine heads. Very informative, thank you. Wishing you a fun and safe time in Budapest, Hungary.

Do you sail?


Dan O’Connell
(734) 299-6748

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