All You Need to Know About Narrowboat Toilet Systems
And a few things you don’t want to read about narrowboat toilet systems if you have a delicate stomach
If you own a narrowboat, sooner or later you will have a conversation with another boater about the relative merits of different types of toilets. You’ll discuss the logistics of emptying the end results of your gourmet dinners and how much it smells.
The Holy Grail of onboard narrowboat toilet systems is one which doesn’t smell and is easy to empty in all weather conditions.
There are four different toilet types for use on your narrowboat. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of each system.
Narrowboat Toilet Systems – Pump-Out Toilets
In its most basic form, the pump-out toilet is a conventional toilet which sits on top of a stainless steel tank. If you want to transfer your waste to the steel box, you need to open a flap between the toilet and the reservoir. This can be a very smelly affair. Imagine several hundred litres of liquid slurry and the smell it produces. That’s what you’ll have wafting through your legs as you ponder the meaning of life.
A slightly better option is a pump-out toilet fitted with a macerator. This device chews the solids into manageable chunks so that it can be sucked through a relatively narrow bore pipe into the tank.
Incidentally, the tank is usually built into space beneath a fixed double bed. When you lay under your warm duvet on a cold winter night listening to the gentle slap of canal water against your hull, the waves might be coming from beneath your bed.
The benefit of a pump-out toilet is that it is the closest in style and functionality to the one you’ll find in a domestic bathroom. The downside is that you need to move your boat to a sanitary station every few weeks to have the contents sucked out with a powerful pump. That dubious pleasure will cost you £15- £20 each time you have it done.
Pump out toilet owners have to watch the weather. If there is a prolonged cold snap which freezes the canal, you can’t move your boat, and you can’t empty your toilet. For that reason, many pump-out toilet owners also carry a cassette toilet on board for emergencies.
There is one final problem with pump out toilet tanks. They can leak. The first you’ll know if it is when you notice a brown and fetid stream flowing down the boat towards you.
Replacing a leaking tank can be a nightmare. Imagine a stainless steel tank with the same footprint as a double bed. Then imagine a solids buildup in the tank corners increasing its already considerable weight. Not only is the tank heavy, but because of its size, it’s challenging to manoeuvre through the narrow confines of a boat. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of helping fitters remove leaking tanks on many occasions. The task requires four or five strong men and a great deal of cursing.
The more straightforward and easy to manage toilet solution is a cassette.
Narrowboat Toilet Systems – Cassette toilets
A narrowboat cassette toilet is like a scaled-down version of a drop-through pump out toilet. There’s a flap between the toilet bowl and the waste tank which you open when you want to make a deposit. The cassette capacity is much less than a pump-out toilet holding tank though, typically no more than twenty litres.
Twenty litres provides enough capacity for two people for two days, a little more if both people are seasoned boaters. You learn the art of using other people’s facilities as often as possible soon after you move on board. Narrowboat toilet systems don’t usually provide you with the same cleansing torrent as you enjoy when you flush a regular household toilet. And then there’s the weight.
Each time you fill your toilet, you need to carry your cassette through your boat carefully. You need to keep it horizontal to avoid a foul-smelling spillage as you wriggle through your home’s narrow corridor. The good news is that you’ll develop shoulder muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Getting your brimming cassette is only half the battle. First, you have to find a working Elsan point and one in a condition which doesn’t make you gag.
Let’s say that you began a cruise leaving from Calcutt Boats heading towards Market Harborough. Any route will do, but I know this one well, and it’s a cruise I plan to do over my Christmas break.
There are two Elsan points at Calcutt Boats. Elsan points are open sewage points in varying designs. There’s one in the older of the company’s two marinas and one on the wharf between the Calcutt flight’s middle and top locks. Imagine that I’ve sailed past both without using them. Maybe it’s the excitement of the adventure ahead of me, or perhaps it’s because I’ve reached the age when simple tasks like remembering my own name are noteworthy victories. Anything more demanding is beyond me.
Unlike driving a car or cruising on spacious European waterways, turning around to go back is not an easy option. The canal is forty feet wide, my boat sixty. The next winding hole, turning point, is an hour ahead, so you decide to press on to the next Elsan point two hours away in Braunston.
After navigating Braunston junction’s tricky concrete triangle, squeezing past boats moored either side of the canal as it passes the Boathouse, I crawl cautiously through the A45 bridge hole. And breathe a relieved sigh as I squeeze into a gap between moored boats either side of the Elsan point. And then spot the yellow and black plastic ribbons announcing the sewage point’s inaccessibility. It’s blocked again. I’m two hours into my cruise, three if I count the three lock ascent from Calcutt Boats two marinas, and my three toxic toilet tanks are still full.
I have a choice. One option is to press on to the next Elsan point on my route. But that’s six miles, thirteen locks and a tunnel away at the top of the Watford flight. Single-handed, the journey will take me five hours. The second option is to retrace my steps and try the second Braunston Elsan point next to Midland Chandlers. The half-mile diversion involves turning my boat twice, once to cruise back to the junction and a second time to point in the right direction for the rest of my journey. And it’s all a waste of time.
The second disposal point is working, but I wish it wasn’t. A local farmer appears to have taken his muck spreader into the tiny room. There’s shit everywhere, and I know the culprit. There’s a tendency among some single male boaters to use their cassettes for solids only. They urinate in a bottle and throw the contents overboard or in a hedge. Consequently, when their cartridge is filled to the brim with solids, it’s really solid.
There’s no quick fix, no holding of breath for a minute to empty a conventionally filled cassette. The poo packing person has to shake and shake and shake some more. Then rinse and shake again. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. Boaters without a cast-iron constitution aren’t keen to follow in their foul footsteps. I draw the line at wading through another boater’s slurry.
I resign myself to an onward journey to the point at Watford. I visit Midland Chandlers before I go. I buy a mooring chain I don’t really need so that I can use their toilet, which I need very much. Light in both wallet and bowel I relax a little. I won’t need to use my cassette toilet for serious business until the following day when I reach the Watford flight. I pray that this one will be both working and clean enough to use.
Of course, this is a worst-case scenario, but cassette emptying concerns are always at the back of my mind when I’m cruising. A much more practical option is a composting toilet.
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Narrowboat Toilet Systems – Composting Toilets
I had a composting toilet for my final eighteen months on my last boat. I paid £872.94 for my Airhead Compact and another £150 to have it fitted, which is pretty easy for all but the most inept DIY dunces. Sadly, I’m one of this gormless group.
Like many people, before I researched composting toilets, I thought that they were smelly things, suitable for little more than drunkards at festivals. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Early composting toilets weren’t particularly useful. Users dumped both liquids and solids in the same holding tank. They offered little more than pump out or cassette holding tanks and smelled just as much. Today’s designs are far more effective and virtually odour free.
Both sexes have to sit to do their business so that they’re firing in the right direction. Liquids to the front and solids to the rear. The toilet has a manual flap in the toilet bowl bottom, which you can open when seated. Fluids are collected in a large and robust container attached to the front of the toilet base. This container has to be emptied every day. The solids container lasts much longer, especially if you dispose of your toilet tissue in a bin rather than the solids container.
Becoming comfortable with a composting toilet took me a while. I had to become more familiar with the remains of my previous day’s food than I liked. However, I soon developed a routine and really appreciated the toilet’s practicality for an off-grid lifestyle.
My cruising regime was no longer controlled by my toilet tank capacity and the availability of working disposal points. By removing the liquids each day, I only had to worry about emptying the solids container once a month. And what a worry that was initially.
I dreaded lifting the toilet seat off the solids container for the first time. I dreamed unpleasant dreams, visions of uncovering a bubbling and reeking mass of stinking waste, home to scuttling insects, slugs and snails.
As the dreaded day approached, I grew increasingly apprehensive. It’s a natural state for me. I worry about forthcoming events, using my vivid imagination to ill effect. The reality of whatever iI worry about is always more pleasant than its anticipation.
I remember the day clearly, a scorcher in late June. A dry day towards the end of a long spell without rain. Not ideal conditions for toilet content disposal. You see, at the time, I thought that the best and most responsible way of getting rid of my poo was to bury it in a shallow hole. I had a brand new Spear and Jackson spade, purchased expressly for waste burial.
There were two problems with my plan. The first was its legality. I didn’t own the land wherever I moored so I didn’t have the right to bury anything in it. I reasoned that done sensibly, no one would notice and I would prevent a large plastic bag filled with human waste from rotting in a landfill site for a hundred years. The second problem was my plan’s practicality.
I fortified myself with a bottle of red wine first. The world’s a better place after a glass or two of merlot, even if the world in question is the contents of a septic bucket.
What an anti-climax. A small 12V fan had been drawing moisture from the solids container for a month, drying any wet bits I unearthed with the solids stirring handle. The container contents were as inoffensive and smell free as clay. What a relief after all those sleepless nights.
Maintaining my composting toilet was a breeze after that, and my bathroom was smell free. Far more pleasing to my delicate nose than my previous cassette toilet or the majority of pump-out toilets I had experienced in the past.
One of the composting toilet’s many benefits was how easy it was to clean. I emptied the solids container once a month. I had to remove the liquids bottle and the toilet to get at it. I took the three parts out onto the towpath at the crack of dawn, emptied the solids bucket and then used canal water and an eco spray to clean each bit thoroughly. I had a spotless and germ-free toilet every four weeks. What’s more, with the bathroom toilet space obstruction-free, I could sanitise the area with ease. You can’t do that with other toilet types.
Narrowboat Toilet Systems – Combustible Toilets
I haven’t come across incinerating narrowboat toilets before. Not many boaters have. There’s an article in the December 2019 issue of Waterways World describing the installation and use of one of the first incinerating toilets fitted in a narrowboat.
The toilet described is a Cinderella Motion combustible toilet. The first thing to put me off was the eye-watering price. You can purchase a basic Porta Potti cassette toilet for under £100 or a more sophisticated model for a few hundred more. Buy a composting toilet like my Airhead, and you’ll have to part with just under a thousand pounds. However, if you want the pleasure of incinerating your waste, you need to save long and hard. You could take a family of four on an exotic foreign holiday, buy a 16” and a 13” MacBook Pro or get yourself a decent family car. Or you could invest in a Cinderella Motion incinerating toilet. In each case, you would expect to pay £3,500, and extra to have the toilet fitted.
Your expenditure doesn’t end with the Cinderella’s purchase and fitting. The toilet burner uses propane gas for each incineration, so the burner roars into life after four deposits. The couple who reviewed the toilet had the luxury of a second toilet on board. That wouldn’t be an option for most narrowboat owners.
I don’t know about you, but my toilet visits have become more frequent as I’ve aged. I’ve reached the stage now where I have to debate the wisdom of leaving the bathroom at all. I’m sure that I get more exercise each night shuffling between the bedroom and the bathroom than most people get taking their dogs for a walk.
With two people on board and one incinerating toilet, you could expect maybe four burns each day. The burner runs for forty minutes during each cycle, so you would be pouring propane into it for two and a half hours each day.
Each of my two thirteen kilogram cylinders lasts me for two months. I only use gas for cooking these days, but I had an on-demand gas water heater on my last boat. My gas consumption then was one cylinder every three weeks. I suspect that the Cinderella burner would use more gas than my old Paloma. If I had enough money to invest in an incinerating toilet, I could expect my propane expenditure to quadruple.
No, thank you.
The initial capital investment is enough to put me off. But then there’s the additional cost of gas, electricity and a plentiful supply of greaseproof paper for poo parcel wrapping. And the need to stick my down the toilet bowl after use to wrap each disgusting deposit.
Oh, and if that isn’t enough, there’s the noise to consider. We boaters are a geriatric bunch. Our bowels and bladders don’t hold as much as they once did. A nighttime trip or two to the loo is more likely than not. Having your partner crawl over you on her way to the bathroom doesn’t help you relax into a deep and restful sleep. Having to endure the jet aircraft roar of the Cinderella burner in the wee small hours is likely to be the straw which breaks the camel’s back.
Narrowboat Toilet Systems Conclusion
There you go. Four options for collecting your bodily waste. The one, for me, which stands head and shoulders above the rest is the composting loo. After the modest capital outlay, the only running cost is a few pounds each month for a composting medium. I used hamster bedding, a compressed block of wood chippings the size of a toilet cassette. Five pounds and a trip to a pet store every six months. And no smell. And freedom from rancid Elsan points. And I’m helping save the planet.
I’ll be a happy boating eco-warrior again once I’ve saved enough money to replace my cassette toilet.
How much does a pump out toilet cost to empty?
The cost is usually £15 - £20 for each tank you want pumped out.
Which is the least smelly narrowboat toilet
The composting toilet is the most pleasant smelling of the three main toilet options. The combustible toilet is too, but many boat owners find this type prohibitively expensive.
How heavy is a narrowboat toilet cassette
If you wait until your toilet is full, you'll be carrying as much as 20kg (44lb) through the narrow confines of your boat.
Where do I empty my narrowboat toilet?
You'll need to find a pump-out station if you have a pump-out toilet and an Elsan point for your cassette toilet. Both are marked in popular waterways guides such as Pearsons and Nicholsons.