Wednesday, May 7, 2014

How I Improved Comfort on Donnybrook: Sea Era Electric Head Installation

Original Jabsco Head
A marine head (toilet) really does affect a boat's comfort and enjoyment.  At home you rarely have to think about a toilet because it just works.  If it doesn't, the only tool needed most of the time is a plunger.

On a boat, few of us have a backup, excluding going over the side or using a bucket, and a bucket isn't suitable for many.  It's also much harder to unplug a clogged marine head.  You don't see plungers on boats as they don't work on a marine head.  Usually dis-assembly is required to undo a clog.  Then there's the fact that the parts of a marine head have a finite life span before rebuild is required.

In 2010 the original Jabsco head on Donnybrook, my 1990 Catalina 34, was nearing the end of it's useful life.  A rebuild kit was nearly the cost of a new toilet so we started looking at new heads.  At the time our oldest son was newly potty trained, but wasn't strong enough to use the hand pump to flush.  In his defense, some of our guests had problems with the head, too.

New SeaEra Head installed
After some discussion, we decided to invest in an electric flush head.  A friend's positive experience on another boat made the decision easier.  It wasn't inexpensive (the head alone was $400+ in 2011, new hose was $100+), but over the past 3 seasons it truly has made the boat much more comfortable and enjoyable.

Installation was easier than expected.  Operation has been trouble free.  The only problem in 3+ seasons was when a guest deposited a wet wipe.  I was able to clear it in about a minute.

I went with the Raritan Sea Era Toilet with the compact bowl and pressurized fresh water flush.  Based on reviews and message board postings it seemed to be one of the best electric heads available.  There are a couple of options to consider:
  • Bowl Size:  I thought a "household" size bowl would be a nice feature.  I measured available space and pondered dimensions, but settled on the compact bowl because that is what I already had.  In the end the household bowl probably would have fit, however it would have made the space more crowded and cleaning behind it would have been more difficult.
  • Fresh Water or Sea Water:  Most articles I read regarding the SeaEra stated the fresh water model was quieter and used less water to flush.  Low water use is important because it doesn't fill the holding tank as fast.  Noise was an important consideration so I went with the fresh water model.  I'm happy with the decision.
Water "T" and Vacuum Breaker with
Solenoid Valve assembled
The installation instructions from Raritan (link will prompt you to download a PDF file) were straight forward.  I completed the head install with a friend in under 4 hours, including a trip to a hardware store.  The pump-out and vent hose replacement, including thru-hull install, was another 3-4 hours.

Some notes specific to my install on a Catalina 34:
  • Installation included an atmospheric vacuum breaker and a solenoid valve.  I connected the two with a short threaded pipe so I only had to worry about mounting one piece.  I mounted this directly behind the head accessible through the cabinet door.
  • Water T.  Note silicone exhaust
    hump hose ready for install
  • I inserted the water "T" in the cold water line under the head sink and added a ball valve in case I ever need to shut of water to the head.
  • I borrowed power from the shower sump pump under the sink.  The wire is the proper gauge for the length of run and current draw and the existing breaker was already the correct size. 

I replaced all the hoses in two phases, starting with the hose from the head to tank.  I used Trident Sani Shield hose.  Removal was easiest by cutting it, using a hack saw as it's wire reinforced.  It wasn't as messy or smelly as I feared.  I think it helped that I did this project it on a cool spring day.

This spring (three years later) I replaced the pump-out hose with Sani Shield hose.  To remove the old I cut it about a foot from the tank inlet and used an old indoor/outdoor vacuum to finish emptying the tank.  There was only a gallon or two of liquid left in the tank, including RV anti-freeze from winterizing the head and tank, but this step kept me from spilling anything in the bilge.
    Location of new thru-hull, just
    aft of the original 
I replaced the vent hose using Trident XHD 1" hose.  I added a new through-hull just aft of the existing vent outlet (through the stanchion) using a Forespar Marelon 1" mushroom thru-hull fitting with 90 degree elbow.  Pulling the new hose was easy by taping it to the old hose and pulling it through.

The addition of the electric head has made Donnybrook a more comfortable boat for my family and guests.  It reduced the complexity of something that should not be complex, reduced noise, has been very reliable, and is an upgrade I have no regrets about doing.