Houseboat Sanitation 101 Seminar (In Water Houseboat Show)


For the ultimate enjoyment during your boating experience, it is important to be sure your houseboat sanitation is under control. Unsanitary heads, smelly cabins as well as systems and equipment not functioning properly can really put a damper on your weekend and empty out your wallet.

So let’s take some time to talk about houseboat sanitation: why it is important for the qualified types of systems; how problems can occur and how to prevent those issues using the right types of treatments. Despite what you have heard or experienced, it is possible to maintain your houseboat sanitation easily and efficiently so that you can enjoy your boat to the fullest.

Why is houseboat sanitation important? Three major reasons: number one it’s the law, secondly, your health and the health of the waters, wildlife and environment around you and lastly the enjoyment of your boat.

  1. It’s the lawKentucky Department of Fish and wildlife states it is illegal to discharge untreated waste oil or trash into any federally controlled or Kentucky state waters. And if you are not from Kentucky, and you’re just here visiting us this weekend–you may have even more stringent laws. In areas such as the Great Lakes and within three miles from shore in our coastal waters, it’s illegal to discharge at all—even treated waste. There are several governing bodies and regulatory documents within the US federal and state governments that control wastewater requirements and regulations.

The US Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, US ARMY Corps of Engineers and even the Department of Justice can become involved when it comes to wastewater.

The Federal Water Pollution Control act or the Clean Water Act and The Clean Vessel Act are probably the most well-known laws concerned with eliminating polluting activity in the nation’s streams, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters, however the earliest known address of water pollution issues was introduced in the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899. The environmental awareness of the effects of the problems of sanitation, sewage and pollution were introduced with the Public Health Service Act of 1912 so this has been going on for quite a long period of time. In fact, sanitation and its removal has been a hot button issue as long as humanity. So being law-abiding citizens, we of course want to stay within the local and federal laws that have been set before us. But what if we don’t? There’s up to a $2000 fine for each and every infraction. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather spend my $2000 towards a new jet ski or another recreational toy.

Two additional, important reasons that houseboat sanitation should be on the forefront of our minds:

II. Health- Yours, your family, the wildlife and the waters surrounding us right now.

Improperly installed or poorly functioning systems can lead to waste material going untreated into the waters. This can lead to health issues in humans such as exposure to harmful, pathogenic bacteria which can cause gastroenteritis, salmonellosis, and hepatitis A.

The health and environmental risks to our wildlife and water sources are little bit more complicated, but just as severe. Something known as biochemical oxygen demand or BOD is described by Wikipedia as a procedure for determining the amount of dissolved oxygen needed by aerobic biological organisms in a body of water to break down organic material present in a given water sample at a certain temperature over a specific time— more plainly said,how long it takes and the amount of oxygen required by the good bacteria and the other biological organisms to break down waste and other solid organic materials in the water. In environmental chemistry, this test is commonly used to indirectly measure the amount of organic compounds in the water. 

Most applications determine the amount of organic pollutants found in surface water like lakes and rivers making BOD a useful measure of water quality. If the biochemical oxygen demand or the BOD is too high, meaning that it requires too much oxygen for the microorganisms to break down the waste in the water or the or other organic material in the water, the organic material will not be broken down efficiently. So what does that mean to us? It means that when discharging untreated waste we’re messing with the systems. If too much untreated wastewater goes into the environment the fish will be battling the lack of oxygen that’s available to them as well as algal growth . Waste and wastewater is a very good fertilizer in most cases— the growth of algae types of organisms and other plants will greatly increase and actually diminish the amount of nutrients available and environment space available for other organisms in the chain to continue to produce and reproduce as they should.

  1. The third reason that houseboat sanitation is important to us is simple— use and enjoyment of our boats and of the waters around us. If you’re “broke” because your $2000 has been spent on a fine, you can’t get in the water because there’s too much waste or “floatables”, or your boat just stinks too badly to want invite company up —you’re really not going to be enjoying your boat as much as you should. That is why we buy them or rent them isn’t it? To enjoy them.

B. Let’s take a little bit of time to discuss what is an acceptable Marine sanitation device or MSD.

The US Coast Guard has developed requirements based on regulations set by the EPA regarding the types of MSDs acceptable for use. Commercial and recreational vessels with installed toilets are required to have marine sanitation devices which are designed to prevent the discharge of untreated sewage.The EPA is responsible for developing performance standards for MSD’s and the Coast Guard is responsible for MSD design and operation regulations and for certifying MSD compliance with the EPA rules. Notice that I said “installed toilets.” There are a couple of exceptions to the types of MSD regulations:

If your boat was built before January 30th 1975 or your toilet is not installed, meaning a portable toilet/container then you are exempt from MSD requirements. However regulations still existed to prohibit disposal of raw sewage into our waters.

If you do not fall into one or both of those two categories, your MSD system will need to be one of three types:

Types I and II MSDs are often found on large vessels. Waste is treated with chemicals to kill bacteria before the waste is discharged. These type I devices are typically a physical/chemical based system that relies on maceration and chlorination. And the type II is typically a biological or aerobic digestion based system. Both Types I and II MSDs have “Y” valves that can direct the waste overboard or can be shut off in order to retain the waste until you are able to pump out the holding tanks.

The third type of MSD that is acceptable to the Coast Guard and EPA is Type III. The Type III MSD is a device that prevents the overboard discharge of treated or untreated sewage or any waste derived from sewage. This type of device is typically a holding tank and may include other types of technology including incineration recirculation and composting.

It’s not just recreational users who can suffer fines from not following the rules and regulations that have been set forth for wastewater treatment and removal. Manufacturers who do not abide by the guidelines risk paying up to $5000 per violation.

We’ll talk a little bit more about how to treat waste in any and all types of MSD systems later in the seminar.

  1. So we talked a little bit about why houseboat sanitation is important and the types of MSD systems required. Let’s discuss the issues that brought many of you here today. You have the correct systems— why are you still getting odors and or build up in your toilets, tanks and lines?I. Many times when odors are occurring in the head and cabin areas they are caused by permeation through the lines and hoses that connect the toilet or head to the MSD system. If you’ve recently purchased a boat or are renting one that has been recently purchased, manufacturers have taken great care to reduce permeation i.e. installing non-permeable hoses. So if you have an older boat and your hoses have not been changed in quite a while it may be worth the extra expense to change out the old hoses for a new material, nonporous, non-permeable hose.II. Changing out the hoses may not get to the source of the problem. In fact, odors can only permeate through a hose if they exist. If you are experiencing odors it may be because do not use any treatment or the correct treatment in your heads or directly into your pump out ports. “Waste degrading stinks”. When waste is retained, a biological process takes place. There are bacteria and probiotic microorganisms within our systems that are related to the houseboat sanitation systems. Many of you have seen the Jamie Lee Curtis commercials for Activia –she talks about probiotics, which are essentially non-pathogenic bacteria, helping our internal systems to work more efficiently when breaking down food in our digestion and to help things “flow” more regularly. The same can be said for our marine sanitation systems.
  2. Review Questions

    Question one: who can name two of the governing bodies behind our wastewater regulations?

Question two: who can name two of the health hazards either to us or to our environment caused by improper wastewater treatment?

Question three: who can name all three of the acceptable and certified MSD systems?

Question four: who can name one of the exceptions to the requirement of the type I and type II or type III MSD systems?

D. So now we’re aware of why houseboat sanitation is important, what is required regarding MSD systems including any exemptions and we touched on why we still may be experiencing odors and build up. So now that we have a little bit more knowledge about houseboat sanitation, the problems that we are experiencing and we know we’re not alone, what can we do about it?

I. Initially, there was only one real “solution” to handling and addressing waste. Not all, but in many cases the initial treatments offered contained formaldehyde or another harsh chemical based product. Some people refer to it as the blue stuff– it has a mildly sweet odor and a deep blue color. While these products may deodorize or mask the odor for a time, these products do not address the source of the issue. Furthermore, the governing bodies discovered after years of suggestion and of use that formaldehyde and harsh chemicals are, in fact, carcinogenic— meaning that they may cause cancer in those that use it and are surrounded by it for extended periods of time. Many manufacturers of these products have diluted the solution of chemicals to an “acceptable” level, but it is important to research the contents and effects of said contents to your satisfaction in order to protect your family.

Thankfully the market has seen a need for a more effective and safer solution to odors, build up and waste degradation.

II. One of these options is an enzyme-based product. Enzymes work to turn the waste into a food source for the naturally occurring bacteria. These products pump up the rate of activity of the bacteria that are already in your holding tank. Remember, these are the good bacteria. The downside to using a product that only contains enzymes is just that it—only contains enzymes. When enzymes die off they can’t reproduce and your problem may be solved for 1 to 2 weeks, but down the road you’re experiencing the same issues.

III.The most advanced option is a bacteria based product. Bacteria occur naturally and its possible to recruit the right types of good bacteria for specific purposes. Depending on the brand, the bacteria found in the product team up with the small amount of good bacteria already found in your holding tank. These bacteria produce enzymes that will turn the waste into a food source for the bacteria to eat. The major difference from those products only containing enzymes is that bacteria can reproduce and they will continue to reproduce in until there is no more food. Just like you and me… when the food source is gone the bacteria will die off so consumers do not need to worry about over production or build up of bacteria.

Nonpathogenic bacteria are found in these products either in a live vegetative state, which means they’re actively working in the bottle or a spore state which means they don’t “wake up” until they are introduced to an environment in which they are needed. What this means to the consumer is the products containing spore bacteria have a longer shelf life usually anywhere from 2 to 4 years. In either case, because not all of the waste or food source is removed during a pump out the bacteria continue to work while you are away from your boat and in between pump outs. In some products, you may even get several lines of defense other than the bacteria themselves. The first line of defense is usually a fragrance, the second is a surfactant or non-harsh, environmentally correct cleaning solution.

It is important to remember when using either the enzyme or the bacteria-based products that you do not use harsh chemicals in conjunction with these products. Harsh chemicals such as bleach or anything containing formaldehyde will kill these living organisms.

E. A little bonus– Waste and the systems associated with it are not the only times that we have odors, messes or build up in our boats. One of the other areas of the boat that boaters may have issues with is the galley. There is also a lot of organic waste in the galley. Greases, oils, fats, food particles and the like end up in our galley sinks. These items work their way into the nooks and crannies in our galley sinks, counter tops and even floors. This organic matter can not only create odors and build up, but also create stains and attract pests. There are healthy, environmentally friendly solutions for these issues as well!