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Old 12-25-2002
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Updating Your Head


After—the authors' finished product is a far cry from what used to inhabit this space.

Paint was peeling from old plywood walls and the toilet was difficult to pump. When it finally did, more water shot out and hit us on the shins than actually went through the bowl. The sinks were cruddy, the faucets pitted, and the lighting inadequate. The shower hose leaked most of its water out before it even reached the showerhead. Other than that though, everything in the head worked just fine.

A couple of years ago, Sue and I made the switch from a new boat to our current cruising boat Serengeti, a 1978 Formosa Peterson 46. Although we love the lines and styling of this older boat, those feelings did not hold true for the two aging heads on board. Oh, and did we mention the fact that there were no holding tanks on the boat when we bought it?

As liveaboard cruisers, we knew we would not be happy unless we made some changes. We wanted to make these tiny rooms more functional in terms of equipment that worked the way it was supposed to, more pleasing to the eye, and easier to clean and dry after a shower. We further wanted to make sure we met the waste requirements for US coastal waters.

The Shower Dilemma    With most boats, each time you shower in the head everything in the entire room gets wet—the sink, the toilet, and all the walls. Sometimes a shower curtain is employed to try and contain the water, but this rarely succeeds and usually results in more moisture being trapped. Unless you physically wipe down all the many surfaces after each shower, or wait hours for it to dry on its own, it becomes an unusable area. We've found that for a head to work best as a combined shower, it needs waterproof surfaces, watertight joints, and flow-through ventilation

We occasionally see cruisers who have given up the battle of dealing with wet and moldy heads, preferring to just shower in the cockpit. We must admit this makes for some interesting sightings at anchor. Not wanting to be relegated to the cockpit ourselves, we decided to take action.


Before—to replace the surfaces in the head, the authors first had to strip the trim and prep the underlayment.
Our head renovation began with an analysis of the surfaces and joints of the existing surfaces. We knew that our plywood walls with peeling paint and sometimes open joints were never going to be the best surface for cleaning, drying, or long term durability. This led us on a search for an alternative material. Since many modern boats today feature one-piece molded fiberglass walls with rounded corners in the head, we first explored applying fiberglass sheets ourselves. We could have bought four-by-eight-foot sheets of thin fiberglass with a shiny gelcoat surface from a local boatyard. This would have achieved our goal of easy maintenance and durability, but would have been fairly expensive.

We decided instead to apply a countertop laminate material like Formica to the walls, a material that has been used successfully for this application by boat builders for many years. At around $40.00 per four-by-eight-foot sheet, we saved considerable money over the fiberglass option, achieved all of our original goals, and discovered an added bonus. In choosing our Formica, we opted for a granite-like speckled tan color instead of bright white. This results in a more forgiving surface for those of us that don't want to be slaves to cleaning those last little specs all the time. One thing we did not like about the shiny white fiberglass walls in our last boat was that every stray bit of anything showed up. Formica is available in a huge range of colors and patterns, so you can choose your own favorite. Whether you choose fiberglass or laminate sheeting for renewing your head walls, the fitting and application procedures will be similar (see sidebar).

"To further accelerate quick and easy drying of the room after a shower, we needed additional ventilation."
To further accelerate quick and easy drying of the room after a shower, we needed additional ventilation. Most heads already have one opening port, but the addition of an overhead hatch or a solar-powered fan provides flow-through ventilation that greatly decreases drying time. A 12-volt fan can also help promote air movement.

We really like the idea of having a separate shower stall, but there was simply no room in either of our heads to accommodate one. After brainstorming for a few days, we came up with a compromise. Since we have two separate heads on board, we decided to gut the aft head, and turn it into a dedicated shower. This meant removing the sink and cabinet, which took up a lot of floor space, and left us with a good-sized area in which to shower comfortably. Since the head is located in our master stateroom, we did re-install a new toilet for convenience and for flexibility when guests are onboard. We've found that losing the aft sink has not been a hardship at all. How many sinks do you need on a 40-some foot boat anyway?

Once we had new head walls that were watertight, easier to clean and faster to dry, we decided next to address the method of shower waste-water removal. Like many older boats, our shower sump drained straight into the bilge. This is definitely not a good idea as hair and debris can form a potentially dangerous clog for your bilge pump. This is also not a smart sanitary arrangement as it can exacerbate offensive bilge odors. To avoid these problems, we plumbed a raw-water strainer in line with a diaphragm pump to the shower sump. Now our wastewater from showering goes directly overboard at the flick of a switch. By adding an oversized strainer, we've been able to greatly extend the period between having to clean the strainer basket. Virtually all the hair and other debris is contained before it can clog the pump.


During—to ensure a proper fit for the new surfaces, Sue made patterns with builder's paper.
Heads and Hoses   
The toilets were pretty tired looking in both our heads and as I mentioned earlier, liberally squirted water out in undesirable directions. We nicknamed one of them Old Faithful. When comparing the price of rebuilding the old ones to purchasing entire new ones, it was so close; we decided to replace the old with new. At the same time, we figured we should replace all the hoses. It's a good thing we did as the interior walls of the hoses were just about closed off with years of buildup. We probably saved ourselves from some nasty future clogging at an inopportune time without access to repair parts.

Whether your toilet and hoses are new or old, make sure you do a little bit of regular maintenance to keep things running smoothly. Once a month, pour a little cooking oil into the bowl, and then pump a few times. This will keep the seals well lubricated. A dose of vinegar poured into the bowl, and slowly pumped through the hose once a month will help reduce future scaling inside the hose. We've also found a regular dose of vinegar to be an odor reducer.

Waste Management    We're not exactly sure why, but our boat was never set up with any holding tanks or systems for onboard waste treatment. We added a holding tank to our forward head, and in our aft head, decided to install a Type 1 msd, to treat our waste prior to release. Our Lectra/San neutralizes waste with electric current, making it safe and legal to then be pumped overboard in all coastal areas except those labeled as "no discharge zones." The Lectra/San takes up a small amount of space, virtually eliminates head odors, and is easy to install. This type of unit is not only environmentally friendly, but it also means you'll spend a lot less time tracking down those few and far between pump-out stations. The downside is that the unit uses 40 amps of power during its two-minute treatment cycle, and there are some specially designated areas where it cannot be used. These designations in our opinion are misguided. We feel that no-discharge zones are the result of poor decisions made by well-intentioned politicians who want to appear to be environmentally friendly. They discourage the use of technology that when used, actually results in a cleaner environment.


Taking a page from shoreside home improvement, the authors opted for a handheld sprayer with a shutoff on the nozzle for saving water.
Convenience and Comfort  
After taking care of the basics, we decided to add some modern touches to our heads. The purchase of a single-lever water mixer for the shower ensures that we can adjust the temp easily with a single hand. This comes in handy sometimes when you need to be holding on with the other hand. A single-lever mixer on any sink or shower also allows you to quickly and easily set the right temperature resulting in less wasted water. A shower handheld sprayer with a manual shut-off ensures that we can immediately halt the flow of water without having to turn the tap off every time, then readjust the temperature when we turn it back on.

To eliminate messy and slippery episodes chasing down that bar of soap, we added a soap and shampoo dispenser to one wall of our new head/shower. This helps eliminate soapy residues, and reduces water consumption further as all soaps, shampoos and conditioners are readily dispensed at the push of a button.

Dressing onboard a boat can sometimes be frustrating, so we added a large mirror on one wall so that we can actually see below our necks. (Granted, we're not always happy with what we see.) This, along with new, brighter halogen lighting has made our boat feel even more like a home. And these changes have made a huge difference to our comfort in living aboard. If the head on your boat exhibits some of the annoying maladies we faced, you might want to try making a few of these changes yourself. Take it from us, the time you spend fixing things up today will certainly enhance your time spent on the water tomorrow.

Installing New Surfaces

If you have wall surfaces in your head that need renewing, or you simply want to change the colors, consider the following procedure. Applying a synthetic laminate was not as difficult to do as we first thought it might be.

To apply the laminate or other fiberglass sheeting, you first need to remove any trim or molding that is currently on your head walls. This trim will later be re-applied after the surface is renewed to ensure a finished look. If you're applying laminate onto a painted wooden surface, you'll need to aggressively sand all of the surfaces that will receive the laminate.

Next, we used building paper, which is available in large rolls from hardware stores, to pattern all the walls. Place the building paper on the wall, and outline the shape of the wall with a pencil. Then trace your cut-out patterns to the sheets of laminate, and carefully cut with laminate shears, or industrial bent shears. Once you've patterned, cut, and confirmed the fit of each piece, you're ready to adhere them in place.

Using a notched trowel spread epoxy, which has been thickened to a peanut-butter consistency, onto the first wall of your head. (We recommend using West System or Mas Epoxy thickened with a high-density filler like Cabosil.) Spread the epoxy evenly over the entire surface like you would if laying tile or vinyl flooring in your home. Firmly press your first laminate sheet into place. The use of a notched trowel to spread your epoxy will result in a natural suction when the laminate is pressed into the adhesive, which will hold your laminate in place on the wall while the epoxy cures. Immediately clean up any epoxy that oozes out from behind the sheet with an acetone soaked rag. Continue this same procedure until all head walls are covered with your new laminate and then reinstall your trim.

When re-installing any trim in lower areas where water can get behind it, make sure you bed the back side of each piece with caulking. On the inside corners, if no trim was previously present, you have the option of either installing small strips of teak or other matching material, or you can carefully caulk the joint. We caulked our inside wall corners with a color-matching caulk and they not only look great, but are completely watertight and easy to clean. To ensure a straight, clean looking edge, mask off the length of each corner with masking tape, then smooth caulk with your finger before removing the tape.






Suggested Reading:

Head Maintenance Blues by Tom Wood

Pump It Out by Joy Smith

Nature Never Disappoints When Cruising by Sue & Larry

 

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