Features September 2002 Issue

Portable Heads

The Thetford AquaMate, with its bells and whistles and impressive three-year warranty, is our top choice. The simple but comfortable SeaLand Sanipottie earns Best Buy honors.

As boatowners have had to cope with local no-discharge regulations, many have decided to yank their conventional heads for a far simpler solution: the portable toilet. 

The three portables tested (left to right):
Sanitation Equipment’s Visa Potty, SeaLand’s
Sanipottie 965 MSD, and Thetford’s AquaMate
875 MSD.

Today there are three principal makers of portable heads: Thetford, which originated the portable toilet, called Porta Potti; SeaLand Technology, which makes the Sanipottie; and Sanitation Equipment Ltd., a Canadian firm that produces the Visa Potty. (As we observed when we last reported on portable heads, back in September of 1993, there seems to be no consistency on the spelling of these devices, though Webster apparently prefers "potty.")

The big news is that these firms now make MSD (Marine Sanitation Device) models that come with several installation options. You can hook them up to a deck pump-out fitting, plumb them to a seacock for overboard discharge in unrestricted waters, or—as every portable head was designed to perform from day one—hand-carry them to a discharge area. Those who would prefer to spare their backs the chore of hauling the contents of a waste tank at every marina stop—and 45-plus pounds is a lot to schlep if you've got to climb a gangway at low tide—might prefer one of the more permanent options. The catch is that once you select one of these permanent options, your "portable" head no longer is portable.

You can, for extended capacity, hook the Thetford and SeaLand MSDs to an existing holding tank. (The Visa Potty 268 can't be hooked to a tank, but these other Sanitation Equipment Models can: 368 MSD, 348, 319, and 308.) But if you already have a holding tank in place, why consider a portable toilet in the first place? Here's why: Portable toilets are amazingly simple, at least compared to standard marine heads with their hoses, valves, deck fittings, through-hulls, and holding tanks, any of which can leak fluid or gases. With a portable, everything is self-contained—including those vaporous odors.

Considering what it replaces, a portable head is also inexpensive. A permanent head with all the paraphernalia—bowl, hose, vented loop, seacock, through-hull, holding tank—will set you back $800 or more. For less than $80 you can install a portable. Even a high-capacity model costs no more than $140.

Here's another reason: The U.S. Coast Guard considers portable toilets legally acceptable in vessels not having permanently installed heads. (Actually, the province of Ontario requires a "permanently installed" portable head. It does get confusing.)

There is, of course, a downside. With a portable, you're limited by what you can carry ashore or lug on deck to dump in offshore waters. Filling the top tank with water can be difficult—they don’t fit well under head or galley spigots, so you'll need to jug-carry the water to them.

Since you'll be emptying and cleaning the bottom tank by hand—a nasty proposition—you'll also be fiddling with human waste, meaning you're bound to get some on you. Also, unlike a head with a porcelain bowl, which washes down easily with water, a portable's plastic bowl doesn't encourage fresh water to spread evenly over the bowl. It’s called "sheeting action," or lack thereof, and it means you'll be swabbing out the bowl more frequently. Finally, when cleaning, never use scouring powders or concentrated cleaners, which can not only scratch these heads (remember, they're plastic) but damage their rubber seals as well.

For our comparison test, figuring that most boatowners would rather not put up with the ceaseless task of filling and emptying a small portable, we chose a high-capacity model from each manufacturer. We spent several days filling, pumping, emptying, cleaning, and fiddling with these heads, and assessing how easy or how difficult it would be to convert the convertibles to a more or less permanent installation.

How We Tested
After portability issues, the first questions that come to mind have to do with what happens when you tip these things, as you will when you're heeling. We tested for water-tightness by filling the freshwater (upper) tank and waste (lower) tank of each toilet, and then tilting the unit 45 degrees in one direction, then 45 degrees in the other direction.

We next tried to see how many strokes of the freshwater pump (bellows on the AquaMate and Sanipottie, plunger on the Vista Potty) it took to empty the freshwater tank. We then determined, by filling the bowl with two pumps before use and two pumps to rinse the bowl after use and before flushing, how many flushes, or uses, each unit delivered. This, we felt, was a fairly conservative water-saving procedure. If you're the type who likes to flood the bowl before use, expect fewer flushes. Incidentally, the number of uses we describe on our comparison chart is "per" one freshwater tank.

Because the waste tanks on these units are larger than their freshwater tanks, you can expect additional uses if you add to the freshwater tank before emptying the waste tank.

We next evaluated each unit for handling—disassembling the freshwater and waste tank, carrying the waste tank to a disposal site for emptying, then reassembling the two tanks.

Next, how easy is it to empty? All waste tanks were heavy when full—between 48 and 53 pounds. It's enough of a chore to lug that kind of weight, but movable spouts and handholds in the right places can make the job a lot easier.

We then stood and bounced on the seats and lids, all of which are removable for cleaning by distorting the plastic hinges. Nothing broke. Although the seats and lids are almost disturbingly flexible, all proved remarkably resistant to abuse.

Next, we tried various cleaning agents—Comet scouring powder, Soft Scrub, MDR Krazy Clean, and Simple Green. We rubbed a small, masked-off section an equal number of strokes with folded paper towels, let it sit for five minutes, then rinsed. After drying, we examined the surface. As you might expect, the abrasion on areas cleaned with Comet scouring powder was moderate to severe, and the relatively soft plastic surface was slightly dulled by Soft Scrub. The other two cleaners did not scratch, although just the process of rubbing vigorously left some swirl marks on the glossy AquaMate and Vista Potty. Lesson learned: To preserve the finish on these units, use only a soft cloth and plain water or a mild soap.

Last, we tried each unit for comfort. Enough said.

Thetford AquaMate 875 MSD
Of the three portables tested, the AquaMate is the bells-and-whistles champ. Features include a tank-level indicator, a compartment for a roll of toilet tissue, another for a bottle of waste-tank deodorant, and a third for a swing-out emptying spout, all of which are built into the bottom tank. These compartments reduce waste-tank volume, but there's still plenty to spare in this unit.

The AquaMate's tanks are injection-molded, which provides for better control of wall thickness and permits more internal detailing. However, injection-molding requires the joining of seams—where waste, no matter how diligent you are about cleaning, can be trapped.

Thetford recommends that, before each use, you open and close the holding tank valve (the flusher) with the seat cover closed. This will vent any pressure that may have built up as a result of heat and will prevent the bowl's contents from splashing upward during the flushing operation. A wise measure, and we recommend it in using any portable toilet.

The AquaMate, using the fill-and-rinse method described above (its bellows pump delivered 3 ounces of water per stroke) produced an average 41 flushes per freshwater tank. The waste tank, when full, weighs 48 pounds.

The AquaMate, which comes with self-install hold-down latches for mounting to a cockpit floor, is also available with an electronic flushing mechanism (885 MSD, $159.99), which we found, when last tested, worked easily with just the touch of a finger. It requires six AA batteries (not included) and includes a low-battery indicator and locking mechanism to prevent accidental flushing.

Thetford also offers portables for more modest needs (and at less cost) the Porta Potti 135 and 735 MSD, both with a 2.6-gallon holding tank.

Likes: The tab-lock seat cover is a handy idea, particularly when carrying the freshwater tank, and we liked the ease with which we could remove the seat and cover for cleaning. The freshwater discharge spout directed rinse water along a ledge molded into the upper portion of the bowl, enabling a good overall rinse of the bowl. The rotating pour-out spout, in combination with an air-relief valve that you press with your thumb when emptying, made for no-splash waste tank evacuation. The AquaMate also comes with a pump-out assembly (which is inserted in place of the pour-out spout) to enable hookup to a remote holding tank, overboard discharge or dockside pumpout.

Dislikes: If we had to quibble, it would be with the location of the lever that unlocks the upper tank from the lower tank. It's at the rear of the unit, making it difficult to get to if the unit is placed in a tight spot. Otherwise, we were impressed with the features and overall handling of the AquaMate.

Incidentally, it's recommended that you use only rapid-dissolve RV/marine tissue with this unit (or any other portable or permanent head, for that matter). A conventional roll not only contains adhesives that prevent it from dissolving in water, but it's also too bulky to fit into the tissue dispenser, meaning you have to unravel and discard 30 or more feet before you can reattach the two tanks.

SeaLand Sanipottie 965 MSD
The Sanipottie, smaller than the other units we tested, uses a bellows pump to send fresh water to the bowl. It's bigger than the AquaMate's pump and, although stiff, works better: It delivered a generous 4.2 ounces of water with each pump, making it the champ of the bunch—at least on this score.

The Sanipottie's tanks are blow-molded, with no seams to be joined. The inside of the waste tank is, by necessity, simple and uncluttered, which makes emptying and cleaning more effective. It also means that the Sanipottie can use an external slide valve mechanism, threaded to the top of the waste tank, that frees the inside of the tank of clutter and remains free of waste contamination.

The Sanipottie skips the waste tank vent used by the Vista Potty and push-button air relief vent used by the AquaMate. The unit has a large emptying spout that requires no venting. Clamps, joining the top and bottom tanks on the sides, fold up for easy removal of the upper tank.

Like the AquaMate, the Sanipottie MSD comes with a pump-out assembly to enable hookup to a remote holding tank, overboard discharge, or dockside pumpout. The pump-out assembly is pre-attached. As a result, it does not give you the AquaMate's option of removing the assembly for conversion to a portable system later (although plugs, which are included, can be used to block the vent and holding tank outlets for portable use). Stainless hold-down brackets to secure the unit to a cockpit floor are included. The waste tank when full weighs 48 pounds.

The Sanipottie is also available in non-MSD versions (models 965 and 966, $125-$106) and smaller-capacity units—the 962, 964 and 964 MSD ($91-$134)—are also available.

Likes: Although the bowl size is smaller than other units tested, the Sanipottie's seat, albeit also smaller, was by far the most comfortable. The unit's matte finish also makes it the least susceptible to scratching.

Dislikes: Although the Sanipottie's bellows pump delivered more water than the other units, the freshwater jet is angled in such a way that rinse water is directed slightly downward and to only one side of the bowl. We also found it difficult to fill or rinse the bowl while seated—the open lid interfered with our hand when we tried to depress the bellows. Although the large emptying spout requires no venting, it is not equipped, like others we tested, with a spout extension to direct the flow of waste discharge away from you. So when you empty the Sanipottie, stand back.

Visa Potty 268
This Canadian-made unit is, like the AquaMate, injection-molded. Unlike the AquaMate and Sanipottie, it uses a bi-directional piston pump rather than a bellows system. The pump, which discharges water on the up-stroke, comes with a small handle with edges that we found uncomfortable. Although the pump's action gives you the impression that it's delivering more rinse water than other heads, the actual output was a meager 1.5 ounces. Nonetheless, the freshwater jet discharges in both directions along a ledge molded into the upper portion of the bowl, enabling a better overall rinse than we found in the other units.

The Visa Potty also includes two water-level indicators—one for the upper tank and one for the lower. A directional spout that can be attached to the waste tank's discharge outlet is housed in a compartment in the bottom of the lower tank. The waste tank when full weighs 53 pounds.

The Visa Potty is offered in lower-capacity versions for smaller spaces at a price range of $59.99-$99.99.

Likes: Quick-release latches allowed for easy separation and reassembly of the upper and lower tanks. The seat has a spring-fitted hinge that keeps it secure while transporting. Water-level indicators for both the upper and lower tank are a good idea; the lower one tells you when it's time to empty the waste tank, the upper indicator alerts you when it's time to re-fill the freshwater tank. The flushing valve needs to be flicked out only a notch to allow air to escape from the lower tank. It can then be fully opened to discharge waste into the lower tank.

Dislikes: The upper-tank filler cap, which includes a tiny vent hole, is a pop-off rather than screw-off design. It didn't strike us as being too secure—which proved to be the case when it leaked when heeled at 45 degrees. A leak at such an angle is quite plausible, said the manufacturer's quality assurance manager David Fleming. "But 45 degrees is pretty steep," he said. "We've never had any complaints, and we've used the design for 20-25 years."

The waste tank's carrying handle, a square design, was hard on the hands. The directional emptying spout was a bother. It has to be removed from its compartment in the lower tank and its caps removed to screw it on in place of the tank cap.

Despite the inconvenience of the upper/lower tank release lever, we like the Thetford AquaMate for the abundance of its features. It was not cumbersome to carry, emptying was easy, we were able to get more uses per freshwater tank, and we were impressed with the 3-year warranty.

As our second choice, we like the SeaLand Sanipottie. Though a bit smaller and without the gadgetry of the other units, it was the most comfortable to use. Even at its mid-range price, we consider it a Best Buy. The Visa Potty has some neat features, and at $94 it might be a good low-cost alternative.


Also With This Article
Click here to view "Value Guide: Portable Heads."

Contacts — Sanitation Equipment Ltd., 35 Citron Ct., Concord, Ontario, Canada L4K 2S7; 905/738-0055; www.envirolet.com/visapotty268.html. SeaLand Technology, Box 38, Big Prairie, OH 44611; 330/496-3211; www.sealandtechnology.com. Thetford, Box 1285, Ann Arbor, MI 48106; 734/769-6000; www.thetford.com.

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