Ok, we know there are nicer things to talk about, but it is one of the things that concerns most people regarding narrowboats. But we aren’t one to shy away from difficult conversations. In this article we are going to discuss ‘the arrangements’ on board a canal boat… Read this after finishing your dinner and not during.
Essentially, you’ll find one of two types of toilet on a canal boat (in fact there’s three but we’ll talk about the odd one out a little later). For now, there’s the cassette toilet and the pump out toilet.
The cassette toilet
We strongly suspect that this is most people’s idea of a ‘canal boat toilet’. If you’ve ever stayed in a caravan then you may be familiar with this system. If we told you that some people refer to this type of toilet as a ‘bucket and chuck it’ would that give you a better idea as to how it works?
Essentially a cassette toilet is a seat in the traditional style mounted over a tank used to store waste. Once the tank is approaching a respectable level you can detach it and tip the contents away. Nice.
It is worth noting that you can not just dispose of the contents anywhere. Well you can, but you really, REALLY, shouldn’t! You’ll normally find numerous facilities along waterways for safely and hygienically disposing of your cassette’s contents. We aren’t talking gallons and gallons here by the way. Most cassettes hold between 15 and 25 litres.
The good thing about cassette style toilets is that they are pretty fool proof, reliable and easy to maintain. One of the best things is that they are normally free to empty (but if you are charged it gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘spend a penny’).
But there is a downside…
When the cassette is full it can be a little bit cumbersome. If it was a sack full of potatoes, we wouldn’t let this bother us. But you don’t worry about spilling a sack of potatoes all over the kitchen, do you?
Generally, the weight of waste is the same as water, so a full 25 litre cassette will weigh around 25kg. Whilst not massively heavy feels it when you have it held at arm’s length and are trying to manoeuvre it out of your galley.
A cassette toilet doesn’t just rely on water either. There is a chemical element too. These chemicals can make a bit of a pong and they can cost money too.
The final thing is a bit unsavoury… Alright we’ll say it. If you aren’t too close to a suitable point to dispose of your waste then you’ll have to store it. That’s right, 20 litres of human waste, have a think where it is going to live until you get to an appropriate point… No not in the kitchen!
The last thing about cassette style toilets is that they are ever so slightly underpowered in the flush department. Without being too crass, they cope with liquids far better than they cope with ‘solids’ if you catch our drift? We would recommend that if you are going to take more than a minute, you might be better heading to somewhere land based to ‘see a man about a dog’.
The pump out toilet
If you like to feel like you’re at home away from home, then a pump out toilet would be the better choice. They aren’t quite as prolific, but that’s because they are slightly more complex and cost a little more.
In essence they are very similar to a normal toilet. They have a flush and can even be plumbed into the water supply. The waste is sucked away from the bowl and is zoomed along to a storage tank, often this can be directly beneath the toilet. Once the storage tank gets a bit full you will have to take it to a service point where the tank has its contents removed… or ‘pumped out’. Hence the name.
The advantages to pump out toilets aren’t as great as you would think. Ok it ‘feels’ slightly more civilised, but that’s pretty much where the benefits end.
There are several disadvantages. The first is regarding reliability. You don’t know the meaning of frustration (or maybe desperation) until your toilet breaks down. A pump out toilet has an increased level of complexity, which means it is less likely to always work. If you end up stuck somewhere with no means ‘to go’ you are in for a bad time.
You normally have to pay in order to use a service point. Whilst it is not particularly expensive if you factor in this cost over a year, it can seem like a lot.
The obvious solution is to carry a spare, but with space at a premium you don’t want to forego something nice just to make room for a backup toilet.
If you have a pump out toilet which drops directly into the tank below you may find that after time, the seals on the tank start to perish a bit. This can lead to odours escaping (cough cough heave). Now, you can live with it, or you can repair it, personally. By hand… Does either appeal to you? No, us neither.
We mentioned a third option…
You can have the option to go all ‘eco-friendly’.
What do we mean?
Well you could consider using a compost toilet. Emptying could potentially become a thing of the past (well greatly reduced at any rate, every few months would be a realistic estimate). The waste is stored in a tank and is treated with biodegradable solution that encourages the waste to break down into what is essentially soil. You even have the option to separate your ‘number ones’ from ‘number twos’. Allowing you to dispose of the liquids whilst composting the solids.
As to which to choose? Well it’s as broad as its long we guess. The cassette type of toilet is cheapest and most reliable, but you have to empty the tank often by hand. The pump out loo feels more refined, but comes with its own burdens. The composting toilet is relatively new and can be quite expensive to buy. Whichever you go for, you are going to find that it isn’t quite as user friendly as it would be in a house, but it is something that eventually you will just come to accept as part of boating life.