Smelly Head? Check This First!

Every now and then, a whiff of a much less than pleasant smell coming from the head was driving me crazy.  I had just wiped the entire head down with bleach water and laundered the hand towel the day before, so it shouldn’t be smelly.  Tracking down a smell — especially an intermittent offender can be beyond frustrating.

We decided to take it one step at a time.  Peggie Hall, in her “Get Rid of Boat Odors” book available at Amazon or Armchair Sailor, recommends checking the hoses.  According to the Head Mistress, if sewage stands in the hoses, it can permeate the hose, leaving you with a permanent smelly reminder.  The best way to keep sewage from standing in your hoses is to make sure there are no low spots, but more importantly, flush long enough to make sure there’s nothing left standing in the hoses.  This takes more than just a couple of flushes.  But then you have to balance holding tank capacity with additional water required for flushing. Catch22 if I ever heard one. But back to the subject.

Wrap a not already smelly damp warm rag around the hose.

Wrap a not already smelly damp warm rag around the hose.

First, find an old rag, large enough to wrap around the hose.  Make sure it’s not already smelly.  Ideally get it a bit damp, heat it up and then wrap it around the hose until the rag cools.  We didn’t “heat” our rag, just dampened it, laid it in the hot sunshine for a bit and then wrapped it around the hose.  We left it there for the better part of the afternoon.  When I removed it, holding my nose cautiously, I apprehensively took a whiff but there was no odor.  Darn, that would have been the “easy” solution to a stinky problem!

As it turned out, a leaky hose clamp – located, of course, behind a wall – turned out to be the offender.  After cleaning up sewage (you do have rubber gloves readily available, right?) in every nook and crevice I could reach, the smell subsided into history.

Sanitation hose ranks right up there with anchors and firearms as a subject of debate among cruising sailors.  Some swear that you have to have expensive double wall white hose made specifically for sanitation or no matter what you’ll be doomed to have smelly hose.  Since our prior owner installed some ugly black rubber hose that I suspect has no fancy odor rating, I suspect thoroughly flushing the hose after each use may have more to do with permeating smell than using expensive white sanitation hose.  That said, if we ever need to replace our hose (the prior owner installed ours sometime prior to April 2001), we’ll probably do the research and buy the very best odor eliminating hose available.

The Head - See the black hose at the right?  I suspect it's not sanitation hose!

The Head - See the black hose at the right? I suspect it's not sanitation hose!

One other tip – when you leave the boat for the season, be sure to thoroughly flush the head, hoses and holding tank with fresh water.  The best way to do this is to close the intake seacock and pour fresh water into the stool, pumping pumping pumping it through the system. I then like to add Raritan’s CP (cleans potties) and then some KO (kills odors). I have no idea if this treatment helps, but it makes me feel better and so far (knock on teak), I’ve never returned to a smelly head.  You’ll need to get the holding tank pumped out once you complete the head process and then flush the holding tank with fresh water a few times until the water runs clear coming out.  If you only fresh water flush the holding tank, which alot of commuter cruisers seem to do, you risk leaving stuff in your hoses which over the course of a few months standing, will definitely permeate head hoses.  And if you’re outside the USA in a location where there’s no pump out available.  We run fresh water through the system as described above and thoroughly flush it while still out at anchor just before returning to the marina.  Once in the marina, one of the very last things I do before closing up the boat is to run more fresh water through the head and then shut it down.

No matter what hose you use, it’s only a matter of time until they will permeate and smell.  In the meantime, thoroughly flush, flush, flush and you should lengthen the time you have left before having to tackle that job.

Anyone have other thoughts on sanitation hose?   Please share, leave a comment!   Cheers!  Jan


  1. […] performed the normal warm damp cotton cloth around the hoses trick – no odor.  If the rag stinks after doing this, the hose has been permeated with the odor and […]

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