The word of the day: feculent.
The other day I woke up on my boat and, as often happens first thing in the morning, I felt the sudden urge to go to the head* to sit down and catch up on my reading. I ended up taking a number four** and when I got up and stepped on the flush pedal I was mortified when there was no flushing. No flushing at all.
On the boat I have a vacuum flush system. This means that there's a ball valve at the base of the bowl and a vacuum pump and tank downstream in the plumbing. It's a pretty foolproof system. When working properly, stepping on the flush pedal opens such a powerful vacuum source that there's an audible rending of the air around the bowl itself. Your ears pop and, if your mouth happens to be open when you flush, you may actually have the breath sucked from your lungs. It's all very satisfying.
So you can imagine my dismay when I stepped on the pedal and nothing happened. Not only did I miss the satisfaction of having my daily intestinal sculpture evacuated into some far away place where it would no longer offend anyone, I was also filled with dread at the thought of the repairs that I would get to peform on the system itself.
What follows is a tale of filth and flatulence, the slightest word of which could harrow up your soul. There's also pictures. In order to spare those folks who might have just eaten a meal, the rest is after the jump. Click "read more" if you dare...
Usually when the vacuum flush system fails it's because the rubber duckbill valves in the diaphragm pump have become blocked or old. This has happened twice since I've owned the boat (in June of last year and June of the year before) so I figured, this being June, that it was just time for this to happen again.
When I opened the drawer where I keep the spare valves, I was saddened to learn that I had no spares. Apparently I forgot to get new ones after using the spares last year.
A quick trip to the West Marine store in Santa Rosa revealed that they do not stock these valves. Instead, I was going to have to go to the store in Oakland to pick up a new set. Being too busy to throw in a trip to Oakland, this project had to be put off for anther day. I can assure you there's nothing that gets you up and going in the morning faster than waking up in a place with no toilet.
Having secured a new set of valves, I set about pulling the system apart to get at the valves. Here's a picture of the system nestled in its little, tiny home under its littler, tinier access panel:
The black thing with the stainless steel cover on it is the vacuum pump. The white bulge on the bottom left corner is the vacuum tank. Before doing any work on the system, it's a good idea to lay down plastic and some paper towels to soak up any minor spills or drips that might come out of the hoses in the system. The last thing you want to do is have black water*** spill all over the inside of the boat. Then you put on a pair of rubber gloves and dive in:
I hate that part.
When I pulled the pump out and disassembled it, I was shocked to find that all four of the rubber duckbill valves were in good order. There were no blockages, cracks, or stiff valves. Clearly the problem was elsewhere in the system. I was going to have to take apart even more of it.
With the pump reassembled and installed, the next step was to disconnect each of the other hose connections and check for suction. Going backwards from the pump toward the bowl, I was looking for something large (and probably smelly) stuck in the plumbing somewhere. Since I'd never pulled this much of the plumbing apart, my usual system of trash bags and paper towels turned out to be inadequate to capture all of the spillage. Unfortunately, I didn't notice it until my friend Matt pointed out the leakage:
Working through the system, I was able to locate a blockage at an elbow at the forward end of the vacuum tank. Using a specially designed extraction tool****, it was quick work to pull it out. Upon removal and inspection, this blockage turned out to be a pair of baby wipes. Just in case your stomach hasn't had enough practice turning over in revulsion lately, here's a picture of one of them:
In case you're wondering, I do not use baby wipes in the head. I use a soft grade of toilet paper designed to be biodegradable and especially easy on the plumbing so I don't have to do just this sort of thing. I do know who it was that decided to flush these things, but I'm not going to name any names. You know who you are...
With the offending blockage removed and the hoses all reconnected, I turned the system back on. Then I stepped on the flush pedal. As the bowl was evacuated with its customary pop and slurp, a single tear of joy came to my eye. That may have just been the fumes though.
Special thanks to my friend Matt Herman for stopping by to keep me company while I cursed at the plumbing and take pictures while I made disgusted faces. If anyone ever says my shit doesn't stink, Matt and I can both assure you that they're only speaking metaphorically.
*"Head" is the navular word for "bathroom."
**A number four is just like a number two, but you sit for so long that your two legs fall asleep.
***"Black water" is the plumber vernacular for "poop."
****A bent wire coat hanger.