Sea story: Titanium toilet valves



It’s hard to believe that it’s been weeks since the last sea story, but our daughter just finished a month on the USS LOUISIANA for her Navy ROTC summer training.  She was at sea for all 30 days, qualified to stand a sonar watch, ran a lot of drills, earned herself a deterrent patrol pin, and is pretty sure this is what she wants to do for the rest of the decade.  Heaven help her.

Her sea stories brought back some of my own nightmares memories, so I might as well let her know what she’s getting into!

I’m not sure why so many of my sea stories return to the subject of sewage. Maybe it’s because the plumbing systems caused so many problems. Maybe it’s because I spent nearly 18 months being responsible for them as Auxiliary Division Officer, and submarine Auxiliary machinist’s mates are experts at scatological humor. Or maybe after 25 years I’m beginning to realize that junior officers are a natural focus for all those pranks?

By the mid-1980s, USS JAMES MONROE had been out of shipyard for a few years and was beginning to show some wear & tear. Back at the peak of the Cold War, American ballistic missile submarines stayed at sea at least 70% of the time. In between 90-day patrols there would be a four-day turnover between BLUE and GOLD crews and a 28-day upkeep– and we were doing this work in Holy Loch, Scotland alongside a submarine tender. Supply support was as good as the American military gets, but you still had to plan the maintenance a week or two in advance to make sure you had the parts before you started the work.

Auxiliary Division owns everything that the rest of the crew doesn’t want to touch– let alone smell or taste. Other divisions have glamorous titles: Missile, or Sonar, or Reactor Controls. But Auxiliary Division is “blessed” with the critical supporting roles that enable all these other divisions to do their jobs. “A Gang” produces the 4500-psi air and 3000-psi hydraulics that move things around the boat and control some very life-saving valves. They own the trim & drain systems, which move seawater around the boat to keep it neutrally buoyant. They own the atmosphere control equipment that makes oxygen and removes hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. They own the refrigeration equipment that keeps the food cold. They keep the crew alive.

A Gang also owns the boat’s sewage collection and disposal system. This gear is essential too, but it never makes anyone happy.

By the time I reported aboard MONROE, the submarine force had over three generations of experience with handling sewage underwater. Most of the engineering design details had been settled long ago, and the challenge was maintenance & operations. Unfortunately “seating capacity” was a crew morale issue, which meant that the design engineers had given A Gang lots of parts to operate & maintain. Ten toilets were considered barely enough to handle “rush hour” for a crew of nearly 150.

Submarine toilet, seawater flushing throttle valve handle to the left of the toilet seat, ball valve lever to the right of the toilet seat.

Submarine toilet (place cursor over image for more info). Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institute.

A submarine toilet’s “input” design would be familiar to most civilians, once you get used to the idea of using stainless steel instead of porcelain. But life got a little more complicated at flushing time. You opened a manual throttle valve that let seawater gush into the toilet bowl, and then you needed to move briskly. (If the submarine took a sudden angle in any direction then the bowl’s contents would slosh out onto the deck.) As soon as you had a water swirl going, you moved a long lever to open a fist-sized ball valve at the bottom of the toilet bowl. The ball of this valve had a 3″-diameter hole drilled straight through it. You’d rotate its lever handle toward you to align the hole with the toilet bowl & sewage piping, and the bowl’s contents would hopefully drop smoothly into the sewage collection tank. Then you’d move the lever back to shut the toilet valve, and next you’d shut off the throttle valve– after letting an inch or two of seawater collect in the bottom of the bowl. That water seal made life less smelly for the next customer.

The collection tank would fill up in a day or two (depending on what was on the galley menu) so the next challenge was emptying it. The most reliable method for doing this had been proven (through decades of bitter experience) to be high-pressure air. But we’re not talking the kind of air pressure you use to operate a pneumatic nail gun or top off your SUV’s tires. LAFAYETTE-class submarines used 700-psi air to pressurize that tank and blow the contents overboard. (Yeah, you know you’ve been waiting for it: insert scatological joke here– or add your own down in the comments.) This meant that you could blow the sanitary tank at just about any depth that you’d care to operate.

Blowing sanitary tanks

You usually blew the collection tank at a shallow depth, but the system was designed to be used as deep as the submarine could operate. This meant that all the piping & valves had to handle the sea pressure at a (classified) depth of “deeper than 800 feet”. The valves not only had to be strong enough to keep the ocean from leaking back into the tank, but they also had to be tight enough to keep the air in the tank (and its other contents) from leaking back up through the toilet bowl. The strongest substance for this purpose is horrendously expensive titanium. Back then I believe it was $7000 for each ball valve– nearly $15,000 in today’s dollars– and there were at least 10 of these valves in toilets scattered throughout the boat. Your taxes at work, folks, keeping America’s submariners happy!

Well, you’d be happy for a few months, anyway. Every submarine valve eventually starts to leak. It’s not “if”, only “when”, and hopefully it gives you lots of warning before it finally fails. Those toilet ball valves were no exception. Their “leak warning” was allowing little air bubbles to escape from the pressurized sanitary tank when you were blowing its contents overboard. It was no big deal to see a tiny stream of bubbles rising up around the valve, just like an aquarium. However, when the leak got worse and the air was boiling up like a seething cauldron (and a fine mist began to rise from the bowl’s seawater seal to fog the entire crew’s head) then A Gang would be asked to fix the problem.

The repair was straightforward: unbolt the toilet bowl from the piping, disconnect the operating lever from the ball valve, pop the ball out of the pipe, put in fresh seals and a new ball, and slap everything back together. Good to “go”!

A Gangers everywhere are groaning in despair right now. It was never that easy.

The repair part usually went well, but everything around it was a colossal pain. You had to put that toilet out of operation and hang bright red “DANGER!!” tags on every valve around the toilet that could inject water or high-pressure air (or eject high-pressure sewage) onto the job site. You had to assemble all your parts & tools, and track down about 10 supervisors to let them know what you were doing. You had to manipulate tiny parts while wearing hot & sweaty latex protective gloves (or at least hope that a supervisor didn’t catch you without them). There was a constant “flow” of traffic through the head, with lots of inquisitive onlookers offering helpful commentary, and the job site inevitably accumulated the typical sewage messes.

The biggest problem of all, however, was time & labor. Every 28-day upkeep kept A Gang hopping with serious problems like leaky hydraulics, drippy seawater valves, oxygen generator maintenance, and even broken refrigerators. (Forget “liberty” or even “sleep”– you could catch up on those luxuries when the other crew had the boat.) The submarine could get underway with a leaky toilet or two, but all of those other problems were show-stoppers. Toilet valves were usually the last item on every A Ganger’s “To Do” list.

However, the A Gang Chief had an inspiration. To make peace with the crew (and his fellow chiefs), he proposed doing the toilet repairs at sea. Every evening underway (when the crew wasn’t so busy in the heads), a couple of off-watch A Gangers would replace a toilet ball valve. If this plan worked, then all the toilets would be restored to tightness in less than two weeks. We hadn’t heard of anyone trying this before, but it looked feasible.

When we ordered the parts, however, we found out why nobody was doing this repair at sea. The Navy’s supply system guards against fraud and theft, and titanium ball valves were considered to be highly pilferable. According to the rules, we were allowed to order one ball valve at a time. After we installed the new ball valve, and properly returned the old ball valve to the submarine tender for recycling at a repair depot, then we could order one more ball valve. The Supply Officer insisted that it had to be one at a time. He wasn’t interested in buying a bunch of them to take to sea, because he didn’t have the money and squadron Supply wouldn’t let him.

Our commanding officer went to talk to the commodore for us, and we got a waiver. I’ll spare you the details. It happened way above my pay grade and my delicate O-3 ears were considered too fragile to handle the blast of language our commanding officer must have heard. When the shouting was over, though, our very “pissed”-off Supply Officer told me that he’d been given every available titanium ball valve in the Western hemisphere– all seven of them. Squadron Supply had also threatened him with court-martial if any of them were lost, and he’d been told to maintain direct control over them. He would only hand them out one at a time, only to me, and he insisted that I return the old ball valve directly to him. As he scolded me about the procedure, I realized that he thought we’d be turning in shiny clean ball valves– instead of gnarly old valves so scratched and dinged that the “encrustations” would have to be sandblasted off by the repair depot. But he’d worked up a pretty good mad by then, and I wasn’t going to risk more yelling by educating him on the old ball valves.

A couple days later we got underway for our 90-day patrol. That afternoon I scampered out of the Supply office with one shiny new ball valve.  After dinner the Chief and the off-watch A Gangers got to work.

An hour later the Chief was proudly displaying the old ball valve on the A-Gang workbench. It was a nasty mess. They’d wire-brushed it and washed it, but the smell still permeated the space. He wrapped it in a paper towel and sealed it in a thick plastic bag before handing it over to me.

I went straight to the Supply office to turn it in, only to learn that the Supply Officer was on watch in the control room until midnight. I’d had a long day, I had the midwatch in a few hours, and I didn’t want to wait around, but the Supply clerk had heard the fuss over these ball valves and didn’t want to have anything to do with them. I had to hand it over directly to the Supply Officer.

Well, I’d tried to follow the rules, but I needed some sleep before the midwatch. I did what any resourceful junior officer would do in that situation: I went to the Supply Officer’s stateroom and put the bagged ball valve on his bed– under his pillow, so that it wouldn’t roll around or tempt anyone by being in plain sight. I called the control room and asked the messenger to tell the Supply Officer that I’d left his turn-in part under his pillow. I left a note on his door with the same info. Then I finally went to my bed and got some sleep.

After midnight, I was already on watch back aft when the Supply Officer finally got off watch and sleepily stumbled to his stateroom. He must have forgotten my message and missed my note as he headed straight for his bed. Later he told me that just before his head hit the pillow, he noticed an awful sewage smell. A half-second later his head bounced off the ball valve under his pillow. When he reached under there and pulled out the plastic bag, he reflexively opened it to see what was wrapped in the wet paper towel. Of course that released the stench, and by then it was too late to remember my message.

Luckily I was on watch for six hours, so next morning the stateroom smell had dissipated and the Supply Officer had gotten over his rage. I guess he’d reached his limit in this gross-out contest. He gave me the stinky old ball valve and then handed me the other six shiny new ball valves, telling me that he didn’t care where I stored them as long as he got them back the night before we pulled into port.

A week later, seven toilets were fixed and the crew was happy. At the end of the patrol, I gave the Supply Officer a (tightly sealed) plastic bag of seven titanium ball valves, which he gingerly hand-carried up to squadron Supply for our $49,000 refund. The toilet repairs lasted at least the rest of my tour on that boat, and the Supply Department stopped giving A Gang a tough time about parts.

I’m happy to report that the successor OHIO-class submarines eliminated the expense and maintenance hassle of this system. Instead of each toilet being directly connected to the sewage holding tank with its own titanium flushing valve, all the toilets empty into a large common pipe with downstream isolation valves. Once the engineers changed the design, they were even able to replace the (expensive) stainless steel bowls with (cheap) conventional porcelain toilets. It’s a lot more practical but us old-school steely-eyed killers of the deep think that today’s young whippersnapper submariners have no appreciation for the lifestyle challenges that we had to endure.

I’ll have to see if our young whippersnapper wants to share her collection of sea stories…

(Maybe it’s worth turning off your ad-blocking software to see what WordAds thinks is a good ad for a toilet-related post!)


Related articles:
The other 14 sea stories


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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

  1. Hello Doug. As a member of the Nautilus Alumni Association, Inc., I occasionally write articles for our periodic newsletter. On a couple of occasions, I have found particularly interesting articles written by other former submariners and have gotten permission from them to reprint their articles in our newsletter. Just wondering if you would give permission for us to reprint some of your stories, with full attribution, of course.

    Lonnie Barham

  2. Thank you for the great memories and a lot of laughs! I enjoyed reading these stories, as they remind me of all the patrols I made on USS Daniel Webster SSBN-626 from 1983-1987 (7 Patrols) and time on-board USS John Marshall SSN-611 (1987-1989) and USS Memphis (1989-1990)

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?