Expensive lavatory repair shows complexity of modern aircraft carriers

  • The aircraft carriers USS George HW Bush and USS Gerald R. Ford faced costly sewer problems.
  • Ships have been plagued with clogs that require an acid rinse to clean, at an estimated cost of $400,000.
  • The Navy says the issue is resolved, but the issue illustrates the complexity of operating a modern carrier.

Nature calls everywhere, even aboard an aircraft carrier. There’s even a slang expression for it in the navy, where a response to nature is called a “head call”. Indeed, a bathroom on a boat is called the “head”.

What if I told you it costs $400,000 to fix a clogged toilet in your head? Sailors must unclog stoppages with a very expensive process called acid flushing of the sewage system.

This problem was first documented in 2020 on the Nimitz class USS George H. W. Bush and the most recent USS Gerald R. Ford, although the Navy says this is no longer an issue. Fixing these types of overflowing toilets makes routine action very costly and complicated – a situation that has alarmed government watchdogs.

What’s wrong with military toilets?

model skull and hand in toilet on sunken ship

A skull and hand model in the lavatory of the Black Bart, a ship sunk in 1993 as an artificial reef off Panama City, Florida on May 26, 2016.

Customs and Border Protection/Glenn Fawcett

In 1986, a spending scandal at the Pentagon revolved around the military paying $640 for every toilet seat on airplanes. This spending cried wasteful government and became a symbol of military spending gone wrong. Toilet problems on the Navy’s more expensive carriers came later, but the cost was much higher.

In 2020, the Government Accountability Office intervened investigate this smelly situation. It may still happen in 2022 – 36 years after the government got ripped off over the commode seats. Worse still, the Bureau found 149 other maintenance issues on the carriers in addition to sewer issues. In total, these problems cost the Navy $130 billion.

The exorbitant expenses of acid puffshowever, stood out from budget analysts.

The GAO found that lavatories for more than 4,000 sailors require a special system similar to that used on commercial airliners, but occurring on a larger scale, considering all the people who go to the lavatory on carriers. The GAO said the cost of each acid flare approached half a million dollars.

Oversight agency staff in 2020 weren’t even sure how many acid flushes would be needed in the future. The GAO called the process “an unplanned maintenance action for the life of the vessel.”

This may happen on other ships

Navy sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis

Sailors on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis on November 23, 2018.

US Navy Seaman/MCS Jeffery L. Southerland

The GAO did not know how to calculate the total cost of acid puffs. “The Navy has not yet determined how often and for how many ships this action will need to be repeated, making the impact on the total cost difficult to quantify,” he said.

An aircraft carrier is a floating city and there are approximately 432 toilets on board. Gerald R. Ford’s bathrooms are “genderless” and not having a urinal. That’s a high number of dressers to maintain.

The navy said the the problem was resolved and that 94% of the toilets of the carriers cited in the report are working properly. The service branch believes the sailors were throwing unauthorized equipment, which caused the clogging.

Since 2020, no other government oversight mechanism has presented lavatory issues on carriers, so let’s give the Navy the benefit of the doubt that lavatories are now working properly.

Nevertheless, it shows how expensive it is to maintain a carrier. These regular maintenance expenses are added to the costs of refueling nuclear reactors and major overhauls. Two carriers undergo this process now in the yard of Newport News. Hopefully the workers there don’t rummage through the sewage system costing man hours that could be spent on more urgent work.

Currently editor of 1945 Defense and National Security, Brent M. EastwoodPhD, is the author of “Humans, Machines and Data: Future Trends in Warfare.” He is an emerging threat expert and former US Army infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Previous Midland College Board Members to Talk About Aviation Maintenance Program
Next Digital Radar Tech to enable distributed sensing