Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Budget Survival - Composting Toilets

Composting Toilets - They Ain't For Sissies.

A few years ago I decided I needed a proper toilet, enough going in the woods. We could not afford a septic tank and plumbing system so I decided to go with a temporary composting or chemical toilet. Then install the septic when the well was drilled. Here are my experiences with these evil but necessary conveniences.

Chemical Toilets Are Nasty

My partners parents had a small chemical toilet which we put in the bathroom at the cabin. This unit held four gallons of waste product and had a pump flush, I thought I was in Graceland it was so nice. Anyway, the thing really smelled bad, I used the blue deodorant you can buy and it helped a little but during the summer it nearly drove us out.

When you “flush” it simply opens a retractable cover in the bottom of the bowl exposing a wet mound of fecal material and urine. The smell is somewhat cut down when the unit is closed up but it was still bad and attracted millions of flies. Imagine one of those porta-potty units that you see at fairs and construction sites sitting in your house. The worst part was emptying the thing. You take the container part off the bottom of the stool and find a place to dump it. I took mine to the local state park and dumped it down the permanent porta-potty hole, which consists of a building over a twenty foot deep poop pit. It stunk and got everywhere.

Commercial Composting Toilets

Now this looked like the answers to my prayers. These units hold many gallons of waste in a large composting bin that you stir one a week. When full simply transferred the product to your larger outdoor composting pile and let stand for a year or so. These units needed venting for odor and most require some heat and a bacteria activating agents. They were tastefully designed and would fit in the bathroom.

The big drawback for me was the cost. The low end units start at around one thousand and go up, and when a septic system would run twenty five hundred I couldn’t really justify the cost. Especially when they are essentially nothing more than big stinky buckets.

Sawdust Composting Toilets

Looking at different methods of waste elimination online I came across a book called the Humanure Handbook. It advocated a cheap and effective human waste composting systems that used 5 gallon buckets, sawdust and an outdoor composting pile. I have to admit , at first it looked to good to be true. I assumed that the unit would smell horrible, and the thought of an open bucket of poo in the house didn't really sit well either.

In a nutshell the system consists of five 5 gallon buckets with tight fitting lids, a box to fit over the 5 gallon bucket with a toilet seat mounted on it and sawdust. A composting pile also needs to be constructed away from the house where you deposit the humanure to roast in the sun for a couple of years.

Put a bucket in the box and use it as you would any toilet. After making a deposit, cover the waste product with sawdust and close the toilet seat lid. When the container is nearly full put the lid on it and replace it with an empty bucket. On the fifth bucket take the others out and empty them on the compost pile. Wash the emptied buckets with warm soapy water then leave them in the sun to dry. Do not use bleach or antibacterial soap on the buckets, it will kill the good bacteria necessary for composting. The UV rays from the sunlight will disinfect and kill any bad germs in the buckets.

This is a great method and will only set you back about forty dollars compared to over a thousand for a commercial composting toilet. No smell, no flies and you are making a super mulch for the garden. You only need to make the trip to the compost pile about once a month, it is a very simple elegant system.

The author of the book recommends that you use wet sawdust from trees, not processed lumber. This was a problem for me and I ended up using dead leaves and dirt from under trees. It actually worked better than the sawdust and I didn’t need to cart the stuff from downed trees or a lumber mill. Cooled ashes work great to cover the smell but they don’t compost well and are not recommended.

Also I usually don’t urinate in the buckets, this extends the amount of time it takes to fill the units. Urine can be collected separately, mixed one to five with rain water and put on your trees. Or just pee outside.

Don’t let the full buckets freeze, they don’t like to empty if they are frozen. Be careful if you have bears in your area. I sat a couple of full buckets out behind the cabin this summer and a bear carried them halfway up the ridge. He didn’t get the lids off but there were huge tooth holes in the sides where they tried to chew through the plastic.

I highly recommend this method of waste management if you do not yet have a septic system. It also can be used as a backup toilet if you lose power or water.


theotherryan said...

Great analysis. The biggest advantage of the sawdust bucket system in my opinion is its cost. The cost is low enough that almost anybody can justify it if they have normal indoor plumbing. Also it is renuable. It can be a prep item while the expensive options such as composting outhouses are cost prohibitive enough that they will only come into play as a primary facility.

BigBear said...

It can also be moved. So if you are without power the sawdust toilet can be moved to a warm room or outside if necessary.

self sufficient baker said...

I was wondering how much these sawdust bucket toilets smell. I am thinking of putting a composting or sawdust toilet in my 10'x 15' cabin, and was wondering if you could vent these or something to keep them from smelling.

BigBear said...

They do not smell at all. I was surprised but if you cover the properly there is no smell.

I was also thinking of venting but it is not necessary.

I use fine dirt mixed with some ashes. It works perfect.

Doc_Jude said...

Hey BigBear...

I used my friends' composting bucket toilet while visiting their new farmhouse in Wisconsin, he collected cedar chips from the local lumber yard. I was absolutely for using the toilet, they had the bucket in a large box with a regular toilet seat mounted on top for comfort, you didn't even notice until it was time to flush. Those cedar chips totally covered the smell.

Portable Toilets said...

I thought your analysis was rather good... if cost is not an issue, the portable toilet mobile is the best far as costwise is concerned, the 5 gallon bucket and sawdust is tough to beat.

e cigarettes said...

I'm glad that you found a toilet that you are happy and comfortable with. Seeing the options and the pros and cons of each, I would definitely go with the sawdust composting toilet as well.

Best of luck!

atasteofcreole said...

Is your toilet in the cabin or did you make a little room/cubby for it? How far from the house should the compost be? So you recommend 2 composting piles? One for humanure and one for the garden? How long does it take to be safe in your garden?

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