As people take to off-grid cabins or cross-country campers, working remotely has led to some very real questions about how to accommodate that most basic need: A toilet. Outhouses have a certain charm, primarily from a distance. A five-gallon bucket serves the purpose in an emergency. But ideally, something indoors, where it’s dry and warm, is high on the list for creating a realistic life without running water.
The good news is that composting toilets are affordable, easy to install, quite pleasant to use, and designed for small spaces. Most use no water, meaning no need for wastewater systems or septic tanks. You need no plumber, no pipes, no special hookups. It’s shockingly simple. Expect to pay between $1,000 and $1,500 for a complete unit, and do-it-yourself.
Interestingly, the water crisis in many areas is driving a new market for composting toilets. Western-U.S. states, where water restrictions are increasingly tight, may make this approach to solid human waste the new normal. Additionally, many people are finding a composting toilet the perfect answer to workshops, garages, barns, studios, and accessory dwellings.
How It Works
Composting toilets work by using a basic biological process, breaking down solid waste by mixing it with an organic bulking agent, then put to work with aerobic bacteria and fungi. This process is, like all compost, affected by air, heat, and moisture. Just as you can ‘cook’ your kitchen scraps, or animal manure on a farm, we can compost solid human waste.
What results is a dry and mostly odorless pile of organic matter, all of which can be disposed of in the general waste stream. Consider a normal household of diapers that hits the garbage at the end of the driveway and know that your end product is so much cleaner and safer that, with just a bit more effort, you can actually use your compost in a vegetable garden.
Things To Consider
Read online descriptions and user reviews. A few hours of research go a long way towards feeling comfortable with your choices. The advent of remote work from off-grid places has produced a wave of first-person reviews that may be far more informative and instructional than manufacturer websites. Additionally, independent testing on compost toilets can be checked via the NSF International certification, which sets standards for composting toilets and verifies that the products meet them.
Calculate your usage. Two people for two weeks is very different from five people for one week. The bigger the system, the fewer times you will empty and process the waste and compost. Emptying intervals are part of your bigger plan.
Space is always a consideration. Be sure to understand how your chosen composter comes apart for maintenance and make accommodations for the space you’ll need to service the unit. As well, most composting toilets require a medium, such a coconut coir or peat moss. Make sure to plan for storage.
Even units designed for off-grid living have a miniscule electrical draw to power a small fan, but not so much that it requires reengineering of your solar array. Alternatively, you may look for a brand that requires no electricity whatsoever.
Getting Past The "Ew" Factor
Smell. It’s what we all wonder about. The fact is that composting toilets are fairly pleasant, and actually are said to be far more not-smelly than flushing. While this is a little counterintuitive, the actual science makes sense. In fact, if the composting toilet smells, this is an indication that something is wrong.
Which makes it sound complicated. But it is not. Like flushing, a few lessons around how to be a successful user go a long way.
From Theory To Reality
Installing and using a composting toilet is far more a learning curve for the brain than the body. We’re trained to water toilets, and most of us have bad outhouse experiences. Yet, what most composter toilet users tell us is very different. It’s sanitary, simple, and perhaps even preferable.
Still unsure? Composting toilets at the visitor center for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House take care of 120,000 visitors per year. Sit on that!