Complete Guide to Best Composting Toilet – What You Must Know Before Purchasing One
With the world becoming increasingly populated and urban, concern for the environment and human impact on the planet has become a prominent concern for politicians, business owners, and average citizens alike. According to an article published by National Geographic on the impact humans have on the environment, people are using staggering amounts of clean water every day that could easily be conserved, with the toilet being one of the main offenders of water waste.
National Geographic explained that approximately 26 billion gallons of water are used every day in the U.S. alone, with about 6 billion – or about 23% – going to the operation of our household toilets. The article went on to explain that this usage of clean water has major implications for aquatic life, water availability for everyone, city growth and stability, and agriculture.
Making the switch from popular flushing toilets to the more environmentally-friendly composting toilet has the potential to benefit your family and the greater world. Installing a composting toilet can provide significant financial benefits for your family by reducing your electricity bill, decreasing your water usage costs, eliminating waste management / septic tank maintenance and operation expenses, protecting you from sewage rate increases, and providing you with homemade fertilizer for organic gardening!
If the financial perks aren’t enticing enough, consider the good you do for nature with a composting toilet. Oftentimes, human waste ends a disposal journey – by accident or by design – in lakes, and rivers. Compositing toilets practically eliminate the release of human waste and bacteria into natural bodies of water and streams which supports the development of a thriving marine ecosystem. Additionally, without the need for the construction of underground sewer pipelines, you support the health of the earth itself by preserving stable and health soil balance. Breaking of deteriorating sewer pipes, which often costs a small fortune for repair and disrupts the environment, can be avoided altogether.
With so many potential benefits in terms of economic and environmental sustainability and efficiency, opting for a composting toilet might be the step needed to change your life and your environment, but what is a composting toilet?
Up close and personal with composting toilets:
A composting toilet is a waterless, or dry, waste disposal device that uses the natural process of bacteria decomposition to deteriorate excrement into usable compost matter. In other words, a composting toilet is able to make human waste into fertilizer over time without the use of water for flushing.
While some composting toilets offer added features, such as an internal fan to maintain dry compositing conditions in the decomposition tank, all composting toilets are constructed in a similar way. In fact, composting toilets are so simple understand and easy to install, many people do it for themselves! The compositing toilet is comprised of a top-side toilet unit and an underground or remote tank for the accumulation and compositing of waste.
The collection and composting tank, either directly below the toilet unit or positioned in a back shed or under a tree, is comprised of four main parts: a collection reservoir that contains the waste, a ventilation system to prevent odor and allow for oxygenated decomposition, a leachate removal system for extra liquid, and a point of access for the collection of the finished compost material.
The composting chamber should be constructed in a way that allows for the separation of solid waste from liquid waste such as urine. Pit compositing toilets are constructed with the composting chamber below ground while vault composting toilets have a composting chamber and access door installed in a separate structure, above ground and often remote. Regardless of where the compositing chamber is built, it is the first stop in the journey human waste will take to becoming fertilizer.
The environment within the composting chamber must be carefully monitored and controlled. The United States Environmental Protection Agency explains that the efficient composting within the toilet requires the stabilization of air, heat, and moisture for optimal results. The ventilation system will assist with the maintenance of the air levels within the chamber, with a 25:1 carbon-nitrogen ratio being required for the bacterial and fungal functioning and reactions needed for composting.
The temperature within the chamber is key because cooler temperatures mean longer composting time and overheating can result in the elimination of some bacteria needed for the decomposition process. The recommended temperature range is generally between 40 – 50 degrees Celsius, meaning that external or remote composting chambers in colder climates will need to be insulated in the winter.
Finally, extra liquid slows the decomposition process and increases the length of time that it will take for the evaporation of the 75% – 90% of water to be removed from the waste. Having too much liquid inside of the chamber will also disrupt the compost balance needed to maintain aerobic decomposition. To combat this disruption and prevent the slowing of the process, a leachate removal system should be installed. The removal system or pit, depending on how the composting toilet is designed, should maintain an average 40% – 70% moisture content within the chamber. Those experienced with compositing toilets explain that the finished product will need to be moist if squeezed but not sopping wet. This description is similar to the moisture level needed for optimal decomposition as well. If there seems to be too much liquid in the compost, sawdust or absorbent material might need to be mixed in to support the efficiency of the decomposition.
The Washington State Department of Health and the EPA explain that, apart from contributing to the material to be decomposed, human participation in the process is minimal. Once the decomposition process has been completed, which varies in time depending on the size and levels maintained during the decomposition, the fertilizer should be collected. The EPA manual on composition toilets explains that the process can take up to 3 months for a small single home and up to a year for a large, central composting system. An average system will produce about 10% or less compost for the input material.
When are compositing toilets more beneficial than traditional toilets?
There are many reasons that a person or family would decide to use a composting toilet instead of a traditional toilet, including the environmental and financial reasons discussed above. In some cases, however, the use of a compositing toilet over a traditional toilet is less of a decision and more of a necessity.
Composting toilets in tiny homes can have huge advantages over traditional toilets. Most people living in tiny homes opt for RV or composting toilets, with composting toilets being the preferred method to avoid tank issues.
Because tiny houses are often moved to new places, the families living in them require mobile toilets. A composting toilet is significantly easier to install and move when needed because it is constructed with hardly any underground pipelines. In addition, composting toilets take up less space, don’t require complex inner-wall pipes to be installed, and use less water. All of these factors, combined with the environment-friendly quality of composting toilets, makes them a natural choice for tiny home owners.
RVs and Campers
Composting toilets for RVs and campers have become an increasingly popular choice for waste removal when on the road. Advocates for the use of composting toilet use on RVs and campers point out that there’s no worry about having to find a dump station because a full waste vault isn’t a problem. The composting toilet provides users with a finished product rather than just a waste transportation system like traditional toilets installed in mobile vehicles.
Additionally, an RV toilet requires about 2 quarts of water per flush, which equates to an added 4.1 pounds in the waste vault. The blackwater tank usually contains more than 20 gallons of liquid, which is more than 150 pounds of added weight to your RV. The increase in weight will increase fuel usage and add to the wear-and-tear of travel on the tires and structures itself. RVs and campers don’t have endless space on board, and the use of a composting toilet means that the space previously occupied by the blackwater tank will be free again.
Many fans of composting toilets also point out that there is little to no odor from properly maintained and operated units, which would mean that the removal of waste at the RV dump station would be a much less offensive task.
There has been an increase in popularity of composting toilets on boats in recent years. Those in favor of the new trend explain that composting toilets are the better method because they eliminate the need for pumpouts, meaning that boating journeys can now be longer without the worry of having to rid the boat of waste. In addition, the composting toilet is smaller and uses less water, meaning that not only does it free up space on the boat, but it also equates to lighter weight costs overall. Boaters also explain that composting toilets don’t clog and are nearly always going to be usable and sustainable, even for long journeys with lots of passengers.
In a case study analyzing the efficacy of composting toilet use in cabins, researchers found the toilets to be very beneficial for structures that are only in use for part of the year as long as composting toilet upkeep and proper care was continued. Because cabins may be secluded and often unoccupied for several months out of the year, composting toilets prevent owners from having to be concerned about pipes or septic systems when they aren’t there or during inclement weather.
Because cabins are generally located in natural areas or environmentally-sensitive regions, using a composting toilet can save the ecosystem from harm due to leakage of human waste into water sources. The toilets are also able to function when traditional toilet cost is not reasonable for a cabin owner or when legal regulations would prevent the altering of the land in an environmentally-sensitive area for septic systems or pipes.
For people looking for ways to deal with waste while living off-the-grid, considering the laws and regulations of an area may inspire the switch to composting toilets. It is actually illegal in most parts of the U.S. to install a traditional septic system yourself and, even if you could, septic systems require yearly service and maintenance calls from a professional to continue operating. Composting toilets can be installed and maintained with little to no professional training as long as the owner follows the instructions in the toilet’s manual and abides by best practice codes in the area, according to the EPA.
Composting toilets are also a good choice for those living in an area that has a low water supply or no sewage treatment plant nearby. Composting toilets are also cheaper to install and maintain than traditional toilets. Finally, composting toilets may be the safer choice for people living off-the-grid because they allow for resource preservation and use. A broken pipeline on an off-the-grid site can ruin drinking water, agriculture gardens, or eliminate safe drinking water for livestock. Composting toilets prevent that by eliminating the risk of busted lines entirely. They also provide organic fertilizer for later use at no cost.
Take your pick!
If you’ve done your research and decided to take the plunge into life with a composting toilet, you’ll need to decide if you want a self-contained toilet or a remote / central / underground toilet. The difference between the main two types are in the construction and location of the composting chamber.
Self-contained composting toilets are just that – toilets that consist of a single unit. This toilet type is ideal if you live in a multi-story house or have limited space on your property. These units require minimal plumbing and upkeep for most families because they are positioned in a way to facilitate optimal composting. They are also better suited to winter weather because most find it easier to keep a bathroom area unit warm in the winter than to maintain a constant temperature in the separate space of centralized units. Self-contained units typically have a ventilation fan that needs to be plugged in, which requires a small amount of electricity.
Remote or underground composting toilets, also known as centralized systems are constructed with a large composting chamber installed under your house or outside in a stand-alone structure for waste storage. Many people consider the centralized composting toilet construction closer in function to the traditional toilet. Centralized units can also provide the storage needed for multiple composting toilets in the same house, with all of the waste being decomposed in the same place. These units also usually need a small amount of water in order to flush the waste to the chamber.
So how do I get a composting toilet, and what will I need to do once I have one?
Once you’ve selected the composting toilet that’s right for you and your family, it’s time to either make or purchase it and then install it. Before you dig in and get up to your elbows in DIY joy, you should do a bit of research and review your state laws regulating the installation and operation. Every state has a bit of a different take on the safe use of composting toilets. Some states allow a citizen to install a composting toilet, but only if they’ve purchased the unit from someone else. Other states are fair game for the building of and installation of composting toilets; pretty much anything goes! The rules and regulations may also depend on where you plan to install this toilet, with some areas being classified as environmentally-sensitive or protected and requiring additional clearances before making significant changes to the property.
In general, the EPA stance is that the operation and maintenance required by composting toilets doesn’t require specially-trained professions. The EPA’s main concern is that someone – trained professional or not – be responsible for the maintenance of the system to ensure optimal functioning.
The Humanure Handbook in an e-book available to explain – with pictures and descriptions – how to build and install your own composting toilet. The process is relatively easy and inexpensive. The process starts by using wood to build a composting toilet box for people to sit on when using the bathroom. A composting chamber and a mechanism for ensuring the waste reaches the chamber is then constructed with a liquid removal system and proper ventilation. You also need to make sure that the installation allows for the easily and clean access of the composting chamber in case the contents require mixing or removal.
The International Organization for Standardization outlined a standards of practice document for the use of composting toilets in 2015 and provided regulations for safe construction, installation, operation, and maintenance. The standards of practice also included a requirement that individuals selling composting toilets provide new owners with manuals for installation, operation, and maintenance.
One of the perks of composting toilets is that they require very little maintenance. The EPA also reminds owners that the maintenance required by a composting toilet doesn’t require the work of a professional. In fact, one of the easiest but most important ways to maintain your composting toilet and ensure optimal function is to follow operating procedures outlined in the manual. This will prevent many problems before they occur.
Other maintenance tips may depend on the type and brand of composting toilet you have. Generally, all that you will be required to do is add absorbent materials if needed, mix, and wait. Many composting toilets call for owners to add Compost Sure periodically to maintain an appropriate decomposition environment within the chamber. You’ll also need to ensure that you’ve created the proper heat, air, and moisture balance described by the EPA for the efficient use of a composting toilet.
Monthly inspections of your composting toilet is a great way to make sure that everything is operating as it should and to identify any potential issues. When inspecting the composting toilet, look for weather damage, insects, or animal damage. You’ll also want to make sure that any doors or covers are sealed and reseal them if necessary. You should ensure that no waste is escaping from the composting chamber and that the ventilation system is open and functioning.
Most composting chambers have crank handles to make mixing the material within easier. Making sure to mix the materials as needed is important and will help you to identify any issues with heat, moisture, or ventilation sooner.
As long as you care for your composting toilet as directed, however, it should operate efficiently and provide you and your family with a less expensive, more environmentally-friendly option for waste removal. There are many resources online for the proper installation, operation, and maintenance of these toilets available to the public, and the companies that provide the toilets offer support and advice to their customers for optimal results. Consider the idea of changing the world by simplifying your bathroom practices!