If you live off the grid or if you are one of the residents of a region that is often affected by natural disasters, waste management should be a hot topic on your prepping list. For those who believe they will one day be affected by a long-term disruption of municipal utilities, learning about composting toilets becomes a must.
How about those toilets?
In general, toilets come in three common varieties: siphon-jet flush valve toilets (which are the most common in homes), pressurized tank toilets, and gravity flow. All these toilets will require a rather large quantity of water in order to function and for the waste to be flushed properly into a sewer system which dumps all the waste in a variety of locations.
It is astonishing that Americans flush about 4.8 billion gallons of water down toilets every day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). This is an incredible waste if you think about it, and we’re doing it because, unlike other countries, we have access to water constantly.
If you would replace all existing U.S. toilets with 1.6-gallon-per flush, ultra-low-flow (ULF) models, it is estimated that each person would save about 5,500 gallons of water per year. So ULF models are a great choice for your home or your property if you are concerned about the environment.
However, if you want to do better and if you lack access to a constant source of water, you should consider installing a composting toilet. In fact, these toilets have become more and more popular among off-grid communities.
A composting toilet requires little to no water to function, which provides a good solution to your survival sanitation and, perhaps, your environmental concerns in a rural area where sewers do not exist. In our country, composting toilets are quite rare in private homes, and they can be usually found in certain recreational facilities, in parks, and small highways rest stops. Even so, these waterless toilets can be successfully used by the regular homeowner.
The basics of the composting toilet
A composting (or biological) toilet system is designed to contain and process excrement, toilet paper, carbon additive, and, at times, food wastes. The system relies on unsaturated conditions where aerobic bacteria break down waste—unlike septic systems—much like a compost heap for your gardening necessities.
Once the bacteria break down the waste, it will result in a soil-like material, humus, which must be buried or removed. It’s a good idea to check state and local regulations regarding proper handling methods if you decide to install a composting toilet.
In many parts of the United States, public health officials realize that there is an urgent and definite need for environmentally sound human waste treatment and recycling methods. Compost toilets are an easy way to work toward these needs.
Since they don’t require any water, composting toilets are perfect for remote areas and places that have high water tables, shallow soil, and rough terrain. Not only do such systems save water, but they also allow for valuable plant nutrients to be recycled in the process.
There are a few key components for establishing a composting toilet:
- Composting reactor that is connected to a micro-flush toilet
- Screened air inlet and exhaust system to remove odors and heat, plus CO 2 and other decomposition byproducts
- Mechanism to provide proper ventilation that will help aerobic organisms in the compost heap
- Process controls
- Access door for the removal of the end product
It is highly important that the composting toilet separates the solid from the liquid waste and produces a humus-like material with less than 200 MPN per gram of fecal coliform. The composting chamber of such toilets can be solar or electrically heated to maintain the right temperature for year-round use and bacterial decomposition.
The role of the composting toilet
Composting toilets are designed to contain, immobilize, and destroy pathogens. They reduce the risk of human infection and also ensure that the environment is not polluted in any way. If done correctly, the composted material can be handled with little to no risk of harming the individual working with it.
A composting toilet consists of a well-ventilated container that breeds a good environment for unsaturated, moist human excrement that can be decomposed under sanitary conditions. Such a toilet can be large or small, depending on the space where it’s installed and its overall use.
Organic matter is transformed into a humus-like product through the natural breaking down from bacteria and fungi. Most systems like this use the process of continuous composting, which includes a single chamber where the excrement is added to the top, and the end product is taken from the bottom.
Main benefits of using a composting toilet
First of all, a composting toilet can be installed and used practically anywhere your average flush toilet can be. Such toilets can be found in homes in rural areas or seasonal cabins, in recreation areas, and pretty much in any place where a flush toilet is impractical or unnecessary.
Second, such toilets are much more cost-effecting than building a central sewage system, and no water will be wasted when using them. Since a composting toilet doesn’t use a copious amount of water, its general use also reduces the quantity of wastewater that is disposed of daily.
And lastly, the compost toilet can also be used to recycle and compost food waste, resulting in less household garbage that is disposed of on a daily basis.
All these advantages make composting toilets beneficial to the environment as they divert nutrient and pathogen-containing effluent from the soil, surface water, and groundwater.
Disadvantages of using a composting toilet
Composting toilets are a big responsibility, and they require a little bit of work and maintenance. As the owner of a composting toilet, you must be committed to maintaining the system.
For some folks, removing the compost can be an unpleasant job if the toilet is not properly set up, and they could end up having odor issues.
Managing a composting toilet
Although composting toilets require regular maintenance, doing such a job does not require highly trained people to deal with the sewage as it is relatively harmless to handle. However, it is your job to make sure the composting toilet is properly maintained so it can be effective and safe.
Some composting toilets may need organic bulking agents added to aid the composting process. For example, if you add grass clippings, sawdust, and leaves to your composting toilet reservoir will help aid the process.
The end product needs to be removed every three months if you have a smaller system installed, and, if composted correctly, it should not smell and should not be toxic to humans or animals. You also need to be sure you are disposing of the waste materials in accordance with your particular state and local regulations.
Factors that influence the rate of composting
Microorganisms—A mix of bacteria and fungi need to be present in order for the excrement to turn into composted material.
Moisture—This helps the microorganisms to make simpler compounds before they are metabolized. Moisture should be kept between 40 and 70 percent.
pH—The best pH for the composting toilet material should be between 6.5 and 7.5.
Carbon to nitrogen ratio—It is important to balance out the nitrogen found in urine with added carbon in your composting toilet.
Proper care—Managing your composting toilet well will help keep it efficient and productive.
How to make your own composting toilet
You can buy a composting toilet and have it installed (or install it yourself) in your home or on your property, depending on the needs you have, or you can build a simple one yourself.
Building your own composting toilet can be inexpensive and takes only a short amount of time to assemble. To build a composting toilet, you will need the following materials:
- Two or three 5-gallon buckets with lids
- A standard toilet seat (even a used one will work just fine) with a lid
- ¾ x 3 x 18-inch plywood sheets
- Boards to be cut and used for the sides of the toilet box and for the legs
- Two hinges
- Saw and measuring tape
- Bag of sawdust, to be used for soaking up excess moisture in the composting bucket
- Start by cutting a hole in one of the pieces of plywood so that it fits the size of the bucket. Then, attach the pieces of plywood together using the hinges.
- Build a box with the boards and then screw in the solid piece of plywood to the box, allowing for the part with the hole to remain on the top.
- Attach legs to the box, allowing the bucket to lift just slightly above the hole cut in the top piece of plywood.
- Now attach the toilet seat to the plywood top, fitting it securely over the rim of the bucket.
- Stain or paint the entire composting toilet so it will last longer and match the décor of your bathroom.
Using your composting toilet
Before using your homemade composting toilet, sprinkle 1 to 2 inches of sawdust into the bottom of the bucket. You need to do this so that the sawdust absorbs the extra moisture. It also adds a necessary carbon element that is useful in composting.
After each use, you will need to sprinkle sawdust into the toilet to facilitate the composting process and to minimize odors.
When the first bucket is filled, you have to remove it and cover it, thus allowing the composting process to continue.
Insert another bucket, and continue using your toilet.
When all the buckets are full, you can discard the first two in your composting pile in your yard. Make a small indent in the center of your composting pile and dump the new compost into the depression, laying old compost and other organic materials on top of the new addition.
If used properly, your composting toilet should be odorless, and your compost will be rich and ready for use in your garden.