The area of Utah that we live in experienced record winter snowfall this season, followed by the usual weeks of sub zero temperatures, then followed by a week of rain in early February. This caused a great deal of flooding. Thankfully our house has not been affected and our basement has remained dry. The county sent out an alert that the water treatment facility was working at four times normal capacity to deal with all of the runoff. Because of this they asked that all unnecessary discharge into the sewers cease, including laundry, dishwashers, showers, and flushing.
So what do you do when flushing the toilet is considered “unnecessary”?
My husband has been researching composting toilets for the last couple of years. At first he was considering a commercial system, with the need for fans and venting, and at considerable expense. But he also started looking for a more simple solution.
Back in November JB told me about a book he was reading – the Humanure Handbook. He thought the setup the author described was a viable and cost effective composting toilet system. Since the arrangement involved a five gallon catch bucket and “cover material”, I was leery. “Sure,” I told him in my best agreeable wife tone of voice. “Build it if you like but please test the collection bucket OUTSIDE. In the summer!” I secretly hoped by then it would have slipped his mind. We have three bathrooms and I was not interested in cleaning a fourth, especially if that bathroom consists of A FIVE GALLON BUCKET. JB assured me that he would be 100% responsible for maintaining the composting toilet and bucket duty. That still did not comfort me. He showed me a few bucket and seat framework plans and asked me to pick out the one I liked the best. My only concern was that it be finished with several coats of enamel paint so that the wood would be easy to clean and keep sanitary.
The humanure composting toilet is comprised of four major elements – a bucket to catch the ….ahem, honey, sawdust cover material to sprinkle over the contents of the bucket as they are added, an outdoor bin in which to empty the contents of the full catch buckets, and straw to cover the outdoor pile. The bin is designed to be a thermaphilic composting pile and should turn the refuse into safe garden compost after two years. Yard waste and kitchen scraps can be added to the bin as well. To be clear, the composting does not happen in the buckets, it happens outside in the bin. The beauty of this system is the simplicity. Commercial composting toilets require the liquids be separated from the solids and the tanks emptied individually. The humanure composting system does not need this segregation. You can put everything in the collecting bucket together.
Just before the holidays my daughter had a baby, a little girl who was born three weeks early. I stayed with my daughter for a few weeks afterwards to give her some help. While I was still there, JB sent me a series of messages, saying he was going to build a TEMPORARY compost bin in the yard. What did I think of his chosen location? Not only that, but he had also built the frame to hold the above mentioned five gallon bucket, complete with toilet seat and plans for a squatty potty riser. He called it my Christmas present.
Now, in my opinion, a humanure compost bin could never be considered a temporary structure. Once poo was added to such a holding receptacle, I had a very good idea that bin would then be permanently located wherever it happened to be placed. So I begged JB to hold off for a couple of weeks until I came home and we could have an in depth conversation about where “the bin” should go. To my great relief, he agreed.
Upon my return we discussed the merits of the possible bin locations around our yard. Quite frankly, even with a third of an acre lot, there is no place that I consider OPTIMAL for a pile of decomposing poo. However, we did reach an agreement for the positioning of a composting bin.
The week all the flooding in our area began to occur, my husband built the outdoor collection bin in our yard. He located a source for cover material, rough sawdust from a local forest products supplier, and paid $16 for a pickup truck load. The sawdust was shoveled into six 55 gallon plastic drums that we salvaged at no cost. We also negotiated the spot to put the catch bucket inside the basement – a storage area with a concrete floor located next to the actual downstairs bathroom. The catch buckets and lids were also salvaged.
During all of this time we did our best to reduce water usage around the house. We took very brief showers and lived by the bathroom motto: If It’s Brown, Flush It Down. If It’s Yellow, Let It Mellow. The laundry piled up for a week. Finally the county declared the crisis was averted and life could go back to normal. I assumed the composting toilet bucket would be going into use in the event that the county sewer situation became dire. Since it did not, I hoped that the plan to test the toilet project would again be pushed back until spring.
A week went by and one evening my husband casually said, “Your nose is better than mine, so please let me know if you smell anything at all from the composting toilet area.”
“Oh? You are planning to start using it now and not wait until the snow melts?” I replied with some surprise.
“I figured why not go ahead and try it out. In fact, I’ve already been using it every day for the last week.” My husband smiled broadly. He knew he had me over the proverbial barrel. Or shall I say, over a bucket, because I had noticed nothing unusual in the way of odours or flies, my two biggest concerns.
I hurried downstairs to investigate. There was the plastic bucket throne, with a container of clean sawdust and a roll of toilet paper beside it. Just as he said, the toilet bucket was half full of sawdust and there was no nasty odour, just the earthy scent of damp wood. The setup appeared to be working as he said it would, but it just didn’t seem RIGHT to pee in a plastic bucket. “Well…. Just as long as you don’t expect ME to use it!” I blurted. I could only feign indignation. JB had already proved the system worked incognito.
A few days went by. I finally went down to the bucket toilet and actually used it. I won’t lie, it was weird to do that when we had three perfectly good flushing toilets in the house. But the idea intrigued me further when JB asked me to watch a couple of videos that described how easily the composting toilet bin could work hand in hand with kitchen scraps. You can watch one of those videos here.
This year the deep snow drifts in the yard made it almost impossible to deal with kitchen scraps, which I normally toss into our garden plot year round. JB placed another five gallon bucket with a lid in the kitchen and said he would empty it along with the toilet buckets. Right now, while it’s still a pain in the patootie to empty the food scrap bucket every day, this larger container has been very helpful. We toss a handful of sawdust into the bottom of the scrap bucket as well, to help cleanly release any juicy contents.
Along with helping with our garden, a composting toilet system has the added benefit of water conservation. Our water bill came yesterday and showed we had used only 1 hundred-cubic-foot of water (equal to 748 gallons) for the previous 30 days. We have had two faucets that have been dripping for quite a while and JB repaired those over the weekend. I’m interested to see what our water savings will be in the future along with the reduced flushing. We have irrigation water shares for the yard and garden, so we will have a good idea of what our household water usage is year round.
Where are we going with this? To see how well the thermophilic composting bin handles what we add to it we plan to use our composting toilet exclusively for the next two years to test it. In addition to composting our toilet bucket and food waste, I’m adding Kleenex from the bathroom trash cans, shredded paper, and torn up egg cartons – anything that is easily composted.
Gardening is important to us and we have an ongoing need for good nutrient for the soil. I have been looking at ideas for better composting of kitchen scraps and yard waste. JB took that light years ahead and added the humanure element to the mix. The videos and current experience have won me over completely and I have since been converted to full, 100% use of the composting toilet bin.
If you had the yard space, would you use a composting toilet bin as described in the Humanure Handbook?
This photo shows our back patio with a row of 55 gallon barrels full of sawdust for the composting toilet. The smaller buckets also contain sawdust. We scavenge the barrels and buckets for free. In the background you see our woodshed.
This is our toilet setup. JB made the framework from wood at a total cost of around $100. You can see the bucket with dampened sawdust for cover material. We keep a lid on it so it does not dry out. The scoop was a couple of dollars. The top of the frame is hinged for easy removal of the full buckets. We will have about four collection buckets in rotation along with two buckets for sawdust. The sawdust is more coarse than we would prefer and we will be looking for finer material in the future.
My grandson playing in the freshly made frame of the toilet prior to setting it up in the basement.
I will post later in the spring about our yard composting bin.