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Composting Toilets for Self-Sufficient Living: Is One Right For You?

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In an off-grid living environment, composting toilets are ideal because many models do not require water or electricity.

By Ellen Bell Posted Oct 7, 2010

The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in self-sufficient and sustainable living. Some of this interest has been generated by people moving to remote areas and living off-grid, in an attempt to get away from urban sprawl. In other cases, people are concerned about the environmental impact of our widespread use of resources. And still some other people may simply be preparing for the possibility of emergencies or natural disasters. Regardless of the reason, more and more people today are looking for ways to provide for themselves and meet their own needs with less reliance on traditional resources.

When it comes to self-sufficient living, waste management is one large area of concern that homeowners must address. Urban dwellers are accustomed to the convenience of a sewer system and traditional flush toilets that take waste away to water treatment plants. However, when you don’t have running water or access to a sewer connection, dealing with waste becomes more complicated. Septic tanks have long been the standard for rural and remote wastewater treatment, but they can be difficult, if not impossible, to install in some areas. Furthermore, not all homeowners have the financial resources to install a septic tank. Installing a new system, with all its laterals and leach field, can cost upwards of $10,000 to $20,000, depending on location and installation specifics. A far less expensive and much more environmentally friendly alternative is a composting toilet system.

Composting toilets are not a new invention. In fact, the basic concept has been around for at least a half century. The idea is to take human waste and convert it into compost that can be used for fertilizing and growing plants, or, in other words, to recycle the nutrients back to the earth in a full circle. In an off-grid living environment, composting toilets are ideal because many models do not require water or electricity.

Today’s composting toilets have come a long way from their prehistoric predecessors of just a few decades ago. While those early units were homemade and very crude, often consisting of nothing more than a five-gallon bucket fitted with a toilet seat, modern composting toilets are professionally engineered products, designed to operate efficiently and without odor. Furthermore, the aesthetics of modern composting toilets have made them more widely accepted, because they can blend easily into the typical residential bathroom.

Modern composting toilets can vary a lot. Anyone who has done a little research knows that there are many different options: electric or non-electric, waterless or low flush, self-contained or remote system, etc. However, there are several basic traits that all professionally manufactured composting toilets should have in common:

  • Odorless operation – This is usually accomplished with the use of a fan assembly in the toilet that maintains a partial vacuum, drawing air downward through the toilet seat and then out a vent that exits the home. This ensures that no air can escape from the toilet into the bathroom.
  • Efficient evaporation of liquids – Because human waste is over 90% water, it should come as no surprise that the primary job of any composting toilet is to evaporate liquid. Some units will have a heating element while others simply rely on a fan.
  • No homeowner contact required – Probably the biggest thing that sets modern composting toilets apart from their predecessors is their design, which enables the homeowner to use and maintain the toilet but does not require them to ever come into contact with the contents.
  • Clean dry compost – The end product from a composting toilet should be clean, dry compost that is non-offensive. In other words, it should look and smell just like ordinary garden soil.

Composting toilets are usually rated by capacity, which is often stated as the number of people using the toilet on a daily basis. Determining the right size of toilet for your family is absolutely critical to having a system you are happy with and that performs well. When considering capacity, it’s also important to keep in mind that a good quality composting toilet will have a life expectancy of at least 15 to 20 years, and families can change a lot in that period of time. Children become adults, more children may be born, families become extended, etc. As a general rule of thumb, it’s always advisable to buy a system that’s slightly larger than what you think you’ll need.

Ideally, if you’ve purchased the right size composting toilet for your family, you’ll only need to empty finished compost from the toilet once or twice a year. In most systems, this is an internal process wherein some compost is emptied from the composting chamber into a separate area for finishing, or final sanitization. Allowing the compost to sit, undisturbed, for a specified period of time will ensure that the finished compost is sanitary. Once the compost is completely finished, it can be removed from the toilet and applied to flowers, trees, and shrubs as a plant fertilizer.

Homeowners who are considering a composting toilet system need to do their research before buying. A good composting toilet is not cheap; they range in price from $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the size and type. Thus, it is well worth the time to do your research and make sure you are buying the best possible system for your money. When shopping, make sure that you have adequately researched all brands and models of toilets available to you, and that you understand the differences between them. If you have questions, be sure to contact the manufacturer or sales representative. A reputable dealer will be happy to answer your questions and provide you with product instruction manuals, detailed specifications, and information regarding installation (which is usually not difficult and often a homeowner DIY project). It is also advisable to check your local building codes to be sure that composting toilets are an approved fixture in your city or state. For more information on building codes as they relate to composting toilets, visit http://www.composting-toilet-store.com/Building_Codes_Regulations_s/107.htm

So whether you are building a homestead in a rural area or just looking for ways to limit your negative environmental impact, a composting toilet might be one part of the solution. At the very least, a composting toilet can reduce your dependence on large-scale utilities, thus allowing you to pursue a more sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyle in the future.

Ellen Bell is a co-owner of the Composting Toilet Store, an online retailer of eco-friendly composting toilet systems. At the Composting Toilet Store, you’ll find self-contained and central units, electric and non-electric, waterless and low-flush, and even a mobile unit for use on RV’s and boats. For more information, please visit The Composting Toilet Store

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