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Compost Tumblers vs Compost Bins: Pros & Cons

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Not sure if you should buy a compost bin or a compost tumbler? Below are the key points to consider…

By Greg Seaman, Eartheasy.com Posted Aug 21, 2012

compost bins vs tumblersAs composting becomes more popular among gardeners and homeowners, many different models of composters have become available in the marketplace. They range quite a bit in price and design, and some are simply not worth buying. Composting is a simple process, and so a composter should be simple in design.

When choosing a composter for your yard or garden, it’s helpful to group composters into two main types – bins and tumblers. Both types are effective at producing compost, but there are significant differences. Understanding the features and benefits of these two basic types will make it easier for you to choose the right composter for your needs.

compost-bin-diagram
compost-tumbler-diagram

Footprint

Both bins and tumblers take up about the same amount of ground space in the yard. The average composter will take about a 4 – 6 sq. ft. footprint. Compost bins are not meant to be moved, since most compost bins are open-bottomed. There are some bin models with a wheeled collection cart instead of the open bottom, but this is not typical of most compost bins.

Compost tumblers are also stationary for most models. There are some compost tumblers on the market that are designed to be rolled so the finished compost can be emptied directly on a garden bed, but this does not seem to be an important feature. A wheelbarrow works just as well.

Capacity

Compost bins have a larger capacity then tumblers, about 2 – 3 times the volume per footprint size. Compost bins commonly hold between 7 – 20 cubic feet of composting materials, depending on the model. Compost tumblers range between 4 – 15 cubic feet capacity. This is because the tumbler drum can be more difficult to spin under large loads.

There are some models of compost tumblers which have large capacity yet are easy to spin. The three Jora models, at 4.5, 9, and 14.2 cu ft capacity, are pretty easy to spin even when full. This is because the Jora is mounted horizontally on its axis.

Durability

Compost tumblers are more durable than compost bins. Tumblers are more heavily constructed since they need to be strong enough to hold the full weight of the composting materials. When choosing a compost tumbler, inspect the supporting legs and the central axis connection – they should be strong to hold up to years of use. If handles are provided for spinning the drum, be sure they are not flimsy. Some tumbler models do not have handles, they have indentations in the molded drum for hand grips. This works just as well as handles.

Compost bins are made using thinner plastic, since they only need to contain the composting materials rather than support the weight. The thinner plastic can become brittle in cold weather or after years of use and sunlight exposure, so care must be taken when removing the lid and when emptying the finished compost from the lower ports. The plastic can crack or chip with age or hard use.

Functionality

Compost bins are not really designed to make it easy for gardeners to turn (mix) the composting materials. It’s hard to get a pitchfork or shovel down into the pile and turn it effectively. Years ago, we earnestly tried to turn the materials in our bin, but eventually we gave up. It was too much work and we risked damaging the bin with the shovel. So we simply left the compost unturned. This results in less aeration so it takes longer for the compost to process. Depending on the time of year, it might take 2 -3 months for the composting process to complete.

compostWith compost bins it can be difficult to access the finished compost using a shovel – the compost at the bottom is compressed by the weight of the material above and you risk chipping the sides of the port when trying to work a shovel through the port. A small hand spade would work, but this takes more time. With our compost bin, we found it easier to lift the entire bin off the compost and then use a shovel to separate the finished from the unfinished compost. The unfinished compost was then shovelled back into the bin. This method was a bit tedious but much faster than removing the compost through the bottom port.

Compost tumblers, by contrast, are designed to make it easier to turn the compost since you only need to spin the drum a few times every week or so. This is the central feature of tumblers – they speed the composting process by making it easy to mix the materials, and the sealed unit develops more heat which further speeds the decomposition of composting materials. With our compost tumbler, we cycle through batches in about 6 – 8 weeks.

Spinning a compost tumbler, however, is not always easy. With larger models, such as the 9 cubic foot tumblers, the drum gets very heavy when about 2/3 full. This is especially so if the drum is mounted vertically on its axis. With one model we tried, the UCT-9, my wife would have to ask me to do the spinning once the unit was near full. The Jora tumbler models are mounted horizontally on their axis and are pretty easy to spin even when near full.

Compost tumblers are also easier to empty than compost bins…

Compost tumblers are also easier to empty than compost bins. With tumblers, the wheelbarrow can be rolled directly under the drum so compost can be dumped right in. This assumes, of course, that the entire batch is finished.

With both tumblers and bins, there is the issue of when to stop adding new materials so that the whole composter can “finish” and the compost can be removed. In our yard we eventually bought a second composter so one could be used for fresh materials while the other finished off. Today there are “continuous use” tumblers such as the dual-compartment Jora composters, which have two compartments. When one compartment is full, simply switch to the other side while the first compartment finishes.

continuous-use-composter

Composting Time

Compost tumblers are designed to speed the composting process by providing improved aeration and heat to the composting materials. We performed a side-by-side comparison and found the tumbler finished off in about half the time of the bin. However, the bin holds more volume which partially accounts for the slower processing time. In our region we have cold winters, and our bin slows down considerably. The tumbler, by contrast, sends up a mist of warm air when opened in winter, indicating that the composting process is active.

We performed a side-by-side comparison and found the tumbler finished off in about half the time of the bin.

When a tumbler is spun, fresh materials are mixed with the seasoned (more composted) materials. This has the effect of slowing the process somewhat. A dual-bin composter is an improvement in this regard, since fresh materials are put in one compartment while the second chamber is finishing off. In general, our compost tumblers cycle a load in about half the time when compared to the bin.

The moisture level in a composter is critical to the composting process. Moist contributions such as kitchen scraps, wet leaves or fresh grass clippings need to be balanced with dry materials. In this regard, compost bins have an advantage: because they are open-bottomed, they drain excess water readily. Some tumbler models have drain holes in the drum, and also a collection chamber in the base to receive the “compost tea” which is an excellent fertilizer.

It should be mentioned that the key to optimizing the time it takes to process a batch of compost depends more on the carbon/nitrogen ratio and maintaining a damp, but not wet, moisture level than on what type of composter is being used. To learn how to balance the carbon and nitrogen components, read our Guide to Composting. To learn how to correct an overly moist compost load (a common problem), read our article How to Fix a Soggy Compost Pile.

Pest Control

Both bins and tumblers do a pretty good job of keeping pests out of the compost. Compost bins keep out raccoons and dogs, but rodents can burrow under the base and even nest inside where the ground temperature is warm and food is close by. We had mice in the base of our compost bin, but they weren’t really a problem.

Compost tumblers are 100% pest proof since they are fully sealed. The ground around the tumbler is clean and you wouldn’t mind walking barefoot to empty the compost keeper into the composter.

Odor Control

Both tumblers and bins control composting odors. When you lift the lid there is a distinct ‘composting’ smell, but it is not unpleasant. When the lid is closed there should be no foul odors coming from the composting process, regardless of whether you use a bin or a tumbler.

Cost

Compost tumblers are more expensive than compost bins. As a rough estimate, they are about 30% higher in price for the equivalent capacity. The tumbler models are also longer lasting since they are built more heavily.

In general, choose a composter that has few moving parts such as a rod and gear for spinning the drum or multiple “aeration spikes” which can be easily broken by a shovel or pitchfork. Your composter should give you many years of service if you choose a simple but robust model. Over time you’ll forget the extra dollars it may have cost, and you’ll appreciate having a reliable and sturdy composter for your garden.

Summary

Compost Bin Pros:

  • lowest cost for a composter
  • large volume for a small footprint
  • drain excess moisture more readily

Compost Bin Cons:

  • thinner plastic which can become brittle or chipped by tools
  • not as easy to access finished compost
  • can attract and harbor burrowing pests such as mice

Compost Tumbler Pros:

  • sealed, aerated drum speeds composting process
  • durable, robust construction will last many years
  • easy to access finished compost by inverting drum over a wheelbarrow
  • “continuous use” models keep fresh compost materials separate from finishing compost
  • 100% pest proof

Compost Tumbler Cons:

  • more expensive than compost bins
  • some models are difficult to spin when 2/3 full

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

GregAbout Greg
Originally from Long Island, NY, Greg Seaman founded Eartheasy in 2000 out of concern for the environment and a desire to help others live more sustainably. As Editor, Greg combines his upbringing in the cities of New York, Boston and San Francisco with the contrast of 31 years of living ‘off-grid’ to give us a balanced perspective on sustainable living. Greg spends his free time gardening, working on his home and building a wooden sailboat with hand tools.

 

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  • http://twitter.com/Smart_Gardener Smart Gardener

    We have both types here as well. While I like how quickly the tumbler works, the larger capacity of the bin is a distinct advantage for folks who have so many leaves, garden clippings and cooking scraps. I’ve found when I use the bin as stage one, and then the tumbler as stage two, things move even more quickly.

  • http://twitter.com/HarneyPeakSD Harney Peak

    The ease of emptying a tumbler for anyone constrained by landscaping and a small lot makes the tumble a great choice. Never had the right space for an upright bin since it always created a wider circle with the compost around the bottom. Anyway, good comparison and I really like the tumbler for those in tight areas, since the overall footprint is neater and smaller.

  • cathy

    I found compost tumbler better then bin. This information I’ll share with my uncle who is a gardener by hobby and keep on experimenting. Very informational post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kalapsharma Kalap Sharma

    Hello Greg

    First of all thanks for the awesome and so informative websites. One of the best site on gardening.

    I read your compost details, I have few queries –

    # Can I add wood dust to the compost ? I got this wood dust from nearby wood cutting factory.

    # What fruits we should not add to compost (I read that you advised not to add banana peels, peach peels, orange rinds).

    Awaiting for your reply.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Hi Kalap,
      Yes, you can add wood dust to your compost. Best to add in thin layers or mixed with other materials, especially if the dust is very fine. Avoid using sawdust from chainsaws if synthetic chain oil was used.
      Regarding fruit, avoid adding fruit peels which you suspect of having been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides.
      Thank you for your kind comments,
      Greg

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    You could ask at the mill where you gather the wood dust if it was cut by chainsaw. If the wood dust is fine it was not cut using a chain saw and should be a good addition to your compost.
    I have no experience growing coriander so you might want to try a Google search for this information.
    Greg

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    The fruit flies will diminish as your compost takes off. If you have a tumbler composter, be sure to give it a spin after each time you add more materials.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    My intention was to live and raise a family close to nature. We were not interested in technology for many years, preferring to enjoy family life without a TV or modern conveniences. Eventually we got a solar panel to help make lighting easier. Then we got a bigger battery bank (2 batteries) and a larger panel so I could run my laptop which was essential to developing Eartheasy.
    My advice is to start small, since bringing in too much technology can distract you from the peace and tranquility you came to the country to enjoy.

  • Nikki

    Hi Greg, thanks so much for your article it really helped me. I live off grid in the south of France with my family, and its really difficult to get access to the latest time/energy saving tools and techniques. We live on land that was destroyed by the pesticides that the wine makers here love to spray all over the place. So for the last couple of years we are trying to bring it back to life, and the one thing I really need is to make more compost quicker.
    Thanks again
    Nikki

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Thanks Nikki. Good luck with your restoration of the soil. The compost will be a big help.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    We think the Jora composters are the best. They are dual chamber so you can work on a new batch while the old one is curing. They spin easily, are solidly built and it’s easy to release the clasp and open the lid with one hand. Raccoons won’t be able to get up on it, it will spin under their weight. We’ve been using a Jora 270 for about 4 years now and it is still in perfect shape even though it lives outdoors all year.

  • Tandy Boynton

    Thank you! Just came across this post while researching composting containers. Had a compost bin for a couple years, but the Maine winters did a number on that thin plastic. Also, was very awkward to churn, and pretty sure I did not manage to churn all the way to the bottom, as I had a perfectly preserved pumpkin shell blocking the lower port when I tried to access compost. Going to go check out some tumblers!

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      That’s just the way ot goes, isn’t it. Good comment.

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