Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Toilets: To Compost or To Flush...

Ok...here we go. The much awaited and anticipated toilet talk. Everybody poops right? Well not everybody flushes it.

As I mentioned before, although I didn't know it at the time, my love affair with tiny homes began with the reading of "Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream" by William Powers. He writes, "Instead of a flush toilet, I discovered that Jackie used a five-gallon composting toilet under the porch out back. It featured a regular toilet seat, but there was no chemical-filled cesspool below ground - just a standard white bucket. Throw some fresh-smelling cedar chips in after every use, and there was absolutely no foul odor."

Droppin a deuce in a bucket was so repulsive to me that I shelved this whole tiny house, back-to-nature idea. I just couldn't get past it. I needed a toilet that whisked away everything that came out of my body. Out of sight, out of mind right?

Since I plan to keep my house stationary on our 22 acres in Palestine TX, my original plan was to have a septic tank installed there so I can use a conventional toilet and plumbing system. I figure I can install a mobile home foundation with a smaller tank nearby for not a whole lot of money.

When I attended the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company Workshop in Dallas, they had each of the 100+ people in attendance introduce themselves and share why they came. Most people were saying, "I'm here to learn how to build a tiny house" or "I wanna simplify my life" or "I wanna build these things for a living" or "My husband wants one of these and I'm here to see what it's about" etc, etc, etc. When the mic came to me, I said, "Hi. My name is Jeremy. I live in Palestine, TX and I'm here because I like the idea of a simpler life and to learn how to put a REAL toilet in my tiny house." The laughter from the audience and nodding heads told me I wasn't alone. The presenter, Ella, just nodded with a knowing smile on her face.

On the second day of the workshop, we finally broached the subject. It turns out there are several of different toilet options for a tiny house.

Conventional/Residential Toilets

  • Feels more like a home.
  • Everything disappears with a push of a button. 
  • Guests are more comfortable with it.
  • Parents/family/friends don't think you are insane for having it.
  • Takes up more space.
  • Needs a Septic Tank.
  • Not really eco-friendly with the amount of water it uses.

RV Toilets

  • Smaller footprint. No Tank.
  • Low flush.
  • Still needs to drain to a black water tank (that you then must empty ... Gross).  

Incinerator Toilets

  • No plumbing required.
  • Everything burns so...yea.
  • Expensive.
  • Uses a lot of energy to burn.
  • No DIY options.
  • Must explain how to use it to visitors.
  • Doesn't always work right (imagine the smell of burning poop...).
  • Flames near my junk? No thanks!


Compost Toilets

  • Eco-friendly. Returns nutrients to nature.
  • No plumbing required.
  • Cheaper DIY options are available.
  • Simple to use.
  • Little or no energy use.
  • You drop the kids off in a bucket/container that needs to be emptied. By me.
  • Do I really need to list more cons than that?!
Video: Nature's Head Commercial Toilet

Ella's DIY Option
DIY Option
However, to my complete and utter surprise, as the presenter, Ella, talked more and more about her choice to use a compost toilet, the more and more it made sense to me. Crazy, right?

I guess I never realized that many people around the world operate this way. Even if they could afford to build the same waste disposal systems we have in place here in America, they don't have the water resources required to flush everything away. China has been utilizing human manure for crops for centuries. Their system isn't without its problems but it's a place to start. 

I didn't like the expensive commercial version because, quite frankly, there were too many moving parts. When you get ready to use it, you have to push the pedal or pull the lever that opens up the rotating cover to the receptacle below to receive your "deposit". Sort of like an airplane toilet without the fantastic "WHOOOSH!" The opening is only so big and it was too likely that poop would hit the sides. You can't use water to clean it because water in the holding tank would retard the composting process. I do NOT want to have to wipe poop off of anything! Especially the poop of my friends and visitors. Some people recommend keeping a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol handy. The pressure from that spray should dislodge any lingering material and the alcohol evaporates quickly so as to not add any unnecessary moisture to the composing process. Yea...I'm gonna pass on the game of Poop Target Practice.

This is how it works on the DIY side of things. There are different ways to build a compost toilet but basically, you buy a 5 gallon bucket. You build some sort of decorative box for it to go in with a toilet seat on top. They sell special biodegradable bags you can use as liners for the bucket. Every time you drop a grumper, you put either saw dust, cedar chips, peat moss or some other material on top to cover it and eliminate any  odors. When the bag gets full, you tie it off, take it outside and toss it into your compost heap. 

Now, our presenter, Ella, was a young, pretty woman. She lives in her tiny house in California near Half Moon Bay with her boyfriend. She assured us that if her compost toilet had any kind of odor, she would NOT have it. If ever a guest stepped into her house and commented on any kind of odor, she would toss it immediately. I definitely could't see this woman living in a house that smelled of sewage.

Ella in front of her tiny house

And just like that, I was onboard the compost toilet train! I love the simplicity of it. As I mentioned before, I really like the idea of reconnecting to nature and this was just another aspect of it. The plants we grow from the ground take in nutrients that we eat when we consume them. Those nutrients pass through us and we are required to return those nutrients back to the Earth for the next generation of plants to use. It's a beautiful cycle that we break when we flush those nutrients off to some landfill.

Now the complicated stuff...

Although they are both compostable, there are various schools of thought on the subject of peeing and pooping in the same receptacle. I read in some places that mixing the two together is what creates the odor you want to avoid and therefore they have designed systems to separate the two. I came up with the idea of having a separate urinal mounted on the wall everytime you needed to see a man about a horse. I would have the bathroom sink drain down into the urinal as a flushing mechanism down into a gray water reservoir where it would mix with shower and kitchen sink run off and be ready to be disbursed into the yard. But let's keep it real...who pees BEFORE blastin a dookie??? So, there's a modified version where the "urinal" is actually attached inside the bucket at the front. I would then have to figure out a way to still have the sink drain into that to wash down the contents into the gray water tank.

Urine Separater 
Other people go ahead and just mix the two together with no problems. I guess the only way to find out what happens is to try it out.

So a compost toilet eliminates the need for a black water reservoir or septic tank but I will still need a gray water reservoir to catch shower, kitchen sink, and clothes washing water. Gray water can be used on the garden outside but I could only allow biodegradable, natural things to go down the drain. This means my personal products like hair gel, shampoo, deodorant, soap, lotion, etc. Also, cleaning products and anything that would go down the kitchen sink.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how big of a change that would be for me and my lifestyle. Y'all don't wanna know me without chemicals under my arms holding my B.O. at bay! I couldn't realistically see myself making that change. Not to mention how expensive those types of natural products and be.

And so, I shelved the compost toilet idea in favor of a traditional flushing one. But I still didn't like the idea of a septic tank. It's an expensive install. Also, I don't really like the idea of all that water that is wasted every time we cop a squat. Also, any chemicals, drugs, etc that are flushed into the tank are often sent back out into the neighboring environment. Needless to say, this issue has sat in my craw for a while.

Well, I remembered a book that was recommended at the Tumbleweed Workshop:

"The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, Third Edition" by Joseph C. Jenkins. The e-book can be purchased and downloaded for $10 here. I've only been reading it for a couple of days but it's a wonderful, informative read.

And guess what...I'm back on the compost toilet train!!! It's just gonna be so much easier and cheaper to use. I'm considering installing the plumbing for a residential toilet just in case I change my mind later on down the road.

So, my plan for now is this...I am going to build for myself a composting toilet and try it out. I'm not sure where I will put it yet. I am seriously considering putting it in my closet. Not sure if I'm gonna tell my aunt. It'll be a true test to see if she notices a smell or not. This weekend I plan to build a nice frame for a compost pile near my chicken coop. On our 22 acres, we have lots of rotting leaves and yard trimmings. Not to mention the manure and bedding from my chickens. In a few weeks, I'm going to have about 50 chickens worth of feathers and entrails. In the past, I have incinerated them but these things are perfectly compostable and I don't want to miss out on doing that this time around.

And so...I embark on my composting adventure. I will keep you posted on my progress. As a side note, I'm also working on building a Whizbang Chicken Plucker to speed up our chicken processing time.

Well, there you have it! I tried as hard as I could to throw in as many euphemisms for pooping as I could. I have a few left so here they are:

  • Backing the motorhome out of the garage
  • Clean out the vertical file
  • Pinch a loaf
  • Deliver a food baby
  • Put my thoughts down on paper
  • Code brown
  • Lose 10 pounds the quick way
  • Vote for president
  • Download a brownload
  • And my own personal family phrase....Bomb china
Hope you enjoyed this as much as I did! Any comments or suggestions are appreciated. Thanks for stoppin' by.

-Big Jerm

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