By Greg Illes
We’re now three years with a composting toilet. In that span of time, we’ve used the toilet continuously for anywhere from 3-4 weeks to 4-5 months. Total usage in three years was for a total of about 9-10 months, so I feel that we can speak reasonably authoritatively about it.
Our original motivation was to “do without” a dump station, and use less water. While this may have been slightly naïve, it’s not wholly off the mark. In fact, we do use a lot less water, and generally speaking, we rarely use dump stations.
WHAT IS IT?
For those unfamiliar, a composting toilet uses either peat moss or coconut coir (chopped hull) as a composting base, and has a “bin” to contain it. The toilet seat sits above the bin, and poop gets dropped down into the compost medium. A “churning” handle mixes it all up so that natural chemical processes can take place. Other than initially dampening the compost medium, no water is required.
After using the toilet for a while (more about this later), the “mix” is emptied out and new compost medium poured in. The mix can be spread over shrub and tree bases, or tossed in a trash receptacle. Although it seems like it should be gross, it’s surprisingly not so. The composted poop looks (and smells) like dirt. Really.
In fact, the whole structure and process is amazingly clean, neat, and odor-free.
A clever mechanical design separates the pee from the poop, which is essential for odor control. And yes, really, it does it very well, for men or for women, sitting or standing. But the pee bottle holds only a couple of gallons, and while this seems a lot (well, it IS a lot), that’s only enough for two people for two days, and then it’s brim full. But it’s easy to remove and empty, and it can be poured into a campground toilet or (where permitted) nearby foliage or rocky drainage.
Composting toilets have been in use for decades, but mostly in boats and remote cabins. At the time we bought ours, there were two brands that seemed to dominate RV and boat usage today, the AirHead and the NaturesHead models. Since then it appears that the genre has been increasing in popularity. If you develop an interest, some new research would be in order. Just be sure you get a urine-separating design, for this is critical to odor control and easy waste management.
After many years of weeks-long RVing, we learned that our gray and black tanks would fill at about the same rate, and our fresh water would decline along with them. Our tanks were 75-37-39 gallons. So it was easy to conclude that nearly half of our water (the whole black tank minus our wastes) was being used for waste management.
Sure enough, after converting to composting, our water supply endurance went from about 8-9 days out to 12-14 days. For boondockers, that kind of advantage is pure gold.
Lastly, although we personally never had much issue with stinky holding tanks, or broken sewage hoses making a mess, we’re very happy that we don’t even have to worry about such things any more.
HOW MUCH TROUBLE IS IT?
With a black-tank and dump-station configuration (the traditional RV), there’s only one time you have to deal with waste, and if you’re careful, you can stay clean and tidy and unsmeared. But with a composting setup, there are daily or bi-daily pee dumps. Depending on how often it’s used, there are weekly-to-monthly toilet recharges. Plus, instead of flushing, the mix must be stirred with each use. That’s about it.
Recharging is pretty simple; you do have to carry peat moss or coir (we prefer the latter). Hydrate some new filling, pour it in. This can be done inside if the weather is bad, but it’s also easy to take the whole toilet outside for processing. We usually do it when we don’t have lots of neighbors, but it wouldn’t matter that much either way.
To take full advantage of the radical toilet, we like to dump gray water wherever it’s legal to do so, in order to avoid having to visit a dump station. This can take some creativity (and a long garden hose), and some research on occasion. BLM land, for instance, is very lax, and in many locations you simply must be 100 feet away from camps, roads, water, etc. Campgrounds and parks all have different regulations. In British Columbia, Canada, dumping of gray water is specifically forbidden almost everywhere – so the advantage is reduced, but of course we’re still saving water.
Emptying the pee bottle does add a novel camp chore, since it needs to be done almost every day. Some composting toilet users choose to route their pee into the (now-unused) black tank, and make an occasional stop at a dump station to empty it. To each his own.
[CAVEAT: Gray water dumping is a big topic; just do a search and see how many hits you get. There are many regulations, some of which are in conflict with each other. If in doubt, DON’T. You could get ticketed (or worse) just as if it were raw sewage.]
We are very aware that a composting toilet is not for everyone, and we’ve talked to lots of folks about it. Some people that we’ve talked to were somewhere between disgusted and terrified, just at the thought of having to give their guests instructions on how to use it. Others had a strong aversion to carrying a big yellow bottle of pee across a campground to the public toilet.
It is, after all, waste management, and as such, crosses the boundaries of many people’s “yuck” factor. In addition to this, many people aren’t repelled as much as disinterested – they simply don’t have any issues with black tanks and dump stations – it’s just part of RV life. Many RVers go from RV park to park, where water is unlimited and so is sewage disposal.
But for the avid boondockers like us, who always seek greater freedom in both water and waste management, composting might be worth a look.
Greg Illes is a retired systems engineer who loves thinking up RV upgrades and modifications. When he’s not working on his motorhome, he’s traveling in it.