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Editor’s Note: This resource has been revised and updated for 2019.
Composting toilets are not for everyone but they do have their place in off-grid living under some circumstances. One of the most important things is knowing how a system works before investing and knowing what you can really expect out of the model you settle on buying.
There are not as many brands out there to choose from as there are with a lot of other off-grid products. There is also no budget version so shopping around a lot of sites and dealers is not going to change your cost that much. Low volume products are just like that.
Some systems are easier to order than others. The Nature’s Head Self Contained Composting toilet can be delivered to your address in two days! Other systems may take longer to get and that may be a factor if you need to get something right away.
Before we get into the different brands and models out there, a few things should be addressed and stressed so that you can make a good choice for your situation.
I’ve heard composting toilets stink a lot. Is that true?
Yes and no. There is always going to be some level of odor. With better composting toilets a slight earthy smell is to be expected even when used exactly as instructed. Some systems are going to smell more than others.
If you don’t follow instructions on how to use your toilet and care for it you can find yourself in a situation where the smell is too much. Another thing to consider is the size of your space. A smaller space can make odors seem greater while a larger one can make it more dispersed.
Get a toilet designed to handle your household size.
While a standard toilet can handle a big family if needed, a composting toilet is only designed to handle a set amount of users. There are different models out there and you need to make sure you are getting a model designed for your family or business size.
Do not fall into the trap of thinking oh I can get by with the less expensive size. It is better to have a toilet that is made to accommodate more people than one that is borderline. This type of toilet is a substantial investment and you can’t upgrade without spending a lot and then having a used toilet that could be hard to find a purchaser for.
Nature’s Head Self Contained Composting Toilet
Nature’s Head gets some impressive reviews from customers and costs less than any other toilet system on this list. This unit is made in the United States and features all stainless steel hardware and a design that is made to fit in small spaces making it popular for small cabins and homes.
If you want a reliable composting toilet that is as budget-friendly as possible then you can’t really do much better than ordering this toilet system that comes in at under $1,000 with shipping. They include a vent hose with the toilet to make installation a bit easier.
It only weighs 28 lbs and requires no electricity so it can be used reliably in more places than the composting toilets that use a little bit of power. It does have a fan that you can use for better results and faster composting if you do have some power at your disposal but it is not required. The toilet can be emptied in seconds.
NOTE: This system requires a small amount of electricity.
This company makes some top quality composting toilets but they are quite expensive. Cost is dependent on how big the system is. Currently the cost is $1,400 – $2,800. You should consider what you are getting for that though before being too shocked.
- Fully automatic toilet system makes it more like using a traditional flush toilet
- Enclosed to reduce the odor so commonly associated with composting toilets
- LED indicators on the Biolet 65 Model lets you know when you need to dump the compost
How does the Biolet work?
When you sit on the toilet seat it opens the trap doors and when you close the toilet seat lid the stainless steel mixing mechanism engages and mixes liquids and solids together so they break down faster in the upper chamber. The process is finished in the lower chamber and eventually emptied via the tray. One thing that really stands out is that the Biolet has a fan and small heater that circulates air and helps composting occur faster.
Sun Mar Excel
The Sun Mar brand of composting toilet has been around for quite a while. The Exel model is made to use no water at all and is rated for residential and light commercial use. It can handle a household size of 3-5 people or 6-8 people if used at a vacation rental.
It does use some electricity to power a fan that helps the composting action happen faster. Users report that the toilet actually seems to use 20% less energy than Sun Mar says it does so that is a plus. Sun Mar says that including the heater, the maximum draw of the toilet is 2.4 amps.
While this toilet has some bad feedback, it appears that most problems come from it simply not being installed as directed and there is some speculation that plumbers are leaving negative feedback to deter people from considering a composting toilet.
Here is a helpful video on what Sun Mar has to offer:
I am not familiar with this company but they have a lot of options and go the extra mile to tell you every detail about how their systems work and are put together. Here is a diagram that shows how a basic Phoenix system works.
- 1 – Centerline of chute must be at least 9 inches from a wall.
- 2 – Centerline of pipe must be 12 inches from the wall.
- 3 – Standard toilet installed on the second floor.
- 4 – Gravity micro-flush toilet installed on the second floor.
- 5 – 4-inch diameter vent pipe.
- 6 – 4-inch diameter pipe.
- 7 – 12-inch diameter chute.
- 8 – Standard toilet installed on the first floor.
- 9 – 1-in-10 minimum slope south of angle.
- 10 – 12 inches between tank top and ceiling
- 11 – 1.5-inch diameter hose.
- 12 – Vacuum-flush toilet installed on the same floor as Phoenix.
- 13 – 60 inches between wall or door and front of Phoenix.
This system looks a lot more involved than a lot of the systems in this posts but on the other hand it is made to be a very long lasting system that operates with no smells or hassle over the years. It uses no water and when you order the system you get the following:
“Phoenix residential packages contain all of the components necessary for an installation except for the wood shavings starter bed for the tank, and the 4-inch (100 mm) rigid vent pipe. Every package includes a Phoenix tank, one toilet with three feet (910 mm) of chute, a complete ventilation system, a manual liquid spray system, a compost bin, rake, and installation and operating instructions.”
It appears that they are trying to make it as easy as possible for their customers by offering a mostly complete system. You can choose between models that accommodate 2, 4, or 8 people using it full time. If you just need something for seasonal use then you may be able to get away with one size smaller than what you need for full-time use.
How to Build Your Own Septic System
During an emergency situation, you can build your own septic system that will act largely like the one you already have. Before I tell you how this is done I have to say that there is no way that this would meet any type of building code. If you are building a house that is going to be inspected then do not attempt this because it might actually make your inspector mad.
Here is what you need for your own septic system:
- 55-gallon barrel with a closed head. You can use larger containers for sure if you have access but I know that a plastic juice barrel is pretty easy to get. The really large 500-gallon plastic containers used for cooking oil or similar can be used too and can take on an average size home if needed.
- Pipe for lines and tail or drainage lines
- Fittings for running pipe in and out of the barrel
- PVC Primer and Glue
- Several tubes of roofing tar for sealing around input and output lines.
- Tools for digging
Rule #1: Outlet should be lower than the incoming flow so that you get good drainage.
Tips For Making Homemade Septics Work Longer Term:
- Make sure to flush enough water through to keep things from setting up hard. Even if this means running some water into the system occasionally. You don’t want to have to dig this up if you can avoid it.
- If you have access to some septic tank bacteria then dump some down it occasionally.
- Do not put bleach or overly greasy water down it.
- Use bidet bottles to reduce the usage of toilet paper.
These homemade systems cannot be pumped but if done right they can last a long time, especially if you use the precautions above.
Even if your “toilet” is in an outhouse, if you have access to a bucket and water I think it is a better and more hygienic system to have a thrown together septic system. I really have no desire to handle urine bottles or compost. Those with families might have a hard time assigning the bathroom maintenance schedule so that it did not fall on one person.
Here are a few videos that show the basics of a homemade septic system.
Let’s Talk About Outhouses
While a lot of people may think that an outhouse is a think of the past, they are sorely mistaken. There are plenty of people young and old alive today that have used them. I know of at least one person that still does last I heard! Here are a few tips if you feel you need to go the outhouse route.
1. Invest in something to keep down the odor, especially during summer months. Lime can help things break down if you have some. It doesn’t take much.
2. Know when to move your outhouse location.
You don’t want an outhouse to be in one place too long. Dig a new pit once in a while. Any outhouse is going to eventually become full.
3. Consider hole size
Outhouses can be dangerous. The hole in the seat might be big enough to be a fall in danger to kids. I know that kids used outhouses for a lot of history but modern kids are not savvy to them. If left open, small animals can also find trouble in them.
Deciding how to deal with waste
As you can see there is a lot to think about when it comes to deciding how to deal with human waste. If you have a chance to actually use a toilet on this list then you should do it before buying or you might at least read more than a handful of reviews and ask questions for those that have actually purchased or used them.
Any human waste system short of a basic outhouse is a substantial investment and even an outhouse takes a lot of work to do right.
Getting others on board with the idea of a composting toilet involves addressing major concerns before purchasing.
Deciding on what type of waste disposal you are going to use can be complicated if you have family members that are resistant to the idea.
The best way to come to a solution everyone can deal with is to listen to concerns and address them with logic and facts. Composting toilets don’t have to be stinky if they are installed correctly and you choose a system that is designed for your household size.
What has been your experience with composting toilet systems? Do you have any tips for ensuring no odor or mess? Have you made your own septic system before? I would be interested to hear from those that have been using their own systems for more than 5 years? Have you had any problems?
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