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Everyone Poops: Off-grid Toilets

In our civilized society we use many names for a bathroom, don’t we? All these euphemisms to describe the place everyone on earth uses several times a day and quite honestly, the room we are unable to live without. It’s the one room in the house that we go to great lengths to beautify, ensure it smells pleasant (of course in an effort to mask odors of things we are too embarrassed to discuss) and everything runs properly.

Discussing what we do in this room is rarely up for discussion, at least after we reach a certain age – and that magic age appears to be somewhere around 10 if you are a girl and 12 if you are a boy. After all, boys still find the whole thing uproariously funny far longer than do girls.   To further underscore these points, among the many synonyms we use to describe this place or this object are:

  1. Toilet
  2. Water Closet (W.C.)
  3. Loo
  4. John
  5. Restroom
  6. Facilities
  7. Lavatory
  8. Washroom
  9. Latrine
  10. Toilette (French)
  11. Powder room
  12. Gents’ Room
  13. Ladies’ Room
  14. Chamber pot
  15. Urinal
  16. Get ready room
  17. Public convenience room
  18. My favorite place
  19. The Library
  20. Little girls’ or little boys’ room
  21. If you are under the age of 10 for a girl and 12 for a boy, room to do your poopy

It’s this last one that, despite our civilities, can bring a smile to the face of most grown-ups. For a room we don’t like to discuss much, that’s a long list of synonyms. Now that we have this all out of the way, let’s discuss the bathroom in depth, shall we?

Not all of us live within the city limits and this means we either have to use a septic tank or be creative when it comes to eliminating our waste. Neither do we want to touch it nor do we want to impact the environment any more than it already is. Septic tanks work fine if you aren’t in the city’s sewer system, but depending on the restrictions of your health department, you might have lagoons or sprinklers or chlorinators all tied up in this “simple” system – and it’s suddenly not so simple anymore.

This got us thinking about the various types of chamber pots available and thought we’d offer our readers a couple of alternatives.

Composting Toilet

As the name implies, composting toilets take waste, both fecal and liquid and turn them into compost. How it works is actually rather interesting, if this sort of thing fascinates you. First it separates the solid from the urine – solid stuff falls into a composting chamber and the urine is sent to tank called a gray water system. Earthworms, microorganisms, air and heat all work together to start decomposing the solid matter. Meanwhile, the urine (as you may remember from your biology and chemistry classes) is comprised mostly of nitrogen. If you were to look at the ingredients of most fertilizers, you will notice that they contain lots of nitrogen. When you are ready to add your new batch of compost, having stored your urine, sprinkle it all over your plants and watch them drink it up.

Now all the rage in England, parts of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, one might assume this is a new concept; however, a rather crude version dates back to the late 1800s. The notion of using excrement as a form of compositing is controversial. Many countries allow this, and even in the USA there are areas where “sludge” (human waste) is sold to farmers for fertilizing crops, but is that really healthy? The Chinese have devised a system for using human waste, but part of that system involves high heat for about a month to kill off deadly bacteria and organisms. There are too many diseases that can be transmitted via human waste if the composting is not done right. If you choose to go this route, make sure you’re composting properly and applying it to your crops in the prescribed manner.

The nice thing about composting toilets is that they use almost no water to operate.

Who Sells These?

Ecotoilets

Envirolet

Biolet

Sun Mar

Incinerating Toilet

Available in both electric and gas powered, these are toilets that burn excrement rather than flushing it. These are seemingly ideal in remote areas, for people who live off the grid and/or have unreliable plumbing. They are available in various sizes and can run on electricity, diesel, propane or natural gas. The diesel versions boast the ability to burn between 1 and 7 gallons of waste an hour. The model you purchase will determine how many gallons can be incinerated. Another of their advantages is that unlike a septic, enzymes are not required to kill bacteria – another euphemism for human waste.

The logistical difference between the gas and electric version is that every so often you will need to empty out the ashes that are burned – the level accumulated that requires emptying varies by manufacturer.

A few manufacturers make these incinerating toilets in gas powered:

ECOJOHN

Usenburn

Scanlet (It will be helpful if you speak Danish when ordering from them)

And for the electric powered ones – I recommend you consider an alternate source of power (such as wind or solar) if you are going go this route, as your utility bill will likely increase and not decrease:

Ecolet

Incinolet

Eco Toilets

Other Alternatives to Traditional Flush Toilets

After a careful review of the other alternatives available, they really didn’t turn out to be viable alternatives after all. Perhaps easier to install, they appear to be damaging on the environment, non-hygienic or wholly inconvenient.

Perhaps if you live in an RV park or on a boat, the portable toilet, a.k.a. the port-a-potty, might be a solution for you. Enzymes are required to control odor and more importantly kill bacteria that could be harmful. Once the tank is full, somebody has to come and haul your waste away.

Digester tanks work by breaking down waste to be used as fuel and/or make humus. Nearly as I could discern, great as they look, they seem to work best in highly industrialized areas (due mostly to their size). They can hold up to 1000 gallons of waste. Most of us don’t have the land to house something that large.

We hope this article was helpful to you. If you own one of these systems, we’d love to hear your feedback. It’s okay, as the story goes, everyone poops…

We may as well talk about it.

Other articles in this issue:

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© 2008-2014 Off The Grid News

9 comments

  1. Well, for the absolute top scoop on poop, you need to check out Joseph Jenkins at
    http://www.humanurehandbook.com/

    This fellow has been dealing with poop (don’t let him hear you call it waste – because it isn’t) for
    more than 15 years.

  2. BTW, for your list, you forgot the all important……Crapper…. Called this by servicemen in Europe during WWI. They’d go in the water closet, as its called there……. and on the toilet would be a BIG label for the Thomas Crapper and Co…..it soon became…”I’m going to the Crapper”, mainly because he’d sold the most in Europe up to that point.

    For someone that is living off the grid, with an outhouse, or similiar situation, unless you’re absolutely SURE you know what you’re doing, I’d highly recommend you get assistance from someone that does know, on where to locate one, how deep, etc. One of the biggest causes of illness was from self contamination of your ground water due to poor location, and/or construction. Also look into what you’re prevailing winds are for the area you’re in, as I’m sure you want to stay UP wind as much as possible in that situation!!

    Shawn M.

  3. Here is a little more history on the crapper from Wikipedia:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Crapper

  4. Incinerating Toilet – I don’t like the idea of using an energy hog. Only in certain locations.
    port-a-potty / RV, They still smell bad, whatever enzyme that is used.
    composting toilets – possibly the best alternative, although I have heard horror stories

    Here may be a better one as Xylonaut mentioned:
    http://humanurehandbook.com/humanure_toilet.html

    Others with solar assist that separate solids and liquids may be best:
    http://www.swsloo.com/index.php
    http://www.sunnyjohn.com/toiletpapers2.htm#plans_update
    http://www.ecovita.net/privy.html

  5. I plan to set up a continuous feed anaerobic digester when I build a cabin on my land in Ecuador. They are used extensively in India and China, and besides disposing of human waste and kitchen scraps they yield two wonderful byproducts, methane for cooking and a nitrogen-rich effluent sludge that’s better plant food than compost. Digesters also produce H2S and CO2 gasses. The former can be “scrubbed” by running the digester gas through a steel wool filter. I plan to scrub the CO2 by bubbling the gas through a vertical algae tank during daylight hours. The algae will gobble up the CO2, producing algae growth and oxygen. I will have to run the gas through another steel wool chamber to remove the oxygen, rendering a fairly pure stream of methane gas for cooking.

    Digesters work best in a hot climate since the optimum temperature is around 100 degrees. Unlike a compost pile, digesters produce no heat on their own and must be heated in most regions. Insulation and a methane pilot light can keep the batch warm enough in the tropics but in temperate regions considerable heat must be applied during the winter. Digester elements can be designed compactly to occupy a small footprint where space is scarce. Low cost systems can be made from truck inner tubes. Google “methane digester” and “anaerobic digester” to see a variety of design approaches and applications. There are lots of YouTube videos as well.

  6. We use the Jenkins compost collection system. Basic is a bucket and lid. More elaborate is a nice box of any desired color or wood grain around the bucket for looks, and a basic lid, that fits down well onto the bucket edge. This can be used inside, The biggest principle is to have another bucket or container ready with dry leaf mold, hay castoffs, grass clippings, or any finer cellulose product. The covering of each use keeps smell away, closing the lid also helps. There really should be no smell as long as stools are normal and firm. Diarrhea requires a tighter closing of lid.
    When bucket is 2/3 full, it must be carried to an outdoor compost heap, and left for 1-2 years, no turning, as this disrupts the thermophilic bacteria, who are needed for complete breakdown of organic matter. Like other compost, pile must be wetted down, more often in dry climates. The science in Jenkins’ book (two great chapters) outlines the dynamic of the bacterial breakdown, and why this is the cure for all pollution.
    1. Quit crapping in your drinking water!
    2. the bacteria created by God, in their complicated simplicity, break up all products with enzymes and over time, can even break down motor oil,. No fear for printed paper, or inks, or even radiation. These busy little bugs break it down. A Chernobyl farmer submitted his composted soil to the Russian authorities, who kept checking his samples because they did not believe his soil was clear of radioactivity.

  7. The idea of having an outhouse is seemingly the most simple to me. Your outhouse defintely needs to be away, downhill is best, from your water source. We live in NW Oregon where there is much more ground water that will likely infiltrate it, so this needs to be accounted for. However, if a time comes when a septic (which we are currently on) no longer is a functional solution, then the outhouse will be the next. I would also believe that the same enzymes sold for septics would help with the odor and breakdown the same. So true, find someone who knows how this should be done, so you do not make yourselves ill, especially if there has been a societal meltdown and medical help is limited.

  8. Who is going to guard you while you sit in your outhouse?..In planning for anything,but especially some daily chore or task that will separate you from others,then you MUST plan on security at the same time.
    A single person going off to “crap” has always been a tempting target,no matter who the enemy is.Any game-plan should include a buddy-system for all outside the perimeter tasks,be it weeding the garden or taking care of business.
    There are several situations when being surprised is a life threateneing event,and being caught,literally,with your pants down is near the top of the list.

  9. i own a plumbing/septic company that services most of san bernardino county in california. an engineer called me about a year ago asking if there were any alternatives to a traditional septic system. he was building some cabins around big bear lake and couldn’t get a permit for septic due to the buildings being too close to the water. he didn’t want to scrap the whole job due to this one set back. ecojohn also has waste combustion systems that process black and grey water. they are pricey so explore all of your options before going this route. haven’t used the toilets but the waste incinerators are amazing.

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