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Off-Grid Toilets: Your Options For Life’s Necessity

off-grid toiletLiving off the grid can be an extremely enriching and rewarding experience. Each day there are physically demanding yet fulfilling tasks to complete. Mucking horse stalls and heading to the barn before sunrise to milk the cow are not glamorous chores, but such mundane and messy duties are part of providing healthy food for the family while being a good steward of the environment.

But the picturesque scene of life on a rural homestead will not be quite so lovely unless setting up a proper sanitation system is tackled correctly and maintained steadily.

When planning the move to an off-the-grid locale or searching for the perfect retreat, factor in the feasibility of establishing a fully-functional sanitation system at the property building site long before daydreaming about how tasty organic crops will be come fall. Planning an off-the-grid sanitation system would definitely fall under the heading of “boring grown-up stuff.” That is the phrase I often use when my husband asks if I have tackled some tedious paperwork or have updated my mileage on the tax template he made for me.

The boring grown-up stuff, though, is unfortunately an integral aspect to establishing a successful homestead. The land might boast enriched soil, look like a backdrop for a Norman Rockwell painting, and have the cutest ducks floating on the pond, but all those attributes will soon fall to ruin if a sanitation system fails. Water contamination can ruin the family’s drinking water, creeks and streams used for livestock watering, and destroy all the organic seeds growing in the field.

Septic System

One of the best ways involves installing a septic system. Today, creating such a system in some towns, even many rural ones, is illegal. Before purchasing a septic tank from a supplier, make sure that installing one will not result in hefty fines and even possible criminal charges in some regions.

A septic system is basically a massive metal tank that allows for the collection and release of wastewater. Bacteria inside the septic tank breaks down the waste and causes it to naturally separate into a big layer of scum on the top of the waste. Beneath the layer of scum is a liquid layer and a bottom layer of sludge. As wastewater flows into the septic tanks, liquid inside flows out in sections of pipe buried underground that ultimately drains into a field.

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The soil then acts as a type of biological filter. Septic tanks must be serviced and emptied by professional sanitation workers once per year.

Camping And Composting Commodes

Camping or composting commodes are legal and not any less attractive than a standard commode. Unlike septic tank systems, they function without the need for any type of professional cleaning or collection. The drawback: You or one of your off-the-grid family members will be tasked with the cleaning chore. All camping or compositing commodes are not created equal, so go the extra few bucks and purchase one with a separate compartment for the waste that flushed like a regular commode. Some composting toilets also feature a urine diverting system. A composting toilet typically uses an aerobic processing system that treats the waste. Composting commodes can be either dry or low water toilets. A growing number of folks are using this type of commode to garner “humanure.” The composting toilets reportedly capture the nutrients in human excrement so the waste can be used a crop or flower bed fertilizer.

Survival expert James Wesley Rawles urged caution on using humanure.

“While some of the advice given by [Joseph] Jenkins in his Humanure Handbook is good, I soundly reject his assertion that humanure can be used in vegetable gardens in all climates and at all times of the year,” Rawles said. “Outside of the tropics, in three seasons there is simply too much risk of disease transmission. Unless all of the waste from carnivores and omnivores gets above the viability temperature for bacteria, then it is a biohazard. If you must use humanure, then use it only for flower beds and shrubbery. And for that, be sure to use a separate, dedicated set of spades and buckets that have their handles marked with red tape. Never use those tools in your vegetable garden!”

Camping toilets or composting commodes do not have to be store bought; you can make your own if handy with tools. Many state parks and roadside rests in America employ the same type of system in a far more spartan manner. Plastic toilet seats made to fit on 5-gallon buckets are a lot cheaper than a composting commode, and can get the job done as well. Human waste can safely be mixed with peat moss, sawdust, or coconut coir to cut the smell, absorb liquids, and support aerobic processing. The decomposition process is reportedly quicker than is realized with septic tanks and standard wet sewage treatment systems.

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Oxygen is also critical to the human waste drying process. Commercial composting commode systems come complete with a method of ventilation to push air through the waste container, out of the device and into a vertical pipe, and then onto the outside. Such systems move air via convection, or fan forced air in order to make sure that odors and carbon dioxide flow outdoors. Composting commodes of this sort are often referred to as “solar toilets” because solar fans are used to accomplish the ventilation task.

The Learning Channel said this about how composting toilets work:

The process works the same as the composting pile you may have for your kitchen scraps. Aerobic bacteria within the waste break it down with the help of air, heat and time. Someone does have to stir material regularly, and add materials such as sawdust or popcorn to keep those bacteria at work. The result is an earthy nutrient-filled organic matter known as humus. One person would produce approximately 80 pounds of humus a year. There are two kinds of composting toilets: self-contained and central. They don’t look that different from your current commode. Self-contained composting toilets are smaller and are more likely to be found in cottages or seasonal homes.

The self-contained unit should not be used “year-round if more than two people are using it.,” the channel added.

Price Comparison

Self-contained composting toilets, like the once I own, cost less than $100 dollars. Until we build our shipping container/earth berm home on our dream land, it will be used solely for camping. It has worked properly without any noticeable odor – even when someone has to open the bottom compartment and dump the waste. Central composting commodes typically range from $750 to $13,000 each, depending upon the size of the system, i.e. connection pipes needed to safely vent the waste. Septic tanks range from $1,000 to $3,000 depending upon size, but additional accessory items needed for functionality and possibly permits can up the cost another $500 or so. Bio-clean septic tank cleaning packets are just under $100 each and may offer a viable cleaning method during a grid-down scenario, or reduced maintenance costs if allowed by law in your area.

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6 comments

  1. I have built several septic systems, all with NO permits, nor special tanks. I dig a hole about 10 feet by 4 feet, and 6 feet deep, pour a concrete floor, and build walls of concrete block. I put a wall 5 feet high dividing the tank into 2 parts. One part I stucco to water-proof it, the other I leave porous.
    The waste enters the sealed side, and gradually spills over into the porous side, which has a 4 inch perforated exit pipe just underground to help distribute the overflow liquid. The whole tank is covered with a concrete slab (which is a parking area), with a 2 inch plastic pipe going up under a giant bush to admit air.
    Oldest one, where (we live full time) is 24 years old and NEVER has been serviced. No odors.

    • Sounds great. do you have a diagram that you are willing to share? I want to make sure that I am placing the perforated pipe and the 2 inch air pipe properly…

      Thanks again!

    • Id love to see plans if possible? Also how big of a house hold does that tank support?

  2. Just dig a hole in the ground in a area you designate away from your food supply, etc. and/or near an Obama poster or something.

    Then you will have an automatic greatest decompos-ter in the world, mother earth! Second, you will be defecating the way nature intended and will relieve yourself proper and not suffer constipation.

  3. I too am interested in a diagram/plans if you are willing to share. Have a small cabin in Alaska only used 3-4 weeks a year and cannot justify the expense of a septic system. Do have a bathroom and running water. Just don’t have a toilet yet. Thanks.

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