How My Composting Toilet ACTUALLY Works – A Review

February 13, 2014 § 24 Comments

I promised I would do a review on the composting toilet after it had been in use for a while, well after 6 months I thought it was time for my first in depth review, besides, I have had A LOT of questions recently on it :).  Waarning, there are pictures into my potty at the bottom (when I was shopping for one I wanted to see what they looked like in the bowl and it was SO hard to find a picture, I never did, so there is a picture of what a composting toilet looks like down in the bowl… if you skip the images you’re not going to miss much, just Denny drinking from the sink ;-))  You can read more about the toilet picking out and purchasing experience HERE, HERE and HERE, suffice to say, I was not happy with the level of customer service from the get go.   I am very happy to say though that the technology (or lack there of) of the composting toilet is great, I love my potty!  (living in a house for a while without a potty and you really learn to appreciate the potty!)

I went into this project very leery of a composting toilet, with the same thoughts as many people have, that it’s gross, that it will smell horrid, that it will be disgusting, that it will be a maintenance nightmare etc.  This entire project has been fundamentally about learning.  Even though the toilet was approximately 20% of my entire budget, and even though I had all of these concerns about the functionality, I took the risk to find out about this option first hand.  This is my experience:

The pros:  I like it way better than a flush toilet, honestly.  There are NO smells at all (there is a fan that creates a constant vacuum of air going to the outside).  It is warm when you use it (the unit I have has a small heater), no back splashing and no one can hear you peeing! All pros.  I have the added benefit of knowing that I am not contributing to a waste system where drinkable water is treated, used to flush a toilet and then has to be treated again, there is quite the process to that and a lot of energy/chemicals which I get to bypass, naturally and safely.  Like I said, I was very leery initially for the same reasons as many others but after six months I have had two issues and zero REAL issues, I will get to those in a moment.  All of that being said, I have not yet had to empty the drawer (based on full time occupancy – 3-4 persons – that would happen after about one year, and about 4 times a year).  Currently I am not even a quarter of the way to full but in spring I will do that drawer emptying deed, simply because it’s been enough time. I expect that it will be as painless as they say (pretty hands off and non-gross).  Other than that, even as expensive as it is it is cheaper than installing a septic system and it is not as limiting to finding a location as having to hook up to sewer, it gives me more flexibility.  So, those are my pros so far, now the cons…

The cons… 100% of people (I rounded up, there are those .001% that think differently) do assume it’s gross and disgusting and that I am a weirdo for choosing that option, that is the one drawback.  I do have a brother who refuses to use it, my partner did too, for a little while, but he’s fine with it now.  I wanted to have the most normal looking composting toilet so that it didn’t weird people out to use it, I think it does anyway though, which I understand, it really is ok though!
I mentioned above that I have had two issues, they are these:  First, the neighbor came over and one day when I was outside working and asked me when the toilet unit ‘cycled’ and if I could reset it for a different time because he and his wife like to hang out in their backyard in the hot tub late at night and it seemed to come on when they were out there and ‘really stinks’.  This was an odd question to me because there is no ‘cycling’ with this unit.  There is a fan that runs constantly, and vents out really high so that it is not noticed (and it does a really good job of being not noticed).  There is also a small heater in the unit that constantly runs, that is all, completely passive outside of those two components.  It made no sense at all that it was perfectly fine all the time except at this one time every night…  I racked my brain on it for a little while and then I noticed that that time of night was pretty close to the same time of night that I let Denny out to potty before bed.  Turns out he had taken up the habit of pooping in the alley, pretty close to where their hot tub is, and they are right, he STINKS!  It is slightly embarrassing that they think I could possibly smell like that, I don’t want to pretend that my poo doesn’t stink but seriously, it’s not nearly as bad as Denver’s poos… Once I figured out the issue I fixed it, he poops in the yard like a normal dog now and everything is fixed.  The neighbors still think I poo nuclear poos probably though… so I have that to think about every time I say hi to them!  So, issue one is a non issue…
Issue two, just the other night, maybe a week ago it seemed like the vent stopped working.  I have had the power go out before or have to be unplugged for a bit causing the fan to stop and it does start to smell in the house after a bit if I don’t seal off the toilet first.  I could still hear the fan running though, I completely couldn’t figure out what was going on.  Of course it happened late on a Sunday night, after it was dark and when I couldn’t see to fix it.  It couldn’t have happened when there was light, and on the weekend when I could do something about it :).   Even still, it wasn’t horrible and I pretty much convinced myself it was in my head and just my pregnant nose smelling weird things (I did cook asparagus earlier…)  So I went to bed, in the morning I could still smell it.  I asked James if he could too, he did, but it wasn’t like when the fan goes all out, that is very noticeable, this was hard to tell… I went back around by the vent and I could hear water dripping in it, there was no reason that should have been happening… by noon on Monday it was just fine, nothing at all wrong.  I am not positive what happened but I THINK that some snow may have fallen into the vent and partially blocked it, then as the day warmed up it melted away and everything was fine.  I did decide I need to get up there and put a screen over the vent opening though, I can see a bird or something making it’s way in the 2″ opening and nesting or something… So even issue two is a non issue, I’m fairly positive it was a weather issue, especially since it fixed itself with the warmer temps…
As you can read in the previous posts linked above, I chose to get a ‘fancy’ composting toilet (and paid the premium for it) so that I could have it in an urban area, it has to pass special inspections to be ‘safe’ as far as health services are concerned.  While this unit is not accepted everywhere it is much more so than say the standard humanuer version.  In most cases where it is not readily accepted it is most likely because the question has never been raised to inspectors.  Obviously a composting toilet is different than the standard flush unit in a few ways.  So, the ‘special’ things you have to do with my particular composting toilet (I am not speaking for the humanuer versions, I don’t know much about them):
  • When you first set up the toilet, after a week or so of use there is a little packet of bacteria that the manufacturer sends with the unit, you put that packet in the tank, it’s as easy as opening a package of ramen and dumping it out, that’s it!
  • At full time use, about twice a week there is a handle on the unit that needs to be cranked a full turn (I actually have grown to love this little activity, it feels like I am accomplishing an important bit of maintenance (and I am) but it also helps me mark the week, I crank it on Wednesdays and Sundays,  it’s really no big deal.
  • There is no special toilet paper you have to use, it all breaks down.
  • About 2-3 times a week you have to throw in about a cup of compost mixture (of a mixture of peat moss (40%) and Sawdust (60%), I have a ton of sawdust I saved from my build, I will be set for years on this!).
  • If the unit is below 55 degrees the bin acts as a holding tank only, composting slows/stops.  The weather does not hurt any of the components, it simply sits dormant until it warms up again.  (this is the reason I am waiting for spring to empty the drawer, I want to make sure it is in composting mode rather than just holding tank mode)
  • To empty the drawer you first fill it (cranking the handle in reverse) and then let it sit and ‘finish’ in the drawer for 6-8 weeks, at that point I hear it is just like potting soil and I will not be grossed out to empty it into my compost bin OR directly onto my plants (I still don’t think I can use the compost on my veggies, I may have to stick to the flower bed… )  This happens a max of 4 times a year (I expect I will be doing it once a year).

That’s it, it’s just different than a flush toilet, it hasn’t been gross in any ways [to me].  There are actually a lot more pros than there are cons [to me].  I would definitely suggest the unit to anyone else.  It’s weird to talk about potties but I am totally fine with it if there are any questions that are left that I haven’t answered, please, write them in a comment, I’m sure you aren’t the only one wondering.  I’ll do my best to answer them as much as I possibly can!

To leave off, one important thing I haven’t really mentioned, because my unit does it automatically, a good composting toilet will have a urine separater which does exactly that, separates the urine.  THAT is actually the stinkie part of a toilet… if you can keep the solid and liquids separate the smells go WAY down though urine will smell much faster and much stronger than poo.

The must haves of a hands-off composting toilet to me include a urine separator of some sort, a vent (preferably with a fan to make SURE the air-flow is going the right way – OUT), and depending on your climate a little heater to keep things above freezing and help evaporate off the liquids.  There are plenty of people though that are good with the humanuer version (5 gallon bucket with sawdust, they sell urine separators for those too…) I just didn’t like the maintenance of those and the fact they would definitely not be allowed in a city center because of health and safety regulations, for some they are a great and inexpensive option though.  Now for the pictures inside the toilet… turn away if you must (it’s really not that bad…)!

Because I can’t just leave it there I have included a video of Denny playing fetch in the tiny house… you can get a glimpse of my belly which is now HUGE! ;-)


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