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Off-Grid Toilet Options You Should Know Before Making a Decision
If you’ve tried living off-grid or starting a homestead, you’ll know that sanitation is not something to take for granted. Proper sanitation reduces biohazards, pests, and it simply keeps your home clean and organized. This is why we think to become self-sufficient, you will need a proper waste management system.
Once you lose access to municipal sewer systems, answering nature’s call can become a challenge. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be, not when there are a few sustainable off-grid toilet options to choose from.
But first, what is an off-grid composting toilet?
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What Is an Off-Grid Composting Toilet?
Modern composting toilets are self-contained systems that eliminate the need for water, septic tanks, and plumbing grids. Surprisingly, the odor in these toilet systems is mild, and the holding tanks don’t fill up as quickly as you might imagine.
Instead of being a mere collector of waste, like a conventional toilet, the composting system stores and treats solid waste until it ends up looking like topsoil. Then, you can spread it safely outdoors. In some cases, the system separates liquid waste from solids too.
That’s why you’ll find this system in regular models that mix solid and liquid waste or separating models that come with removable urine tanks/bottles.
You might even get a centralized model that gathers waste from up to three toilets in one large composting bin. These systems can go longer between maintenance sessions and are a better fit for larger off-grid houses.
Regardless of the mode, the main principle behind the composting system is using aerobic bacteria to break down solid waste into simpler (and less toxic) compounds. That said, there’s more to this complex system than just that.
How Does an Off-Grid Composting Toilet Work?
The seating area on an off-grid composting toilet looks similar to that of a conventional toilet. However, the parts underneath are very distinct.
In a composting toilet, you’ll find a container that stores the waste instead of draining it down into a sewer system.
Inside the container, the solid waste is mixed with bulking materials like wood shavings, peat moss, wood chips, sawdust, or coco peat. Then, aerobic bacteria start the decomposition process.
To speed up this process, some manufacturers add an agitation crank to the toilet design.
Just as the name “aerobic” implies, the bacteria in the container need oxygen to survive. That’s why you’ll find a fan or a venting hole connected to the composting container. However, this vent opens to the outdoors to reduce the odor inside the latrine.
With regular composting toilets, the fan also serves another purpose; it evaporates the excess moisture from the liquid waste. Of course, the amount of moisture that makes it to the composting container in models that separate urine is too small to be a concern.
Finally, when the container is full, you’ll empty it outdoors. The best part is that residual compost and bacteria will act as activators for the next batch.
Different Off-Grid Toilet Options Available
Outhouses and composting toilets are rather popular systems among people who embrace the off-grid lifestyle. However, you don’t have to limit your options to those two.
From incinerator systems to simple buckets, there’s an alternative toilet system out there for everyone.
If you don’t mind getting a septic system installed, you can set up a regular toilet without access to a plumbing grid. Just keep in mind that a septic tank is expensive.
This option is a good fit if you want something as close as possible to a conventional toilet.
Cartridge Composting Toilet
Adding a composting feature to a cartridge toilet helps you get more uses between cartridge changes. That’s because the composting process reduces the volume of solid waste.
Believe it or not, it also helps control the odor when it’s finally time to change the bag/cartridge.
Electric Incinerator Toilet
One way to get rid of human waste when you’re living off-grid is by burning it to vapor and sterile ash. That’s exactly what an incinerator toilet does.
Most people opt for propane-powered models, but it’s possible to get an electrical incinerating toilet. Just note that the ash isn’t suitable to be used for fertilizing plants since it lacks nutrients.
Separating Compost Toilet
The separating compost toilet automatically diverts urine away from the compost container, but you have to remain seated for this feature to function.
Usually, the system collects liquid waste in a standalone tank, but some models come with a drainage pipe. Either way, this feature helps reduce excess moisture inside the composting tank.
Outhouses are standalone structures (usually wooden) sitting over a pit latrine. So, the waste is collected in a 3×5-foot hole that you dig vertically into the ground beforehand.
What happens when the hole is full? Well, you cover it up and move the outhouse to a new spot, but that should happen once every few years.
If your off-grid lifestyle requires a lot of moving around, portable toilets are the way to go.
They’re lightweight, and their holding capacity varies by brand. Yet, they still require a considerable amount of maintenance since the collected waste remains untreated until you dispose of it.
Home Biogas – Bio Toilet
HomeBiogas is the leader biogas toilets. Their anaerobic digester in the Bio-Toilet kit lets you turn your waste into cooking gas that you can use to power stovetops.
This option can be a good fit for larger families willing to invest in a self-contained off-grid setup. Using this solution would also lower your gas bill and help you live a more self-sustainable lifestyle.
Off-Grid Bucket Toilet
The bucket toilet is, hands down, the simplest option on the list. You just line a 5-gallon bucket with a compostable bag, set up a toilet seat over it, and call it a day.
However, the maintenance is unpleasant compared to more complex toilet systems.
How to Use an Off-Grid Composting Toilet
Once you get the hang of it, using a composting toilet should be fairly simple.
- Sit on the toilet just like you would with a conventional model.
- If you have a urine diverter, sit while urinating to allow the liquid to collect at the front.
- Open the lever on the side before going for number 2.
- Use highly biodegradable toilet paper and drop it in the toilet.
- Scoop and drop compost material like peat moss into the bowl.
- Close the lever when you’re done.
- Use the crank on the side to “stir” the solid waste.
- When the crank feels too heavy to turn, you’ll know it’s time to empty the container.
- Pull out the container, cover it with a bag, and empty the waste into the bag.
- Empty the bag’s contents outside in your compost pile or a sunny spot until the waste cures and turns into dirt.
- Don’t wash the container since detergents might kill the beneficial aerobic bacteria.
- When the urine bottle is full, take it out and dump it away from vegetation and water sources.
How to Dispose of Compost Toilet Waste
There are different ways to get rid of waste from an off-grid toilet.
Depending on your system, capacity, local regulations, and location, you can pick any of the following methods:
- Use a black waste disposal point. You’ll find those on camping sites.
- Drop the waste in a regular public toilet. This method only works for small amounts of waste without chemical treatments.
- Start a compost pile. After a few months, the volume should be reduced, and you can use the compost as fertilizer for non-edible flower beds.
- Dilute urine and use it as fertilizer. When used the right way, urine boosts plant growth.
- Bury the waste underground. If you follow regulations, this method can help prevent the spreading of diseases.
- Drain/dump the waste in a septic tank. This method works both for regular and portable toilets. Just make sure you’re not pouring the waste into a baffled port.
One important note here is that most of these methods only work for human waste. So, you’ll have to find a different disposal method for toilet paper or diapers.
For more detail, see our article on how to dispose of human waste from compost toilets.
Considerations Before Getting an Off-Grid Toilet
Picking a toilet system that suits your needs can seem overwhelming initially. After all, you have to consider your usage patterns, location, and available resources.
However, once you break each point down, you’ll be able to narrow your options to a perfect fit!
Frequency of Use
Off-grid toilets with small tanks, like portable systems, are suitable for camping trips. However, if you’re looking for something that can handle more frequent usage patterns, these low-capacity systems won’t cut it.
Similarly, outhouses are great for vacation cabins since the long intervals of inactivity help extend the pit’s lifespan.
General or passive ventilation is crucial for odor control in any off-grid toilet. However, some toilets require even more aeration.
For instance, composting toilets require adequate ventilation to provide enough oxygen for aerobic microorganisms. So, you’ll need active ventilation (fan) with a power source.
Some manufacturers label their off-grid toilet systems for specific temperature ranges. So, something like the biogas system needs an average temperature of 68°F or higher.
On the other hand, sometimes you have to consider the weather for your comfort. For instance, outhouses are best placed downwind to avoid carrying the odor back to your cabin.
All off-grid toilets require some degree of maintenance, from emptying containers to adding compost materials.
If you don’t want to bother with a lot of maintenance, opt for more complex systems like Biogas or incinerating toilets. These systems handle some of the work for you.
Disposal of Waste
The way you prefer to dispose of waste is going to make all the difference when you’re choosing a system.
For instance, if you’re squeamish, the bucket toilet is off the table. Plus, if you don’t have any nearby dump sites or septic tanks, something self-contained (a composting or incinerating toilet) is the way to go.
This is a task you will have to be mindful of as a composting toilet requires regular monitoring to ensure human waste does not pile up.
It’s possible to use off-grid toilets in many states as long as you get the proper paperwork ready and prepare an approved waste disposal plan.
However, some regions prohibit off-grid systems in areas with access to water and power. For instance, you might not be able to set up a pit privy or a septic tank if there’s a public sewer within 400 feet in certain counties.
Need for Electricity
Some people don’t mind setting up a clean energy source for their off-grid residence, but others don’t have that luxury.
In this case, it would be wise to steer clear of incinerating toilets or systems that require active ventilation and water pumps.
Diverting in off-grid toilets is a feature that separates urine from solid waste to reduce odor and emptying rates.
Some models, like separating compost toilets, come with a built-in diverter. However, it’s possible to get an upgrade for other simpler systems. You can even DIY a custom diverter.
The top off-grid toilet options are composting, incinerating, outhouse, portable, and biogas systems. That said, the good-old bucket toilet can be a lifesaver if you’re on a tight budget and need a short-term solution.
Still, managing a human waste system can be burdensome since you have to take into account maintenance, cleaning, disposing of waste, ventilation, and preventing biohazardous situations. Additionally, you’ll need to double-check your local regulations to make sure you can keep a compositing toilet system on your property.
Despite the challenges, if you are serious about going fully off-the-grid, having a composting toilet or a septic system is an important step towards independence and self-sustainability.
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What to do with urine from compost toilets?
First and foremost, it is important to keep urine separate from your poop. If they were to come in contact, it would make a foul smell and could potentially become a biohazard. For some solutions to dispose of urine, consider the following:
- Creating Plant Feed from Urine: Urine has many of the same compounds found in fertilizer, which contribute to the growth of (non-edible) plants.
- Get rid of it: The simple solution is to dispose of urine on the ground. Since urine is an organic material, it will not cause any harm to the area where it was disposed of.
- Animal Repellent: By diluting urine into 1 part urine and 9 parts water and placing it around your garden, it will make a scent that repels rabbits, deer, and raccoons.
- Add to Compost: Since urine is an organic material, it can be added to your compost.
Do composting toilets smell?
A well-maintained composting toilet should NOT smell. However, the toilet would need regular cleaning to ensure the odor does not become unpleasant. A simple suggestion to reduce the unpleasant odor without inhibiting the organic composting process is to use organic distilled vinegar to mask the smell, prevent build-up, and act as a disinfectant. We suggest keeping a spray bottle of cleaning vinegar nearby and applying it to the composting toilet after each use.
How often do you empty a composting toilet?
The average adult produces about 6 pounds of human waste per week. So for a single person, you should aim to empty a composting toilet once a month. And for two adults, you should aim to empty a composting toilet about every 2 weeks. Some people choose to wait until the composting toilets are full, but we advise against it. By increasing the frequency of emptying it, you reduce unpleasant odors and improve sanitary conditions.
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If you are looking to buy cookware, you probably came down to ceramic cookware vs stainless steel cookware. Learn to see which is better for you.