Is A Composting Toilet Right For You?
I’ve noticed that composting toilets are getting more and more popular for roadlife – whether used in a traditional RV, skoolie, van, or truck camper. While we’re still happy with our composting toilet after 4 years of use, it occurred to me that it’s not necessarily a good fit for everyone. So, I thought it was time to have honest chat about what I think are the key aspects of composting toilets that may deter people from getting one. Perhaps this will save some people money, time, and frustration.
This post will most likely make people who can’t talk about bodily functions squeamish. If that’s the case, I can save you the trouble and tell you that a composting toilet most likely isn’t for you. But otherwise, keep on reading to find out if a composting toilet is a good fit.
Let’s just be real and say it - composing toilets are expensive! The two most common brands are Nature’s Head and Air Head (we have the latter), and they cost between $900 - $1,000. That is not cheap for something you shit and pee in. Especially when you look at the fact that they don’t actually compost poop. But they do make life a lot more convenient. For me, the two things that make these composting toilets valuable are that they divert the liquid away from the solid and there’s a fan and vent to keep the solid tank dry. Those are crucial to keeping the shit smell to zero.
There’s also potentially the extra cost of hiring someone to install it for you if you’re not the handy type or just don’t want to deal with it yourself. Keep in mind, there may be cheaper composting toilets out there that I’m not aware of.
I’ve mentioned in previous toilet posts that we typically empty our solid tank (where the poop goes) every three weeks. That’s the two of us pooping once a day, every day. If your family consists of more people, then obviously that means more poop which equals emptying the solid tank more frequently. While emptying the solid tank isn’t difficult, it is extra work that you may not want to do as often as every one or two weeks. A black tank could potentially offer you more time in between dumps.
Sometimes we wish we had connected our composting toilet pee bottle to our gray tank. That would save us from having empty it every three days. Jerud likes to pee outside, and when he does throughout the day it means we don’t have to empty for 4 or 5 days. With a larger family though, it could need emptying it as frequently as every day.
Unable To Find Places To Empty Your Toilet
I don’t find it difficult to find places to empty our toilet, but I can imagine situations where it may be. The pee bottle is super easy to empty when we’re boondocking in the woods (remember to stay away from water sources and be considerate of other visitors). The solid tank isn’t really hard either because it just goes into a public dumpster. (More on how to empty your composting toilet in Where To Responsibly Empty Your Composting Toilet). The difficulties may arise if you mainly travel in cities. You can’t just empty your pee bottle anywhere in urban settings – especially not down a storm drain because those empty directly into natural waterways. While public dumpsters are more readily available in developed areas, the downside is that emptying your solid tank into a trash bag may be harder to do without drawing unwanted attention. Obviously, there are work-arounds for both: you can bring your pee bottle into a public bathroom and empty it down the toilet and your solid tank can be emptied into a trash bag at night, secluded places, or inside your rig.
Don’t Want To Wrestle A Bucket Of Shit
When the solids tank is full it weighs probably 10 - 15 lbs. (this is a guess since we’ve never actually weighed it). But that’s something to keep in mind when considering a composting toilet. Are you able to carry a solid tank that’s full, either on its own or still attached to the rest of the toilet, outside to be emptied into a trash bag? (Now try doing that without poking a hole in the bag with the agitator handle!) Are you able to lift that amount of weight around shoulder height to toss the trash bag into a dumpster?
The other thing to consider is that it’s more of a hassle to empty the solid tank with just one person. Our method is one person flips the solid tank into a trash bag that’s being held around the outside of the tank while the other person cranks the agitator handle to loosen up the content. But here’s the hard part: sometimes a large chunk of poop/coco pith mixture is stuck to the bottom of the container. That’s when we pull out the broken ski pole we carry just for this purpose to poke and prod the stuff until it’s loose enough to empty into the trash bag we’re using. The problem is that unless one person is holding open the trash bag while the other person dumps, the poop misses the bag and ends up everywhere. This isn’t a problem when we have the poop to coco pith ratio perfect, then it easily falls out of the tank when tipped upside down the first time around.
The last thing that may steer you away from having a composting toilet is the fact you are forced to confront your own shit semi-regularly. With a black tank, unless it spills, you don’t ever see the sludge in your tank (but when you do, I imagine it’s a lot more disgusting than what’s in a composting toilet). With these toilets, you’re face to face with your shit during the emptying process. When the mixture is done right it just looks (and smells) like dirt, but when it’s not then it’s gooey and gross.
Can’t Move Your Butt
The shape of a composting toilet seat isn’t different from a traditional toilet, but the mechanism of how it works is – so there will be a short adjustment period. For guys who need to stand to pee, the Air Head manual clearly states it’s doable but should aim away from the holes in the toilet bowl that diverts the pee into the bottle. Ladies, we get to pee like we always do. But it gets a bit tricky when it comes to pooping. Since you no longer have the entire toilet bowl to shit into, you actually have to aim. Luckily the size of the hole we poop into is good, and for the most part it’s aligned well enough with your butt that accuracy isn’t hard to achieve. But there’s still a need to look down between your legs when you’re seated and adjust to your butt to be absolutely sure that you’re lined up nicely. This is more necessary when you first get the toilet, but even after 4 years of using it I still occasionally check because I’d rather be safe than sorry.
If you can’t handle seeing poop, then a composting toilet isn’t for you. Aside from being up close and personal to a bucket full of shit when it’s time to empty your toilet, you’ll probably catch glimpses of it every time you poop. Sometimes you’ll see poop as you adjust your butt on the toilet to ensure your aim is correct. Sometimes you’ll see poop after you’re done to make sure the trap door isn’t going to close on a pile of it or catch any toilet paper. Sometimes there’s a sneaky turd that ends up on top of the trap door (aka liquid diverter door). Sometimes you’ll see poop when you open the trap door to check on the status of the contents in the solid tank: Is it too full? Does it need more organic matter? Did you stir it well enough with the agitator? And it’s not always your own poop you’re looking at.
Smells Like Ammonia
Urine doesn’t have much of a smell in small quantities. But when you have a large container full of it, it can force you to take a step back when the ammonia smell hits your nose. I’ve actually heard a full-timer say she chooses to empty the poop container and has her husband handle the pee bottle. If you really don’t like the smell of ammonia, be aware that you’ll get a whiff of it every three days or less. In addition to the smell, there will be scales/flakes that form on the inside walls of the urine bottle. I believe it’s caused by the uric acid in our urine as the collection bottle gets a higher concentration of urine each time we use it. It precipitates, leaving behind thick flakes. Sometimes the flakes will come out in chunks when you pour the pee bottle out. There’s nothing to worry about this health-wise, but it may be visually a turn off for some. But because we don’t frequently clean our pee bottle out, the inside walls of our bottle is permanently covered in these scales.
Can’t Stop On Command
The great thing about composting toilets is that they divert liquid and solid waste. This works thanks to a trap door built into the toilet bowl that you open when you need to poop and close if you just need to pee. This can become kind of a game when it’s time to take a dump. Poop time - open the trap door. Oh wait, I need to pee - close the trap door. Crap, I’m not done pooping – open the trap door. You get the picture.
Naturally every body works differently, but in order for a composting toilet to be most effective, you need to be able to pee and poop separately. If you can’t, then your solid tank is going to be extra wet leading to a smellier toilet. If you just can’t do it then perhaps it’s time to start doing your Kegel exercises every day.
Have A Sensitive Stomach
Or if you’re “an adventurous eater” as our friend Brad likes to say. In any case, if your turds are less like soft-serve and more like watering the grass then it’ll be hard to get everything down the trap door every time. You may end up cleaning the toilet bowl a bit more frequently. That’s not always the case with diarrhea, but just be prepared.
Hate Cleaning The Toilet
One of the perks of having a composting toilet is that you’re not wasting your limited fresh water on flushing. But it turns out there’s actually a small benefit to having water in your toilet – it helps keep it clean for longer. Peeing into a dry toilet bowl dirties it quickly. We have a small spray bottle with a 50/50 mixture of water and vinegar (we add a few drops of essential oil to mask the vinegar smell) in our bathroom and spray our toilet almost after each use. Whenever I think of it or our toilet gets dirtier than I like, I’ll pour some hot water into the toilet bowl to do a quick clean up. We actually don’t scrub our toilet bowl too often, but we probably should.
Aside from that, sometimes it’s necessary to actually wipe the toilet bowl down after a use to either clean up that skid mark or whatever else. The trap door also gets dirty fairly quickly, usually on the section that isn’t visible when it’s closed. We also keep a small container of coco pith or wood chips (whichever we happen to be using at the time) in our bathroom basket. Whenever the solid tank is too wet, instead of taking the toilet seat off the tank, I’ll just open the trap door and pour the organic matter into the solid tank. That never goes in perfectly, so I end up having to clean up around the trap door.
SO, IS A COMPOSTING TOILET THE ONE FOR YOU?
Despite all these potential deterrents, the composting toilet is still our first choice. It fits better with our lifestyle and how we travel. We’ve also had visiting friends who’ve used it without any issues or complaints. But it’s totally fine if the composting toilet isn’t for you. There are actually several alternative toilets options that may be a better fit: cassette toilet, traditional RV toilet, bucket toilet, and dry flush toilet. Check out this blog post by Parked In Paradise that break down the pros and cons of some of these toilets.