One year on, am I still using the simple compost toilet?

Around a year ago, I wrote about using a very simple ‘humanure’ style bucket compost toilet [link to original article]. So one year on, how do I feel this really cheap, simple compost toilet has worked out and will I continue to use it?

Does it still work well?

It’s worked well at times but less so at others. It’s been a brilliant experience in terms of understanding where it’s strengths and weaknesses are and has really given me a huge chunk of knowledge and understanding.

Here are my views on the positives and negatives of using it for a year…

Positive aspects

  • Incredibly cheap
  • Incredibly simple
  • Doesn’t smell once you’ve perfected the amount and type of your cover material
  • Easy to use – no special instructions for users – just use as per a flushing toilet (although sitting does help – more on that later)
  • Easy to empty and get ready for next use
  • Produces great compost due to the balance of carbon and nitrogen in the contents/cover material
  • Portable and can be easily moved anywhere – no vents, fans or fittings

Negative aspects

  • Takes a while to get the right cover material
  • Can smell (until you get the cover perfected)
  • Fills up really quickly if used for urine a lot of the time
  • Can be heavy to lift a nearly full container (esp. if lots of urine is in there)
  • Generates a lot of material for composting (so you’ll need an appropriate number of bins and the space for them)

It’s all about the cover material

One of the best cover materials I used is wood shavings (sold as pet bedding) that had been left outside partially open to the elements, for a few months. In this situation, bacteria have already started to break down the wood shavings, so when you add it as a cover in the toilet, the bacteria get to work quickly and act as a bio filter, working quickly on odours. Getting the right cover material is absolutely key to this type of toilet working well, so be prepared to experiment.

I also recently tried adding some specific bacteria to the toilet – this appeared to have a MASSIVE effect on reducing odours and thereby reducing the amount of cover material I needed to use – I’ll write more about this later on…

Compost toilet container, ready to empty.
My compost toilet just before emptying – it didn’t smell!

What about urine?

I used it for urine, but when I just needed a wee I tried to go elsewhere. If you’re sitting down to have a crap and you need to wee (as you often do), then that’s fine. But urine accounts for 80% or more by volume of what comes out of your body, so really fills the loo up quickly and makes it heavy to lift.

If I stood and urinated into the loo (which is one of the attractions of this style of loo over a separating one), the impact of the urine stream falling from a reasonable height, would disturb the cover and often let some smells out – not a great problem, but something to be aware of.

My loo has a 20 litre container, and that fills up quite quickly (depending on urine use). I soon discovered that once it gets to around 3/4 full, you have to empty because when you sit down, your ‘bits’ get perilously close to the contents (perhaps more of an issue for the guys!).

Possible improvements?

As my loo is essentially a temporary or camping toilet, the seat is a bit smaller than a regular loo seat. Whilst it’s OK for occasional use, I would prefer a full-sized seat for more full time use.

If you’re building your own loo, then it’s simple to incorporate a full sized seat, but it’s all a compromise of size, portability and price over functionality – you choose what’s best for you.

Likewise, having a larger container would be good – 25 or 30 litres (5 US gallons) would help but that comes with the downside of the weight when full. If you’re less able bodied, then this is important to consider.

Bucket toilets usually don’t have any ventilation because the container comes up to the base of the seat, but if it was possible to incorporate a vent and maybe a fan into the system, that would help too, but then you’re making it all more complicated. The room it’s in certainly does need some ventilation in my opinion.

Will I keep using my bucket toilet?

Probably not. It will get some use as a camping toilet – the lid clips into place so it can be taken in a car or van and would be good as a temporary or emergency toilet.

After a year, I’ve come back to the realisation that for a small toilet, a separating toilet (ie one that diverts the urine and crap at source) is the way to go – letting the urine go into the ground via a soakaway, or even collecting it for use as a fertiliser makes management much easier.

In a separating or urine-diverting toilet, only the solids are retained, and with less volume to hold, emptying will be less frequent and hence even easier. Controlling odours will be easier too as urine tends to be the smelliest contributor!

However, separators are not perfect. The compromise is that men really need to sit down to use them (otherwise wee can get into the solids container), and ladies need to sit fully (not hover). When you’re new to using a separator, it might take a few goes to find the perfect position and some ladies find they need to shuffle forwards a bit when weeing and backwards when pooing.

For some people/situations, I do think the all-in-one bucket toilet approach is the best – if you have different/new people using the loo all the time and can’t trust them to read and act on instructions (ie sit down fully etc), then it makes sense.

If you have small children, then separating loos can be difficult for them to use correctly due to their legs being shorter (you could have a bucket loo for the kids…).

So what are your thoughts – have you had experience of both. Does one work better for you than another? Let us know – we’d love to hear!

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