2015 Summer Journal

Reader Questions: What’s it like to live with a composting toilet?

Outside Found Bus Nature's Head Composting Toilet

Last week I had a lovely phone call with a couple who are in the beginning stages of their bus conversion and trying to decide between a regular toilet and a composting toilet like we have. We’ve been living with the composting toilet for about three months now and are loving it. Here are the down-and-dirty details:

The Nature's Head Dry Composting Toilet – a thing of beauty!

What the heck is this thing?
Our toilet is the Nature’s Head Dry Composting Toilet, which runs about $960 on Amazon.

How does it work?
This toilet is probably unlike any toilet you’ve seen before. The basic concept is that the toilet separates your “liquids” from your “solids” so that soupy sewage is never created. Urine is diverted into the jug in the front, which gets emptied when it gets full. Solids drop into the base and are mixed with peat moss to help break them down.

 

 

Does it smell?
Amazingly, no! The toilet has an integrated fan that vents under the bus, creating negative air pressure that sucks all of the smell outside. When it’s working properly (It took us a little while to get the installation set up perfectly, but now that it’s working we haven’t had to mess with it in months) there is absolutely no bathroom smell. Surprisingly, taking a poop in the NH is less stinky than in a regular toilet, because the fan is working to whisk all of the odors away. This is incredible when living in such a small space, I’m sure you can understand why. 

How often do you have to empty it?
Other people have said the urine container can last them a week. Apparently Will and I are super hydrated, because we have to empty the urine container roughly every 2.5 days. We emptied the solids in Hoodsport (early July) and haven’t had to deal with them since – we generally try to use other bathrooms for #2 when they’re available, so it’s not filling up too fast.

How do you empty?
The urine is easy; just find a safe place to dump it. Our favorite pee dump spots (man, how weird it feels to have written those words just now… what is my life coming to!) are sewer pipes found at RV parks or RV dump stations, followed by toilets (just dump & flush!), followed by dispersed forest areas. We generally try not to have to dump the pee in a random place, because it is a LOT of urine and has a smell to it. Sometimes though, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. 

Will emptying the urine jug at an RV Dump Station

Will emptying the urine jug at an RV Dump Station in Idaho Springs, CO. The black hose is a regular garden hose hooked up to our grey water tank for emptying. Using a larger diameter hose would be a lot faster, but the garden hose is cheap and convenient.

 

The solids are harder. (ha! pun definitely intended) Emptying requires not using the toilet for half a day (to make sure you have no fresh materials), pulling the toilet out of the bathroom (easy to do, just unscrew two little knobs), bringing it outside, and dumping everything into a trash bag. I’ve peeked in the container a few times over the last few months and am amazed at how non-pooplike everything looks in there; the only thing that gives it away are the little bits of toilet paper. Once it’s sealed in the bag it’s safe & legal to toss in a dumpster. If we were stationary, we could add it to a non-food compost pile and use it for grass or something later, but we aren’t that sophisticated.

Isn’t that gross?
Honestly, I think dealing with human waste is pretty gross, no matter how you look at it. Personally, I would rather manage it in small doses like this than have to deal with getting out a big sewer hose and dumping it down the RV drain – plus, I am so happy that we don’t have that sewer smell from the black tank. 

Composting Toilet PROS

  • No black water to deal with, which means no black tank to hang under the bus!
  • No need to store stinky sewer hoses
  • No smell, even when in the act!
  • Impossible to clog

Composting Toilet CONS

  • Urine will overflow if you’re not careful (yes, we’ve done this; not once but twice)
  • Emptying the urine can sometimes be awkward (maybe look at it as a growing experience?)
  • Cost – not a cheap unit!
  • You must carry a peat moss for replenishing the toilet
  • Fan can be finicky, getting installation just right took a few weeks

That’s that!
Using a composting toilet really isn’t that big of a deal. It’s weird at first, but easy to get used to. Regular toilets are safe and familiar, but pooping in a bowl of water would also seem foreign and weird if we had all grown up using something else. It’s all about perspective!

Do you have questions or stories about the composting toilet? Leave them in the comments!

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  • Derrick Alan Evans

    Is there venting fan issues, I.e. Blowing in your neighbors window or the breeze carrying the curry fallout back though the campground? is the peat Moss labor intensive to keep enough grown and is it a hazmat affair to mix it with the solids?

    • Will Hitchcock

      Hey Derrick, thanks for writing in. We haven’t really noticed a smell outside at all from the toilet. Definitely the bigger odor source is our grey water tank which can get pretty funky after it’s been sitting for a while. When we first set up the toilet we bought a big bag of moss at the hardware store. That will supposedly last us for about a year of use, maybe more. You only put moss in after you have completely emptied the toilet. If the solids aren’t completely composted, there can be some bacteria in there so they do recommend using gloves. If you’re not actually emptying the toilet, you just have to turn a crank on the outside of the tank a few times after each use to mix up the waste with the moss. Pretty cool!

    • To add to Will’s comment – the toilet vents right underneath the bus, a few feet from where we set up our chairs on the passenger side. If there was an odor, we would definitely smell it!

  • This is such a timely post! We’re currently back in Elkhart so we can get our own Nature’s Head compost toilet installed at the manufacturers! We were considering installing it ourselves, but since we’re so new to our RV we thought we’d rather trust it to the professionals who know our RV better than we do at the moment. This is a great refresher for us as we begin to develop our own routine + process around the toilet. We’ve decided to go the coconut coir route, though – may test out peat moss later on down the road.

    • So happy we could help! Getting it professionally installed will be awesome, you won’t have to deal with the trial and error we did. They are super nice, too! I’ve heard good things about the coconut coir but we couldn’t find any when we were looking, and now we have waaaaaay more peat moss than we need. Next time we’ll try it out!

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  • Grace

    Good info to know! My boyfriend and I are considering buying a bus conversion/RV and going on the road. Sewage sounds awful but I wasn’t sure if a composting option was good for a non-stationary bus, so this blog is super helpful in trying to decide what options we really have. Looking forward to reading through the rest of your blog soon!

  • Composting Toilets

    Hi. I’m an official national distributor for the Nature’s Head. I’m happy to answer any questions, or troubleshoot if someone is having difficulty. The most critical thing is to hydrate the coco coir or peat moss correctly. Too wet, and it’s messy to dump. Too dry, and the handle is hard to turn. It should be just damp, and I have a video on that if anyone is interested. Another thing to keep in mind in the warn southern areas is flies. That is a problem easily prevented and solved as well. Check out compostingtoiletsusa.com