Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Review of Our Waterless Loo

Full of our bio-goodness...
doesn't look gross to me!
As the winter months have worn on, our focus has shifted to improving the interior aspects of our home. That includes our toilet system.

A subject of much fascination, and just as much incredulity, the naturally composting toilet is really quite manageable and simple. As I have mentioned before, I strongly suggest to anyone interested in learning legitimate information on the subject- The Humanure Handbook. There have been few books that have had such a radical effect on my perspective and my choices. This book presented the subject objectively and the logic and cascading improvements that can occur seemed too much to pass by. I was resolute in using a naturally composting toilet after reading this book.

At the most basic level, it's all about the nitrogen to carbon ratio - which also inherently ties into moisture levels. If there is an excess of nitrogen, that is what causes the smell. If there is enough carbon to absorb this, the smell is neutralized. Carbon can be in the form of hay, leaves, wood shavings...any dried plant matter would work well. As for moisture, well that's kind of universal- if it's too moist, it's going to smell soon. I've seen plenty of comments from people saying something along the lines of:"I've been around composting toilets, and no matter what they say, it does smell. It stinks all the time." -To those people I would like to say, "Well, then you have been around a composting toilet managed by someone who doesn't know what they are doing." I've given serious thought more than once to making a video montage of just person after person stepping into our house and immediately asking them, "What does it smell like in here?" The most common answer? Fresh wood. 

~I am here to tell you, I've seen, smelt,  and lived it for over a year now. Composting toilets DO NOT STINK if they are properly maintained.~ 

A detail that I have come to value is that it's very important to have "live" carbon, as in, the material was never treated in any way. Often times, wood shavings are from heat treated wood, which means they are devoid of any of the microorganisms that help the composting process along. Yes, the stuff will still eventually compost, but it takes much longer. While many composting toilets use expensive and sizable incineration units (which from a nutrient cycle standpoint are just as bad as the regular flush), a naturally composting toilet can be obtained for less than $10. We have a five gallon bucket with a bench built over it to provide comfortable, traditional seating with the use of a toilet lid. All you need after that is some wood shavings, leaves, or hay--and of course some TP. 

So what are the chores of a composting toilet like? Not really much at all. We built an outdoor compost pile with recycled pallets. We take the bucket out about once a week and bury it in the large dedicated compost pile. Once the bucket is dumped, we rinse and scrub the bucket with biodegradable soaps and a toilet bowl brush. After the bucket is washed and rinsed, we return it under the bench and put down a fresh layer of shavings. Maintaining a steady supply of wood shavings has turned out to be the more onerous aspect. Since we haven't been doing a lot of work with wood lately, we don't have the benefit of free live wood shavings. We purchase shavings right now, and have to store them inside as well. I don't like paying for something I once got for free, especially when the kind that costs money is less superior.  These shavings are from treated wood, so the composting activity is minimal compared to what I have seen. 

Anyways- this drove me to find ways to improve the process. I was beginning to see that about 80-90% of our deposits were just pee, but there is the carbon and moisture to think about, so even every few pee deposits would require some shavings. The cost and challenge of storage space directed my focus to the shavings.  How can we use less? I remember seeing a small blurb as I researched composting toilets, but only read the title: "The Benefits of a Urine Diverter". I wish I had read that! I started looking into it recently and have learned some amazing things about pee! 

First and foremost, this would immediately solve the shavings issue- as this would eliminate 80-90% of the need for shavings! An added bonus would be the serious decrease in how often we would need to take the bucket out. I estimate every 2-3 weeks now! Not to mention- the outdoor compost pile is less than six months old and is fast approaching max capacity. I don't want our piles to be any larger than the space we built!

To complete the composting cycle, you need two piles that you rotate between each year. After letting one pile rest for one year, it is completely composted and safe for use as a fantastic soil additive, then you have an empty space to start that upcoming year's pile. 

Back to the tinkle, though. I have always known that urine can be a great fertilizer for the soil, I just didn't realize how great it really was. There is a lot of exciting research going on out there which shows that we could easily produce all the fertilizers we need to grow food and feed our country just by using our urine! No need for artificial chemicals or genetically modified monster plants. The ramifications of this shift in farming techniques is overwhelming. I'll just pick a few quotes that really nailed it home for me...

“The average person flushes the toilet five times a day, and four of those times are just for urine. This means that 80% of our flushwater—or over 4,000 gallons of clean water each year per person—is used just to get rid of urine! That is a lot of clean water used to transport ‘liquid gold’ into the sewer, where it becomes pollution. If we save it instead of flushing it, we can harvest a valuable resource that we can use in agriculture.” - Rich Earth Institute

"Human urine is naturally rich in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, and with about 30 billion gallons produced every year in the US alone, it’s certainly in abundant supply. For the average person, a year’s worth of urine contains about eight pounds of nitrogen and nearly one pound of phosphorus – that’s enough to grow about one year’s worth of food!" 
-Rich Earth Institute

Read more here....and here.

As a result of all this, we were inspired to install a urine diverter. Now, there are many makes and models out there that will get the job done, but again, we like it cheap and simple. Ergo, the ginger bread men jar. BOOM. Urine = Diverted. hahaha

And for anyone completely horrified by this or the composting of poop, I urge you to do some research. Urine is sterile in healthy humans, and with all the added benefits it has for the earth and our future as a species, it's time we all re-think our immediate reactions to number one and two. It has been used all over the world for thousands of years in farming- with much more promising and sustainable results than any chemical product out there today. What I find most amusing, is that pretty much every person that is grossed out by composting human pee and pooh, readily accepts that- of course- it's good to fertilize the gardens with cow, goat, chicken, pig, etc pee and pooh. With so much tendency to think we are superior, why wouldn't our stinky stuff be superior as well? I've never understood that one. ;)

Sophisticated system, I know.

So with the new system in place, I find myself excited to do my own experiments with urine as a fertilizer for anything I might grow around the tiny house this season. Right now, we just water it down and dump it over our compost pile. I'm hoping it will give things a nice kick start and make up for all of the slowly composting treated shavings. We have already found that the ginger bread men take up just a little to much room, so we found a slimmer model. Once we eat all those pickles, it's the new wee pot! I cannot wait to get my hands on two books I ordered: Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine To Grow Plants and the Life Of Pee. I'm sure I'll be sharing what I learn in future posts!

In other news, we are in the March issue of RI Monthly Magazine! Grab yourself a copy and check it out! We were also lucky enough to get to see all the photos that Nat took, not just those included in the feature. They make our place look fantastic! (I can hear Dan now, 'That's because it IS a fantastic place, babe.") I grabbed a bunch of copies to share with family, we are so excited! :)

In other, other news, after a very long period of thought and deliberation, I have left my corporate travel job. The tiny house and the smart choices we have made with our financial habits has allowed me to make such a decision. I was no longer hamstrung by the fact that we needed a certain amount of money every month just to maintain. Paying off my car and CC's was huge. Now that our monthly living costs are much lower, I have more freedom to explore other options and seek out something that genuinely fulfills me. I'm not sure what that is yet, I've spent the last week just trying to get back in touch with who I am...was...or would like to be again. I have been cooking, painting, playing music, writing, photographing and feeling more alive by the day. I've also had serious boughts of worry, fear, uncertainty, but I knew that would come as part of the package. I was getting very comfortable and attached to the security of the job I had, but I also saw, what I considered the best and most interesting parts of me, slowly fading as all my energy each day went into work or just persevering the awful side effects of that work. 

Our future diverter- coffee mug for reference.
While many think I'm being foolish or perhaps just "not very smart" about this, I don't care. Ultimately it is my life, and I will do with it what I choose. On my last day, the only person I have to answer for is myself, and I don't want to be one of the vast majority that says they wished they had more time. They wished they had taken more risks and followed their own desires versus what was considered safe, smart, or conventional. 

It certainly won't be the first time in my life that I have made and stuck by a decision, despite many close to me warning against it. (Hint, this entire blog chronicles one of them.) And, I truly hope -that like so many times before- my choice, grit, and dedication will be met with amazing success. I want to try developing my own business of some sort, and I feel there is never going to be a better time than NOW. I'm still young, no kids yet, so I feel now is the time to give it a shot and see if I still have the fire and gumption to create and succeed with my own business. It could very well be a collection of smaller businesses, or just one solid business, or I might find that I prefer working for steady pay and letting someone else manage the headaches. Who knows!? I'm willing to face any outcome, because with that comes the contentment of knowing I tried and went after what I wanted. I guess that is what ate at me most...I was staying at a job I didn't particularly enjoy and certainly didn't personally interest me, and for what? I couldn't live with myself if I just stayed sitting at that desk because it was the "safe" or "smart" thing to do.  

There are three quotes (among thousands!) by Thoreau that I constantly recite to myself as of late:

"If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

"However mean your life is, meet it and live it." 

"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives."

Thanks for reading!
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  1. Good for you! And thanks for recommending the Humanure Handbook - I just finished it and it has transformed my thoughts on composting and water consumption in so many ways.

  2. I just added this book to my cart on Amazon! Thanks for the recommendation! Definitely going to look into doing this when we move to the country in a few weeks!!

  3. Great blog! The composting thing makes souch sense. It's not my own bodily waste that necessarily grosses me out but others around me. I guess I'll have to come to terms with this!!

  4. The Humanure Handbook is great. Had asawdust toilet in my tiny trailer, a tiny one so it had to be emptied daily. Had no moisture problem using the pine pellets they sell for cat litter. Hesitant to replace the toilet in the new trailer because of warranty issues, but giving it serious thought, as we like to be off grid.

  5. Thanks for sharing! I had been wanting a composting toilet for a while now. The other ones are really expensive for me though and I had thought about the bucket but didn't know about what to do with the pee. Thanks for sharing your experience and giving tips!

  6. As a woman I've always had the hardest time peeing into those cups they give you at the doctors office. How on earth do you manage to pee into a bottle without making a mess?!!

    1. Hahaha I had similar thoughts before giving it a try. I have two recommendations: choose a WIDE mouth, elongated jar or container....and hold it close to you! ;)

  7. Arianne, there are awesome products made for women to help pee while standing (for use when camping, hiking, in nasty bathrooms where you'd rather not sit down, etc). I can personally recommend one called the pStyle. Amazon sells it for around $13, and it directs the urine into a small steam that I imagine would be easy to aim into a jar.

    1. I actually bought something similar called the GoGirl...it's a flexible version of the specialized funnel. It takes a little getting used to, but once mastered, can be an incredibly convenient tool to have, especially in the outdoors. To not have to pull your pants all the way down?! Priceless.