A Tiny “Civilized” Life

toilet

by Catherine Zola
CatsTinyHome

Historically civilizations are judged and rated by their level of plumbing know-how. In the past I would have used different criteria to determine a people’s worthiness of the title “civilized.” I would give them a grade for their creativity maybe, or lack of poverty, or how long they could go without starting any wars. After living nearly 2 years without indoor plumbing, however, I would now have to agree with the historians. Having hot running water in the house certainly makes one feel civilized.

When I started building my tiny home 2 years ago I knew I did not want to be tapped into city plumbing and use water for flushing. After considerable research on tiny house sewage, I purchased what I thought was going to be the perfect compost toilet for my needs. I designed the bathroom around the dimensions of said toilet and purchased it before building had begun. I wanted to be sure that as soon as we were ready to move in our elimination needs would be taken care of. It cost nearly $1,000, but I figured it was a small price to pay for what seemed like a key component for success in this wild experiment in sustainable living. A squat in the woods (a poo with a view as a friend calls it) is all fine and good for camping, but on a daily basis, at age 50, with a day job to get to on time, an indoor WC was going to be a requirement.

After 3 months of using the toilet I realized my mistake. Having lived twice previously with excellent composters I had something to compare it to and it came up short on about a dozen points. I’m sure once the company works out some of the kinks in the design it will be a very useful tiny toilet. In the mean time, they were nice enough to refund me. The thing I did like about it was the urine/feces separation structure. It makes sense to deal with these things separately since together they make more mess, more work, and more stink. One needs to be composted for a long time before use on edible plants and the other has immediate practical applications.

So back to the drawing board I went to come up with workable solutions. My current set up is an indoor urinal on its 3rd incarnation in 2 yrs: a stainless steel RV sink and some pvc. It runs out a pipe into a hay and gravel French drain, until I get a better system in place. For solids we use a camp porta-potty as a composter by adding sawdust. Urine from the loft’s nighttime bedpan is used with great success, on the garden. What better way to recycle than putting nitrogen back in the soil so you get lush leafy greens.

new toilet

A Future Incarnation of Tiny House Plumbing?

The design of my house has a 15 inch overhang in the bathroom that creates a bench and a shower seat. In the future I will use that overhang to make a toilet seat over an external composter. I will insert a urine diverter and continue to deal with liquid and solids separately. So far I am convinced that is the best way to go. To get to that place I will need to do a whole lot more research though and probably some experimentation.

I used to think this house building project was going to have a start and a finish like other projects I’ve done. Now I realize it is like many things in life – a process not a destination. Tiny living, after all, is a verb and sustainability a constant evolving process of learning to live lighter and lighter on the land. Every day one step closer to living humanely and a little more civilized, in the best sense of the word.

bathroom

For more ideas check out the history of plumbing in America: http://www.theplumber.com/usa.html

This picture from the LA Times by Michael Ciaglo Gazette September 11, 2013 shows how modern plumbing behaves in a time of crises. Could be time for a design upgrade on how we deal with sewage.

house

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Marcia Weber - October 10, 2013 Reply

I applaud that you lasted two years w/o indoor plumbing! When I moved to my caboose, I had only six months of poo with a view, and at 68, I have to say I’m thrilled to have all the comforts of home!

    Gail McCown - October 10, 2013 Reply

    Dear Marcia, at 50 we bought a tiny cabin in the woods and named it “the Backup Plan.” We had lost most of our 401k and my husband’s company was downsizing to the bone. Now we are 60, still working, but longing for a smaller life and a flock of chickens to pamper. I would love to hear your story— how to make the leap? can’t take much along! wish we could go solar– threatened by fracking in the next town— 3000 well? Warmest regards! Gail McCown

Hunter - October 10, 2013 Reply

Well, I must say, you have more patience than i do. I too want to live lightly but, i don’t know if i can give up a flush Loo.

    Lisa - October 17, 2013 Reply

    Considering this is such an important household function, I’m surprised that it has received so little attention over the years. One would think that some enterprising school class or engineer would come up with something viable for tiny living.

    I was thinking of adding an external storage enclosure for fluids and composted solids; a “pan box” with one container for each type of waste. This way, it would be stored away from the living space when mobile and could be dealt with at a convenient disposal point.

    For fluids, there could be a runoff tube from the commode directly to the container. Maybe an internal trap door that would lead to the compost waste container. The containers could be seamless stainless steel with handles. Maybe the fluid container would have a spicket if too heavy to lift (water weighs 8 lbs a gallon).

    Just some thoughts on how to build a better mouse trap. But surely someone or some group could take this on and give us better solutions than the woods or ridiculously expensive contraptions that really only come down to a fancy chamber pot.

Kim from Vermont - October 10, 2013 Reply

Holey S*&#! That final picture is scarey! Thanks SO much for this article. I’d LOVE to pick your brain on the 12 ways your original composting toilet (with $1,000 price tag) didn’t work. A friend turned me on to them, and like you, I was under the impression that they were simply great. I won’t be building for a while, so I’m trying to get all my ideas as solid as possible before investing all that money and time. Would love to learn more from you!
🙂 kim from Vermont

    catherine - October 11, 2013 Reply

    Hi Kim. Here it is:
    1) weird porous plastic was used that was very hard to clean. 2) Very hard to clean out mostly because most of the contents were not even remotely composted by the time it needed emptying. 3) an option for siphoning urine to larger holder or to outdoor composting would be nice since the tiny little bottle holds very little. 4) turn mechanism could use design help. 5) Needs miraculous invention to figure out how to speed composting or separate done from not done,or…
    LOVED the urine separation device which worked well and it was cute and compact. But you know things need to be re-thought if a bucket of sawdust works better. I so wanted that toidy to work so I hope they figure it out so I can buy the new and improved version.

      Debra - October 12, 2013 Reply

      We have used a Nature’s Head for over a year now, and have solutions to some of your issues. You can attach a washer drain hose to the outlet that goes into the urine jug and drain the urine away. We bought a second base for ours, so the first base can sit in a corner of the yard, with the supplied vented lid, and continue to compost before it needs to be emptied. Which handle did yours have, the regular crank or the “spider” handle? We have the regular crank, and it works well. One reason some people have issues with composting toilets, especially in off-grid situations like ours, is that they don’t have a consistent heat source. The temperature must be at least 55 degrees F in order for composting to occur. One of our neighbors tried a SunMar, but had little success because he heated with a very tiny wood stove and didn’t maintain the required temperature.

        Philip Taccetta - October 14, 2013 Reply

        Again the dreaded “what to do with the poo” question raises its ugly head! I’ve posted several times on this topic. We lived with a SunMar for 7or so years. Temperature was not a problem – off grid passive solar adobe – large by tiny home standards (1500sq.ft.)but if I was gone all winter the house would rarely drop below 60.The SunMar was liked by my wife(vs. the outhouse)except it never worked as stated – we were meticulous following their recommended procedures – every six weeks like clockwork a new crop of tiny flies. We tried everything – total emptying, vinegar washout,even resorted to bug spray – no luck. We replaced it with a Separett urine diverting toilet. Easy – works great solids go in a bucket lined with a 13gal biodegradable bag.Sawdust can be used if you have an aversion to seeing “poo” – when full, close the bag, snap on the lid, carry out to compost pile, cover bag with a couple of shovels of dirt. I modified the SunMar vent, and use the 12V “muffin fan”(.3W)no odor. There is also a book on fertilizing with urine – proper dilution etc.
        Good luck!

Just Joe - October 10, 2013 Reply

Nicely done piece, thank you for the effort and of course for sharing. This makes at least for 2 very well done reviews by Tiny House folk, on this system, and it has essentially removed this particular model of my list of possibilities for my own future build.

Seems the Envirolet® is really a best fit for me.

    catherine - October 11, 2013 Reply

    I searched for reviews of that toilet before I bought it but obviously I found none, so glad to be of help. I think the toilet that turns poo to ash would be fun but it uses probably a lot of electricity and it sounds a like scary. The ash might be good to compost though.

Chris Haynes - October 10, 2013 Reply

Nice article, but what specifically was the problem with the Natures Head unit? I have one and have had zero issues with it. You said there are a dozen points where it comes up short….list them please.

    Robin Kissinger - October 11, 2013 Reply

    I have the same question about the Nature’s Head problems. I have one and it cost only around $800. I really like it and I especially like that I’m not using fresh water to deal with my waste. It’s a lot less expensive than the Envirolet and Sun-Mar toilets. I also like that it’s basically the size of a regular toilet so fits in my tiny bathroom. So I too would like to know what the 12 problems you had with the toilet are.

    Thanks,
    Robin

      catherine - October 11, 2013 Reply

      Do you use it everyday? Does it actually compost before you have to empty it? Mine didn’t. It was a messy mess to clean because of that. It is too small of a container for daily use for 2 people and doesn’t allow time for composting. There are some enzymes people use to speed composting toilets. Wonder if that would help.

Beverly - October 10, 2013 Reply

I have to have modern plumbing wherever I live. My plan is to move to smaller digs, but I would never willingly give up my flush toilet. At age 65, I am not willing to live without creature comforts. I’d give up a lot before I’d give up plumbing. Besides, my favorite plumber is kinda cute!!

    catherine - October 11, 2013 Reply

    Compost toilets are usually really nice. Problem is they are big! I’ve used several that worked like a charm and really enjoyed not flushing and knowing my waste was going to build soil instead of going into the water system. Don’t give up on composters. THis one is just not made for what I needed it to do.

jlbraun - October 10, 2013 Reply

Unfortunately sawdust composting toilets are get-beaten-up-by the-police illegal in 33 states that I can find.

They will instead make you buy a $3000 smelly NSF certified toilet or a power-sucking 2000 watt incinerating toilet instead of a $5 bucket plus sawdust that works better.

    catherine - October 11, 2013 Reply

    Yes the “law” prefers poo geysers (see colorado photo above) than “civilized and logical approaches to waste management like composting. BUT, things are changing. Little by little, the more of us choosing alternatives, helps change attitudes.

alice h - October 10, 2013 Reply

I lived for many years with outhouses and bucket and chuck it systems. You can make them very comfortable and sanitary without a lot of fuss. The real problem with toilets requiring manual labour of some sort, composting bucket types especially, is that sometimes you just don’t have the physical strength to deal with things. Simply walking out to an outhouse can be easier than lifting a bucket, especially when you wait until the thing is full and heavy, if you hurt your back or your arthritic knees are having a particularly rough time. All bets are off if you need to shovel a path or dress for the Arctic before going outside though. There are some workarounds, like making sure you empty the toilet while it’s still light, or having someone else around that can do the chores. All things considered though I like the plain old Jenkins style humanure sawdust bucket best of all the composting toilets for it’s simplicity and price.

    catherine - October 11, 2013 Reply

    I hear you. It certainly slows down things as once a week I have to dump the bucket out back. Lucky for me no snow here. I’m a wimp. A composting out house and a chamber pot is really great. The ledge out the back of the house will someday be the out house. I didn’t explain that much in the article but you might get the idea. Drill hole on ledge/bench and install composter outside under ledge. No more hauling buckets. That’s after I win the lottery and can afford land of my own. Not holding breath. 🙂

      alice h - October 11, 2013 Reply

      Now that is luxury! There’s a surplus place nearby where you can buy clean 45 gallon drums (plastic or metal) for around $20 that would be perfect. My neighbour used these under a seat in her outdoor privy. Can’t remember how long it took to fill but when full you seal up the lid and just let it take as long as it takes to compost or arrange for someone to drag it off to another composting or disposal site. No problems with any leachate contamination though it does take a lot longer to compost without contact with dirt and worms and other tiny organisms that hasten the process.

      Sawdust toilets were a big help in New Zealand after the earthquakes and should be a part of every householder’s emergency kit.

Anna B - October 10, 2013 Reply

I have an outhouse at my summer cottage, and I use a swedish construction that separates urine from feces and can be combined with most any type of latrine. In my case I have a wooden “bench” with a hole, under it a bucket for the feeces (which I mix with peat/sawdust etc), and a hose that leeds the urine away (for garden lovers you can collect it and use it directly as fertilizer, but since my cottage is in the woods I just let the urine soak down in the ground behind the outhouse…). It requires everyone to sit down using it, but other than that it’s very practical. See picture at http://www.separett.se/torrdass-500 (sorry, the page is in swedish, and google translate has a few errors – it says heated seat, but it’s just a styrofoam set which “feels” warm even in swedish winters…)

    catherine - October 11, 2013 Reply

    Yes I came across those in my search and made a note for future purchase. It might be about time for that. How much was yours and is sweden the only place I can get it. I only speak spanish and portuguese so might have some communication difficulty. Thanks for the link. Awesome!

      Sharon - October 11, 2013 Reply

      Here is the link to the USA version of the Seperett website. http://www.separett-usa.com/
      I think I also remember it being sold on another website that sold several different brands of composting toilets, but I can’t remember the name of that site.

Carol - October 10, 2013 Reply

The Nature’s Head isn’t really for the continual use market. It’s made for boats, cottages, and RVs that get some use then a rest. There are other options.
However, some do live with them. Here’s our first customer: http://ecovita.net/news/2009/07/08/eco-toilets-for-boats-a-liveaboard-nautical-engineers-report/

    Robin Kissinger - October 11, 2013 Reply

    I’ve been living with my Nature’s Head toilet for a good 9 months full-time. Obviously there are consequences of any choice we make. For me the small amount of manual labor involved is completely neutralized by knowing that I’m not using scarce clean water to dispose of my waste and not contributing to the poisoning of the earth that comes about from using fossil fuels to make fertilizer. I’m 61 and enjoy living in comfort. My tiny house balances out the things that are important to me. We all get to make the choices that we can live with. Vive la difference!

    catherine - October 11, 2013 Reply

    Emptying a sawdust bucket is about a million times easier than cleaning out the Nature’s Head I’m sorry to say. I wanted it to work. But honestly the bucket does a better job for daily use. IT is lighter and easier to carry, and quicker to dump, has less smell and is way easier to clean/hose out than that toilet. 3 months of collected data. Just the facts. And that from someone who was biased in favor of the NH toilet.

stewart - October 10, 2013 Reply

I do remember the task and solved the hole digging problem by tipping the stuff down a rabbit burrow.
I am now trying to design a sewer in a bucket and think it might not be possible. But wait! What do they do with it on the space shuttle. They don’t shoot the stuff out side do they? Just imagine some aliens spinning threw space and and crashing threw a pile of this stuff and having to get out and clean the windscreen. Cheers

    catherine - October 11, 2013 Reply

    Stewart you are hilarious! The visuals I got from that one. What’s worse than dead bugs on your UFO windshield? humanure! You would need some very good wiper blades that’s for sure! I apologize to the space brothers for all inconsiderate NASA astronauts. I hope they have a sense of humor.

Dedra Kaye DeHart - October 12, 2013 Reply

I’ve lived my entire life–45–with a 5 gallon bucket/chamber pot for the second floor of our traditional house. We have one toilet and three people who have bladder/colon control issues, so it’s saved many many pairs of underpants and embarrassing situations over the years. In fact, I actually miss not having the bucket if I go to a friend’s house/new surrounding for the night. It is emptied into the toilet every morning and washed/disinfected so it’s not smelly or nasty. I’ve been thinking of having an incinolet installed in my attic bedroom because there is no water hook ups and to get a bathroom set up it would take a rather extensive and expensive remodel. As for people who ‘poo poo’ using porta potties, outhouses, bushes, etc… There are some pretty rank plumbed bathrooms out there and if I gotta go, I gotta go now.

Brad - October 13, 2013 Reply

I know it is a laid back down day….I read everyone’s comment. LOL

jodie - October 14, 2013 Reply

Have you seen the incinerator toilet. I found the link I hope it works: http://www.incinolet.com I have been considering this type of waste disposal for inhouse bathroom needs. I still like the old-fashioned outhouse for any time that is not inclimate weather. My grandparents always had an outhouse on their vacation properties in the woods, but I was never there when there was more than 3 ft of snow. You just have to be careful where you place an outhouse so as not to contaminate your water supply. That is why I thought of the incinolet. You could put the ashes in your compost pile. thanks again for sharing

Through Monsoon and Sun | The Daedalus Project - October 16, 2013 Reply

[…] several phases of toilet-care philosophy. Much like Cat, featured on The Tiny House Blog recently here, we have decided that much of the toilet hype is just that. Phase 1 was the Humanure Handbook […]

Falcon - October 17, 2013 Reply

I have a 600 gallon industrial grade plastic water tank. It is approx. three feet tall and five feet wide. Why couldn’t I dig a hole and bury it in the ground., cut an opening at the top for the waste, and build an outhouse around it? When it gets full, I would hire a company that pumps out septic tanks to empty it.
Maybe once a year. Do you think it would work?

I would use the Lyme to keep down orders and bacteria
Any other ideas in this direction?

Anne - October 17, 2013 Reply

Great

Marie D. Holley - July 15, 2015 Reply

1st saw your “movie” home tour. then searched out your pictures etc. //Am so impressed and proud of you. Could not believe you were 49/50 at the time. You are amazing. //Am looking for more recent inputs from you.//Hope all is well in your world.

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