by Catherine Zola
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.
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.
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.