Bucket Toilets: Our Verdict (and Advice) After a Year of Using Ours
At first I was very skeptical about using a bucket toilet. I was sure it would stink the house out - I mean come on, we were going to be living in a 15m2 tiny house - surely the smell would reach every corner? I wanted to come up with something better - I didn't want to deal with my poop. I wanted it out of sight, out of mind...
But I also wanted to be able to 'recycle' our toilet 'waste'. I wanted it to compost down and to be able to add it to the forest or the fruit trees once it had turned back into soil.
So I researched airhead composting toilets, incinerating toilets, clivus multrum composting toilets, bucket toilets and more...
With every option I explored I would encounter a serious deal breaker be it cost, terrible reviews, size of systems and so on... Even the bucket toilet (which we ended up using) had a number of 'deal breakers' - seeing my poo, presuming it would stink and having to empty it twice a week.
I had grand ideas of designing my own composting toilet system to use. One which had a flap beneath the toilet seat that hid the compost below with a large drum that sat beneath the tiny house collecting, storing and composting all the contents of our toilet...
But despite my grand toilet intentions, we ran out of time. We had to make a decision. We decided to use a bucket toilet temporarily until we could come up with something better.
As it turned out, we quickly got used to our bucket toilet system and one year on, we have no intentions of changing to anything else...
There were definitely learning curves along the way though - so if you're considering a bucket toilet system - check out our discoveries, lessons and pitfalls below. When done correctly, I don't believe there is a more affordable, effective and odour free toilet solution for a tiny house or off grid home.
4 Steps In The Bucket Toilet System
So that this article is easy to understand and as beneficial as possible - I'd just like to cover the 4 simple steps in using and maintaining a bucket toilet system.
- Use bucket toilet to pee in and poop in. Always cover your business with an organic cover material.
- When your bucket is full, empty it into a large drum (which you keep outside. We keep ours about 20 meters away from our tiny house)
- When your large drum is full, cover it up, leave it and allow it to compost (more on this further down the page) and start on another drum.
- After about a year open up the drum and you'll see it will no longer be full - decomposition would have taken place and you'll be left with a drum about half full of beautiful compost for your fruit trees!
Alright... now onto the details (and I do get quite into the details, so if fecophobic - maybe this isn't the article for you!)
How to Keep Your Bucket Toilet Odour Free
As I've said before, when you use a bucket toilet correctly there will be no smell at all once you cover your poop. It's quite amazing actually and it still surprises me. In fact this morning I went to the toilet for my morning business and we only had a small amount of cover material left in the bathroom... I thought "Oops, I hope this is enough to block the smell!"... Sure enough, even with just a thin covering - all the odour was gone.
It has taken a little practice to get our toilet functioning this well. We've made discoveries along the way which make all the difference... Based on those discoveries, here are some key points that will help you keep your bucket toilet odour free...
- Put a layer of your cover material (about a finger depth) at the bottom of your bucket before you use it
- When you go to the toilet make sure you cover everything. All you should see is your cover material (loo paper from wees doesn't need to be covered)
- After emptying your bucket toilet make sure you spray it out with a hose and leave it outside to dry (To make this work you need 2 buckets which you alternate between)
- Try to keep your cover material dry-ish. There's no need for it to be totally dry - but saturated cover material doesn't work well. (I'll tell you what we use further down the page.)
Install a Bathroom Extractor Fan
When you go to the toilet there is always a smell when you first do your business. This is true with conventional flush toilets and with composting toilets of all types. That's why (especially in a tiny house) it's a good idea to have a bathroom fan. We turn on the fan when we go to the loo and turn it off when we walk out of the bathroom. This gets rid of any "while you're pooping" smells. In our tiny house the bathroom extractor fan is so effective is clears any smells almost instantly - we even get away with having our bathroom right by our kitchen and never having a bad smell cross the bathroom door. Oh, and the other benefit of having a bathroom extractor fan in our tiny house is that it makes a noise when it's on - this makes it easy to go to the loo when there are guests in the house - I get stage fright when I think somebody can hear me pee!
What Cover Materials Have The Best Odour Preventing Results?
We've experimented with many different types of cover materials including:
- Peat moss
- Grass clippings
- Top soil
- Cedar Sawdust
- Wood Chip / mulch
- Semi Composted wood chip
I'll run through what we discovered with each of them and just so that I feel bad ass, I'll give them a rating out of 10.
Material: Peat Moss
Why?: Peat moss did a good job of covering up smells however we found it to be expensive and messy. It's super fine and when we turn on the bathroom extractor fan, little particles of peat moss float into the air and get sucked out of the bathroom. Our extractor fan turned black and looked quite nasty! It also created a thin layer of dust on the floor and shower. I had to wipe down the bathroom every other day. Another thing we noticed with peat moss was that once we had filled an entire drum and closed it up to compost - nothing really happened. Hardly any composting took place. Nearly a year on and we should be ready to empty that drum - but it's still full to the top! When you dig around in it (with a stick of course!) you can still identify the areas of poo. They have gone green and putrid. We now realize that this is because peat moss is a pretty sterile product - there's no living organisms in it to multiply and cause decomposition to take place.
Material: Grass Clippings
Why?: Grass clipping were one of the first cover materials that we trailed. They actually worked quite well to eliminate smells at first - but as they got saturated by urine, the toilet began to stink. Emptying the buckets were enough to put you into shock. Dried grass clippings worked a lot better and also composted pretty well in the large drums. All in all, we just found that keeping grass clippings dry to use in the toilet just was not practical... and wet grass clippings caused an odour so bad that not even flies were interested.
Material: Top Soil
Why?: Top soil seemed to be working really well at first. It blocked the odour of poop completely... However, as the toilet filled up with urine, the soil seemed to sink and it was hard to keep the soil above the urine level in the bucket. For anybody who has used a bucket toilet before, you'll know that urine can stink beyond believe when left exposed. We had to use a lot of soil to keep everything covered and this made the bucket very heavy when we came to empty it. We decided to leave our soil in the garden and find another solution for the toilet!
Material: Cedar Sawdust
Why?: For the first 4 months of using cedar sawdust as our composting toilet cover material, we thought we had hit the bucket-toilet-jackpot. Our bathroom had that beautiful cedar smell and no unpleasant odour whatsoever. We could buy huge bags of cedar for $2 from just down the road and it lasted a good couple of months. We only discovered the problem with using cedar about 4 months later... Cedar is naturally a very rot resistant timber - meaning that is doesn't break down quickly. When we checked our composting drum we expected to see beautiful compost but instead we saw cedar that looked just the same as it did when we first used it! Digging around in it with a stick we were also disappointed with the lack of composting that had taken place in our poop. You could still see it - which isn't really what you're going for. We realized that cedar sawdust was a problem for 2 reasons - its rot resistance and its lack of existing microorganisms to populate the drums and turn it all into compost.
Material: Wood Chip / Mulch
Why?: Wood chip is something we always have in piles on our section because we use it in our gardens. When we ran out of cedar one day we decided to give wood chip a go. We were pleasantly surprised! It got rid of 100% of the odour from our toilet visits and it covered both wee and poo effectively. It was lightweight and free. We used wood chip for a number of months and we noticed that the decomposition in the barrels was taking place very quickly. After about 2 months or so you couldn't identify any poop in the barrels. The wood chip we use is a combination of chipped branches and leaves - we have arborists drop it off for free. The only downside that we have discovered from wood chip is that depending on the batch, sometimes it's not very finely chipped and so it doesn't look as good in the toilet. It feels a bit more primitive than lovely smelling cedar sawdust!
Material: Semi Composted Wood Chip / Mulch
Why?: As our wood chip piles age, they naturally start to compost and break down. This is when we find they are ideal to use as a cover material for your composting toilet. They have all the same benefits of the fresh wood chip/mulch except they are packed with more microorganisms as composting is already taking place. This means that when you empty it into the drums, decomposition of poop takes place very quickly. When using composted wood chip as our cover, after 2 weeks we're unable to identify poop in our barrel! We also notice the volume of the drums shrinks very quickly compared to any other cover materials we use. The only downside that comes from having semi composted wood chip as your cover is that again, it feels more primitive than cedar. If it weren't for that, I'd give it 10 out of 10.
Make Amazing Compost In Composting Barrels
Once we fill up a bucket, as I've already mentioned, we empty it into a barrel outside...
The plastic barrel setup is very simple. We use a 200-250 litre (44 Gallon) drum that has about 10 finger nail sized holes drilled into the bottom of it. We then sit the barrel on top of a hole (about 1/4 the size of the barrel) that has been filled with scoria or drainage material. This is is to take care of any leachate. On top of the barrel opening, we use a fly screen (Hessian) and corrugated iron with a brick on top to keep the rain out. (We don't use the corrugated iron in summer when there is little rain). With me and Tom using our toilet full time (along with quite a few guests each week) it takes about 3 months to fill up a barrel. All in all we get away with 4 barrels - filling each to the top completely before moving on to the next. This way when we are coming to the end of our last barrel, one is ready to empty around our fruit trees, making it available to use again.
To be extra safe and make sure any potential pathogens have been killed, we leave our barrels for 9-12 months before emptying them around the fruit trees. It's about 1/2 full (thanks to decomposition) of amazing compost that our fruit trees love!
Airflow is an important part of the decomposition process and that's why we use a fly screen and corrugated iron instead of the barrel lids. We tested two different barrels - one with a lid on and one with the hessian/corrugated iron over the top - we found that the barrel with hessian had a much quicker decomposition rate.
We've also recently been experimenting with adding a handful of composting worms to each barrel. It's looking promising that this will speed up decomposition ever further :)
Putting Meat in Your Composting Toilet (Say whaaat!?)
Yes, I agree that sounds gross, but it's so convenient and beneficial that I do it all the time now. I always used to have the dilemma "What do I do with these blimmen meat scraps?" - and I'd end up burying them in the garden which was a real pain. (especially because I'd put off doing it so our fridge would fill up with stinky scraps of meat!). Then Tom read about adding them to your composting drums (via your bucket toilet)... and so that's what we do! Of course the same principals apply - if you don't want them to smell, cover them with a good cover material!
Once the meat scraps enter the composting barrels, the microorganisms make quick work of turning them into valuable compost for our trees.
Ladies: What To Do When You Have Your Period
The tampons I use are 100% cotton and so I just chuck them into the toilet and of course cover them up with cover material. I was worried that when we emptied the drum after a year, there would be all these little embarrassing lady things scattered around the fruit trees. I didn't notice any when we emptied our first barrel though - however I was pregnant for a large part of the first year we were living in Lucy, so my tampon use was only for a few months. Personally what I am planning on doing in the next few months is switching over to a Diva Cup. These are eco friendly (when you consider the average woman uses about 11,000 tampons in her lifetime!) and you can simply empty them into the bucket toilet, cover with cover material, give them a wash and carry on.
Composing Toilet Games
Despite what you may say right now, you will end up playing games that involve your composting toilet. Some of the games we've discovered are: Chicken in the toilet, No Cover and How High Can You Go? In fact Tom discovered all three of these toilet 'games' and played them on me. Chicken in the toilet involved leaving a chicken carcass in the toilet to make me shriek when I next went to the loo. I don't think I need to explain how he played the 'game' No Cover. In fact, he has played this one a few times. Boys will be boys. I have played the game How high can you go - this basically involves being too lazy to change the bucket.
You Will Fall in Love With Your Bucket Toilet
Despite the reservations you may have about your composting bucket toilet, you will grow to love it. It will become like an old friend who you love for their reliability and for the simplicity in your relationship...
You'll be able to overlook the little 'flaws' in the bucket toilet system (like having to empty it twice a week) and you'll learn to love it for what it is: A simple, low cost and odour free solution to sustainable recycling of your poop and pee.