How To Build a Natural Composting Toilet, or buy one

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Composting Toilet

Note from Matt & Betsy: Today’s subject may be a little “out there” or offensive to some, but we really think the topic of composting toilets is worth knowing something about. Yes, we’re doing a little potty talk today. We suggest you don’t read this while eating. Enjoy Deb’s great article!

In my preparation to live off-grid, I’ve come up against some interesting challenges. From heating the house to growing food to…well…using the “facilities.”

Although we don’t like to talk about it, everyone uses the restroom – several times a day in fact. And though modern toilets use less water,  they still use a lot of water – and electricity (if you have a well pump).

What if you could avoid the waste of hundreds of gallons of water a week and thousands of kilowatts of electricity a year? This sort of thing is possible if using a composting toilet!

Why Would You Want a Composting Toilet?

If your present bathroom is working fine, why would you want to change it? You may not want to, but it may become necessary. Or, if you’re living in a situation that has limited water and electric, you may want to install one. The advantages are great:

  • composting toilets don’t require as much electricity or water, some none at all
  • being they use little or no water, they do not add to sewage or storm water drains
  • the consumer’s water bill will be much less
  • they can be used in places where conventional systems can’t
  • it eliminates the need for transportation of wastes
  • composted waste can be used in gardening and lawn care
  • the cost can be very little (or even nothing) depending on how elaborate you make your plans

I lived in a log cabin (fully renovated and modernized inside) that had no water connections upstairs where I had my bedroom. I came up with the idea of a composting toilet after hiking on the Appalachian Trail where I had seen them. It was a simple concept. Something like an outhouse, the wastes went into a large bucket and were covered by the user with mulch. I took this idea and ran with it.

Assembling the Composting Toilet

Actually, I cheated, I didn’t build mine. I took a bedside toilet chair (purchased from a thrift store for $3.00!) and put a 5 gallon bucket underneath it to collect waste. I then added about 6 inches of mulch to the bottom of the bucket and used the composting toilet a few times over the next week. (I got mulch for free from a community site where the mulch produced in the area is dumped and made available to gardeners. So this didn’t cost me a dime either, except to go and get it.)

As you can imagine, and odor developed in the toilet and I tossed the first part out into my hugelkultur and covered it with soil. Only liquid waste remained at this time, so there was plenty of time for the pathogens to die off.

I started over with the same basic idea and added one small thing. Each day I added a few drops of pine essential oil. I tried lavender, tea tree and rosemary, but none of them worked as well as pine. This was a hit. The bucket of waste was then dumped into a compost pile that would generate enough heat to destroy pathogens. Then I discovered that urine does not contain near as many pathogens as feces and most will be gone after a week of sitting exposed to the air. So I went to the next level and dealt with the “other” part – solid wastes.

More on the Composting Toilet

I used the same system, put it together the same way, but removed solid wastes with a litter scoop (similar to those used for kitty litter) and placed it in vegetable starch-based bags (found here or in pet stores). Be sure to get the ones that say they are plant based and are biodegradable. These, once used, can be placed into an empty 5 gallon bucket. When full, the bucket can be sealed and left for a year that way. After a year, the pathogens will be destroyed and the resulting compost can be used in gardening. If you’re worried about anything lingering, such as harmful bacteria, you can relegate it to your lawn or non-food producing plants. After this time there should be no odor to deal with.

Alternately, the full bags can be placed in a “hot” compost pile, one that reaches at least 140°. This will destroy most any pathogens that might be present, including coliform, salmonella and shigella. Leave the compost for a year to work it into the rest of the yard waste.

If you’d like to learn more about the proper and effective process of DIY composting systems, check out Humanure by Joseph Jenkins. You can find it here.

Possible Problems

As with any system, there can be downsides. Here are a few that have been brought up in discussions:

  • this type of system requires more maintenance by the user and owner
  • the end product can be unpleasant to deal with
  • most systems can have limited capacity
  • improper cleaning can lead to health concerns
  • the solid wastes must be heated to 140° to destroy pathogens
  • this type of system can produce odors
  • some municipalities do not allow this type of system
  • there may be issues with disposing of waste near a waterway

Some commercial systems have urine diverters so the liquid can be harvested separately. If you do this and want to use it after a week or so, use it at a 10:1 ratio – that is, 10 parts water to 1 part urine. And be sure to only water the ground and not the plants as urine can contain dissolved salts that may harm foliage.

All in all, composting toilets can be a good solution when conventional methods are not available or desirable, or in my case, when there will be limited resources to run such things as toilets.

Want to try it but don’t want to make your own?

If you think composting toilets are a great idea, but want something a little more refined and well-designed, you can always find commercially made composting toilets. They are made for houses, boats, RVs, cabins, and other spaces. Check out a great design here that has a urine diverter as mentioned earlier. (You’ll notice these are very expensive to purchase, so it’s wise to consider the DIY route for this project.)

Have you used/made a composting toilet? How did it work?


About Debra Maslowski

Debra is a master gardener, a certified herbalist, a natural living instructor, and more. She taught Matt and Betsy how to make soap so they decided to bring her on as a staff writer! Debra recently started an organic herb farm in the mountains of Western North Carolina. You can even purchase her handmade products on Amazon!

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  1. Alisha says

    When I was a kid, we moved to a property in a rural area and lived in a Shed for two years while Mum and Dad built our house. Our toilet was a traditional ‘thunder box’ (as they are known in Australia). Basically, its a small tin portable shed, the size of a regular toilet, with no floor. You dig a hole in the ground, put a something to sit on over the hole, put the portable shed over the top for privacy. After you do your business, you throw a handful of mulch or wood shavings over the top. When the hole gets 3/4 full, fill with dirt, and move the Thunder Box to a new spot. Make sure you place a rock over to mark the previous location so you dont dig up the ‘buried treasure’.

    Obviously not a system for the suburban house block, but no reason not to have one on property. We always had really green grass around the house too.

  2. Sally says

    I too have been using the “Lovable Loo” as described in the humanure handbook

    for several years since my house does not have good plumbing.

    I have found that the best cover material is newspaper torn in strips. It’s abundant and free and doesn’t make a big mess on the bathroom floor as mulch, leaves and other materials do.

    Follow humanure handbook instructions for setting up compost containers, and you will have no problems.

  3. Anna says

    We have been using a composting toilet as our main toilet for nearly 2 years whilst living in a van. The first toilet which did get smelly was a commercial one with no cover material required. We were unimpressed and sold this one on. In favour of a homemade one made following The humanure handbook (which can be downloaded for free). It’s basically a bucket in a box with a toilet seat on top. Every time you go you add mulch ( we have successfully used sawdust ( waste from our own log cutting and also aquired from local sawmill) and grass clippings ( these are best if a bit dry before use). Hope this helps.

  4. Carole says

    I’ve been told not to use dog waste in compost. The reasoning someone gave was that they’re carnivores and so they have certain pathogens in their poop that won’t be broken down or something. If humans eat meat, wouldn’t the same hold true?

    • Debra Maslowski says

      It used to be the rule, Carole, but the more we learn about pathogens, the more we know. If a compost pile or bin can reach a temperature of more than 140 degrees, pathogens will be destroyed. Most compost will reach that temperature internally quite easily. If you’re not sure, you can insert a thermometer in the center. I use the one I use for soap making and check it a few times a year. If the temperature remains cool, pathogens can thrive rather than being destroyed.
      Another thing to consider with dog waste is the it may attract other company such as rats or coyotes looking for scraps other carnivores may have left behind.

  5. Linda Adsti says

    When I was little, our family lived on a farm in the Appalachians. We had a well and no indoor plumbing. Our house was on a hill and the outhouse was located farther down the hill, above the garden. The humanure percolated down through the ground all year and provided free fertilizer. The chicken yard was on the same rise, above the corn rows. Daddy’s produce was famous, especially the corn.

    • Debra Maslowski says

      I’m doing more and more research on humanure. I’ve been leery of trying it because of the possibility of pathogens, but the more I read, the less I worry. Milorganite has been in production for years as a lawn fertilizer and that comes from the waste treatment plants of New York.

  6. Candy says

    I couldn’t help but notice that right after the composting toilet article was Dump Cake Recipes. Made me laugh. Someone there has a sense of humor. Hehehe!