Tiny Houses and the crap that goes with them

by andrewodom on April 29, 2011 · 26 comments


When you make the decision to abandon the traditional sticks and bricks method of Americana living decision become much more difficult and less tested than you can even believe. Between how to get a certificate of occupancy to gaining space on the electrical grid for your tiny house the territory is unchartered at best. The rules, laws, and codes we have encountered so far are little more than a hot, steaming pile of sh……….and speaking of poop, let’s talk toilets. Perhaps the most unapproached subject in tiny house living, sewage and toilets is just a really stinky situation. For a moment, let’s consider our commode options in the tiny house. We can:

  1. Hook up standard plumbing to either the city sewage or build a septic tank.
  2. Install RV type toilets and holding tanks.
  3. Set up a simple composting toilet or purchase a commercial grade composting commode.

The first option requires permits and permanent establishment. It is also a rather expensive endeavor in any city/state. Obviously if we’re building on a trailer, that’s not what we have in mind.

The second option requires a lot more cost and moving the house back and forth to an RV sewage dump. That too, would be a tremendous amount of time and expense.

The third option seems not only to be the most cost effective route to take, but it’s the most sustainable and earth friendly. Check out this comparison:

Right now we are pretty secure in our decision to go with option #3. While we do, in fact, receive a number of foul comments and strange stairs when we talk to people about composting in our home the information we have become aware of is staggering. By using a compost toilet:

  • Water and the energy are conserved. Over 3000 gal/year are saved when compared to typical toilet and 1500 gal/year when compared to a low-flush toilet.
  • We are able to turn a waste product into a valuable soil amendment, a key for sustainable agriculture.
  • Nutrients and pathogens don’t end up polluting waterways.
  • We avoid costs of a conventional sewage system.

Did you know that The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has reported that, “there were more than 20,000 days of closings and advisories in 2005, at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches.” The bulk of these closings are the result of improperly operating sewage treatment plants and septic systems.

The EPA estimates that each year, one billion gallons of raw sewage are dumped into U.S. waters. That is 3000 gallons for each person in the United States. Again, composting toilets could conserve water and change this hazard into a valuable resource.

So how does a composting toilet work?

  1. It operates almost identically to a normal flush toilet.
  2. The user covers what they put into it with sawdust, wood chips, shredded newspaper, etc.
  3. You then wash your hands
  4. When it gets full, dump it on a compost pile and cover that too.

In closing, yes, we are different. We know that and we are okay with that. We are not always looking to make a statement or to be seen as sojourners of a brighter tomorrow. In this area we are passionate though. Flush toilets are a bit insane to me. They take 3-5 gallons of perfectly good drinking water (the same thing you have flowing from your tap) and provide a landing pad for our excrement. This produces sewage which is a mess and can only be turned back into safe water through treatment plants – large systems of pipes that require maintenance, chemicals, etc. The chemicals treat the water and land in our…wait, did I say clean? – drinking water.

So why do we find this so bizarre? Well, if given the right amount of time, temperate, and conditions, the waste will simply break down into nitrogen rich compost. We, too, are animals and if our diet is good our manure is pretty free of toxins and can be used as amazing garden compost the same way cow manure, chicken litter, pig poo, and other animals waste can.

Allow me to say this though. Yes, part of composting is, in fact, having a dedicated compost pile with enough space to cook the compost, so to speak. The odor is buried under a layer or two of straw. It is mixed with a bit of soil and some scraps. If you don’t have a more than 1/10 of an acres to live on or if you are an urban dweller perhaps composting is not yet a real option for you. For us though it is an amazing option!

So what do you think? Are we full of crap? Are we putting ourselves in a stinky situation? We’d love to hear your experience with composting, composting toilets, and the like. And as always, if you like this post please consider sharing it on Facebook or Tweeting out the link!

  • http://desertverde.com nan

    Some friends here rented a house with a composting toilet. They harvested beautiful compost and put it in their garden and around the fruit trees. I am all for composting toilets and outhouses, because they are much cleaner. Building codes have outlawed them in most places, which is too bad. If you can get away with it, do!

    • anotherkindofdrew

      We are gonna try Nan. I mean, what can the gov’t say? “No, you can’t poop in that fashion?” C’mon…give a guy a break. HAHAHAHAH

      • http://desertverde.com nan

        Keep me posted. I’d love to see composting toilets make a comeback.

  • http://iguessmylifeisprettygood.blogspot.com Jennifer

    I am just curious, my question is based on your diagrams, is it safe to put excrement on your garden? I’ve looked into grey water, and all the sites say that any water that might be contaminated with feces (black water) should not go on or near edible plants. I would assume that would be the same for the contents of your composting toilet. Or does the process of composting somehow “sanitize” the waste?

    • anotherkindofdrew

      The diagrams are not size correct Jennifer. I would not have a pile of crap in the garden just feet away from my house. It is safe to put excrement of any sort (including human) into the soil of your garden (NOT a topical additive) if you have four key elements in place:

      1. Moisture
      2. Oxygen
      3. Temperature
      4. Balanced Diet

      If you have those then it is safe to add human waste to either a compost pile or a soil area. A proper compost toilet would have already dealt with the pathogens and the methane before you even dump it into said compost pile. So there is relatively little harm in that.

      If you are interested in knowing more I would encourage you to watch these two videos:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BWc-RjuWbs&feature=player_embedded#at=84
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynUNOsMrO1k&feature=player_embedded

  • Dbentz1

    Drew, there is another option …. it’s called an outhouse. You know with a half moon on the door. :0)

  • sgl

    drew, i suggest you’re wrong, and jennifer is correct — according to the humanure handbook, it’s not safe to put it directly into your garden, it needs to compost for a year first, to assure that all the potential pathogens in humanure have died. after the year is up, *then* it is safe to put on your garden.

    there’s an extremely informative book, available online. used to be free for download, but looks like it’s a few dollars now. it details what all the potential pathogens are, how long they can live, along with a substantial amount of other info about how to build a composting toilet, etc:
    http://humanurehandbook.com/

    –sgl

    • anotherkindofdrew

      Back up. Back up. I don’t remember even once suggesting that it is safe to put it directly into your garden. What I said to Jennifer was:

      “If you have those then it is safe to add human waste to either a compost pile or a soil area. A proper compost toilet would have already dealt with the pathogens and the methane before you even dump it into said compost pile.”

      Nothing in that statement suggests relieving yourself, picking it up, and throwing it on your strawberries. Perhaps my use of the word “soil area” confused you. A soil area to us is an area like a compost pile that is not going to be used as compost, per se, but still acts as such.

      In the initial blog post I said, “Well, if given the right amount of time, temperate, and conditions, the waste will simply break down into nitrogen rich compost.” Note the use of the word time. Time indicates more than the immediate moment.

      I own the Humanure Handbook and have read it thoroughly. It is $10 or it was when I downloaded it. We will not be building our own toilet but rather purchasing one that has a more stylish look to match the interior of our tiny house.

      Thank you sgl for speaking up and calling me out. I hope we understand each other now and have related to other readers the importance of TIME before dishing out sh*t.

  • Leedalton

    It has to be the logical way to go in a ‘rural’ environment, many years ago we were self sufficient in our own yards, there is no reason other than ‘modern convenience’ not to go back to that.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JM4TMHE7SGQKMKGWXWV53GLIFU maxgyver

    $1000 to $2000 commercial version…or about $20 worth of material and scraps…

    http://kmswoodworks.wordpress.com/2010/04/02/spring-break-at-the-cabin/

    I have since attached an old style ceramic toilet “tank” to the back of this box to hold the sawdust…it looks way more conventional
    .

  • Birdmankincheloe

    You are wise people doing the right thing. Doing more right things will make you even wiser.

  • Susyn153

    what about incinolets ( incinerators for toilets)

    • http://mmgoldenart.com/ Melinda M. Golden

      They are expensive, use a lot of energy, and smelly.

      • http://www.tinyrevolution.us/ anotherkindofdrew

        According to Clothesline Tiny Homes they are NOT the way to go.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nancy.owens.148 Nancy Owens

    You can use earthworms to do the clean up for you. I had and article about that years ago, some college did it as an experiment. There was no odor and a million healthy worms to help the garden out. Here is one link.
    http://www.wormdigest.org/content/view/44/2/

  • Pingback: simple life | existinchange

  • Pat

    How does one clean the composting toilet after using it? There isn’t any water flowing to push stuff off the bowl and out of sight, but with no water… and I’m kinda omg, ugh, er-eh, how? Do I go buy sawdust somewhere and rub it on the bowl or what?

    • http://mmgoldenart.com/ Melinda M. Golden

      You do use a little bit of water and soap to clean the bucket after your dump it. Then you put a fresh layer of covering (saw dust, peat moss, etc.) in the bottom of the bucket and you’re ready to go! Do not use lysol or anything. The water can be greywater from your shower or rainwater collected in barrels next to the compost bin.

      • http://www.tinyrevolution.us/ anotherkindofdrew

        We do the same thing and I actually responded to Pat via email. Every 2-3 days I dump the bucket and then clean it with soap and water wearing my rubber gloves. HAHAHAHAH!!!! Every 5-6 days I dump the gas can/pee-pee can and rinse it out with a hint of water and apple cider vinegar.

  • Holly

    I’m interested in the sawdust toilet method, but I’m wondering how well it would do in Wisconsin, where the temperatures stay chilly (if not frigid) for half of the year. Thoughts?

    • http://www.tinyrevolution.us/ anotherkindofdrew

      Would it be indoors? If so, it would maintain a fine temperature. I mean, there is nothing to freeze as you are separating your liquid from your solid.

      • Holly

        The toilet would be indoors, yes, but the storage bin would not. I do plan to separate liquids & solids. I know when composting veggies, decomposition halts once it gets below a certain point. Frozen would be ok, but would things go wrong in that in-between area? I’d hate to have a bin of lukewarm poo.

        Also, about the bin- this wouldn’t be just a 55gal drum, would it? It would probably need some kind of ventilation, but I’d need it to be sealable for moves. Any recommendations? (Mmm, not looking forward to moving that! haha)

        • http://www.tinyrevolution.us/ anotherkindofdrew

          To which most of your concerns can be laid to rest, I give you ‘The Humanure Handbook’

          http://humanurehandbook.com/

          • Holly

            Excellent, thanks muchly!

          • Diane Ramirez

            There is a less complicated and messy alternative there an incinerator toilet that solves the problem. Though it is more expensive. there is no mess

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