What you need to know before owning an alternative toilet

By Ray FordRay Ford

It adds up to about a quarter-kilogram a day, this package that everyone delivers, but no one wants to receive. In the city, it disappears with the pull of a lever and a watery flourish. At the lake, well, human waste is another element cottagers must come to grips with. (Figuratively, folks.)

When conventional septic solutions won’t fit the lot or the budget, or your heart quails at another cheek-chilling stumble to the outhouse, a composting or an incinerating toilet seems increasingly attractive. Maybe your septic can’t handle another flush toilet, or you want to add facilities to a farflung bunkie. Let’s see: Pay $15,000-plus for a new septic system, or shell out two to three grand for a box that turns poop into fertilizer or dispatches it in a blaze of glory? As a bonus, self-contained composting toilets, like incinerating ones, require no permit. Bye-bye, Mr. Septic Cop.

But wait: Maybe saving money and avoiding permits isn’t a basis for a good long-term relationship, considering you’ll spend years in, around, and—by some estimates—on the throne during your lifetime. Without the option of test drives, dating, or living together, how can you really know if an alterna-john is right—or wrong—for you? Rob Davis, president of EcoEthic, the distributor of the MullToa composting toilet, has an easy personality test. “If you’re willing to squat on the ground or take a leak on a tree, you’ll be much more in tune with composting than if you need a $1,400 Kohler with a pristine porcelain bowl.”

On the other hand, maybe you’re already scribbling an angry letter to the editor about Cottage Life’s sick toilet obsession. That reaction—disgust—is thought to be an evolutionary survival mechanism, helping us avoid the viruses, bacteria, and parasites that excrement can contain. But let’s suppress our primeval emotions and have an adult conversation about that human necessity, the toilet.

“Composting technology is cheaper,” argues Fraser Sneddon, sales manager with Canadian composting toilet maker Sun-Mar. “It’s much more environmentally friendly. You’re not wasting water and you’re not producing effluent that could contaminate groundwater. Do you really want to risk contaminating your lake?”

Still, we live in a flush-and-forget culture. “Most people want their cottage to be as comfortable as home,” says Mark Green, the chief building official for the Leeds, Grenville & Lanark District Health Unit. “They want a hot shower or bath. With poop, they want to see it go away.”

Incinerating toilets do make waste go away (if you’re willing to pay the energy bill), but composters transform it. They aren’t so much a mechanical appliance as a venue for a living, organic process that you must steward—like tending sourdough starter for bread. A little persnickety, until you get the hang of it.

Composting toilets come in many shapes, sizes, and operating systems, but there are two main configurations: “Central” or “remote” systems feature a separate, large composting chamber connected to one or more toilet-like commodes; self-contained systems have the user sitting atop the composting chamber. Both often have electric heaters and fans to ventilate and speed composting, and mechanisms to mix the compost.

The most rudimentary composting toilets, “batch” composters, act as holding tanks until you remove the waste and compost it elsewhere. At the other extreme, some central units use water, foam, or vacuum suction to flush the commode. Prices range from about $1,600 for basic self-contained


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ahell

Jul. 22, 2014

12:04 am

Bushdude - From your description of your composting toilet troubles i am sure you had an Envirolet. I agree with you 100% and I think Envirolet are Assholes for even putting their product on the market. Everything you say is true. if you have to choose a composting toilet i think Sunmar will be a better option. A ;)


rightcoast@eastlink.ca

rightcoast

Jul. 9, 2013

6:31 am

Here in Nova Scotia..well at least in Kings and Lunenberg counties, the laws were changed some time ago concerning outhouse ,and effluent in general. Lakes,ocean,rivers, streams, and shallow ground water are abundant here, so it makes ecological sense to keep effluent and waste away from it. The best fit for our needs was a "privy vault" which is an outhouse that sits atop a very large cylindrical sealed cement container..or vault. Not only does this allow for better smell and bug control, it is also pumpable like a septic tank, if you use it as you would your septic tank at home (sorry city folk, I'm guessing you are scratching you heads at this point), which means septic friendly products only, proper ventilation, so it will break down properly, and it will be years before you need it pumped. The drill is the same as building an outhouse, only you place a large sealed unit in before building the building on top.


northernspiderqueen

Jul. 6, 2013

12:34 pm

This will sound remarkably naive, but I'd appreciate info and/or advice. We have an off-grid cottage--no electricity, and "plumbing" consists of a water tank on the roof with water pumped up from the lake. Among other things, the water lets us flush the toilet that's inside the cottage which we have used for liquids only, and that only in emergencies, as it just drains into the soil (underground) behind the cottage. We have an outhouse--relatively new, very nice--about 50ft from the cottage, up a slight slope. I can't manage that slope any more. We've considered the usual alternatives (composting, incinerating toilets) and none are practical for various reasons. Neither is a septic bed. Here's the naive question: an outhouse is essentially a deep pit in the ground, into which waste is deposited. Why could we not dig a similar deep pit behind the cottage, let the toilet, drain into that in the same way? The pit (and the outhouse) are at least 50 yards horizontally away from, and 30 feet above, the lake. Any advice or information would be most gratefully received.


Bushdude

Jul. 4, 2013

6:54 am

I have owned a top-end composting toilet for the last five years. It is without a doubt the single worst product I have ever had the misfortune to purchase. My neighbours had one too, until they finally sent the cursed thing to the dump. Have a look online for reviews by people who actually own them - they are widely and deeply despised. Lest you think I'm just a softy who doesn't know how to make things work properly, let me explain. I'm an avid outdoorsmen. I fix my own machines and appliances. I am hardly a creature of comfort. So the salesman says: “If you’re willing to squat on the ground or take a leak on a tree, you’ll be much more in tune with composting...." Hardly. Here's a more apt test: "If you're willing to have you and your family repulsed by the sight of waste running out of your composting toilet; if you're happy with the thought of getting your arms into a pile of half rotten feces and urine when the toilet seizes up; if you're up for carrying trays full of sloshing human waste around on a regular basis; if you're prepared to deal with the stench; if you're into inevitable getting human waste on your floor; then sign up right here!" By the way, when you consider the amount of plastic in them, the amount of fossil fuel required to transport them from the factory out to the wilderness, the amount of time it takes the plastic to decompose when it ends up in the dump, and the energy to run some of them, they're hardly a green alternative. There are two good options for human waste. First, an outhouse. I built a spacious, exceptionally well-ventilated one with a great view. It's a solid option. No fussing around, no worries, no upkeep. Even women with finer tastes say "Wow - that's the nicest outhouse I've ever seen. I never thought I'd say it , but it's nice to visit." And the outhouse is truly a green option. Second, bite the bullet and splurge for a septic system. Also a good choice, although obviously it will cost you some real money. A composting toilet is to be avoided at all costs. Trust me when I say that based on years of my own experience, and drawing upon the experience of others, this is truly a horrible option. You will come to despise and curse it. And mother nature will be right there cursing with you as she's ultimately forced to deal with another huge chunk of useless plastic.


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