What you need to know before owning an alternative toilet
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