How to choose an alternative toilet

Published: October 25, 2018

Unusual, unoccupied, recycling composting public toilet, with wood shavings, fully fitted with all mod cons.. scoop, paper, seat and brush. Photo by Stephen William Robinson/Shutterstock

When you want to take your act indoors, composting and incinerating toilets offer a venue. Alterna-toilets are great for bunkies and cottages without pressurized water, or to take a load off your ageing septic system. Expect to pay from $2,000 to $7,000 (and up).

Composting toilets

Composters foster a comfy, warm, and airy environment to hasten microbial growth. If all goes well, water vapour and carbon dioxide flow up the ventilation stack, leaving a nutrient-rich compost suitable for nourishing ornamental plants or cottage trees.

Units come from floor-ready self-contained toilets in the $2,000 to $3,000 range, to central composters connected to one or more commodes that flush with water, biodegradable foam, a vacuum, or plain old gravity for $2,500 to $7,000 or more. Some models function without electricity, but powered units hasten composting with fans and heaters, moisture sensors and automatic mixers. One model, the Separett, separates urine and feces, avoiding the signature odour produced when numbers one and two mingle without proper ventilation.

A composting toilet is a bit like an African violet or a bowl of sourdough starter: it needs your input—your management input. At his cottage on Ontario’s Lake Mazinaw, Garry Prevoe has a daily routine: tossing two cups of carbon rich “bulking agent” ($35 for a 30-litre bag, for a total cost of $70 to $140 a year) into the composting chamber of his water-flush central unit and then spinning the drum to mix the compost.

“I don’t mind doing it,” he says, adding that the toilet is about $21,000 cheaper than a septic system. “I’ve got friends who say, ‘I don’t want to fiddle around with this stuff.’ I understand that, but if you’ve got a composting toilet, this goes with it.”

Incinerating toilets

Incinerators offers a more rapid fecal transformation. Slip a paper liner into the bowl, relieve yourself, push a button, and poof. (Or many poofs, as the process may take more than an hour.) Beneath the throne, temperatures in the 500°C to 600°C range reduce your deposit to a teaspoon of ash.

Budget for more than $2,700 for the electrically-powered Incinolet and its vent kit. It’s essentially an upgraded version of the toilet originally marketed in the U.S. in the 1960s, and it’s primarily a mechanical device. The Norwegian Cinderella is a higher-tech operation, including a digital display and electronic monitoring of the burn, taking the guesswork out of when to empty the ash container. As a bonus, for winter use, it draws combustion air from outside, rather than using warm air from the cottage. But the cost premium is significant: $6,490 for the high-end Comfort model, $5,790 for the Classic. Operating costs include liners ($53.50 for 400 from Incinolet) and power (reliable electricity is a necessity; at Ontario’s highest rate, hydro costs will run between 11 and 20 cents per incineration). Toilets can be used during the burn, but the result will be extended incineration cycles. Encouraging visits to outdoor shrubs will also reduce liquid input, and make for better incineration.

For a lower-tech blaze, Separett offers a stand-alone $799 metal incinerator to torch the solids the company’s urine-diverting toilet collects in a compostable bag. “We get a good fire going with a good bed of coals. It just dries up and burns and gradually turns to ash. There’s no odour,” says Rick Taylor, a Myers Lake cottager and the president of Canadian Eco-Products, the toilet’s distributor.

If a composter is like a houseplant, the incinerator is an appliance. Heating elements, fans, and odour-eating platinum catalysts eventually wear out and need replacement, but there’s less day-to-day care. Sia Bouseh, a cottager in B.C.’s Cariboo Region, says he’s so happy with his incinerator, “I would go so far as to say I don’t see why people would spend that much money on a septic system.”

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