Questions to ask before you buy an alternative toilet

composting toilet Photo by Stephen William Robinson / Shutterstock

Before you buy an alternative toilet, there are some things you should ask:

Will I need a permit? 

A “no-discharge, sealed unit” (a.k.a. self-contained, waterless toilet) usually won’t, says Sandy Bos, the sewage system inspector for Ontario’s Township of Muskoka Lakes; there’s nothing draining into the environment. But if you’re adding an extra toilet to accommodate more guests, that could translate into more people using the existing plumbing. “People say, ‘I don’t want to upgrade my septic’, but when you add another toilet, you can also get more water going into the existing set-up because more people are washing their hands and showering,” says Bos. As always, check with your local regulator (usually the building department or the health unit).


How many people will be using the toilet day-to-day? What about on the weekends? 

You’re best to over-estimate this number, and spend more money on a higher-capacity toilet, especially if an alt toilet is your only throne. The Cinderella Comfort can handle “three to four visits per hour,” says McNeil. “You do sometimes need to manage that. You wouldn’t want a lineup of 10 people, all needing to use the toilet at the same time, after a dinner party.” (Cinderella sells a separate urinal designed as a companion, intended to help relieve the burden on the toilet’s incinerator, says McNeil. “After all, most bathroom visits are number one.”) Urine-diverting toilets are considered “unlimited cap­acity.” If lots of people use the toilet, you just need to empty it more frequently. Composting models are usually rated for the number of users (one to three people; five to seven people) and “full-time” vs. “part-time” or “vacation” use. Ask the manufacturer for the average per-person daily number of uses. Three visits? Six visits? That will make a difference.


How important are looks?

Urine-diverting toilets can appear fairly toilet-like. Some incinerating models, meanwhile, are boxy. And the Incinolet looks a little like someone attached a toilet seat to a hotel mini-fridge. Does any of this matter? Possibly more important: size. Self-contained toilets such as the Phoenix, distributed by B.C.’s Sunergy Systems, and Sun-Mar models must house the composting gadgetry below the toilet bowl. Even Sun-Mar’s Spacesaver is 19.5″ wide and 23″ deep. Not ginormous, but still larger than a conventional toilet. Keep in mind that, depending on the model, you want to leave space around the toilet to be able to easily pull out the compost tray or ashpan, or do other required maintenance or cleaning.


How prepared am I to do the regular maintenance and troubleshoot potential problems?

The toilets in your house can take a joke, but some alternative toilets are finicky and prone to throwing a tantrum when they don’t get exactly what they want. Too much liquid? Problem. Not enough liquid? Problem. And non-cottager guests sometimes do bizarre things, like try to “flush” a waterless toilet with cup-fulls of water, or dump handful after handful of peat moss into the throne, even though the instructions on the wall specifically tell them not to. “Around here, I’ve seen a lot of composting and incinerating toilets on the side of the driveway because the owners got fed up with them,” says Sandy Bos. “They do take some work. And some patience.” 

How high is my squick tolerance? 

The very idea of a urine-diverting toilet can be “terrifying” for some people who don’t like the idea of seeing their own waste, says Rob Davis. But a lot of that is mental, insists Rick Taylor. “For the most part, you don’t see that much. Personally, I think it’s a lot less gross than an outhouse.” But what if the toilet malfunctions? When someone (Not. Me.) accidentally rotated the mixing drum in our toilet the wrong way, the end result was smelly mystery sludge. The clean-up job was so traumatizing that my mother insisted on buying past-the-elbow rubber gloves—the sort of thing a vet might wear to give a cow a rectal exam—in case this ever happens again.  

This article originally appeared as part of “Game of Thrones” in the Mar/Apr 2021 issue of Cottage Life magazine. 

Read more: Three alternative toilet types to consider for the cottage


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