When my family finally got a composting toilet at our cottage in 2010, it was the most extravagant upgrade that our little off-grid cabin had ever received. Pre-composting unit, the throne was a bucket fastened below the outhouse bench. This system had been in place for decades, since before my family got the cottage; my German grandmother felt it perfectly appropriate (“Das ist cottage,” she liked to insist). But eventually, emptying a pail of raw sewage was a chore that made negative amounts of sense when there were so many better—and less disgusting—options available. So, after Oma passed, and after a lot of research, we settled on a composting toilet. A decade later, we still love it.
Alternative toilets can be more efficient and consume less water than a septic system; they’re a useful option when you need a secondary toilet to relieve pressure on your existing septic; and for some off-gridders, they’re a solution that’s more appealing than an outhouse. (You can house them inside the cottage. No more stumbling through the darkness in the middle of the night. Yay!)
“We all gotta go,” says Rick Taylor of Canadian Eco Products, which distributes the waterless Separett toilet. “But no one wants to talk about it.” Well, that’s just not true. Cottage Life wants to talk about it.
What’s the breakdown?
Getting an alternative toilet, “is like getting a new pet,” says Rob Davis of EcoEthic, which sells the electric MullToa composting toilet and the EcoJohn TinyJohn incinerating toilet. Choose wisely: you don’t want to end up with a ball python when you really should’ve picked a goldfish.
A. Composting toilets
Waste goes in, compost comes out. Everybody wins! Composting toilets achieve this by combining together waste, air, moisture, and warmth. The simplest version is the self-contained unit, where waste drops down into a chamber below. That’s where the magic happens. “They’re a one-piece system,” says Erin Lynch of Sun-Mar. “Everything can be done right there where the toilet is.”
Some toilets are waterless; others are low-water flush units. Some models require a small amount of power—through electricity, battery, or solar—to run a heating element to evaporate liquid or a fan to vent odours. Other toilets simply use a long vent stack, outhouse-style. Most units have some way to mix or “turn” the compost (to help break it down) via a hand crank or motor. Most also require the periodic addition of some kind of bulking agent (such as mulch, peat moss, or coconut fibre) to help absorb liquid and encourage the composting process by boosting the carbon content of the mixture. Compost needs a specific ratio of carbon to nitrogen; human waste alone has too much nitrogen.
If you’re looking for a multi-toilet set-up, “central” composting systems feature a separate, larger chamber—located in the basement, say—connected to one or more thrones, and may use a small amount of water, or vacuum suction, to flush. This is a good option when a cottager only has the space for a greywater system to handle the water from sinks and showers or wants multiple toilets but doesn’t have room for a large drainfield, says Luis Goncalves, the owner of GroundStone WasteWater Service in West Kelowna, B.C.
Price-wise, the most basic of toilets are—no surprise—the least expensive of the composting toilets: Sun-Mar’s self-contained units range from about $1,700 to $1,900, while more elaborate, higher-capacity units can cost three times as much.
B. Urine-diverting (or separating) toilets
Raw sewage smells. But, separating urine from solid waste tamps down on scent because, unless the two are combined, there’s no stinky ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, or methane. The bowls of these toilets are designed to send liquid into one chamber and solids into another. To do this successfully and direct urine into the drain hole at the front of the bowl, manufacturers often recommend that men sit down to pee. “But if you can be relied upon to aim for the forward section of the bowl, you can stand,” says Richard Brunt, the owner of Composting Toilets Canada in Victoria, which distributes both Separett and Nature’s Head urine-diverting units. “I stand, personally.”
Manufacturers still label these units composting toilets, but “what comes out of urine-diverting toilets is not compost,” says EcoEthic’s Rob Davis. You’re getting urine, and something that’s compostable, straddling the line between straight crap and “useable” compost. And it’s on you to deal with this unfinished business. If you have an outhouse, or a toilet connected to a septic system, put it in there, says Rick Taylor. But what if you don’t? Manufacturers have all kinds of suggestions including treating it like a dirty diaper and throwing it in the garbage; burning it; and tossing it on your regular compost heap.
But, if you call your municipality, and ask them if you can do any of these things, they’ll probably say no. “You need to call your municipality and ask them what you can do,” says Brunt. “You might need a waste management system.” A common set up: use a simple leaching bed for the liquid, and compost the solids via a system dedicated to handling human waste. “You need a proper compost bin,” says Brunt. “Don’t use a garbage can, don’t use a wheelie bin. Some people cheap out and do this—it’ll just result in a stinky mess.” But with a tumbling composter or compost bin, which you can buy for about $100, it’ll result in fertilizer for your trees and flowers.
The one giant bonus of urine-diverting toilets? Their typically low price tag—you’re doing most of the composting work, not the toilet. Sun-Mar’s GTG, for example, retails for about $630.
C. Incinerating toilets
Incinerating toilets burn waste at a very high temperature. You’re left with a small amount of sterile ash to dispose of as you would ash from your fireplace. There’s no liquid to drain; any combustion gases are expelled out through a ventilation pipe.
“People hear the word ‘incinerating’ and they just think ‘fire,’ ” says Joey McNeil of Cinderella Eco, a Norwegian-made incinerating toilet that’s been sold in Canada since 2018. “They ask, ‘Is it safe? I’ve got kiddies,’ or ‘I have dumb adults.’ ” But incinerating units typically have built-in sensors that shut off the toilet when something’s amiss. And the incinerating process stops automatically when a new user wants to use the toilet.
Unlike composting toilets, all incinerating toilets need some form of power or fuel—electricity, propane, natural gas, or kerosene, for example. An electric model may not be the best choice if your area is prone to power outages; that said, with the Incinolet incinerating toilet, you can store “deposits,” says company rep Joanne Whyte. “It’s not recommended for normal use, but it’s okay in an emergency. In that case, an extra burn cycle may be required once the power comes on.” A better option? Have a backup generator to run the toilet.
Incinerating toilets are usually the priciest of the bunch. For example, U.S.-based EcoJohn’s TinyJohn, which can run totally off-grid on a 12VDC battery and propane or natural gas, sells for about $4,900 from EcoEthic. And the large-capacity Cinderella Comfort retails for $4,990. You’ll also need to factor in the yearly costs for fuel or electricity, and the costs of accessories.
My family, happily, chose the right new pet—er, toilet. With a little research and insight (see opposite), you can too.
This article was originally published as “Game of Thrones” in the Mar/Apr 2021 issue of Cottage Life magazine.
Read more: Questions to ask before you buy an alternative toilet