A tour around my toilet

After a string of posts on eco/modernism, it’s time for something earthier. And since the Small Farm Future office recently received a request for a feature on compost toilets, we’ve decided to bring you a world exclusive photo-essay on the sanitary facilities at SFF headquarters. What could be earthier than that?

There is a connection to the last cycle of posts, though, which I hope I’ll be forgiven for mentioning briefly. Because it’s not hard to find texts within the ecomodernist corpus that scorn the humble compost toilet1. Perhaps there’s a simple division in the world between those who think it’s absurd to compost human waste, and those who think it’s absurd not to. But consider the consequences. In India, more than half the population (which amounts to something not too shy of 10% of all humanity) has no access to a latrine of any kind. Open defecation, it has been shown, is associated with intestinal illnesses causing childhood stunting, and this results in numerous health problems throughout the life course2. It’s also associated with assaults on women and children occasioned by their search for secluded spots for defecation. And that’s to say nothing of the fertility lost to agriculture by failing to make use of human waste (which is considerable – by my calculations, the urine produced by Britain’s population could furnish something like 40kg of nitrogen per hectare of cropland, which would put us well on the way to agricultural self-fertility).

The narrative of ecomodernism makes much of high-tech items like golden rice and nuclear power as means for improving the lot of the poor. But since all a compost toilet requires is some wood or plastic and a bit of easily-imparted knowledge, I’d be interested to see an economic evaluation comparing the per dollar benefits of creating access to compost toilets to poor communities lacking latrines with the fancy technologies preferred by the ecomodernists. Though on reflection, not that interested – I’m not against worthwhile research, but I guess one reason I quit academia was a sense that a lot of the money devoted to economic evaluations of whether to do this thing or that thing was probably better spent on actually doing this thing or that thing. In fact, what I’d really like to see is an economic evaluation of how useful economic evaluations are. But I digress – rather embarrassingly, as I’ve scarcely even started.

So let us turn our attention to some compost toilets in their practical manifestations. Here’s one, and ain’t she a beauty? This is the first one we built at Vallis Veg – a magnificently lofty throne from which I’ve surveyed my farm on many a fine sunny morning with the door thrown wide open just like this to welcome the rising sun, while I simultaneously perform other important work. Though not if I’m expecting visitors. Unless I know them very well.

Digital Camera

Digital Camera

We now have four separate compost toilets on the premises, all source separating ones, and all basically variants on the same theme. The unlovely IBC in the foreground of the photo showcases our receptacle of choice for the solids in two of our toilets. As Michael argued under my last post, the near future may turn out to be a salvage economy – so here’s my tip: invest in IBCs now! Source separation makes a lot of sense, to my mind. The urine is more readily usable, and it’s also much bulkier so if it’s mixed in it creates a slurry that’s trickier to deal with. Standard sewage systems are even more slurry-based, of course. All that wasted water! In urban situations no doubt it’s harder to avoid slurry-based sewerage, just as industrial farming demands slurry in preference to the simple farmyard manure systems of the small mixed farm, occasioning the need for more complex downstream treatment, if it’s treated at all. I just feel so sorry for all those poor animals cooped up in their little pens and so alienated from their environment that they’ve been trained to flush away their own fertility.

Now I’d love to be able to take you for a look around the back of my toilet (sorry if that sounds a bit wrong) but unfortunately I’ve had a devil of a job uploading some of my photos due to what a Google search reveals is known as “the notorious WordPress upload problem”. Too notorious for me to solve just now at any rate. So you’ll just have to imagine a chimney into the IBC, which funnels nasty smells safely upwards into the innocent Somerset air. And a large square of dark fabric covering it, the idea being to make it darker inside so that flies are attracted up the chimney and out towards the light. We haven’t generally found flies to be too much of a problem, except on the odd hot, still summer day when there are a few more around than feels ideal. Maybe in a climate less given to roiling cloudiness than western Britain, more elaborate insect-proofing may be required. And then to the right you can see imagine 25 litre containers (old wholesale laundry liquid cans) where the urine goes. We have about 20 of these. When almost all of them are full, we empty them onto our woodchip compost windrows. Not a particularly pleasant job – more because of the weight of manhandling the cans than their somewhat noxious contents – but it doesn’t need doing all that often.

The compost toilet in the picture has served us loyally for the last five years or so. The IBC has only just filled completely (though the site wasn’t residentially occupied until 18 months ago), and we’ll now let it mature for another 2 years before using it (probably not directly on food crops – more likely on top fruit, willow or hay). But we recently came across the new-fangled idea of having a toilet indoors. Apparently, it’s the very rage nowadays among all the fashionable folk. And so with the help of our friends Joanna and Josh, we recently built a fetching little wooden cabin-style addendum to our humble abode comprising separate indoor composting toilet and shower room, which unfortunately you’re also mostly just going to have to imagine. I really wanted to demonstrate how well it blends in with the adjoining north wing of Vallis Veg Mansions, which we built according to a traditional English farmhouse design dating right back to the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, a signal piece of legislation that made the pursuit of new dwellings in the countryside other than those possessing wheels something of a lifelong quest. But you’ll just have to imagine a nice little cedar-clad cabin adjoining a godawful plastic trailer. Still, my bureaucracy-busting alter ego, Spudman, will soon be dusting off his cape and preparing to do battle with Mendip District Council once again in pursuit of a wheel-less house. But that’s a story for another time.

The indoor toilet has proved a hit with the family so far, and certainly with me. No more pulling on boots and venturing out in the lashing rain in the middle of the night after a few too many down at the Farmers Arms. Again, I’d like to show you our double-chambered toilet design, with two IBCs enrobed in their cedar raiment. Unfortunately, that’s something else I’m going to have to leave to your imagination. We figure that it takes a couple of years to fill an IBC, and then another couple of years of undisturbed composting. Hence two IBCs so that we can alternate between them.

Now, something I can show you is the door to the inner sanctum of this temple of self-fertility.

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Would you like to take a look inside? Well, all right then…

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…and there you have it, our smallest room in all its woody glory, with a stack of cut willow pollards drying at the back ready for the woodstove next winter. And so that brings our tour of the compost toilet to a conclusion – I hope you… Sorry, what was that? You want to see what? Hmmm, well, where I come from I was taught to honour a visitor’s requests whenever possible, however unusual. So, er, here’s a world exclusive view down my toilet.

IMG_4587

You’ll notice the advanced source-separating technology hidden in the toilet bowl, which cleverly accommodates itself to both female and male anatomies – albeit in the latter case only if one adopts a seated posture for excretions of both kinds. Which I’ve noticed is quite beyond the capacities of certain among our male visitors, who leave the distinct impression that sitting down to pee is an insurmountable challenge to their deepest sense of self. They also often leave a suspiciously moist residue inside the IBC where it ain’t supposed to go. But I find that men with experience of organic growing are generally better able to take it in their stride. I like to think this is because we’re somehow more secure in our masculinity. Though I fear it’s more likely that time spent organic gardening has fostered a willingness to endure any indignity in the hunt for good compost.

Beside the bowl (previous photo) you’ll note a bucket of sawdust, which we mostly obtain at no cost from a local forestry sawmill (so no dodgy glues and suchlike in our compost). A handful down the bowl after each deposit adds a useful shot of carbon and has the added benefit of concealing the visual and olfactory evidence of one’s effusions from the following hapless visitor. Without source separation, a lot more sawdust would be required, reducing system efficiency.

And, finally, let me show you the urine can in the new toilet, usually concealed by the floor hatch you see in the picture. A piece of high-end technology that would surely delight Stewart Brand himself…

Hatch2

I should add that I deserve very little credit for designing or building the incredible contraptions on show here, which are the speciality of my beloved. Pretty much my only contribution has been wiring in the lights. But I like to think that’s my role in life – whether in the wide open reaches of the blogosphere or the narrow confines of our backwoods abode, I bring illumination where previously there was darkness…

And that’s pretty much it. Next week: inside my laundry basket.

References

  1. For example, Phillips, L. (2015) Austerity Ecology & the Collapse Porn Addicts. Yes, that book. And also Bruckner, P. (2013) The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse.
  1. Spears, D. (2013) ‘The nutritional value of toilets: How much international variation in child height can sanitation explain?’ https://d3gxp3iknbs7bs.cloudfront.net/attachments/902b86b5-eb72-4f97-9a72-ea4f758be1aa.pdf

46 thoughts on “A tour around my toilet

  1. That urine separator is amazing. And pricy here in North America. Perhaps I can fashion one out of an old bucket—for the composting toilet we don’t yet have n the farm we don’t yet live on.

  2. From the Blogosphere to the Bogosphere…………….

    (Sorry, cant resist that!)

    Interestingly enough when Bazalgette build Londons sewage system & the Thames embankments the other option was to take the sewage not to Beckton but out of London to the Country for use as fertilizer

  3. Yes, the separators are quite expensive – maybe a question of sale volume? But we’ve found that other solutions don’t work nearly so well.

    Dammit, John – why didn’t I think of that joke? Interesting – we still do a reasonable job in the UK of getting sewage back onto the fields, but it’s an involved process with a lot of losses along the way, and also problems with unwanted additions, such as heavy metals from road runoff.

  4. ok, well, seeing as you started off with a quick recap pop at (some of) the eco-modernists, I can now make the trival comment I wanted to make on your previous post, but never got around to.

    I’m coming from a very different part of the forest – I’ve started reading your blog to learn a bit about an arera I know little about. However, Leigh Phillips sounds to me like a good example of a SmartyPants Contrarian – a term which I coined here. Hardly worth the trouble of answering directly?

    But yes, I’ve also come across what amounts to the “compost loos – eeeeeeewww! Gross!” argument.

  5. Lovely. Especially right now, considering my burst water pipe…
    I seem remember quite a few recommendations to fertilize your garden with urine and woodash, as if nothing else came out of our digestive system.
    Those 40 kilos of N are of course the easiest of all nutrients to acquire in other ways.
    All those high-tech fantasies of separating and drying “clean urine” you hear about in the mainstream press are ignoring the fact that the unmentionable brown stuff holds most of the minerals not readily available in the atmosphere.
    You need both, and yes, that’s a very good reason for sitting down. (It’s also the only one.)
    The application laws for humanure round here (for private and commercial use) I think amount to a ‘No’, while high-tech fantasies of retrieving white granular phosphorous pellets from sewage plants are a case of national security.

  6. How will you empty the IBC? Even if the resulting compost pours out through the hole quite easily it’s a big thing to manhandle. I’ve got plans in my head for building one but,as we’re both getting older, I’m worried about the carrying of waste,

  7. Thanks for those comments.

    Yes, application rules can be a nuisance – especially since the powers that be often don’t really have any rules because it’s quite a new development, so they substitute with a ‘no’. But we’ve found the Environment Agency here relatively amenable.

    The “compost loos – eeeeeeewww! Gross!” argument indeed is quite common. Though I’ve had occasion to use many a flush/mains sewerage loo which was grosser than our ones. I think this line of argument conforms with a general tendency towards sanitizing the earthier side of life in contemporary culture – as in those meat eaters who prefer their flesh to come vacuum-packed in a form unrecognizable from its animal origins, while professing their horror at the thought of slaughter, manure management etc. What can one do? Sigh, I suppose.

    Emptying the IBCs – well, you have to cut them open and extract the rather solid (but blessedly odour-free) contents. You can close them up again afterwards. Yes, it is quite hard work, but you don’t have to do it very often. Some of our other toilets have 80 litre cans for the faeces. Much easier to handle, but then of course you need to empty them more often.

    • We use a cube of pallets — much easier to get at than cutting open a tote.

      We do use a tote for urine, mixing one part urine, one part stove ash slurry, and eight parts water to end up with a lovely 1:1:1 fertilizer that we run right through our dripline.

  8. With the odor of the eco-modernists barely blown out of the room we are treated to a treatise on British Loo…just follow your nose, eh?

    Actually we have been planning on a double vault system to wean ourselves off of the septic system the past couple of years. Our plan calls for a brick lining with doors on the front of each vault. Assuming it takes a few years to fill each vault that should give plenty of time for the waste to compost in the vault that is full.

    But I still waver on the need for the separate urine collector. As it is I typically step outside and take in the fresh air as I water various ornamentals. Is the main argument for separation to allow for a more thorough composting of the solid waste?
    Cheers,
    Brian

    • We had an old septic tank one one property I lived on as a child. I doubt the outflow and general engineering would meet current local government standards. There was a very large apple tree just next to the system. It would produce astonishing quantities of apples.

      And in our previous home we had a self-seeding avocado grow in the backyard. Melbourne’s a bit marginal with respect to avocado trees fruiting but this one grew very fast and produced an excellent crop. Then we started to have a bit of trouble getting the dunnie to flush. The bloke that came to unblock the sewerage pipe was very impressed by the tenacity of the tree roots that had grow into what the tree saw as a magnificent source of water and nutrients.

      • Placing appropriate trees at places on the site where people are most likely to pee would be an interesting permaculture design exercise. Still have the boots/rain problem though…

  9. Hi Chris,

    An inspiring project using composting toilets is chronicled at oursoil.org. The organisation operates these in Haiti, in Port au Prince and in the north. I think they use both urine diverting set-ups and combined flow. They aspire to customer-funded financing, and seem to be doing it.

    Years ago I lived in a shed and, in a nearby outbuilding, used two plastic buckets, between four cinderblocks. The urine bucket #1 was poured out into sheep pasture occasionally. In bucket #2, after use I would sprinkle a little dirt, for microbes, then cover with wood chips and a screened cover, for fly control. This when full was buried in forest.
    This worked well. Mosquitoes will not live in undiluted urine. Rainwater-diluted urine they liked, though.

    What’s IBS stand for?

  10. Brian, I suppose you could say that the separation is for more thorough composting of solids but the issue really is the volume (and fluidity) of the urine. Without separation your vaults will fill up more quickly – especially as you’ll probably be adding a lot more sawdust to soak up the urine. Of course, there’s always the watering the flowers option you mention…maybe not so appealing to women, and also a potential mal-distribution of the precious liquid since people will likely pee where it’s most convenient to them and not where the added fertility is most needed.

    And Brian…thanks for that info. Sounds like an interesting project, I’ll take a look. IBC stands for ‘intermediate bulk container’ – basically a container designed to fit onto a forklift pallet for carrying liquids.

    • IBS of course stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which is why a wooden toilet seat should always be varnished.
      It could also stand for that episode of UN peacekeeping when their soldiers’ septic systems introduced cholera to Haiti.

      Brian, have you seen designs with the slanted floor which automatically pushes the composted material towards a door on one side, for easy removal?

        • Unfortunately not. It’s probably one of those ideas Bill Mollison expected someome to implement, and then noone did (though there probably are a few deep litter chicken coops with slanted floors). I hadn’t thought of it in a while.

    • As a field experiment I can report that first year seedlings of Australian Red Cedar, Western Red Cedar, Redwood (sequoia) and various callistemon species all appear to appreciate that liquid gold 🙂

      Bamboo loves pee. We have a very healthy patch in our backyard. Our fruit trees also appreciate some biologically delivered nitrogen and phosphorus.

      Note a tree can be killed by too much of a good thing. And it can get stinky if it’s too concentrated in one area.

      • I might add to David’s list – that in N. America the common annual Zea mays will also respond well to hominid delivered urine. And from early July onward the corn crop will provide a bit of privacy… so modesty needn’t prevent one from such a sustainability exercise.

        Maybe I should close this comment and start another, but will anyone be surprised if the comment thread for this post sets some records for this site?? A lot of pent up thought being spilled for this subject.

        • We did the “three sisters” in the greenhouse. (Don’t ask why… volunteer help…) When we turned on the “fertigation,” the corn shot up a foot overnight!

          Corn is a big nitrogen consumer. Pee is a big nitrogen source. A match made in heaven!

  11. Thinking about it, I remember visiting a paddle steamer in a Cardiff Dry Dock, not that long ago. It was raining and one by one the group sought shelter under the sponsons, thought about it and emerged again because the toilets – in the sponsons just discharged straight down.

    Despite a ‘non return’ flap, a heavy sea could turn the WC into a bidet…………

    In the same way of course although it is changing gradually many trains – including all the ones used by GWR in this neck of the woods still discharge the toilets straight onto the track.

    So I sometimes think we are a little to squeamish

    • I travelled on those paddle steamers when I was 4 or so and we lived in Penarth, don’t remember people worrying about the toilets then! I think we are too squeamish now and don’t really understand what is and isn’t really necessary for true hygeine

      • Once it’s washed into the harbour it’s bound for Somerset anyway, where…it’ll be properly composted.

  12. A thought for regions still able to afford heating fuel: Within a furnace or woodstove, one could burn dried dung, kill pests and diseases, and not lose much nitrogen. The ash could return the phosphorus and potassium etc. to the soil.

    • Now all you have to do is come up with a metal dung capsule that fits both into the toilet setup and afterwards right into the middle of a standardized rocket stove heat riser, solve the little odour problem, and you’re done.

    • Although my undergraduate chemistry degree was sadly lacking in dung burning experiments, I’m fairly sure that the manure nitrogen will be lost in a combustion process. If the nitrogen oxidises, these oxides have global warming potentials several hundred times that of carbon dioxide. And while the manure ash should retain the phosphorus, potassium and micro-nutrient minerals, all the carbon will also be lost. The carbon is useful for building soil humus and providing food for soil bacteria and fungus.

      • That’s where the capsule and rocket stove come in: Only burning off the “wood” gases at very high temperatures leaves most of the carbon structure intact and uses methane et al as fuel.
        And of course, hipster bonus is collected for coming up with high-octane terra preta from your excrements.

        • At very high temperatures I think you would be much more likely to get NOX production with consequent GWP issue.

          Putting manure through a pyrolysis process is possible but the feedstock from a composting toilet will show substantial variation with respect to particle size, moisture content, carbon percentage etc. At small scale this is likely to make a stinking, smokey, polluting mess as well as aforementioned NOX’s. It makes a lot more sense IMO to incorporate the composted contents directly into soil.

          Speaking of terra preta and biochar generally, making charcoal from woody biomass at small-scale is trivial albeit dangerous. I’ve done it in the backyard using retorts with an external thermal energy source AKA Milo tins with a small hole punched in the lid on the Weber burning wood. What’s a lot more difficult is making a good quality char at small scale with the appropriate characteristics for biochar. And char characteristics vary with tree species for example.

  13. technical question:
    How do U clean the urine separator so as it didn’t stink?
    I could hardly manage to maintain it odourless (while trying to refrain from using chemicals for cleaning) & finally gave up and followed Jenkins way (and reasoning of urine as an agent providing necessary moisture).
    but well I’m using a “bucket toilet” which fills up in 3 days time so the bit slurry substrate is not much of pain in.. .
    And man are encouraged to use “a direct method” (piss directly onto the compost pile.

    Do U monitor the pile temp in any way?

  14. technical question:
    How do U clean the urine separator so as it didn’t give off any odour?
    I could hardly manage to maintain it odourless (while trying to refrain from using chemicals for cleaning) & finally gave up and followed Jenkins way (and reasoning of urine as an agent providing necessary moisture).
    but well I’m using a “bucket toilet” which fills up in 3 days time so the bit slurry substrate is not much of pain in.. .
    And man are encouraged to use “a direct method” (piss directly onto the compost pile.

    Do U monitor the pile temp in any way?

    • We haven’t found there to be too many smell problems with the separator – just needs the occasional wipe.

      No, we don’t monitor compost temperature. We have pretty large woodchip windrows. We let it compost down for a while before adding the urine so that the urine doesn’t just run straight through it.

      A bucket/compost system works pretty well I suppose – except that emptying the bucket so often is a bit of nuisance?

      • @Louise as well—

        Around here, folks build composting toilets, even indoors, using common five gallon pails. When it is full, they just seal it up, and start a new one. It requires a lot of pails, but you can just let the composting happen in the bucket.

      • As to cleaning buckets : there is ~10 meters to the composting hacienda, so carrying is not much of a nusiance. To avoid bucket brushing or scratching the buckets’ bottom must be covered with a layer of saw dust before usage.
        And the only place that gets sullied is the one where a dungy substrate meets side of the bucket while excreting in a improper position.
        btw. I took a photo of a carp in my bath tub before Christmast with a thought of you but somehow I can not reencounter it.
        Am I allowed to post it when its found, sir ! ?:-)

        • Yes, by all means – maybe best to email me the picture via the contact form and I’ll be sure to feature it in a future blog post. Thank you 🙂

        • Well, I suppose logistical incompetence on my part. Put small square straw bale down by outhouse in our forest garden in Canada to use as urinal, filled it with urine until it stank, then decided to move it across the garden to the compost heap but of course it was too heavy, so I cut the strings, leading to a highly unpleasant ammonia explosion. Sensible planning would doubtless avoid all those problems, but I still think it works better at something like a festival where it’s over a short period and you’d more likely have easy mechanical handling options.

          • all clear! I placed the bale next to compost hacienda (so it was roofed) & it has composted in 2 years time but .. no any odour at any time of its lifecycyle detected. But it was used by 4 ppl only.

    • I dunno, a straw bale might serve if nothing better presents… we used to stack straw bales right on the ground behind the barn. We’d use (or sell) bales from the stack all the way down to the bottom layer that sat directly on soil. This bottom layer of bales would be of poorer quality as the soil side had begun to rot (or compost!). We’d use these bottom bales for mulching in the garden. We had a male beagle who kept much of the farm well ‘marked’ as territory… and the straw stack was not excepted. So while this was not an intended experiment, I suppose we did manage to use some peed upon straw. As for recommending this? Can’t come right out and claim it will save the planet – but in lieu of alternatives, a straw bale might serve.

      [and I’m concerned that we got to over 30 comments before someone used ‘lieu’ in this thread – come on people 🙂 ]

  15. I scrolled through the comments, and didn’t notice anyone mention the Joe Jenkins Humanure system with three year cycle of compost bins. I have a 5 gallon ( 18L) bucket system, and yes, you empty more often, but it’s not that big a deal. Built 3- 5 ft( 1.5m) x 5 ft (1.5m) wooden bins, sitting right on the ground, so all manner of soil critters get to break things down. Kitchen scraps also go in the mix, with occasional straw to keep things aerobic. I am also lucky to have free sawmill sawdust nearby, and agree that it is very effective as an absorbent and odor suppressor in the bucket.

    I pee in the bucket when nearby, otherwise it gets direct application.

    Of course, there are only two of us. If we had a farm crew, then I guess I would reconsider the logistics.

  16. Hunting around the interwebs but can’t find the happily blue diverter insert you have found (which appears ideal). Can I ask the name brand or mfg website?

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