Basic indoor plumbing has become so accessible that many of us don’t even give it a second thought. We automatically assume that every building or home is going to be outfitted with a toilet for whenever nature calls. However, that’s not always the case.
I learned this the hard way when I was asked to help renovate a friend’s “off-grid” cabin. While the cabin’s remote location certainly provided a nice serene break from the daily grind, the lack of modern plumbing proved to be a bit of a challenge when it came time to improve the bathroom. So, I had to get a bit creative and think outside of the box. That’s when I came across composting toilets.
The best composting toilet will get rid of waste without the use of conventional plumbing. A favorite among eco-friendly homeowners and RVers, these toilets are a versatile purchase that can be placed anywhere.
How Composting Toilets Work
Composting toilets have been around since the 19th century. However, the basic principles and the act of creating compost out of human waste has been around for much longer than that.
As we mentioned earlier, composting toilets are designed to use the natural decay process to turn waste into usable compost. If you have your own compost pile in your backyard to get rid of food and yard waste, you’re probably already familiar with the process. Composting toilets work in a very similar way. The main difference is that everything is self-contained for simplicity, comfort, and convenience.
There are three main goals of a composting toilet. The first is to effectively evaporate all of the moisture in the waste. Typically, human waste is about 75 percent water. Because some liquid is used in the toilet, the total moisture content tends to hover around 90 percent.
Composting toilets must get rid of as much moisture as possible without drying the waste out too much. To do this, most units have a large composting chamber and a ventilation system. Some even have incorporated heating systems to speed up the process.
Next, the toilet must be able to effectively turn the waste into compost without producing odor. Who wants to deal with the smell of decaying human waste in their home or RV?
Modern composting toilets have gotten pretty good at achieving this feat while keeping your home odor-free. This is done by oxygenating the waste and adding some additional compost material, such as peat moss or sawdust. Peat moss is a particularly effective source of carbon that helps to support anaerobic decomposition.
During this process, microbes will break the waste down. Oxygen is needed to control odor. A lot of energy is released by these organisms during the process. When there’s enough oxygen present, there is no bad smell to worry about. Composting toilets can use a couple of different methods for introducing oxygen. The most common is through the use of a moving drum.
Finally, composting toilets must make the finished product safe to handle. There are certain risks involved when you’re dealing with human waste. The goal of a composting toilet is to turn that waste into usable substances that can be returned to the environment.
Not every composting toilet owner is concerned about creating fertilizer for plants. Even still, the fixture needs to effectively break down any of the bad stuff in human waste. When the process is done right, the finished compost should not have any active pathogens. It may still have some residue from pharmaceutical products, but the chemicals should be eliminated and safe for use.
The Benefits of Using a Composting Toilet
Reduce Your Water Usage
Every person uses upwards of 100 gallons of water every day! Not only is that figure harmful to the environment, but it’s putting a dent in your wallet, too. Composting toilets use very little water.
The goal is to get rid of as much moisture as possible, not add some more. This can help cut back on your water usage significantly.
Save on Installation Costs
When you compare the price of a composting toilet to that of installing new plumbing, these fixtures start to get very appealing. The alternative to a composting toilet in a remote location would be a septic tank. These large systems can cost several thousand dollars to install.
If you’re renovating an RV, septic tanks are out of the question completely. You could look into installing waste tanks, but that’s a costly endeavor and takes up valuable space as well.
Because you don’t have to worry about plumbing, there are no limits on where you can place a composting toilet. That’s why they’re such a popular option for those who are limited on space. You can put standalone units in a small water closet outside or in a tight bathroom. The choice is yours.
Some units do require electricity. This is usually to operate the ventilation fan or heating elements. However, manufacturers understand that flexible placement is key. Thus, you can find battery-powered or solar-powered options if finding an electrical source is a challenge.
Things to Consider
Like any other fixture, composting toilets come in a variety of designs. To ensure that you’re getting the best composting toilet for your unique needs, consider the following factors before you make a purchase.
Type of Toilet
There are a few different kinds of composting toilets available. These include self-contained units and central units.
A self-contained unit incorporates everything you need to start composting waste. They’re much more compact than the alternative and can work pretty much anywhere. You may find that these models have a strange design. That’s because of the base, which houses the composting drum and storage tank.
The good news is that manufacturers design self-contained units to be as compact as possible. While they may look bulky, the overall footprint isn’t too bad when you consider the lack of integrated plumbing.
The second option is a central composting system. These toilets have a compact design and don’t have a bulky base as self-contained units do. However, the caveat is that you must install a separate composting unit below the floor or in another room.
Ideal for large buildings with multiple toilets, these systems can handle a lot more waste. The waste is delivered through tubes to the central unit for treatment.
Next, you should consider how many waste tanks the unit has. Some toilets combine liquid and solid waste into one central composting drum. Others have a separate tank for urine. This separate tank can speed up the evaporation process and limit how often you need to empty the composting bin.
While they’re often considered to be “dry toilets,” some composting models do need a bit of water. If you’re looking for a more traditional toilet experience, you can get central systems that only use a pint of water. They help to keep the toilet clean and deliver waste to the central unit.
As we mentioned earlier, some units require electricity. Ideally, you would have access to a simple household outlet to plug the system in. If you don’t, you’ll need to get a unit that takes advantage of solar energy or a replaceable battery.
Whether or not your toilet will need electricity depends on its features. Most will have a ventilation fan. It’s a necessary component that speeds up evaporation. Luckily, it’s a low-powered component that doesn’t use up much energy. If you have a toilet with a heating system, that may require more electricity.
Not every state is going to allow you to use a composting toilet in your home. Some jurisdictions have strict health codes that prevent you from turning human waste into compost. Before you make a purchase, check with your local health codes and laws.
3 of the Best Composting Toilets
Composting toilets are a bit of a niche product. While they’re popular among certain RV and property owners, you’re not going to find a large market for these fixtures. Thus, it’s not always easy to find the right model. We’ve rounded up a small collection of composting toilets to help you with your search.
At only 48 centimeters long and 33 centimeters wide at its base, this composting toilet from Nature’s Head is great for those who are tight on space. It’s a self-contained unit that’s designed with flexibility in mind. Whether you need to use it on an RV or a remote cabin in the woods, this toilet will serve you well.
The entire unit is made out of plastic. Thus, it’s lightweight and easy to move from location to location. All of the hardware is made out of stainless steel for longevity.
From a design standpoint, the toilet is relatively simple to use. The top looks like your standard toilet, albeit without a removable seat. There’s a built-in urine diverter and a large rotating drum for solid waste. The urine tank is made out of clear plastic so that you can easily see when it needs to be emptied.
On the side of the unit, there’s a large spider crank. This crank turns the drum to oxygenate the waste and speed up the decaying process. You can add some peat moss to improve efficiency.
There’s a built-in ventilation fan that helps to speed up evaporation as well. Thanks to the included hose, you can direct the air out of your building to keep things smelling fresh.
- Compact and portable design
- Separate tank for solids and liquids
- Built-in low-volume ventilation fan
- Stainless steel hardware
- Simple turning crank
- Made of high-quality plastic
- Can be used with outlet, battery, or solar panels
- Includes a flexible vent hose
- Elongated seat
- Easy to install
- Comes with five-year limited warranty
- Can be difficult to clean urine diverter
- No separate seat
- Bowl may be too small for some
- May take longer to compost in humid environments
This composting toilet from Separett is a unique option that combines the convenience of a traditional toilet with the flexibility of a composting unit. It’s a standalone fixture that must be connected to a separate drainage system.
There are a few different options on how you can connect it. The most common way to plumb the toilet is to connect it to your gray water system. This is to help divert liquid waste. The thing I like most about this particular toilet is that you don’t have to handle any urine whatsoever.
As for solid waste, that’s stored in a separate bucket at the base of the toilet. This isn’t like a traditional composting toilet. There’s no composting drum or turning crank to keep things oxygenated. Instead, waste is simply stored in a tank that’s lined with a composting bag. When it’s time to empty out the toilet, simply remove the bag and dispose of it accordingly.
There is an effective ventilation fan. It can run on AC or DC power. Whether you choose to use a battery, standard outlet, or solar energy, the fan is powerful enough to move air about 20 feet. This helps to keep odors under control.
- Made of thick polypropylene
- Uses AC or DC power
- Comes with an AC adapter and sizable battery cord
- Waterless operation
- Built-in ventilation fan
- Urine diverter
- Easy to use and empty
- Looks like a traditional toilet
- Can be connected to gray water system
- Does not create compost
- Can’t be used with composting material
- Can become clogged with too much toilet paper
- Requires a small amount of plumbing
Here’s another great option from Nature’s Head. This model is completely self-contained. It’s compact, lightweight, and relatively easy to operate.
Most of the unit is made out of high-quality plastic. The material is thick and molded for a precise fit. It’s not the same flimsy plastic that you’ll find on cheaper models. Instead, the material is tough enough to last for several years.
To add even more durability, several components are made out of metal. This includes the handle to turn the composting drum and the hinges that keep the storage tanks closed.
This composting toilet features a small built-in ventilation fan. You can use the included ventilation hose to divert odors out of the room. Despite its small size, this fan also helps to evaporate liquids and speed up the decaying process.
Speaking of which, this toilet has everything you need to create compost effectively. The solid waste is stored in a rotating drum. Giving the built-in handle a few turns will oxygenate the waste to reduce odors and feed the beneficial bacteria.
- Self-contained unit
- Compact footprint
- Made of durable plastic and metal hardware
- Urine diverter
- Built-in ventilation fan with 12-volt plug
- Comes with 5-foot vent hose
- Simple installation process
- Lightweight build
- Emptying urine tank can get messy
- Turning handle can be difficult to get moving
- No separate seat
- Cleaning can be difficult
And the Best Composting Toilet is
Composting toilets are a great investment. Instead of being tethered to your plumbing system, you can use these unique fixtures to plan your home, vacation cabin, or RV on your own terms. Plus, they have the added perk of being environmentally friendly.
While all of our recommended picks do a fine job at taking care of waste, we have to choose the self-contained unit from Nature’s Head as the winner of this roundup.
The Nature’s Head toilet is completely self-sufficient. It does not rely on any additional plumbing like the Separett model. While you do have to take the extra steps to get rid of urine every couple of days, the lack of integrated plumbing opens up a world of possibilities when it comes to placement. You’re not limited to where your gray water system is like the Separett toilet.
Another big advantage of the Nature’s Head toilet is that it actually makes compost. The Separett model simply stores waste for later disposal. The Nature’s Head toilet has a built-in composting drum to oxygenate the waste and improve the decaying process. It’s a highly efficient system that results in a usable product.
I recommend going with the first Nature’s Head model we went over. While it looks similar to the other model, it offers more flexibility in terms of electrical use. Plus, the spider crank is easier to use than a traditional L-shaped handle.
All in all, the Nature’s Head composting toilet is an excellent buy. It can serve you well no matter where your adventures take you.