Composting Toilet: Good, Bad and Shitty
A modern composting toilet is a huge improvement over those awful smelly pit latrines at campsites and cottages older folk might remember.
Those were not composting toilets. They were outhouses, long drops, pit latrines, arborloos, privies and other quaint names, but not composting toilets.
The humble waterless, non-flushing or “dry” toilet has come a long way from the days when a hole in the ground, a box seat and a small wooden shed for privacy were the norms. Gone are the days of campers or isolated farm families making their flashlight or hurricane lamp-lit way down a path at night to answer the call of nature.
Main Types of “Dry” Toilets
There is a lot of confusion over the term “composting toilet”. Many people use the term loosely for any non-flushing toilet or one that is not connected to a sewerage or septic system. That’s not correct.
Another term that is used to describe non-flushing toilets is “ecosan”. These may or may not be composting toilets, so don’t assume that this description always describes a true composting toilet.
Arborloos are not small toilets under trees as some who are familiar with the British term “loo” for toilet might assume. They are a variation of the pit latrine found in tropical climates. An arborloo is a shallow pit with a light concrete slab on top to which a seat is attached (or a squat hole in the floor). It may have a screen wall or small hut for privacy. Pits are dug in a line, as one gets full the slab and screen are moved to the next one. The soil from the new pit is used to fill the old one. A tree is planted in the filled pit, as its roots grow they will find the nutrients in the composted waste.
Composting toilets convert human waste into a humus type dry substance that can be used to fertilize plants. The process is hygienic and designed to avoid unpleasant odours. It kills pathogens – the bacteria or germs that can make you sick, in the composting process. When carried out correctly, the composting process can break down animal bones, skin and all types of tissue. For a detailed description of how these toilets work visit the Wikipedia page.
A search for “composting toilets” on the Internet will find you many different models of composting toilets and simple seat arrangements that are designed to fit over a pit latrine. It will also take you to ads for toilets with below floor level tanks that require a separate toilet to be purchased. Some of the photos in ads for both of these variations are deceptive. Always read the descriptions carefully and if you are not sure about what is being offered, phone the supplier or manufacturer.
Composting toilet types
There are three main types of composting toilet:
- Collect and compost elsewhere
- Urine Diversion (completely dry)
Let’s look at the simplest one first:
A ‘collect and compost elsewhere’ does just that. It is s seat on top of a tank. Both pee and poo go into a tank under the seat. When the tank is full, the seat is detached, the tank closed and transported to a composting site (or a suitable disposal site). This type of toilet is not designed for constant use. It is a simple, economical solution for camping for short periods, weekends at a cottage, and hunting trips.
One brand that appears reasonable is the Earthtec non-stick for around $150.00. I have not personally used this toilet – in my life in Africa, I have probably used more types of long drops and other primitive toilets than most, but not this one.
I have looked at reviews by users of this toilet. Most are from satisfied customers, frequent comments are:
- Easy to use
- Easy to empty without spilling waste
- Doesn’t take up much space
- Children like it
- Doesn’t smell
There were a few complaints.
- After two years of constant use by a trucker, the toilet had started to leak
- A few users complained that the non-stick lining was not non-stick
- One said that the lining developed a gritty finish which was hard to clean,
- One complaint that the supplier did not answer the buyer’s email
Despite these few complaints, the majority of reviews showed that users were happy with the toilet and found that it made their lives easier when travelling or camping.
A combined toilet does not separate pee from poo. It all goes into the same collection chamber where it is collected for the composting process to start.
Advantages of combined toilet:
- Simple, less complicated design
- Easy to install
- Lower price
The major disadvantage of the combined toilet is excessive moisture in the composting chamber which slows down the composting process and can lead to bad odours. A high volume of urine in the chamber can result in high levels of ammonia which affect the carbon to nitrogen ratio and lower quality compost.
The compost from this type of toilet generally requires a further composting process in an outside compost heap or chamber. It may also require the addition of more bulking agent than the dry type of toilet.
One of the most popular brands of combined toilets is the Sun-Mar family. Electric and non-electric models are available.
The Centrex 1000 and 2000 electric or non-electric models are best suited for seasonal use.
For permanent use, the Excel electric model is recommended. Electricity is required for a heating element under the tank which speeds up the composting process and to power the vent fan to extract odours and draw fresh air into the composting chamber. On non-electric models, the fan can be powered by a 12-volt battery.
Prices start at around $1900 for the Model 1000 and $2900 for the Model 2000. Click on the links above or the photo for current prices.
Please note – the price does not include the toilet seat.
Reviews of this model were generally favourable:
Quick to install in as little as one hour
- Kids liked it
- Well made
- Lasted 10 years
- No smell
- Fan is not noisy
There were few complaints:
- Unit is too big – difficult to install in houses with a low crawl space under floor
- The step is too high and too small for children or short adults
- The price does not include the toilet seat
Urine diversion composting toilet
A urine diversion composting toilet does just that. It separates pee from poo with a urine collecting chamber which is emptied manually or drains through a pipe. The drain pipe discharges urine into a small weeping tile or gravel filled pit which should be situated far away from water sources to avoid contamination of groundwater.
When used correctly, this type of toilet can produce dry compost that does not smell and requires less time for further composting than partially composted waste from a combined toilet. The compost coming out of the toilet will be around 10% of the volume of waste that went in.
The toilet recommended as the Amazon choice for this type of toilet is the Natures Head
It has a 4.5-star rating out of 132 reviews.
The price is around $960.00 (check our store for the current price)
This model is available with a regular crank handle and a spider handle for installation in small spaces. It is popular with yacht owners as it is more hygienic than the collection tank system used on many boats.
For 2 adults and 2 children, the urine container would need emptying every 2 days and the solid chamber every 4 weeks.
Comments from users are mostly favourable:
- Easy to open for emptying
- Good on our boat – kids like using it
- Good support from the manufacturer even to an installation question on a Saturday
- Happy with it in a Montana winter
- Best out of many other systems I tried
- Spider handle works well – even for kids
We like to give you any complaints too. These were very few:
- Overpriced & ugly
- Difficult to empty urine container
- Urine container can overflow into compost tank if not emptied regularly
- Seat a bit small for a big person
- Seat too high for small children and short adults
In our opinion, another good urine diversion toilet available is the Separetti Villa 9210
This toilet also has a 4.5-star rating.
The unit comes with a 2-speed fan, a vent pipe, a urine drain hose and a screen under the seat to hide the contents. The screen is opened by the weight of the user sitting on the seat. The same mechanism rotates the container to evenly distribute the contents. Two containers and 10 liner bags are supplied with the unit. This means that one container can be cleaned and ready for use while the other is being filled. The toilet can be fixed to the floor or a wall.
Favourable comments included:
- Not bad
- Good unit – no smell
- Easy to install
- Easy to use and empty
- Produces very dry compost
- 8 weeks before emptying with 2 people using it
- Pricey but good value
- All fittings included
The reported complaints were minor:
- No floor mounting brackets supplied – only for wall mounting
- European pipe sizes (only 1 user found this to be a problem)
- Bags break down too fast (one mention)
Priced at around $1600 (check our store for current price) this unit is more expensive than some of its competitors but seems to be a well designed, reliable and efficient unit that is easy to use, easy to clean and does not smell.
Both types of composting toilets work better with the addition of bulking material. The most common types are:
These can be ordered from our online store or picked up at most camping supply stores or rural general dealers.
For permanent year-round use, we recommend the urine diversion type of toilet. For seasonal or short-term use the combined toilet may be a wise choice.
A small seat and tank unit may be good enough for occasional, infrequent camping weekends or long road trips in remote areas.
Once the decision on which type of composting toilet is best suited to your needs, careful consideration should be given to the size and capacity needed to handle your needs.
This will depend on how many adults and children will be using the toilet, frequency of guests, weather conditions, distance to disposal or further composting facility.
Choosing the wrong composting toilet can result in a smelly home, a dirty and unpleasant chore emptying it and a waste of money. A truly shitty experience.
By choosing the right toilet you will have convenience, easy cleaning and a fresh smelling home.
Do you already have a composting toilet? Leave a comment here, tell us about your experience or ask for an invitation to join our Facebook group to contribute to the discussion.