It's been a little over a year since we moved to our tent in the woods, and one thing lots of people asked us was whether we were going to put in septic or just have an outhouse. Well, we opted for neither. Instead, we chose to build our own composting toilet from 6 gallon plastic buckets and some plywood. This way, we weren't wasting perfectly good water we needed elsewhere on a flush toilet, nor did we have to expend significant amounts of labor excavating a pit for a tank or a latrine through permafrost.
Outhouses are the norm out here, but I was concerned about the higher pathogen levels occuring with anaeorbic digestion in pit latrines and those pathogens possibly leaching out of the pit and contaminating my water supply. Soil temps are fairly low here, too, so decomposition can take a very long time. How long before that pit filled up and I needed to dig another and skid the outhouse over there? How long would the ground over and around the old pit be "contaminated" and unusable? I also didn't relish the thought of donning 18 layers of clothes and finding a flashlight to go potty in the middle of an Alaskan winter night (been there, one that, burned the shirt!).
So, how was our first year with the poo bucket? What did we learn? What would we improve?
- Only wet poo stinks. If you avoid peeing in the poo bucket, a handful or two of cover material on top renders most odors null ** (see "If you're sick)"
- A "dry" poo bucket also mean there is less risk of sloshing muck down your leg when you're carrying it out to the dung heap. Think about it...
- A "dry" poo bucket might be a little harder to clean out, since stuff sorta sticks and smears on the sides... a good cover material helps, but a quick splash and scrub of rain or grey water with a little dish soap and a toilet brush does the trick. It's not like these buckets need to sterile or anything!
- Good cover material for us turned out to be a mixture of dried used coffee grounds, chainsaw dust, fine wood shavings, and shredded spruce slash (twigs with needles). The spruce slash in the mix acts as a natural "air freshener" and keeps the potty area smelling nice and woodsy.
- We never had a problem with flies in the bucket or in the tent... keeping deposits covered and the lid down really works.
- 6 gallons of poo is heavy, and having a "deposit" stick up and poke you in the hiney is not pleasant... empty the bucket before it gets over 3/4 full!
- Keep your poo bucket in the coolest area of your house. Odors aren't usually a problem, not even in summer, but having a slightly chilly tush is preferable to baking turds near the woodstove! I'm just saying...
- When you're sick, consider emptying the poo bucket every day or so since the high liquid content in diarrhea can get the bucket smelling really funky pretty fast. Also, frequent emptying helps reduce the risk of whatever crud you've got hanging around and spreading to the rest of the population... this is the only time I "disinfect" the buckets with a weak bleach or ammonia solution.
- If you have dogs, I strongly recommend putting a fence around your dung heap. Dogs are curious critters and known for eating things that aren't quite savory to us humans... avoid poopy feet and poopy breath with some polywire fencing (electrified if your dog is a touch on the slow side).
- Super-soft and super-strong toilet paper doesn't compost well at all (although it does create a mighty conflagaration in the woodstove!) I don't know what they do that stuff, but we quickly switched to plain old regular quilted 2-ply and that disappears much faster. Don't think we need to spend extra on the "green" biodegradable TP either.
- If you're an OCD "check your poo for health" type of person, be aware that this can be pretty difficult to do in the bucket, especially if you're not under electric lights. The poo isn't sitting pretty all by itself in its own private watery grave... you'll have to get used to it.
- If you're poo-shy and tend to hide that you're going or that you've been... well, you're going to have to learn to deal with the fact that whoever shares your bucket with you will, at some point, see your poo even if you compulsively put your cat to shame covering it up with your "flush" materials.