Okay, so I know that this blog post won’t be for everybody. I get a lot of questions about the new Composting Toilet that we installed on Wandering Toes in 2015. How it works, if we like it, etc. It is a bit ironic that something so natural and so much a part of our daily lives could be such a mystery. We all learn the process so early in life and then are promptly trained not to talk about it, not to think about it and not to worry, and that the act of even speaking about it is considered taboo. I think we need to dispel some misconceptions and get some information out there so people can make up their own minds if they want to. On boats, the toileting process is particularly concerning to people who are faced with using “The Head” for the first time, and there is always an awkward training process for newbie boat visitors on proper technique on how to make it work. This is because most everybody is so removed from the waste management stream and at home we are all trained to “flush and forget”. On a boat, you are much closer to the whole operation, and there are quirky, manual operations that need to take place to keep a boats’ toilet system functioning properly. And Nobody, Nobody wants to face a toilet malfunction! So, here are some of my observations and experiences so far.
Basically all a composting toilet does is separate the liquids and solids and allow the solids to have some time in contact with a natural medium to begin a process of decomposition. Also, the main concept at work here is that when your bodily liquids and solids come in contact with each other, they smell nasty. No wonder your body keeps them separate in the first place! So don’t mix them and you will go a long way towards keeping the smells at bay. Composting toilets have separate holding tanks for liquids and solids and yes, it does matter how you go in order to keep them separate. These toilets are designed to help you get all the stuff in the right places so you can deal with them separately. The pee is directed forward while you are sitting on the toilet into a liquid holding tank, and the poop goes down through a trap-door into a solids holding tank that has a mixing bar in there to help mix your new waste with the rest of the compost.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly….
We really like our new composting toilet and would not hesitate to do it over again. We have the Nature’s Head composting toilet. As far as we know there are two manufacturers, Natures Head and Air Head. I am not about to take sides about which is better, I think they both do the job they are designed for equally well. The Air Head unit is a bit smaller and may afford a composting toilet in a smaller space. We had more room and liked a couple of things about the Natures Head better so we went that way. We’re happy. The Nature’s Head is opaque for one and looks more like a Corian counter top and less like white plastic in appearance. Larry at Nature’s Head is fantastic to deal with and has helped us a few times when we had questions. He even sent us an additional fan assembly at no charge because we have a longer vent run. The Air Head has a regular round boat style toilet seat and cover with rubber seals between all the parts that are supposed to keep it sealed up. The Nature’s Head just has a cover that fits tight to the molded in integral seat and seemed like one less potential problem area. We liked the shape of the Nature’s Head seat and it seems a bit bigger to sit on than Air Head. I was never happy with the small toilet seats on boats and am glad to be rid of that tiny thing. The Air Head has a “sight glass” plastic tube that shows you how much pee is in the tank and we didn’t like that. The Nature’s Head is designed so that it becomes apparent when the pee tank needs to be dumped, but it’s a little less obvious when it is not full.
I won’t say that there is no smell. Mostly though because I’m the one that dumps the pee tank and that’s the only time I ever smell it. It fills up in 2 1/2 -3 days for the two of us and will need to be jettisoned. “At Sea” we feel it simply goes overboard. If I understand the rules correctly, it is okay to “go” overboard, but once you collect it, it becomes waste that is supposed to be processed ashore. One could row it ashore while at anchor and dump in the bushes or a provided facility which we may decide to tell the Coast Guard if they ask…. At the marina we always deliver it to the shore head. It takes about 2 minutes to do. We did buy 2 pee tanks to have the option of packing one to the facilities and still having a functioning head. The smell however is completely unnoticeable when the head is just sitting on your boat doing nothing. We only notice boat head smell on other people’s boats now. Actually, we figured out in the marina that we could smell other people’s boat heads. Just trying to convey the level of smell as zero except when changing the tanks. We do put all toilet paper in a separate waste bin in the head and not into the composting tank. Surprisingly this does not smell either even though we don’t have a cover on it at all. Maybe it dries out? Upon changing the compost, we were surprised to find that it really didn’t smell. If anything it just smells like wet earth. It does have a smell, but not a toilet type of smell. When we do empty the compost tank, it is not a terrible job. Really you can’t see anything in there at all, it just looks like dirt and leaves you wondering about all the stuff you put in there and where it went.
Okay, the reason you want to keep the composting bin section of the toilet sealed up at all times (very important) is that you don’t want a colony of bugs getting in there as they will find it a perfect place to lay their eggs and reproduce. They don’t live in there, but believe me, they do want to get in there. Along about mid summer, we picked up a gnat problem. We killed the bugs and they’d come back. We killed them again and back again. And again. Except there seemed like there were more bugs each time. Marge finally figured out they were laying their eggs in the compost so we took a different approach. We emptied the compost, gave it a good clean and started over with new compost. That took care of the bug issue completely. We did some research into when/who was getting bugs in their composting heads and what to do about it. The consensus we found online was to get an organic kitchen type bug spray and give it a shot down the hole once in a while. We began doing this and have had no more bug issues.
One thing we learned was to keep extra compost medium on the boat. If the compost gets too wet (tummy issues), just add a bit of dry compost to it and spin the handle to dry the tank out a little. Too wet of compost is not good.
All the rest:
Installation was very straight forward. Rip out your old holding tank, toilet to tank hose, pump out hose, vent line, macerator, and toilet. Take in a deep breath of better smelling air as it is quite noticeable immediately. The new unit simply has a couple of angle brackets that bolt to the floor after some careful measuring to make sure the lid and handles will all operate, and two thumb wheel screws that hold the toilet to the brackets. Then we used the location of our old pump out as the new vent location and installed a vent directly over the old pump out fitting below decks. The new vent hose connects right to the pump out fitting and to the new toilet (figure out how to route this individually). A lot of people vent right through the head cabin top, we couldn’t do that. But you want to try to keep the vent hose short if possible. Ours is 15 feet long. The last thing is a tiny vent fan that is installed on the toilet that needs to have power to it. Connect in somewhere and route it to the toilet. I electrical taped this power wire to the vent hose and it just plugs in near the vent hose. We closed off a few holes in the bulkhead we no longer needed with some snap-in plastic covers we found at Menards. I think it took me 2 hours total to install.
For weekend and vacation use it should be good for a couple for all summer. For liveaboards it should be good for 4-6 weeks before needing to change the compost. The compost is Coco Coir, shredded coconut husks and you can buy it at the pet store for $3 a brick which could be all summer’s cost. You may find it in gardening stores also, just make sure you don’t get any with chemicals in it. In a liveaboard situation, just dump the old compost into a garbage bag and put it in a dumpster somewhere. It could be spread in the forest, but not on a vegetable garden. The preparation of the compost is super easy. Get a 2 gallon Zip Lock bag and put a brick of coco coir in there along with 6 cups of water and let it sit overnight. It will swell up and be just right to put in the head. It should be just barely damp, but not wet at all or too dry. Dump it in the head and it’s in business.
We didn’t notice any issues with cool temperatures having any effect on the head. Arctic cruisers might have other experiences. Space requirements are on an individual basis per boat. We found that we had more space available after installation because we don’t have a giant pump handle and assembly off to the side of the toilet. We have better access to our engine now than we did before. And if I really needed to get into the engine access panel beside my head, I could move the entire head to the dock for an afternoon while I worked on the engine and have it back in place in about 2 minutes. As far as healing issues while underway. We didn’t have any problems. First, everybody sits to go, no matter what. The liquids get directed forward and into the collection holes that go to the pee tank. If you need to poop, flip the handle on the trap door and let the goodies go! (Hey, you read this far, don’t act surprised we’re talking about this crap!) Close up the trap door when you’re done, give the handle a few spins and walk away. Okay, probably wash your hands and then walk away. We can tell on the pee tank when it’s about 4/5 full and so we have a couple more goes if we need to before emptying it.
Also, you can re-purpose all the space that once was taken up by your holding tank. We used our new space to put our new 4 battery bank in. Sorry, but I don’t have any pictures of the new composting head actually installed in the boat, but I will try to take one this summer and update the post.
A couple of important things to consider if you’re contemplating installing a composting toilet on your boat. First, there is really nothing to break. Even if all else failed, your composting toilet would still basically be a collection mechanism that you could continue to use until you were ashore and had time to empty it and restart the process with new compost. With a composting toilet, you will never ever be in a situation where a pump failed, or a valve failed, or a hose clogged, or a clamp or vent or tank failed, and you will never have a potential mess on your hands (or elsewhere). Secondly, having a composting toilet aboard frees you from the pretty harsh schedule of needing to come ashore to pump-out. Your trips on your boat are governed more by how much water and food you have aboard than by how full your holding tank is. I can imagine a situation where you are anchored in a safe place, enjoying your view and with weather coming in you are forced to make a run to a pump-out facility potentially jeopardizing yourself and your boat. This may be my overactive mind, but the boat pump-out is a thing of the past for us now and we’re pretty happy about it.
One more quick thing. The new head is a bit taller than an average height toilet, so depending on your height you might find it more comfortable to have a small footstool or other option to place your feet on while using the new toilet. I am 6′-2″ tall and don’t find the extra toilet height to be an issue.
Humanity has been using what is basically fresh, potable water as a smell reduction and waste removal mechanism for too long and I’m not convinced it is a sustainable process. Buy me a beer and I can tell you how I really feel about this. Again, I’m happy that we are finding better solutions to this problem.
I know that it’s an odd topic to talk about, but it really works well in practice. We felt like we needed to deal with it somehow and are really glad we did this. We have friends who have the Air Head Composting Toilet and are very happy with it, and it is a better fit for the available space they have aboard. If you have any more questions, just let me know. It is something that lots of people are curious about.
Hope this helps! Having more information is always better.