A Composting Toilet Won’t Flush Water (and Money) Down the Drain

by Sandy Boyd on June 13, 2013

If you are serious about using less water in your home, you should be looking at your bathroom to make some changes. According to the EPA, the toilet accounts for nearly one third of household water consumption which means it uses even more than the shower does. A standard modern toilet will use up to 2 gallons with each flush, and over the course of a day, that can add up to a lot of water going down the drain.

Water-saving toilets are one option, but you can go even further and go with a composting toilet to use no water at all. They’re also called dry toilets or waterless toilets.

They’ve been around for a long time, though typically only seen in cottages where water services can’t handle normal toilets. But in our environmentally-friendly age these days, they are gaining popularity in mainstream homes too.

Curious? Here’s how they work.

Though there are some variations, the typical composting toilet holds all waste in a chamber beneath the actual toilet seat (these are known as self-contained models). A flow of air and a small addition of a carbon-based material, like peat or sawdust, help keep everything decomposing naturally. Some units will use electricity to maintain a higher level of heat for better composting results. Vents keep all odors and moisture out of the way too. After a period of time (a few weeks to a couple of months on average), you empty the chamber and can use the compost in the garden or just dispose of it in your yard.

a composting toilet helps to save water

A typical self-contained composting toilet unit

It may not be as simple as a typical water flush toilet but you’ll save thousands of gallons of water by going this route. Besides the water savings, these types of toilets are extremely easy to install because there is no plumbing involved. Add a vent pipe, and you can have a functioning toilet anywhere in your house in less than an hour.

If you are using an electrical model, you will have to take power outlets into account when placing your units. And speaking of electricity, most of the toilets that need power will use about 80 to 100 watts which makes them similar to a standard household lightbulb (the non CFL type).

For all their positive features, composting toilets are not going to be suitable for all situations. Because waste is held within the unit, there are capacity limits to keep in mind. Smaller units are only good for occasional use, such as a seasonal cottage or a spare bathroom in your home. If you intend to get a waterless toilet that can handle more regular usage, you need a system with a much larger holding tank. As opposed to the self-contained styles, these central systems usually have their composting chambers beneath the bathroom floor and are usually installed in a basement.

A handy DIYer can build a decent composting toilet themselves but a manufactured one is usually more sophisticated and will allow for better internal composting due to proper vents, chamber rotation, and compost collection.

Sun-Mar, Envirolet, and Biolet are well-known manufacturers who all offer a range of toilets and related equipment so you can tailor your choice to your living situation. The Sun-Mar Excel model is a long-standing favorite in the industry and it makes a great choice for a typical home situation that doesn’t have a huge usage level. Just make sure you have realistic expectations about its capacity.

Expect to spend around $1,500 and up when buying a composting toilet. As they are getting to be more popular with the eco-conscious crowd, you can even find them at major home improvement stores like Home Depot. It may seem like a pretty big investment at first. Think about the water you’ll save, and the lack of any professional installation costs. Compared to getting a new and “conventional” bathroom put into your house, it’s actually a bargain.

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