Monday, July 22, 2013, 6:10 AM at home in Santa Clara
There is so much to write about, I’m not sure where to start. I believe I made some significant progress toward building my tiny house this past weekend. I think that means it’s time to for me to start a record of what I am doing.
A week ago, Sheila and I built our first composting toilet. We used plans found online at http://humanurehandbook.com/humanure_toilet.html. The toilet is pretty simple and we found the plans easy to understand. Although neither of us have any significant construction experience, we were easily able to construct it in less than a day, including the trip to the hardware store to buy all of the materials. Sheila spent another few hours on a second day staining it, adding a coat of polyurethane and generally making it look nice.
This weekend, we put the composting toilet to the test and I have to say that it far exceeded my expectations. Once we got to the property, we found a tree with some privacy and a nice view. We cleared a flat spot behind the tree and placed the toilet there, facing the view. We created a path to the toilet and hung up a chain with a nice restroom sign on it at the start of the path. When people went to use the toilet, they would string the chain across the path between two trees so everybody would know the toilet was occupied. When they came back from using the toilet, they would but the chain back. It was a good system that provided everybody with the privacy they needed.
Not a single person complained about the toilet. In fact, many people said that they loved it. I thought it was fabulous. I only used it once during the weekend, but it was perhaps the most memorable and enjoyable toilet experience I have ever had. First of all, the toilet was very easy to use. All you have to do is sit down, do your business and throw some sawdust in to cover everything up. There was no bad smell whatsoever. In fact, the sawdust that we added to the toilet actually made it smell good. It really was quite wonderful. There’s something magical about going to the bathroom in the middle of nature as god intended it. We had over 20 people join us for the weekend. Many if not most of those people came with some doubts about using composting toilets. I think the experience we provided everyone this weekend erased any of those doubts.
The toilet requires a good supply of sawdust to operate properly. Before we left, we were able to get a large tub full of free sawdust free from a local woodworking shop. However, some more reading revealed that the sawdust that from the woodworking shop was not perfect for composting. Sawdust from a woodworking shop generally comes from kiln dried lumber and does not really have enough moisture content for proper composting. It is preferable to obtain sawdust from a lumber yard that mills fresh trees with some moisture content. Even better is moist sawdust that has been sitting around for a while and has gotten a little bit moldy. Unfortunately, we did not have time to go to a lumber yard to get fresh sawdust before we left for the weekend. I also had no idea where to get moldy sawdust. So, we just took the dry sawdust that we had.
One of the wonderful things about our property is it seems to keep providing everything that we need. When Sheila and I arrived on the property this weekend, one of the first things we found was a pile of moldy sawdust. I had forgotten that the previous owner had allowed a friend of his to mill some of the fallen oak trees on the property. Evidently, this friend had piled up all of the sawdust on the edge of property and allowed it to sit uncovered, where it slowly got wet and moldy. It was perfect. In the end, we decided to use the dry sawdust in the toilet just because it smelled so nice and the moldy sawdust to cover everything up once we added to the compost pile.
The compost pile is one more thing that our property ended up providing. Before we left, I had looked on the humanure website for some compost pile plans. It’s not very complicated. Basically, you just need to build a wooden box that is 4-5 feet on all sides. It needs to be open on the top so you can add new material and one side needs to be removable so you can empty the bin once the final compost once it is ready. I really didn’t want to go to the hardware store one more time before we left to purchase a bunch of lumber to build a box. I also didn’t want to spend a lot of money on it. Instead, I decided to simply bring a hammer and a box of nails to see what I could create from what was already on the property. What I found wildly exceeded my expectations. In addition to the pile of sawdust, we also discovered a number of oak planks that the previous owner’s friend had left behind. They were perfect. We selected several planks that were 3-4 feet long and a couple of smaller pieces to use as posts. We found a nice spot near the trees, dug a depression in the dirt, nailed together the pieces of wood that we found and placed it on the spot we had cleared. When we were done, we had a nice oak compost box. The best thing about this box is that because it was constructed from wood that we had found on the property, it actually looked like it belonged on the property. It only took us about an hour to make the box and yet, I think it is perfect. We will add more slats as needed.
The last part of the composting toilet process we had to learn this weekend is the part that most people are probably the most afraid of: disposing of the waste. Even this turned out to not be a big deal. We had over 20 people come for the barbecue and 10 people spend the night. This was enough to fill up 1 ½ buckets. We placed the composting pile only about 50 yards from the toilet, so we didn’t have to carry the buckets very far (they weren’t that heavy anyway). All the buckets had lids so until you got to the compost pile, you didn’t even have to look at what was inside. Once at the compost pile, we added a layer of leaves to the bottom of the pile, providing an initial barrier between the toilet contents and the dirt to help prevent leaching. After that, the contents of the buckets were poured into the pile and more sawdust and leaves added to the top until everything was covered up. There was enough sawdust in the buckets that the organic material came out without leaving much of anything on the sides of the buckets. To clean the small amount of material that was left on the buckets, we poured in some water from the river, added a small amount of biodegradable soap and scrubbed buckets with an old toilet brush, which we hung up at the compost pit for later use. All of the water used to clean out the buckets was then poured on top of compost pile to help provide the moisture necessary to make the composting process work. After that, we left it up to nature. We will continue to add to our compost bin until it is full. At that point, we will let it sit for one year after which, we will supposedly have some of the best organic garden material money can buy.
Although I am describing the process of emptying the buckets into the compost pit, I didn’t actually have to do this myself. I had volunteered to do this and was more than willing. However, our co-owners, Ian and Sabine, actually volunteered to do it with Sheila and took care of it all while I worked on other things. This was wonderful. It was not wonderful because I didn’t have to deal with other people’s waste. Like I said, I wouldn’t have minded doing that. It was wonderful because indicated to me that Ian and Sabine had fully bought into the composting toilet idea. They had already told us that they loved the toilet and loved using it. But the fact that they were willing to learn how to do and help with the most unpleasant part means that they were willing to accept all parts of it. They were even grateful. They thanked us many times for building the toilet, learning how to use it and showing them how as well. I think all of this is incredible.
I love the fact that we have solved the human waste problem on the property so simply, inexpensively and organically. I believe that what we have decided to do is far superior to holding tanks, septic systems or sewer systems, all of which would be complicated, difficult, expensive and not so good for the environment. Also, none of those things would allow me the incredible enjoyment of going to the bathroom in the woods, with a nice view of my very own property.
Given my experience this weekend and the rave reviews I got from my friends, I would recommend a composting toilet to anybody. They should at least read the material found at the humanure website. If they are still remotely open to the idea after that, then they should just try it. It takes very little effort, money or skills to create a composting toilet and compost bin. All of this could easily be put accomplished in a single weekend. After that, the proof is in the actual use. I think most people who actually take the time to build and use their own composting toilet will immediately be sold on the idea.