Posted by: Barbara Evanhoe | March 6, 2011

Off-The Grid ~ Part Three

Today I return to a previous topic, and address an issue that no one really wants to talk about, but it is quite high on the list of things that need to be taken care of if you are going to live off the grid successfully: Human Waste.

There are some good methods for handling human waste if you live off the grid, and many people believe that we all would benefit if these options were more widely used.

Most of us know about septic systems and lagoons, which work well if you have sufficient land to devote the process, if the ground can “percolate” sufficiently, and if they are designed properly.

The biggest issue with handling waste in this way is that it makes an impact on the land, which is not the best situation if you are environmentally conscious.

My home in the country was equipped with a septic system which operated with no problems, once we upgraded the lateral lines that carried water away from the tank. Before that, it was a nightmare!

During the nightmare phase, I was seriously considering purchasing and installing a composting toilet. These waste disposal systems are ingenious. They evaporate liquid waste and decompose solid waste. What remains when the process is complete is a soil fertilizer!

A  quick internet search for composting toilets will deliver a host of manufacturers’ product pages, but if you want a fairly comprehensive look in one place, check out the Real Goods online catalog section on composting toilets.

Perhaps I am a bathroom junkie, but I’ve been fascinated by the idea of a composting toilet ever since I had my first real experience with a rather primitive model at a “Prairie Festival” hosted by The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, at least 20 years ago.

Ecological agriculture is the stated mission of the Land Institute, and love for the earth is the overpowering atmosphere of the place. The folks you meet during a visit work diligently to develop sustainable methods of food production that will support the growing population of this earth while causing no harm to our planet.

This “no harm” attitude is what inspired a group of interns at The Land Institute back in the 1990’s to construct a guest restroom equipped with a composting toilet, as a summer project.

I can’t tell you whether or not this particular toilet is still in existence or use, but I still remember how amazing it was to me that something so simple could work so well.

Essentially, the toilet was an outhouse that used a 50 gallon drum to collect waste, rather than the conventional pit dug into the earth. One key factor in the construction was access to the drum so it could be removed when full, and replaced with another drum.

The interns solved this access issue by setting the drum on the ground and raising the floor above it, so that when you went inside to use the facilities, you stepped up to sit on “the throne”. After use, you simply poured some lime into the drum to create a dehydrating environment to assist in the breakdown and die off of pathogens.

When the drum was full, the interns would remove it, seal it up and set it out to “cure” (my terminology). Periodically, the drums were rolled around to mix things up a bit, and once the curing time was over, what remained in the drums was fertilizer suitable for lawns and flower gardens.

This kind of toilet is called a “dry toilet” – no water is used in the handling of waste.  In fact, too much liquid waste can cause the composting process to slow down, or even stop. If that happens, other dry material must be added in order to restore balance to the mix.

One of the interns joked that this would not be a good waste-handling solution for fraternities, especially on beer-drinking party weekends!

Now, I am sure that this type of toilet would not meet building codes in most places, and I have read that it is sometimes difficult to get permits to install the more sophisticated types of composting toilets as well. So, check with your city or county codes before making the investment necessary to purchase and install one of these units.

But if you do, be proud of yourself for taking personal responsibility for the disposal of your waste in a manner that uses few, if any, natural resources, and does no harm to the earth.

And, if you don’t, perhaps this post will give you something to contemplate while you sit and “meditate” 🙂

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