“Unsightly floatables.” That was an engineering term that I’d learned years ago when I was a city planner in Burlington, Vermont. It was a phrase used by municipal wastewater engineers when referring to the “floaters” on the surface of Lake Champlain when a rainstorm would create a stormwater surge large enough to overwhelm the sewage treatment plant and shunt the sanitary sewer directly into the lake. Those occasional system overloads were not good for water quality, for sure. In fact, they were the primary reason why we invested $52 million dollars to upgrade our municipal wastewater system.
All my life, I’d hardly questioned the practice of filling a porcelain bowl with potable water, dropping our bodily waste into it, then using another large quantity of drinking water to whoosh it out of sight and out of mind - straight into the lake on occasion, as it turns out. Even in a properly functioning wastewater systems, does that method of waste disposal continue to make sense in this world of increasingly scarce potable water?
I've known about composting toilets for residential use for decades, but it wasn't until the Gypsy project that I had the opportunity to put one in my own home. We bought our composting toilet nearly a year ago and tucked it into a corner of Gypsy while we slowly began finishing the interior.
When we moved Gypsy here to the maritime museum we discovered an unexpected convenience – a guest bathroom on the outside of the nautical archaeology lab building, 30 feet from our front door. Rather than immediately installing our composting toilet, we took advantage of the “facilities” next door.
I’ll admit, I was dragging my feet on the composting toilet installation. Why was I so reluctant to make the switch?
Well, there were two primary reasons. The first had to do with cutting a hole in a perfectly good roof. The non-electric version of the composting toilet we bought from Sun-Mar requires the installation of a 4-inch vent running straight up from the rear of the unit. In Gypsy, it meant cutting a hole in the bathroom ceiling, then through the loft ceiling, then through six inches of foam insulation, then through the plywood roof sheathing, and then, finally, through my beautiful green metal standing seam roof. Taking a drill and a pair of tin snips up the ladder to make the cut was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do yet.
The second reason why my motivation was lacking had to do with my seemingly insurmountable fear of the unthinkable. What if it stinks?
I struggled to put that fear aside. Even though I’d read the marketing literature – “No odor” – and scoured the internet for testimonials – “No odor” – I just couldn’t bring myself to hook our new toilet up.
“What if ours is different?” I wondered. I couldn’t bear the thought of coming into our tiny home and feeling as if I had just stepped into an outhouse. The bathroom is right next to the kitchen, after all. What if . . .?
Then, as usual, Marion talked some common sense into me – “We really don't have another alternative – just do it and we’ll see what happens.”
Okay, here goes . . .
What could have been more fitting than to unveil the new throne on New Year’s Day. Once the vent and the urine drain were installed there really wasn't anything more to do except pour in a few gallons of composting mix (hemp stalks and peat), a bit of the starter microbe mix, and a little warm water. There you have it. Ready for use!
Fingers crossed, we went about our “daily business,” so to speak. We waited. We sniffed. We cranked the drum through its six revolutions twice a week. (I get Fridays and Marion gets Tuesdays. It’s really fun!)
We sniffed some more.
We did have one “adjustment,” however. After about a week of use we had a day or two with very strong south winds. The length of pipe that had come with the toilet only brought the vent to a level even with the roof peak. Hoping to keep the profile of the pipe low, I decided to see how much “roof effect” we’d get without the specified two feet of pipe above the ridge. Well, when those south winds blew hard, we had downdrafts (creating positive pressure inside the toilet), and pew, we had "odor" in Gypsy Rose. Oh, no!
I quickly installed a two foot extension on the vent and instantly the problem was solved. We’ve been using our composting toilet for nearly three weeks now. It's great! The transition from a flush toilet to a composting model was completely painless. As it turns out, the only difference between our composter and a flusher (aside from lack of a flush) is the cupful of compost mix that gets sprinkled in after each poo.
Now that I’ve finally made the switch, my only regret is that I didn’t do it decades ago.