When it comes time to separate boondocking novices from the let’s get out there, not shower for a week and be one with the great outdoors veterans, nothing is as effective as asking RV owners, “Who here owns a composting toilet?” After we’ve sorted you folks out, we can now share with newcomer’s what an RV composting toilet is and how an RV composting toilet works, and what they are all about. For you veterans, we can compare notes on our experiences and how to avoid RV composting toilet disasters or maladies!
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A few points to consider before reading:
In this article I will:
- Discuss generalities of the Nature’s Head Composting Toilet, the Air Head Composting Toilet, and DIY Composting Toilets.
- Share our personal experiences and tips as composting toilet users.
- Not cover the minutiae of installation or the specs of any composting toilets. There are many articles available on the subject. If you are purchasing a pre-built toilet, make sure to follow their specific installation guides, user guides, and other official manuals.
Composting Toilets, the Market Leaders:
Composting Toilet Features:
When it comes down to it, the two market leaders have compact, efficient solutions for long term boondocking, and their products have the same basic components: a Urine Collector, and a Solids Tank. The urine collector, obviously, is for any liquids, and the solids tank takes up solid waste and paper and combined with a natural medium, aids in the start of the composting process.
- Toilet seat
- Toilet lid
- Urine bottle
- Solids bucket
- Agitator/Agitator handle
- Vent hose
- 12 volt powered fan
Nature’s Head Composting Toilet:
The Nature’s Head Composting Toilet was the first composting toilet we had ever heard of. More likely than not, when you meet an RVer with a composting toilet, this may be the one they have.
To empty the urine, unlatch and open the lid on the solids container to lift out the urine collector.
The solids container is square-shaped and so is the agitator.
To remove the Air Head’s urine collector you don’t have to open the solids container. Just loosen the wing nuts on the floor bracket and pull it away.
The solids bucket is round, but the agitator doesn’t quite seem to reach all the edges.
If you choose the Do It Yourself route, then the possibilities are endless. However, all composting toilets or poop buckets will have the same major components.
- Toilet seat
- Toilet lid (tight fitting please)
Because these are DIY, you can choose whether you would like to add a urine diverter and urine collector. However, you must separate your liquids and solids.
Why Separate Liquids & Solids…
Even though it is simpler to keep the liquids and solids together, it is certainly not ideal for your RV lifestyle. When combined, urine and feces create a horrible, overpowering and immediate bad smell. In addition to keeping odor down, keeping liquids and solids separate will help in starting the composting process of the solids.
Prepping your Solids Container:
Your solids container will need a medium for your waste to mix with. The products that are available for this are either a Coco Coir Brick or Sphagnum Peat Moss. We’ve used both. The Coco Coir brick is very compact and requires a bit of prep – the addition of water, an hour or so of soaking for its expansion, and manual agitation to break up the brick. The Sphagnum Peat Moss takes little to no prep – maybe adding a little water, and you are good to go. It is cheaper, but comes in a very large cube. Due to space issues, we prepare Coco Coir bricks. They don’t take up much space at all. We’ve had to divide the Sphagnum Peat Moss into several smaller bags and hid them around the RV. It took up quite a lot of space, and this can be a problem especially if you have a tiny, tiny RV.
Once you have your medium prepped, dump it into your solids container filling it to cover the agitator when it is in a horizontal orientation. If you have a DIY composting toilet, you probably don’t have an agitator. This means you can line your container with a trash bag or compostable bag. Then, put in a good layer of medium to do your business in; and then every time you use the bucket, just add more Coco Coir or Sphagnum Peat Moss or sawdust to cover your number 2. The liner bag will come in very handy when it is time to dump, all you do is pull out the bag and toss. For those of us with agitators, we just dump the Coco Coir or Sphagnum Peat Moss into the solids container and reassemble the toilet…no bags. Keep reading to find out how we empty the solids container.
Emptying the Liquids:
As I mentioned before, various toilets have different steps that need to be taken to remove the urine container. We have the Air Head Composting Toilet, so we simply unscrew the urine container from the base, slide it out and pour out the liquids. It goes straight into our grey tank where it mixes with sink water when we aren’t hooked up to sewer, and goes straight out to the sewer when we have full hookups. If you’re dry camping at a campground or moochdocking with friends or relatives, you could go indoors and dump it down a regular flush toilet. Alternately, if you are boondocking in the great outdoors, you can go for a walk in the woods and share it with the bears and coyotes and mark some trees.
After emptying the liquid collector we rinse with soap and water or spritz with 409. I know the recommendation is to spray with a water/vinegar mix, but our mix has worked just fine for us.
As a family of 4, we empty our urine every 12 to 24 hours.
Emptying the Solids:
For both, the Nature’s Head and the Air Head, the toilet seat and lid need to be removed. Then the bucket is detached from its bracketing system (there is a difference between the two – one uses wingnuts, the other uses knobs) and lifted. Attach a typical 13-gallon trash bag or compostable bag over the top of the bucket and tip. Empty the contents from the bucket into the bag. You might have to knock on the bucket to get as much of the contents out. It’s fine to leave some in the bucket and on the agitator. Once you have emptied a sufficient amount into the bag, put the bucket back into the bracketing system and reattach. Close up the bag and toss in a dumpster.
As a family of 4, we empty our solids every 7-14 days.
Composting Toilet Woes
Living in the Overflow…
Oh yes, make sure that you keep an eye on your urine level if you get a composting toilet that diverts and collects urine in a separate container. Both the Nature’s Head and Air Head toilets have opaque urine containers. Hold a flashlight up to the container, and you can determine how much is in it. Check it often when you first start using your toilet. After a bit of use, you will learn how often you need to empty your urine container. Keep in mind that you will need to empty it more often if you have guests or up your liquid intake. In the 6 months, we have had our Air Head, we have only overflowed twice. In both instances, Robert thought I had emptied the urine and I thought he had emptied it. Generally speaking, I dump the urine and Robert empties the solids (I act as the lovely assistant and hand him gloves and other supplies).
What’s that weird smell?
It’s true, your composting toilet should not smell bad. It should have an earthy, garden section of your local hardware store scent. If it has a disturbing odor, something is wrong. We have only had an issue once. Several days after changing out our solids, we noticed a strange smell. Was it the cat litter? Nope…it was the solids. Did someone have diarrhea or did some urine get into the solids container? We did have neighbor kids use the bathroom recently… We weren’t sure, but we knew something was wrong so we decided to change it out.
Well, what greets us, but some thousand wiggly wriggling larvae. Ew. Unlike our usual solids dumps, we (Well, Robert), emptied out all of the solids contents and cleaned it out completely. It was quite the ordeal. We still aren’t 100% sure what happened, but our theory is that we had left out our prepared coco coir for too long. It was prepped and then sat exposed for several days. Anything could have laid an egg…or several thousand eggs in that coco coir. Lesson learned – don’t leave prepped medium exposed to the air. If you cannot use it immediately, seal it in a container or bag.
Wait, was that a fruit fly?
Now, we do have a cat and kitty litter. On occasion, we have had fruit flies with just the kitty litter. Warmer, humid weather, and not immediately cleaning the box has been the culprit. So we think that our compost has gotten fruit flies from the litter. Anyway, by the time you see one fruit fly, it’s kind of over. You gotta empty everything out and start fresh. There has not been an odor or anything else with this issue.
Why the Air Head Composting Toilet?
We have an Air Head Composting Toilet because it was gifted to us by our friends at GeoAstroRV. They have one and raved about it. They also knew that we love to boondock and that having a composting toilet would really help us get out of the RV park and into nature.
Not one!! It might not be for everyone and it certainly isn’t any easier, but it works for us. Everything has a trade-off. Yes, we have a lot of maintenance with our composting toilet, but it allows us to quit using our black tank, conserve water, and extend our time without a sewer connection. We never filled up our black tank before our grey tank, but day to day use and flushing for urine and for number two used up far too much of our precious onboard freshwater. When boondocking, this is very important. Of course, we can bring extra water, but that extra water has to go somewhere. Without having to use a black tank for black tank purposes, we can now use it as a secondary grey tank.
Well, there you have it. Owning a composting toilet has really made boondocking and dry camping far easier to accomplish, and has completely eliminated the possibility of a raw sewage spill at a dump station, or other failures of a sewer hose. There has been a bit of a learning curve, and a surprise or two, but we feel the composting toilet has been a great addition to our RV lifestyle. We highly recommend looking into it if you plan on extended RV camping or any situation that involves being out in nature for long periods of time.