People’s reaction to my DIY toilet is out of fear for their nose. So sure are they that their sensibilities will not be able to handle it that they rarely ask me how I go about disposing of my own waste. Less you think my nose is impaired I will start by saying that if I make a tuna fish sandwich I cannot sit in my tiny house for long before the smell of tuna oil drives me to put the empty can outside. So we can start with this shared sensibility as a benchmark.
The gold standard of composting toilets allows your poop to fall into a chamber under the floor where the user can forget about their deposits for an entire year. At which point the poop is shoveled out from a trap door outside the house as close to compost as your delicate nose might require. The unit is vented with a fan that draws fumes away from the toilet inside the house and has a heater to bolster the composting process (or rather the dehydration process). The price of such a system is $2000. As you can imagine the elitism of this price is more offensive to me than any odor. It was so staggering that in response to the tiny house spokes person offering this information I felt compelled to post a picture of my $2 solution—a frisbee lined with a square of newspaper.
My DIY Toilet
Ok let me back up a bit so to speak. Before I got my tiny house I had already made and used my own toilet on a week long urban camping trip. My design though technically a porta potty and not the more glamorous sounding composting toilet does incorporate the most advanced technology of separating the urine into its own chamber. This I did with a funnel that drains into an oil drain pan container via a rubber hose. The orifice to this funnel being blocked by a plastic toy golf ball and the hose blocking the entry to the oil pan so no smell emanates from my toilet. I did not use this toilet for poop until using it in the tiny house. At which point I placed a small bucket (with sawdust in the bottom) inside the toilet box behind the funnel. And after each deposit I covered the poo with sawdust and this kept any smell from emanating into the tiny house. This would have been the end of it had I not been subjected, as many were on FaceBook, to the marvelously funny animation describing the natural squatting position of humans when defecating which led to the invention of the squatty potty bench now being sold at a highly recognizable big box store near you.
This invention took me back to my childhood in Asia where the squat toilet reigns and I became obsessed with building an actual squat toilet for my tiny house. One I would decorate with mosaic tile and highlight as an icon of cultural pride. But I soon had to give up this idea. I just did not have room for it on my floor plan as the footprint of such a toilet was twice as big as the one I had.
Then I found a frisbee in my dad’s garage and when you are obsessed with a design everything that comes your way is a potential solution. Thus the frisbee became my minimalist squat toilet accompanied by a bucket with a lid from a commode chair a client was giving away. I kept the frisbee inside my wooden toilet which is open on two sides so was it was easy to slide it in when not in use. This opening also made it easy for me to check how full the urine tank was to avoid it overflowing. If it did overflow I would soon smell it, but luckily the urine did not go anywhere as the tank was an oil pan and the depression to catch oil was equal to the task of keeping urine from dripping onto the floor of the box. I had also lined the box with plastic for easy clean-up.
To use my minimalist squat toilet I took it out from its hiding place and put it on the floor lined with a square of newspaper and a bit of sawdust. Then a covering of sawdust after use cut the smell immediately. The square of newspaper made it very easy to pick up by the corners and place in my bucket. Covered with the lid I was ok with it being inside the house in a corner of my bathroom.
I had no intention of sharing this minimalist toilet with anyone even to talk about it for fear that y’all would think I had gone feral. The tiny house community are bashed enough without my radical contribution. I am well aware that in order to advance the cause of tiny houses becoming accepted within urban zoning plans it is best to assimilate and aspire to be as normal as possible just as gay people did while working toward marriage equality.
I was urged by some to get a commercially made toilet that would compost or partially compost within the toilet itself. Most of these units had fans that had to be powered with an electrical hook-up and vented with pipes to the outside which would mean cutting a hole in the wall of my house. All of which violated my principles of simplicity. And none actually compost in the traditional sense of having enough mass to raise the temperature of the poop and sawdust deposits. I also suspected that there was a downside to many of these designs. The Nature's Head one seen in nearly all the tiny houses on TV has a hand crank to mix and aerate the poop to encourage dehydration. A user of such a toilet made a video of all that could go wrong with this design which thoroughly confirmed my suspicions from pee overflowing onto the floor for lack of a viewport to mixing in with the poop and being made into a gooey dough inside the toilet. I was so glad I didn't spend $500 on this learning experience.
The Poop Processing Part
At the time of my frisbee solution I emptied my poop bucket into the barrel of a rotating composter unit. I confess I had not thought this part out completely. The composter was one I had on hand found free on Craigslist. I put my poop into it and ignored it through the winter adding straw to aid in composting. I put the dogs poo from the yard in there too. But the poo didn’t really break down even after the spring heat waves. And rotating the bin just made the poo into cob like bricks. Now there are humans who make bricks from cow dung mixed with straw and if I sterilized my poop with enough heat to kill the pathogens I might have been tempted to try some building projects too, but I was too busy to entertain such a distraction.
I returned to the Humanure Handbook which had first led me down this road of composting toilets. I was simpatico with the author’s philosophy of providing a simple, inexpensive, easily accessible method of processing human waste and returning it to the soil, but when it came down to it I didn’t have the space to commit to the whole process in traditional large outdoor compost piles dedicated to the humanure process. I did learn from their video on building a composting unit from pallets that the poop is never turned over as with other composting methods to avoid the spread of pathogens. I was also comforted by the fact that if all else fails it only takes a year to render the humanure safe as the pathogens do die off.
Greywater Action in Berkeley with their urban household greywater system and built in DIY composting toilet have a convincing video showing the benign smelling results of their toilet. They put the poop into bins and once filled leave them for a year, but this also required enough room to house at least two 55 gallon barrels for the allotted year.
The Bokashi Upgrade
Fortuitously for the next stage of my education in the Dtao of Poo, I was in Maui visiting my new girlfriend.who had serious experience composting having had a job managing green waste at the Maui recycling center as well as a degree in agriculture and a dedicated interest in organic farming. When I showed her on my iPad the bin I was using she read me the riot act on how this composter was the worse ever invented as it could never physically aerate all of the compost and would render some of the process anaerobic creating e coli in the process. All the reviews said so. She advised me to dispose of the entire thing as hazardous waste complete with warning labels. I assured her I would suit up in my hazmat outfit for the job. As this was the first heated conversation we had ever exchanged I was amused that it would be about compost so early in the morning. Then she jumped up and did an online search for a solution involving EM technology and presented me with a site that would sell me a kit for pet poop composting. I had barely heard of Effective Microorganisms let alone for fermenting poop. She told me later she had been introduced to this fermenting technology by a Japanese health institute in Hawaii and then visited a garden using EM methods that was the most fertile she had ever seen.
I had done worm composting when it was first made popular by the book Worms Eat My Garbage. I had made my own compost bins. I had done sheet composting of an entire lawn and anaerobic composting in sealed garbage bags. I had always been on the cutting edge I thought so I was eager to learn of yet another even more radical method. I watched the videos she had so quickly located online to process poop. The Bokashi method is used in Japan and South East Asia for fermenting waste in closed containers. The actual bins in this kit took up no space at all with a footprint no bigger than a five gallon bucket plus I was very taken by the screw top lids that came with them. Within the hour I had ordered the kit for a little over a hundred dollars. It arrived before I got home.
I mixed up my first container which required two gallons of water and 1 cup of the EM solution plus a tablespoon of bokashi impregnated bran made from wheat chafe all provided in the kit including the spoon. Then I slid my poop into it which left me with a sheet of poop stained newspaper. I could throw that in the mix too as it was organic, but then after several days it dawned on me that I could skip the frisbee step altogether, dispense with sawdust (a difficult to find ingredient) and poop directly into the bucket. I just needed the height to reach it such as might be provided by a squatty potty bench. I pulled out my folding step stool and tried this out. It was just the right height. I squatted on it and hung onto the opposite end of the stool to brace myself.
The experience of using my new toilet was of such a visceral nature as to defy polite description. Shall I just say that it was emotionally akin to an amusement park ride—say the jungle ride over a crocodile infested bog scented with pungent tropical flowers. Adventurous rather than revolting. And too close to the water line for any back splash. The slightly yeasty smell of the bokashi also masked the poop smell almost completely. This novel act of pooping into a bucket of brown bog made me feel close to nature in a primeval and unexpected literal sort of connection. It may however make any normal person run for the nearest Jack In The Box restroom. Down the street two blocks and make a right. You can’t miss it.
After these bog visions I hopped off my stool sprinkled a bit of the wheat chafe on my deposit and anointed the bog scape with an additional spritzing of EM solution before screwing the hatch back on the bucket and placing it gently in a corner of my bathroom pan. As my mini bog filled and became firmer I could see things growing on the top—white patches of yeast. I was assured by the FAQ page that this was normal.
After several weeks the bucket was filled so I took it outside and let it sit closed up tight and undisturbed for another week while I put the second bucket into service. All I needed to do now was dig a trench where the soil might benefit from this infusion of beneficial microbes. I am not fond of digging trenches in drought hardened ground so I soaked it first. When I opened the bucket I was surprised that it was now mostly brown liquid with a sweet smell that was of such interest to the dog I thought he was going to try to lap it up like a chocolate shake. Luckily I had chosen a spot where he would not be able to reach it. I poured the contents into the trench, mixed in some dirt and covered it all back up. The surface was as liquid as lava and some of the stuff oozed out nastily. I hastily shoveled soil over the ooze. It took a day or so to firm up again, but it was done. Bokashi was now my next big thing. Garden variety compost I had long suspected was underperforming, rarely getting hot enough to fill claims of being able to kill pathogens and weed seeds, being at best a cozy home for a rat. Plus rotting material releases gases as it decomposes thus adding carbon to the atmosphere. This fermenting method released no such gases and is sealed from animals. I could see I would soon be looking down my nose at the compost pile just like all the other Bokashi enthusiasts.
I am aware that this revelation of my tiny house lifestyle has likely made me unfit for normal society. I may never be able to live a mainstream life again let alone with a live-in partner. However when people ask me if I have a sewer system as someone did just yesterday while asking me about my tiny house I could proudly say I have a toilet system using cutting edge Japanese Bokashi technology to turn my waste into microbial rich water. My listener's eyes lit up at the mention of such water which for our drought state of California was nothing short of miraculous. I felt I had indeed arrived.