Friday, October 16, 2015

Is There An Option Other Than Flushing It Away?

If you remember, mom and I built a composting potty for use while we were working on the little farm house.  It was just a seat tucked into the edge of a tree line, with some toilet paper in a jar and a pile of raked lawn clipping to use for covering deposits and adding the organic matter that made it compost.  Well, nearly a year ago, Brandon and I moved the composting potty nearer the house, and used some scrap lumber, an old door, and a couple of sheets of metal roofing to create an outhouse for the composting potty to reside in.  We even added a decorative glass box with a light in it that some friends gave us.  

We modeled our design like some of the outhouses we used when hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail, which leaves the upper half of the outhouse open, but gives you privacy when seated.  

We tucked the outhouse to the side of the barn so we only had to sink two posts and build three partial walls.  

We've been using the outhouse potty ever since, and we've hosted several parties with lots of guests, and it's worked very well.  We have a water hose and outdoor sink between the outhouse and the house, so it's been a convenient for hand washing.  

This is what the inside of the outhouse looks like if you were to peak over the back wall.  Brandon and I even got fancy, and paved the floor with some nice flat rocks that we found on the farm.  Of course, a crayfish immediately excavated a hole in the outhouse floor, and he likes to leave a big pile of dirt on my paving stones.  

Brandon rescued this green display cabinet from a dumpster at school, and we mounted it to the wall so we have a dry place to store cleaning supplies and toilet paper.  

I've let the weeds take over behind the outhouse, which doesn't just encourage spiders, but also keeps anyone from walking so close to the outhouse that they can see anyone who is sitting down.  

Before we lived at the farm, and were only there for work days, one of my chores was to rid the outhouse of spiders, clean the toilet seat, and re-stock the buckets of grass clippings.  I keep a handy spray bottle of vinegar for cleaning, and an old broom for battling the spiders.  I've even been known to use the broom for raking up grass clippings.  What kind of farmer can't even find a rake when she needs it?!  

The box the potty is sitting on is approximately three feet by three feet, and it's about the height of a toilet.  This is enough volume, that even being very generous with the grass clippings or wood chips, we've only emptied it once in over a year.  The compost has direct contact with the soil underneath, so the soil organisms can access the compost easily.  After a party, the grass clippings would be piled quite high, but by the next weekend, the pile would be composted to half it's size.  I would sometime add a little water before we left for a few days, to make sure the composting organisms had plenty of moisture to work their magic.  

And it is like magic!  The one and only time Brandon and I emptied the composting potty, in preparation for a party, when we wanted to make sure we had maximum holding capacity, we armed ourselves with pitchforks and a wheel barrel, and braced ourselves to be disgusted.  But, thankfully, it wasn't disgusting.  Not that we inspected anything very closely, but we didn't even see any un-composted toilet paper.  We dumped the contents, which looked like really good compost, on the ground near the back edge of the farm, and covered it with a plastic barrel.  We recently removed the barrel, and couldn't even tell there was ever anything there but dead weeds.  Magically disappearing poo!

Now that we live at the farm house, the disadvantages of an outdoor outhouse are more apparent.  For instance, I find that I'm a little tense when I've just swept a spider from the toilet seat, and I don't like being tense.  Also, it's cold in the mornings, so it didn't take long for Brandon and I to start to complain about having to find a coat and boots just to go to the bathroom in the wee hours.  It was time to move our system inside!  

Why not have a regular flush toilet?  After all, we are fairly certain we do have a functioning septic tank.  It's a good question, and I've been asked it many times by folks who know we are opting for an alternative toilet situation.  First, I remind myself that nothing is set in stone, and if we decide we want a normal flushing toilet, all we have to do is build a bathroom or get creative with adapting the bathroom we have, which is on a slab of cement, which doesn't make it easy to install a toilet with underneath plumbing.  

The composting potty design that we are using is the easiest of all the designs I have looked at to install where I want it.  It didn't cost any money, requires no energy, and we don't have to add any rooms, or chisel through a cement slab, to install a box with a seat over a bucket.  But this isn't my biggest motivation for attempting an alternative to a regular toilet.  I fancy myself a grower of green plants, and green plants love compost, but even my compost greed isn't enough to inspire a desire to empty a bucket of wood chips everyday.  I really just want to know, for real, if there is a reasonable alternative to putting waste in clean water and flushing it away.  

In my line of work, as an environmental consultant, I have visited "away" many times.  I've been on sewer treatment plants, I've been in the creeks that are polluted with the effluent of sewer treatment plants, I've seined fish downstream of straight pipes, and I've seen the lab results of e. coli tests in stream water that is contaminated by groundwater from septic drain fields.  "Away" is a disgusting place, and you know what else lives there?  The water we drink!  And all the poor creatures that make their home there.   

Sometimes I think that if the general population could see their drinking water in the state that I see it, there would be mass revolt, and we would demand that someone come up with a reasonable way to handle waste that is better than flushing it away.  As gross as it seems to poop in a bucket of wood chips and cover it with more wood chips, like some sort of human litter box, it's way grosser to poop in water, treat the water with toxic chemicals, and then drink that water, which is what we all do when we flush it away.  Even animals in captivity don't poop in their water, but somehow as a civilization, we've decided that it's the thing to do.  And it's a huge industry.  I've attended conferences with thousands of professionals who are all striving to manage the waste stream of all the people flushing it away.   The infrastructure it takes to keep us from getting sick as we drink our own waste is massive, and I'm not always confident that we can maintain the infrastructure in a working condition.  It might be good to know if there's another option.  It would be nice if the option didn't prevent our friends from coming for a visit, though.  

So, with a desire to stop participating in the flush it away system, coupled with my compost greed and the complexity of putting a flush toilet in the space we already have, we have decided to try the composting toilet in the house.  At least for now.  I can tell you that in the few weeks we've been using it, we haven't yet started drawing up plans for a bathroom addition.  


MA said...

If a person has their own septic tank with bacteria and leach lines, its chemical free and not going "away" is it?

rain said...

If the septic system was installed right, the soil has the right porosity, and the solids in the tank get cleaned out occasionally, then it's supposed to work good. I know that many of the streams in this part of the state have excessive nutrients that can be traced to septic fields because of the geology (instead of filling voids in the soil, the nutrient laden water hits bedrock and flows with the groundwater when it rains right to the creek). The people have no idea there's a problem because the toilet flushes fine and the back yard isnt soggy. We have clay soil, shallow bedrock, and have no idea how old our tank is. Hopefully it's working since our sink, shower, and washing machine drain to it for now.

donny_walrus said...

Keep up the good work. As a fellow member of this "movement" I applaud you.

rain said...

Ha! Good one.

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