You should see the looks on people’s faces when they ask us about our utilities and we eventually get around to explaining that, no, we’re not building to hook up to any kind of a septic system. The plumbing is all self-contained within the house, and we’re just not interested in having to deal with blackwater disposal. The wheels start to turn… the brows begin to furrow… and then:
“So, um, are you going to have a toilet? How does that work, exactly?”
Is there just a hole in the bathroom floor? Or a bucket lined with Walmart bags? Will your turds be carried majestically away by trained pigeons and deposited on some unsuspecting farmer’s manure heap before they’ve even begun to smell?
Well, that last one would be kind of impressive, but no.
There is a surprisingly wide range of bathroom accommodations for tiny homes, if you choose to include one at all. Some people prefer to save space inside by moving their toilet facilities to an outhouse, like John Kamman and Grace Brogan, who live in a yurt in northern Minnesota. You know, where it gets to be thirty below during the winter, and there’s frost on the toilet seat. That you have to walk OUTSIDE to reach. Oh, and you have to get up at 3am to stoke the 24/7 fire that keeps your house from becoming your icy tomb. Commendable, sure – I applaud them – but no thanks.
Others prefer to forego no modern luxury and put a regular toilet (albeit usually a low-flow) in a tiny house, which works fine if you’re parking it someplace where you can hook up to the grid for water and septic. Similarly, some choose to use a chemical RV toilet and dispose of the waste at designated parks.
Both John and I have always been slightly uneasy at the thought of flushing away nearly two gallons of potable water with every bathroom transaction while there are people on this planet dying of thirst. Neither of us professes to be perfectly energy- or resource-conscious; there are a few probably unnecessary lights on in the house at the moment, my laptop is plugged in, and John is playing computer games with his brother using the television as a big monitor. The amount of water wasted in conventional toilets just happens not to sit well with either of us, so we decided to do something about it in our own home.
One of the most common alternatives is a composting toilet. These run the gamut from a five gallon bucket filled with sawdust (which we actually considered, given that we work in a woodshop; but the sawdust is supposed to be damp and fresh, not kiln-dried) to a much fancier, urine-separating model like the ones made by Nature’s Head. The price range is typically $1,000 or more, but what we dislike most about composting toilets is that they require a fan to be running constantly in the ventilation system, unless you’re cool with your house smelling like human waste in varying states of decomposition. They can be really great if you’re already a hardcore composter and like to use really, really organic fertilizer on your garden, but none of them struck our fancy. You can read more in The Humanure Handbook if you’re interested in the science of composting toilets.
We very nearly decided to go with an incinerating toilet, instead, which John claims was a decision based on economics and efficiency – and not on his love of lighting things on fire. In the Incinolet, a liner is placed in the bowl before each use, which then drops into a sealed compartment in the bottom of the unit and is, well, incinerated. Incinolet boasts extreme cleanliness, since waste never comes into contact with the toilet bowl and cleaning involves only emptying a small amount of ash into the garbage. The height stipulations for your ventilation are really strict, though, and if you fail to vent less than a certain distance above the roof, any small change in the breeze can easily fill your home with the smell of burning feces. The going price starts just under $2,000.
John and I had prepared ourselves to shell out an enormous amount of money for an Incinolet, until the one time that wasting an inordinate amount of time on Pinterest finally did me some good. I happened to scroll past a pin captioned, “The Toilet That Will Change the World!”
I read that the Laveo by Dry Flush uses no water, no harsh chemicals, and next to no electricity. It was developed for use in areas with very little access to water or power, and it only needs to be charged (via your standard electrical outlet) once every three months or about 300 flushes. Upon flushing, the bowl collapses and vacuum-seals the liner, then drops it into the bottom compartment. No squick, no smell. The disappointing factor is that the Dry Flush takes huge strides in saving water and electricity, then makes you put your poop into a plastic bag and throw it in the landfill. However! The developers promise to be hard at work making a biodegradable, compostable bowl liner, which would be just about the awesomest thing ever.
We’ve been weighing toilet options for almost a year, at this point, and John and I both feel really good about the Dry Flush. The unit itself is just $420 (and available from Home Depot, which offers free shipping), and though the cartridges are absurdly expensive at $1 per flush, we’re really enthusiastic about supporting a fledgling business that’s doing such an awesome thing.
There’s also the fact that we currently spend 10-15 hours at the shop every day except Sunday, anyway, which significantly minimizes the number of opportunities to use our toilet at home. Hopefully, by the time we make it back to Michigan, biodegradable bowl liner cartridges will grow on trees – or at least cost less than $55 per refill.
And there you have it! A detailed answer to the question everyone wonders about, but nobody really wants to ask.