I Love My Water-Free Composting Toilet

Back in the 1970s, we inherited a quirky, historic old house in a fold of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The view is beautiful. The house is surprisingly well built, considering that it was built by one man. The brook that babbles through the yard is sparkly-clean and mosquito-free. I could go on and on. There was just one tiny problem…the house had never had indoor plumbing. And it never would, we were told, without dynamiting a hole in the bedrock below the two or three feet of topsoil around the house. Some neighbors had enough topsoil to install septic tanks; most did not.

We loved everything else about the house enough to live in it, “the good old-fashioned way,” for several summers before zoning regulations caught up with us. The house was too close to the babbling brook for anyone to live in it legally…unless they were willing to install a water-free toilet.

Several types of water-free toilets have been invented. Most work on the principle of burning or baking household waste. Many, like the SUN-MAR model we chose, actually work better when they’re used as garbage disposals too. Scraps, peelings, lawn and garden trimmings, and any other dry waste you might add to a compost heap, helps to speed the process of “composting.” Everything dumped into the mini-incinerator within is zapped with electric current and/or slowly heated into a dry, inoffensive substance that resembles potting soil.

Different manufacturers build these devices in different ways, with different ratings for success. Back in the 1980s, the Sun-Mar toilet seemed the best bargain. It uses a fan to direct odors from the composting chamber into a little smokestack that protrudes above the roof. In addition to garden and kitchen waste, we dump in a little peat moss every day to speed up composting and absorb odors. On very wet days, we sometimes smell the composting process, but it’s not obtrusive.

The first question everybody asks is, “Does this bright idea really work?” Yes, although many prototypes of the water-free toilet were marketed in the 1970s and found not to work, today’s composting toilets are about as efficient as flush toilets.

It’s cost-effective as well. Fans and motors need to be replaced about as often as you’d call the plumber. The electricity has not noticeably increased our monthly bills. Five dollars a month should cover the electricity plus a new motor every year. Once we paid off the initial purchase, around $2000 including installation, the composting toilet is cheaper than a flush toilet.

One of my children lives in Maryland and often expresses concern about the Anacostia River. Before it joins the Potomac in Washington, D.C., this scenic, historic river absorbs sewage, chemicals, and effluvia from several smaller cities. In the 1960s it was ranked among the world’s most polluted rivers. After forty years of hard work by many dedicated people, the river now supports some of the hardier fish and bird species. Today it’s endangered again by “developers” who blithely imagine that people will want to live in condominiums with a view that’s finally recovering its beauty. What happens to the river if all the people in those condominiums use flush toilets? Composting toilets could be an answer. Although they are bigger than flush toilets, and do raise the temperature in the bathroom by a few degrees, they generate “fill dirt” rather than sewage.

Probably the best payoff is hiking, biking, boating, or fishing on the Clinch River. The former town of Clinchport, Virginia, is one of the cleanest-smelling riverfront parks in America. You smell flowers in season, barbecue smoke, highways, railroads, an occasional animal, instead of the sewage-treatment odor that dominates other riverfront parks. This is because relatively few people live near the river, and the river is relatively close to its origins higher in the Blue Ridge…and several of us have chosen water-free toilets.

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