The Indoor Outhouse

In my last post, The Homestead Outhouse, I alluded to the fact that there is an indoor version as well. Composting toilet manufacturers probably wouldn’t be too keen on my characterization, but an outdoors outhouse is essentially a chamber that solids drop into for composting. A commercial composting toilet is essentially the same concept. So let’s chat about the homestead’s indoor outhouse.

Our Off-grid Homestead Bathroom

Our Off-grid Homestead Bathroom

In Maine, many years ago, we purchased a non-electric composting toilet. Liquids (urine) were supposed to magically evaporate and solids were to turn into a nice crumbly compost. It was a nice idea but it didn’t work. In fact, it was a disaster. I installed it properly including the vent tube through the roof and ultimately installed a small fan hoping to aid the evaporation process. What really happened was a mostly solid mass formed in the rotating drum. This occurred even though we added other organic matter after each use. Because the drum door didn’t close properly sometimes, with each turn of the crank handle, some debris fell from the drum into the collection tray, mixed with the liquid urine and formed a disgusting goo. And guess who had to clean out the mess? It was an expensive fixture that turned out to be essentially unusable and a waste of space.

I would discourage everyone from a non-electric composting toilet. Any composting toilet should be an electric version that has a heater and fan to really heat and dissipate moisture. Even though I put one of those small metal wind driven turbine fans on the stack pipe outside, it didn’t make a difference. Just not enough air flow to draw moisture out of the toilet.

As I mentioned in my previous post on outhouses, the bad smells often associated with outhouses can be associated with the urine and not “flushing” with a dusting of ash, lime or sawdust. I’ll never tell you any outhouse can smell like a field of roses, but neither should you need to lug an oxygen tank and mask into the outhouse with you. On that note, we never used any air fresheners or perfumed scents in the outhouse. I have no practical experience with them but my gut tells me if you spray or otherwise have sweet smelling essence emanating from the outhouse, every bee, bear, and varmint will be inclined to show up for a visit.

As you know by now, we live far in the Canadian wilderness with some fairly extreme temperature swings. -57F is the coldest temperature we’ve experienced here and -30 to -45 are standard winter temperatures. Although I’ve used outhouses in those temperatures, why suffer if there’s a better alternative?

And there is! We brought the outhouse indoors. We bought a Urine Diverting Toilet Seat similar to this: http://www.ecovita.net/privy.html Essentially, we have a small room in the house dedicated to a toilet. There is a bench seat where the urine diverting toilet seat is mounted. The front of the bench seat has 2 hinged doors to access the compartment underneath.

Dealing With Solid Waste

Directly under the toilet seat is a large container that solids drop into. This container is accessible through one of the hinged doors. Flushing is accomplished with ash just like in the outdoor outhouse. A metal bucket with ash from our stoves sits on the bench seat. A light sprinkling after each use is adequate to keep odors under control.

Dealing With Urine

The urine drains out of the front of the toilet via a hose to a 5 gallon bucket. That bucket is also under the bench seat and has a separate access door.

In addition to the urine diverting toilet seat, I have modified a one gallon heavy plastic maple syrup jug as a urinal for me. My urinal is a Ron original, patent pending, high tech affair which is unlikely ever to be duplicated due to its complexity. It is mounted on the bathroom wall and the drain tube empties into the same urine bucket underneath the toilet. So in other words, my urinal and the urine diverting toilet seat funnel into the same bucket which is emptied every 3rd day.

High Tech Urinal ( A Ron Original)

High Tech Urinal (A Ron Original)

To rinse, we keep a squirt bottle of water on the bench seat which we use after each use of the urinal or toilet. We are careful to only squirt the water in the front chamber of the toilet. We do NOT want liquids going into the solids chamber.

Fertilizer

Both solids and liquids have high fertilizer value and we don’t want to waste either of them. Roughly every 3 months, I take the tub of solids out to the dual bin compost pile. The contents are dumped in the “fresh” material bin, spread evenly, then completely covered (1 ½ to 2 inches) with mulch. In our case, because we have a chipper, I use chipped brush which makes a great organic layer to cover the new waste. Before replacing the emptied tub back under the toilet, I will liberally sprinkle wood shavings or chips on the tub bottom which helps to prevent the fecal mass from sticking to the bottom of the container. It essentially makes dumping the contents completely out much easier.

As I said, the compost pile is a 2 bin affair with one side containing aging material while the other side contains the fresh material. After a year, I sprinkle the finished compost around the fruit trees, (never in the vegetable garden), and immediately but lightly till it in. Although the material has composted for a year and looks like a crumbly, rich soil amendment, I still treat it with respect. I wear long sleeve shirt, long pants, gloves and boots when handling the material. The wheelbarrow and shovel I use are thoroughly washed out and then set aside to sit in the sun for a week. A little bleach added to the rinsing water would be good as well.

We have long winters with deep snow, and good spring rains. In the fall, once the garden has been completely harvested and tilled for the season, we have no problem pouring all the urine over the tilled garden. We continue this process throughout the winter. By the time spring rolls around and all the snow has melted, any urine from the preceding winter is so diluted, we have no concern for our safety. Additionally, I always deeply till the garden again in the spring to fluff it up and make ready for the summer growing season. Once the garden is planted, all urine is dumped out in the orchard. No urine ever goes on or near the vegetables while they are growing.

Final Comments

As long as we leave the bathroom door open so air can circulate, there are no objectionable odors. Although we don’t need an air freshener, there’s no reason a freshener could not be used indoors. I do not have any venting of the compartment to the outside. That would certainly be an option for anybody having trouble with smell issues. That venting could be a simple pipe from the compartment through the wall to the outside or if need be, a small fan could also be mounted for more airflow. We have never had any problem with our closed system and I’d be inclined to give that a try first before cutting a vent hole in the wall to the outdoors.

Here is another good article on the subject of urine diverting toilets: https://capecodecotoiletcenter.com/types-of-eco-toilets/urine-diverting-toilets/

It is my fervent hope that the next time you use an outhouse, whether indoors or outdoors, everything comes out alright!

Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!

Ron and Johanna

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2 Responses to The Indoor Outhouse

  1. Margy Lutz says:

    We have a commercial composting toilet, but the trick in making it work is by diverting most of the urine and not having lots of guests at our cabin. We empty the drum about three times a year and allow the material to compost further outdoors like you do. Your system allows you to handle the urine diversion indoors. Ours is handled separately outdoors, but in our milder west coast climate that isn’t a problem for us. – Margy

    • Ron Melchiore says:

      Hi Margy,

      Thank you for your feedback. Anytime we hear of people living on a house boat or semi-permanent setup on a floating house of some sort, we often wonder how septic is dealt with. You have a good setup if you only have to empty the drum about 3 times a year. That’s about the same routine I have with the solids container we have under our urine diverting toilet.

      Although it is extremely rare when we have had a guest arrive here, and even rarer still to have them stay overnight, the biggest problem we have is keeping the bathroom door open. For some reason, our guests feel compelled to use the bathroom and then when finished, close the door again. All that does is seal in the “freshness” for the next user. I invariably go down and see the door shut and end up opening it up to let the fresh air in. 🙂

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