How to Use a Composting Toilet

How to Use a Composting Toilet

Composting toilets are revolutionizing vintage trailer renovations.  What used to be a novelty is quickly becoming mainstream because composting toilets are so easy to install.  And they offer a no-smell and easy maintenance alternative to black tanks that are a bit intimidating to inexperienced RV owners. Here's our introduction to composting toilets. You will see reference to the composting toilet brand Nature's Head throughout this article.  Nature's Head is the industry leader and the brand Vintage Trailer Supply sells.

Purchase a Nature's Head Composting Toilet Here

[First a little warning: we're going to be talking about body functions here. There are a lot of synonyms we could use for urination and defacation, but so as not to get too clinical, we're going to use "pee" and "poop."]

Surprisingly Low Effort

One of the cool things about composting toilets is that the poop doesn't have to be dumped very often. The capacity is excellent, so even on longer trips you may not have to empty the composting section at all until you return home. The design separates out urine so that the compost is waterless.  That is vital to proper function and means the composting section holds approximately 60 to 80 uses!

The time frame to empty the solids bin varies with the number of people and the time period. The toilet is designed for up to 4 people full-time! Typically, two people's full-time usage will require emptying the solids approximately every 3 weeks. If you are using it just on weekends with 2 people, that can extend time to 2 months or more. And just a couple of days of non-use extends the period of time because composting breaks down the solid waste over time. Usually, the level of the compost will not increase with use; if it does it will be minimal.

The urine bottle holds 2.2 gallons and will require regular emptying; two people might need to empty the bottle after 3 to 4 days. And since emptying the liquids bottle is quick and simple to do, you can do easily as often as you prefer.

Use Compost Base Material

Before using your composting toilet, you need to add a compost starter material to the base of the unit. The best materials are sphagnum peat moss (from any garden or hardware store), or coconut fiber (coir) also easily available anywhere you buy garden materials.  The peat moss must be regular/organic sphagnum peat moss with no additives. Do not use MIRACLE-GRO peat moss.

Nature's Head: Sphagnum Peat Moss Starting Amount

The composting base materials will need to be premoistened to the point of being damp and crumbly but never wet or soupy. Remember, we are keeping liquids to a minimum in the composting section, so if your sphagnum peat moss or coconut fiber is dry, just add a small amount of water.

Store the sphagnum moss or coconut fiber material in gallon size "ziplock" type bags so you have just what you need when you need it.  To fill your toilet initially, or refill it after emptying, pour two one-gallon bags of pre-moistened sphagnum peat moss or coconut fiber into the base of the toilet. The material should rise to the level of, or cover, the agitator bar in a horizontal position.

Do not add additional medium after pooping in your toilet. Doing that will result in too much sphagnum peat moss or coconut coir in the composting toilet and will not help.  It will limit your time of usage before emptying.

When not in use, the lid of the toilet should be in the closed position, preventing the entry of insects and allowing proper ventilation.

Liquids Stay Separate

The cardinal rule of a composting toilet is the separation of liquids and solid wastes. Allowing the overflow of pee into the composting chamber will cause an unpleasant odor and prevent proper compost action. Separating the two is easy but new habits are going to be required. Be sure to inform your family and guests as to the proper use of your fancy toilet. This will allow proper composting action and assist your guests in feeling comfortable with a new piece of equipment. 

Seated usage is highly recommended, even when men are peeing. When peeing, the toilet may be used with the trap door in the open or closed position. Whether male or female, the user's pee and poop will be directed to the correct locations from this position. Male stand-up usage is less acceptable as splatter may result. In the event that the unit is used in a standing position, the trapdoor must remain closed in order to prevent mingling of liquid and solid wastes.  But guys, just don't.

All pee has an odor. It will not be noticed with normal use. It will be noticed when the storage container is open to the air for emptying. While everyone is different, some urine will smell bad if allowed to sit for extended periods. We recommend emptying the urine bottle frequently.  And if you have persistent pee odors in the bottle, just add a few ounces of white vinegar, and/or a few drops of Dawn dishwashing soap to reduce this odor. If you are emptying frequently, you won't have any issues.

Solids Compost Well

Any time you poop in the toilet, the trap door must be open. 

Toilet paper is typically placed in the toilet. Since paper products do not decompose as quickly as solid wastes, they will be visible long after the solid matter has broken down. Any type of toilet paper is acceptable; less substantial brands (such as marine or RV paper) will compost the quickest.

Of course diapers, wipes and tampons should not be placed in the solids bin. Many brands of these items are made from a mix of rayon and non-organic cotton, and are commonly chlorine-bleached. None of these are going to decompose in your toilet.

Most users keep a small spray bottle (included with your Nature's Head Composting Toilet) filled with a mixture of water and 2 oz of white vinegar nearby to spray off the bowl in the event that some solids adheres to the bowl. Spritzing of the bowl also assists in cleansing the pee passages.

After using your toilet for poop, the sphagnum peat moss or coconut fiber must be agitated 2-3 revolutions slowly in order to mix the waste into the compost and promote the composting process. Again, the contents of the solid waste container must be kept moist, not wet, and remain separated from the liquid waste.

When the toilet is functioning correctly, the composted matter will have a musty or soil-like odor and the visual appearance will be very similar to that of the original sphagnum peat moss. It is not normal for the compost to be wet or for there to be odor problems

If the compost is staying wet and you have odor problems, the solids tank is becoming contaminated with pee and steps must be taken to prevent this. If this persists, and you are unable to determine how it is becoming contaminated, please contact Nature's Head or Vintage Trailer Supply for help.

Special note about getting sick: vomiting and diarrhea, if not persistent, are unlikely to affect the toilet function. If increased wetness of the compost results, the situation may be corrected with the addition of a small amount of dry compost medium.

Emptying The Liquids Bottle

The liquid waste bottle will hold approximately 2.2 gallons of urine. The translucent material of the bottle allows you to easily see the level so you don't let it get too full. 

To empty the liquids bottle:

emptying the Nature's Head1) Release the latches located at both front sides of the unit which secure the bowl to the base. 2) Raise the bowl to an angle of approximately 45 degrees, install the cap on the bottle, and remove the bottle. 3) Dispose of the contents in an appropriate manner. The urine bottle maybe emptied into any conventional toilet.

Should you accidentally overflow the liquid waste bottle, the pee will remain confined to the container base so long as the overflow is not excessive. The best practice is to empty the liquid bottle frequently and then rinse with water which has a small amount of detergent or vinegar added. 

Emptying the Solid Composted Waste

Installing Nature's Head: Clearance Needed to slide topIt takes a couple weeks for poop to fully breakdown into compost in the toilet. When you get  home from your long camping trip, don't empty the toilet right away.  Leave it to compost for awhile if you can. 

If you need to empty it within 2 weeks of last use, that's okay, but it won't be broken down as well as it wouldd be if you waited and let the composting action work.

Regardless of how long you wait, here's the process:

1) With the bottle assembly removed, lift the seat unit several inches and slide it to the left to disengage the slip hinge. (You may need to unhook your vent hose and 12V power supply if it is necessary to move the bowl to the side.) 2) Remove the knobs from the mounting brackets at each side of the base and the base is now ready to empty. 3) Place a 13 gallon kitchen bag over the opening of the base (Note: the bag does not go in the base.) The bag should fit tightly over the rim and allow you to invert the base and empty the contents into the bag without spillage.

Unless you are putting the toilet away for the season, it is unnecessary to clean the interior of the solid waste container as composting will continue from the residual matter clinging to the sides. Cleaning the interior of the composting unit, especially with any chemicals, may inhibit its ability to generate the good bacteria that is breaking down the solid wastes. Simply empty, put in more sphagnum peat moss, and re-assemble your toilet.

Simple Disposal of Waste

The recommended way to dispose of the contents of the solid waste tank is to place it in a proper composting bin to allow it to fully decompose. For most people, just wait until you return home. Let the waste sit for ten to 14 days when you get home and the composting action will have done its job.

However, when traveling in an RV for long periods, this may not be practical. The contents of the solid waste tank may be safely placed into a conventional dumpster if it has been allowed to compost fully. 

When fully composted, the solid wastes may be used to fertilize non-ingestible plantings. Generally, placing human waste compost on edible plants or vegetables is not recommended.

Full-time uses have some special circumstances to deal with. Full-time use does not allow enough time for the solid wastes to compost. The most recent waste, although mixed with the already composted material, will not be decomposed. This also means that the fecal bacteria (present in fresh human wastes) may still be present. In these cases, we recommend taking precautions such as the use of gloves if you may come into contact with waste material. It is advisable that you delay emptying the solid waste for 6-8 hours after the last use.

Another method for dealing with non-composted wastes with Nature's Head (if space allows) is to purchase an extra base and swap out the bases. The Nature's Head extra base comes complete with all the necessary hardware, agitator, and bottle holder. It also comes with a vented lid so the contents can be set aside and allowed to compost. 

At home, a storage bin utilizing the trash bag method of emptying, placing the bag into a small plastic bucket, ventilating the lid, then allow it to finish composting may be constructed. 

Cleaning and Maintenance

A quick spray of water and white vinegar or a natural cleaner from the squirt bottle is all that is needed to keep your compostingn toilet fresh between uses. If necessary, a moistened paper towel (no synthetics) is excellent for cleansing the interior (as well as the exterior) of the toilet.

For more intensive cleansing or dried-on matter, you can use a paper towel moistened with a 1:1 solution of vinegar and water. Just dispose of it in the same manner after cleaning.  Bleach, ammonia, and other commercial cleaning compounds should never be added to your composting head as they will interfere with the composting process and may lead to unpleasant odors. If you want to use those cleaners on the exterior surfaces, that's okay. 

Maintenance requirements for the toilet are very minimal. All metal parts (bolts, hinges, latches, knobs, agitator, and trapdoor components) are either stainless steel or brass. Filters on each side of the base should be removed and cleaned yearly or when emptying the solid wastes. Each filter is secured to the housing with 2 phillips-head bolts. Remove the bolts, clean and replace. Be cautious to reinstall the fan with the airflow exiting the unit.

The full-size molded-in seat of the toilet is designed for safety and comfort and requires no special care.

Purchase a Nature's Head Composting Toilet Here