I know, I know, “You’re writing an entire article about toilets? Gross! Who would want to read that?”
Well, actually, that’s the funny part.
In my research of tiny house living, one of the most recurring things I see is people are absolutely fascinated by the fact that tiny houses (or vans or buses) can still have a toilet. While to me it seems silly – I mean, there are toilets on greyhound buses and airplanes – I guess I understand the confusion. If you can’t be hooked up to the cities sewage line, where does all that waste go?
It’s an important issue to tackle for sure, if you don’t know how you’ll be able to go, can you really ever be comfortable with tiny living? Thankfully, there are a few different options available for tiny toilets, which I’ll be going through with you now.
Also, as a disclaimer: I’m not currently living tiny, though I am saving up to do a bus conversion. So the below isn’t from personal experience.
While I’ve done my own research, and I implore you to do the same, I thought I should make an article about this now, while I’m still in the learning/pre-building phase. This way, you can learn from my experience, and (if needed) I can always update or make a new article once I’ve experienced living tiny to give you some insider advice.
There are three main types of toilets that people use when going tiny, so these are the types this article will be focused on: flushing toilets, composting toilets, and bucket toilets.
Let’s get started!
Instead of jumping into the deep end first, I figured I should start with the easiest type of toilet to understand: a flushing toilet.
These toilets are almost exactly the same kind that you’re already used to using in your house, or in public restaurants. These toilets have a tank that fills with water, and you use a handle to flush your waste away.
But when you flush it ‘away’, it still has to go somewhere. It’s not like it just magically disappears off the face of the earth.
So, where does your waste go?
Well, if you live in a city, it most likely connects to the city’s sewer line. This means it goes on a looong journey away from your home, and you personally don’t have to deal with it passed flushing it down.
Alternatively, some people also have a septic tank, instead of a sewer line. A septic tank is a giant underground tank that connects to your toilet, just like a sewer line, except instead of having your waste be whisked away to some far away place and you never have to deal with it again, it goes into the tank – which is usually somewhere on your property.
The septic tank’s job is to hold your waste – both from your toilet and from other sources, like a kitchen sink – until it’s no longer, uh, waste, and then it disperses the contents into a designated drainage field. This could be your backyard garden, or even just your backyard grass. (Or front yard!)
So, how would a flushing toilet work on in a tiny house? Well, that would depend upon the type of tiny house you have. If you have an actual 400sq foot tiny home on or off wheels, you could plumb your flushing toilet directly into a sewage line, or into a septic tank. Your waste management really wouldn’t change all that much.
If you were to have a flushing toilet on a van or bus however, obviously because these homes are more mobile, you can’t connect your toilet to a permanent line in the ground, whether it’s for sewage or septic.
So, what do you do? Instead, you would need to add a Black Tank to your vehicle. A black tank is a (usually metal) tank that holds all your toilet waste (both liquid and solids) until you’re able to dump it out. There are designated black tank dumping stations around, but to do this, you would: need to make sure there’s one on the route you’re taking, manually hook up a pipe to the tank and hold it over the dumping hole while the waste comes out, have to then disconnect the hose, wash it out, close your black tank, and then get back on the road. You would have to do this every single time the tank gets full, and keep in mind that while standing over the dumping hole, you would be smelling everyone’s waste, not just yours.
Basically you’re dumping your waste into a giant hole in the ground. Like an outhouse.
If you think that’s way more up close and personal you’d like to get with your waste, don’t worry.
The next toilet we’re talking about is a little less hands on than a flushing toilet with a black tank.
This type of toilet is called a composting toilet. If you’ve spent any time on van or bus life Instagram, or watched any tiny living videos on Youtube, you’ve probably heard about composting toilets.
These toilets are a type of dry toilet. This means these toilets require 0 water to handle your business. Some composting toilets separate your liquids and solids by using two different containers, and a short seat separator on the actual toilet seat itself.
One container holds your liquids, and needs to be dumped by hand, while the one that holds the solids actually turns it into compost.
Or at least, it starts the processes of turning it into compost.
The names of these toilets are somewhat misleading. Because the containers they have is usually small, and because humans release waste way too often, they don’t actually have the 3-6 months they need to fully break down your waste to make it actual compost.
In the solid waste container, you would add some sort of starter material (like coconut coir), then when you do your business, you would crank a handle that’s on the side of the toilet to mix your waste in with the starter. You would crank it each time you go, to make sure your waste and the starter is thoroughly mixed each time.
Once your container is full, you would then theoretically go dump it into a bigger compost mixer/compost pile, where it would sit and continue turning into compost. However, for some people who don’t have that as an option (for example, tiny lifers who are constantly on the move) you would instead dump your waste into an area that has heavy dirt. Ideally, a place where your waste could continue it’s compost journey.
If you have a separate liquids container, you would need to dump that somewhere separately. Some people choose to do this in public bathrooms, when the visit friends (so basically, they find a flushing toilet to use), or they dump it in a similar area to that of where it’s safe to dump the solid waste.
You would then wash/rinse out both containers, let them dry and then essentially reassemble your toilet to get it ready for next use. For the solids container, you would also have to make sure you put more starter into the bottom.
These types of dry toilets can be great to have, but they can get pretty pricey. Also, there are not very many sizes of seat to choose from. This makes a frequent complaint that the seat is too small for many people, which in turn makes the toilet hard to use.
This brings me to the last type of toilet: a bucket toilet.
These toilets are similar to composting toilets, but have more of a DIY angle to them. You can also make them as simple, or complicated as you like. Technically speaking, you can just attach a toilet seat to a 5 gallon plastic bucket and call it a day.
If that’s for you, great! However, most bucket toilet users I’ve seen have a little bit of a more complicated set up than that. People who use this type of toilet usually build some sort of wood bench to fix the toilet seat to, then place the 5 gallon bucket (and liquid container!) into the box.
This set up is good because, depending on how big your bathroom is, you can usually put another hole in the top of the bench next to the toilet to house your cover material.
What’s cover material? It’s exactly what it sounds like: it’s a material you use to cover your solid waste. This could be most types of organic material: coconut coir, peat moss, hay, wood shavings – some people even use coffee grounds!
It really depends on your individual needs. Some people find peat moss works best for them, while others swear by using hay. Unfortunately, this isn’t something you can be 100% sure of before you start using your toilet. Because there are so many factors, most people usually end up trying a few different materials before deciding which one works best.
The point of cover material though, is to cover your solid waste, and help break it down into compost. Similar to a compose toilets point, except bucket toilets don’t use a crank. (Though you could certainly add one!) Instead of crank mixing your waste with the cover material, every time you finish your business, you would sprinkle a layer of cover over top of your solid waste. Think of it like you’re making a waste lasagna. (… Sorry)
Then when the bucket is filled, just like with the compost toilet, you would need to find somewhere to dump it. Alternatively, if you get some bio degradable bags (and the waste weighs less than 5kg) you can toss your waste into a city public trash can.
I can’t say for sure whether or not this is allowed in every city around the world, but I know here in Canada, it’s allowed. This is because if it’s a small amount, it is technically treated the same as dog waste, or an adult diaper, which are both also allowed to be thrown into the trash.
If tossing in the trash isn’t an option for you – or if you just happen to not be in a city when you need to dump your toilet – you can also bury it in dirt, provided it’s a specific distance away from harvestable crops, and drinkable water.
You could theoretically do this without having it bagged, but I think it would be way less messy.
Practically any hardware store you can think of has 5g buckets for sale (Home Hardware, Canadian Tire, Lowes, etc.) and they’re all pretty cheap, which is a great pro if you choose to go this route.
I would give a long, hard think to the type of life you want to live while in your tiny before deciding on what kind of toilet you’ll get. If you’re planning on constantly travelling, setting up a flushing/hard-lined toilet would definitely hinder that.
Alternatively, if you plan on staying stationary and are too grossed out by the thought of having to get so intimate with your waste, a flushing toilet might be the best choice for you!
It all depends on you, so be sure to really think about it before committing. Especially if you’re not planning on going tiny alone! Be sure to get your partner’s input! Maybe you’d be okay with using a bucket toilet, because you’re not grossed out by the thought of handling your own waste, but how would your partner feel about it? Is that something they could do?
And if not, are you okay with always being the designated toilet emptier? Or would it be easier and save you a lot of headaches and potential arguments if you just started with a different toilet to begin with?
It’s not impossible to switch between the types once you’ve decided, but it will definitely save you a lot of time, energy and possibly even a lot of money, if you allow yourself time to take a step back and have a good long think about what truly fits your lifestyle.
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