Game of thrones:A head-to-head comparison of tiny house toilets

1.24.2015


Cross-posted from boneyardstudios.org, and published here with the acknowledgement that this blog once used to be about tiny houses.

Let’s talk about toilets.

It’s a taboo subject, I know. We’re not supposed to talk about it at dinner, or on first dates, or even with close friends or lifelong partners or twin siblings. But everyone does it, as they say, and every house needs one, or just about, so let’s just set the queasiness aside for a moment and jump right into it (the topic, not the toilet)—a personal journey through, and head-to-head comparison of, types of toilets for tiny houses.

Incinerator

One thing you can do with waste is burn it. Incinerating toilets offer a neat, nearly-instant solution: do your business, push a button, and boil your bowel movements away, leaving nothing more than a sterile pile of ash in its chambers. And having used two of these Back to the Future-looking steel appliances in the early days of Boneyard Studios, I can confirm that, yeah, they get the job done. Basically, you open the lid, drop a paper liner atop a pair of closed metal jaws, and fill that liner with liquid or solid waste. When you’re done, you push a foot pedal, and those jaws open wide, and the paper package plummets to the bottom of the incinerator, which heats to 1,200 degrees for ninety minutes and incinerates whatever it can.

Cool, but shortcomings abound. For one, those jaws can sometimes get stuck, and loosening the hinges requires carefully reaching your hand into a container of, well, now-burning crap. Also, heating a small pan to 1,200 degrees for an hour and a half takes a lot of electricity—about 1.5kW per “flush,” to be exact. And that pan is small, meaning it must be heated after every use, liquid or solid, and then left alone for the better part of an hour. Incinerators work well for an individual, but during a Boneyard Studios party, it wasn’t uncommon for that pan to be filled more quickly than it could empty, leaving the floor of the bathroom covered with spilled, steaming piss. Gross.

They’re noisy, too: a grinding hum that fills small spaces quickly. And the exhaust, of course, must be vented out. I’ll admit, the smell of burning human waste isn’t as bad as you might think, but there definitely is a smell, and it’s one that’ll fill your house and then waft into the open windows of neighbors without their welcome—not the best for respecting boundaries in an urban neighborhood.

Finally, Incinolets create an intensely hot fire in your home everyday. They seem safe, and are pretty well put together in sealed-up steel, but there is an unavoidable fire risk, and in small spaces, fire is a big no-no.

So when you have to go-go, incinerators are probably not the best bet. Despite all their shortcomings, incinerators cost about $2,000 new (a shortcoming in itself), and thus aren’t really recommended for the small house dweller on a budget (or anyone, for that matter).

  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 5/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 3/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 2/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 4/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 1/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 4/5
  • Total: 19/30

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Honeybucket

After a few unpleasant months trying out the Incinolets of Brian and Lee (Lee has since upgraded to a Separett, discussed later), I punted my decision-making down the road by picking up a five-gallon bucket from the hardware store, building what many affectionately refer to as the “honeybucket.” It works like this: there’s a bucket. You open the lid and do your thing. When you’re done doing your thing, you cover everything with sawdust and close the lid.

My sister and brother, who live out on an intentional community in Missouri, use these everywhere. They call them Fillmores, ’cause President Fillmore was the last president to have a non-plumbed toilet in the White House, and I was always impressed by how odorless they were in their outhouses. The innards of honeybuckets are typically composted as well—a great benefit over using electricity to burn away rich future soil. They’re cheap to build (about $6 for a bucket, and $7 for a top-of-the-line airtight lid), obviously totally noiseless, and they don’t take up much space. The dimensions and contours of a five-gallon bucket (with aforementioned airtight lid) provide a pretty decent seat. All in all, not a bad functioning toilet for $13.

But not great, either. For one, you need to find something to do with the bucket when it’s full. That’s easy if you live on a farm, but a little more tricky if you’re tethered to a city. They require sawdust (or a substitute) to absorb moisture and neutralize odors. When building a house, sawdust is plentiful; afterwards, rummaging through Home Depot’s dustpails becomes a necessity. And undoubtedly, that sawdust will get everywhere, leaving the bathroom with an inescapably “unclean” feeling. The toilet itself never really feels clean: it is, after all, a bucket full of soggy waste, and we humans have evolved to feel a natural squeamishness around such piles. In the warmer months, a few gnats might hang around the lid, or start a whole colony in your bathroom if the lid isn’t airtight. I didn’t find it too difficult to use the honeybucket on my own, but I always felt a little self-conscious having friends over: a tutorial is needed, and they’re looking at your last bowel movement, and you’re later looking at theirs, and it’s just, well, not ideal. Ultimately, in the words of one Matchbox YouTube commenter: “I love this innovative space but can’t help but think of when he brings home a partner and tells them they have to shit in a bucket.”

  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 3/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 3/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 5/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 1/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 5/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 3/5
  • Total: 20/30

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Honeybucket 2.0

After months of using a standard honeybucket, I opted for a few upgrades. Like many do, I had a little chest built around the bucket, and screwed a seat to that chest, so it looked a bit more like a latrine than a bright orange pail. I started lining the bucket with a black garbage bag, making it much easier to empty the bucket when it was full. And most importantly, I turned a wide-mouthed funnel into a urine diverter, separating liquids and solids.


If there were a documentary of Boneyard Studios, this would undoubtedly be the scene of comic relief after a tense build setback or dramatic plot twist: me and Tony, my builder, crammed in the darkness of the Matchbox bathroom, holding a funnel centered over a bucket, and then slowly moving it closer to the front, and then back again, eyeing each other, asking “does that look right?”, trying to figure out, crudely, approximately where women pee from when seated on a toilet. Thankfully, we placed the funnel correctly, and the next day the Matchbox was sporting a totally functional and totally unisex honeybucket 2.0. By separating solids and diverting liquids into the ground, smells were improved, the toilet had to be emptied far less frequently (most waste, of course, is liquid), and sawdust wasn’t needed after every pee. Plus, it just looked better.

Nonetheless, swapping out an airtight seal for a standard lid welcomed gnats in the summer months, and the urine diverter had to be plumbed through the floor, adding time and cost to an otherwise $13 toilet. The chest took work and wood, and it almost became more difficult to instruct people on how to use the thing. It went from “just dump sawdust on top of everything” to “if you’re a guy, aim into the funnel; if you’re a girl, act natural; but either way, make sure no sawdust gets in the funnel,” and undoubtedly, sawdust got in the funnel. Sawdust got in the funnel, and clogged the pipes, and after spending three hours after a Boneyard Studios party snaking through clogs of urine-drenched sawdust, I decided the upgraded honeybucket wasn’t much of an upgrade at all.

Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 4/5
Odorlessness (how good it smells): 3/5
Quietness (how quiet it is): 5/5
Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 1/5
Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 4/5
Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 2/5
Total: 19/30

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Composter

With the honeybucket part of my life over, I considered what was next. A composting toilet seemed a worthy solution—it’s still just a plastic container, more or less, but it looks like a toilet, and diverts urine in a much more streamlined way, and with a little fan and a little turning rod, it actually begins composting waste while it’s in use.

The key word, here, is begin. Their price (around $1,000) would be justifiable if they really got the job done, but they don’t: they just start it. What that means is that they just don’t have enough room to really keep waste for a full composting cycle (about two years left alone, or at least three months if assisted), so even with the substantial room they do take up (typically the entire footprint of a tiny bathroom), they must be emptied every month or so. Sometimes there’s a shovel involved, and still that problem of disposal. And unfortunately, one-month-composted crap is just about as gross as zero-month-composted crap; at the end of the day, you’re shoveling shit.

I should note, though, that I never actually owned a composting toilet—just used a few and read more reviews than I’d ever imagined I would—so consider these (already subjective) ratings with a grain of sawdust:


  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 2/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 4/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 4/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 4/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 2/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 1/5
  • Total: 19/30
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Composting toilet, meet honeybucket

I was in the throes of despair about what to do with my waste when Lee arrived on the lot one day with a big white box. It contained a Separett 9200 (I wasn’t asked or paid to plug the Separett; I just think it’s the most magical thing in the whole world), a toilet that’s something of a hybrid between a composter and a honeybucket. On the outside, it looks like a composting toilet: uninspired white plastic, a proper urine diverter toward the front and a hole for solids toward the back. There was a fan, and it required venting outside, and a tiny bit of electricity to make the fan go. Yet on the inside, it was nothing more than a honeybucket: a wide, shallow tub lined with a composting bag. But where the Separett really shone was in the barrier between the two, a simple blue spring-loaded plastic plate that sealed off the bucket when not in use and opened when weight (like, a butt) was put on the seat. That simple little barrier ensured the contents of the bucket were hidden from sight or smell, opening just for the moments of use and snapping shut before the Separett’s user even returned to her feet. Odors and pests are nonexistent thanks to the fan, sawdust isn’t even needed, and wrapping up one’s business almost feels too easy, as though one’s forgetting to flush, or put back a lid, or heap some neutralizer over their waste.


Is it perfect? Of course not. It requires a tiny bit of electricity, and it makes a tiny noise (though not enough to be heard outside the bathroom through a 3/8″ plywood door), and it takes up more room than a honeybucket, and that fan does have to run 24/7 or the odors emerge. Its use is fairly self-explanatory, but those who stand up before discarding their toilet paper will get a bit confused with what to do with it. And meanwhile, those who pee standing up will have to aim well or the surrounding area will get a little splatter. The plastic, though well-made, does feel a bit cheap, and the toilet, so well-made, definitely isn’t. At about $1,400, the Separett is a pricey investment, but after three-plus months of use, I’m certain it’ll be the last toilet the Matchbox ever needs.

  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 4/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 5/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 4/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 4/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 3/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 4/5
  • Total: 24/30

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Rethinking the default: the flush toilet

I suppose this game of thrones wouldn’t really be complete without the reigning king of the toilet world: the iconic porcelain commode first popularized by Thomas Crapper. An unavoidable staple of industrialized nations (and now, sadly, industrializing ones as well), the standard flush toilet would undoubtedly score the highest in effectiveness, odorlessness, and ease, and do pretty well in the realms of quietness and affordability and cleanliness as well. Which leaves one to ask: why not just do what we’ve been doing, and outfit a small house with a regular flusher?

The simple answer is that flush toilets create blackwater (while urine can be safely diverted into the ground and diluted with nine parts greywater, solid waste cannot), and blackwater must be plumbed, and installing septic systems on unplumbed property is expensive, and when small houses are built on wheels, limiting where those wheels can travel to just specific places with existing pipes is totally unfortunate.


The not-so-simple answer, meanwhile, is that flush toilets are destroying our waters. Over a quarter of all water consumed in the home is used to flush waste down pipes. Older toilets typically average about 3.5 gallons of freshwater per flush; some use 5 or as many as 7 gallons. So when a guy needs to take a leak—the average leak being about 0.15 gallons—at a regular toilet, he’s flushing 23 parts freshwater and one part urine down the drain (why urine needs any help traveling down a drain is another question altogether). Low-flush toilets are better (they use about 1.6 gallons per flush), but still soil about 2,900 gallons of freshwater per person per year. And we’re just talking freshwater.

Remember, all that water has to go somewhere. We can treat it, and we sometimes do, and it’ takes massive resources to do so, and sometimes the chemicals we use to treat wastewater are harmless and sometimes we find out they’re actually pretty harmful after it’s way too late. But either way, we’re just flushing too much. When it rains in DC, and the stormdrains fill with rainwater, and a citydweller flushes the toilet, the overtaxed wastewater treatment plant simply can’t manage the volume, and it gets diverted to Rock Creek. And so, the urine and the bacteria-ridden excrement of an entire city flows into our once-pristine waterways, and the city tells us it is no longer safe to swim in the Creek, or even the greater Potomac River.

Shit flows downstream, as they say, and while we may be fine with ours piling up in our waterways, it isn’t really fair for us to make that decision for others down the river. I once had the privilege of speaking to a young man of Taos, a stunning pueblo village that had existed in what eventually came to be called New Mexico for over 1,300 years. It was the oldest continually-inhabited town in North America, and for over a millennium, its First Nations inhabitants had used the tiny creek running through it for everything: water to drink, to cook, to bathe and swim and play. And ten years ago, they stopped. Americans upstream had started dumping pollutants into it: the chemicals of waste treatment plants, the raw sewage of towns who couldn’t afford to treat their waste. Everything we flush goes somewhere, and affects something, and so in the quest for a safe, sustainable toilet, it’s probably best we don’t flush at all. Water’s a terrible thing to waste—especially when we’re wasting it for our waste.

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