Living off the grid isn't just about enjoying the peace and tranquillity of a home away from city noise and distractions. It also involves taking care of some very practical matters, such as providing heat, food, water, shelter, and yes, toilet facilities. And when it comes to off grid toilets, you have several options. Here's a quick overview of five different off grid toilets to consider for your off the grid home.
5 Things to Consider About Off Grid Toilets for YOUR Family
One of the key off grid living mistakes many people (including me) make is to not be prepared. So do your research ahead of time and think carefully about your human waste management and removal needs. (And don't forget to think about toilet paper and toilet paper alternatives if you're far from supplies.)
When you're getting ready to choose an off the grid toilet for your off grid cabin, keep these questions in mind for each option:
- Can I DIY it? Ie. install the toilet, build the outhouse, hook up the plumbing, manage the tanks, etc.? If not, you'll have to find someone in the area who can, and that adds to the cost.
- What are the pros and cons of this system as it could impact OUR family? For example, a manufacturer's compostable toilet manual could say "with regular usage." But what if you have a large family living off the grid and this is your only toilet? That compostable toilet could be less effective than it would be for a couple that installs it in their weekend cottage.
- Is this a long-term or short-term toilet for off the grid use? An outhouse with a hand-dug pit or even a honey bucket is cheap and easy in the short-term. Yet not everyone (including me) wants to use one forever.
- Does this option suit the temperature and climate where we live?
- Is this off the grid toilet legal in our area?
5 Off Grid Toilet Options to Consider
#1. Off Grid Outhouses
Want to build an outhouse yourself? If so, it's easy enough. If you have basic carpentry skills, you can learn how to build your own modern outhouse by visiting sites like Dwell or Instructables. Get tips and free off-grid outhouse plans. Basic tips to remember if you're an outhouse is your top choice among off grid toilets:
- Build it downwind and at least 35 yards from water sources
- Dig a hole at least 3 feet wide by five feet deep
- Should be ABOVE the water table and flood level
- Make sure it is enclosed (has a door) and has a toilet lid to close to keep flies out
Fun Fact: Back in the days when outhouses were the main toilet option in the Yellowknife area, during the winter women would keep their own toilet seats hanging on a nail inside their cabins. They simply took the warm seat with them when they made an outhouse trip in the cold weather.
#2. Regular Plumbing System to a Tank or Septic System
In this scenario, you'd have a regular toilet and plumbing pipes that lead out to an above ground sewage tank, an in-ground septic tank or a septic field bed. However, you could run into trouble if you don't have the power to run the water when you flush.
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If you're off the grid up north, as we are, consider the cold when you're comparing off grid toilets. You'll need a well-insulated sewage pipe and tank, especially if they're above ground. Otherwise, your tank could freeze and crack. (Note: There are some people who drain out their tanks completely before winter arrives, then let it freeze gradually as they use it over the winter. The idea is the gradual freezing prevents the sudden expansion of a large amount of sewage that could spell trouble.)
Related: Our Off Grid Water System
#3. Propane or Electric Incinerator Toilet
An incinerator toilet burns human waste away. While it does away with the need for water, plumbing, or digging a pit, these off grid toilets are energy hogs because they're heating the waste to a very high temperature. They can be powered by electricity or propane (some models can run off the same kind of propane gas tanks used for barbeques).
It's also important to note that an electric incinerator toilet like the Incinolet won't work with solar power systems that include (in the $1500 to $1800+ range in the United States). And you'll also have the ongoing cost of buying paper bowl liners.
#4. A Honey Bucket
So in its simplest form, a honey bucket is just a toilet seat over a plastic-bag lined bucket. It doesn't get much easier (or cheaper) than that.
My first experience with honey buckets was over 30 years ago when I visited the community of Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. At the time, honey buckets were common in the village. The primary school washrooms had a toilet in each stall but operated as honey buckets because each was lined with a black garbage bag. Even today, several families we know who live off the grid in our area choose honey buckets over other off grid toilets.
Setting a honey bucket up is simple. All you need is a seat, a bucket, a bag, and maybe some kitty litter or wood shavings.
Some people prefer to buy an "RV toilet", like the best-selling Camco 41544 Premium Portable Travel Toilet. It's really just an adult-sized potty.
Disposing of honey bucket waste is a bit more work.
You could dig a hole somewhere on your property for it. But then you'd have the messy, stinky job of emptying out the bags and then hauling your soiled plastic bags to the dump. Or else you'd have plastic buried in the earth.
Or you could check your closest dump (in our neck of the woods it's called the Solid Waste Facility). In some rural areas, where indoor plumbing isn't always an option, there will be an area for dumping your (appropriately packaged) human waste.
The temperatures in this area hover below freezing for at least six months of the year. So it's relatively simple (and not too smelly) to store bags of poop outdoors in a wooden bin (with a lid) until the next dump trip.
#5. Compostable Off Grid Toilets
An increasingly popular option for off grid toilets is the composting toilet. These toilets simply evaporate the water in human waste and turn the remaining solid waste (and toilet paper) into compost/fertilizer, safely and without odour.
One big benefit of a composting toilet is that it can be really basic. Like a toilet seat over a 5-gallon bucket of wood shavings or kitty litter. However composting toilets can be expensive. And depending on the amount of usage and the climate, they can be stinky too.
Composting toilets might not even be legal in your neck of the woods. According to a recent article published by the New Jersey-based news outlet Atlantic City Current, only some states allow compostable toilets. The paper reports that compostable toilets meeting the environmental requirements as set by each state are legal in some states, including:
- South Carolina
However, if you live in New Jersey, you might only be legally allowed to install a compostable toilet as long as you're hooked up to a sewer.
Our Toilet System and Off Grid Sewage Solution
A visit to our washroom might surprise you. After all, our home gets powered by solar panels or a diesel generator that charges our batteries. We're a good 40-minute drive to the nearest sewer system in town, and our house is built on bedrock with no basement. Yet we have regular indoor plumbing.
Yet that plumbing leads to an outdoor setup that's a little different from regular city or suburban systems. We have a large 1500 gallon sewage tank. It sits kind of off to the side and partially under our house, enclosed by a wooden box, and well-insulated. Three times a year, our local sewage-removal-guy pumps out the tank. It's held up for over 30 years and through several different owners and families.
If you're looking to replace or install an off grid toilet system, do your research ahead of time. Ask others what they're doing. Consider your family size, your budget, and your location carefully.
This post is part of the Homestead Blog Hop!