Are you envisioning a quiet life in an off grid home? I have news for you. Living off the grid isn't just about enjoying a home away from city noise and distractions. It also involves taking care of some very practical matters, such as getting, food, water, shelter, and yes, off grid toilets, in place.
Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
Before moving to our off the grid house near Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories nine years ago, we took indoor plumbing and flush toilets for granted.
Sure, I’ve used outhouses. I've even just gone behind a bush many times while camping in state parks and provincial parks or traipsing around in the woods.
But I didn’t consider the fact that indoor plumbing, flushing toilets, and hot water can be tricky business without town sewers, municipal water, and in a place where temperatures can hit -50 in the winters.
Whether you're considering a flush toilet, compost toilet, dry toilets or waterless toilets, or even a good old outhouse, learn what to consider when choosing between toilets and sanitation systems. Plus get an overview of five different off grid toilets to consider for your off the grid home.
Table of contents
Research Your Options
One of the key off grid living mistakes many people (including me) make is lack of preparation. So do your research ahead of time.
Carefully consider your human waste management and removal needs before choosing from the different options for your off-grid toilet.
And don't forget to think about toilet paper and toilet paper alternatives if you're far from supplies.
5 Things to Consider About Off Grid Toilets
When you're getting ready to choose an off the grid toilet for your off grid home, tiny homes, or remote cabins, keep these questions in mind for each option.
Can I DIY it?
Do I know how toilets work - even a normal toilet? Can I install my first 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 your off grid living costs.
What are the pros and cons of this toilet system?
Specifically, what are the benefits and drawbacks of this off grid toilet 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 or a lot of people living off the grid and this is your only toilet for full-time use?
That compostable toilet could be less effective than it would be for a couple that installs it in their weekend cottage.
Long-term or short-term toilet?
for off the grid use? An outhouse with a hand-dug pit or even a simple bucket with a plastic bag liner 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?
Not everyone wants to stumble out to the outhouse in -50 weather. Especially when it's dark. On the other hand, hot climates could lead to stinky outhouses. Consider climate before choosing.
Is this off the grid toilet legal in our area?
This may come as a surprise, but you can't just plop down an outhouse anywhere. And some municipalities might not even let you install a compost or incinerator toilet. Do your research.
Start by asking "which local authorities have the info I need?" Search the building department for your town, city, municipality or region. In some cases, such as unorganized townships, you might find you can do what you like when it comes to sewage and toilets off the grid.
5 Off Grid Toilet Options to Consider
What type of toilet makes the most sense in your situation?
Whether you're looking at options for tiny houses, wondering about dry flush toilets, or even just trying to find a better way to handle your family's waste needs, here are five things to look at.
1. Off Grid Outhouses
Want to build an outhouse yourself? If so, add it to your off grid homestead projects. 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 - you'll find lots of different types.
Basic tips to remember if an outhouse is your best option among off grid toilets:
- Build it downwind and at least 35 yards from clean water sources
- Dig a small 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. Kind of brilliant, actually.
2. Regular Plumbing System to a Tank or Septic System
If your off the grid power system includes reliable solar power or wind power system plus a backup generator or two, a "regular" plumbing system could work as an off grid sanitation system.
In this scenario, you'd have a regular toilet and plumbing pipes that lead out to an above-ground sewage tank. Or to a septic system, such as 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 and if you don't understand how septic tanks work.
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 - the biggest problem we face with our system.
(Note: We know people who drain out their tanks completely before winter arrives as part of their off grid home winter prep. They then let it freeze gradually as they use it over the winter.
The idea is that 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 and organic materials, so you don't need to worry about hazardous waste disposal.
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.
Incinerator toilets can be powered by off grid 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 (currently in the $1500 to $1800+ range in the United States) needs a reliable power source. So it might not be the perfect solution for homes with solar power systems that don't have a backup power system for low sunlight days.
And you'll also have the ongoing cost of buying paper bowl liners.
4. A Bucket Toilet (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, although, depending on where you live, it might not meet local regulations and environmental impact laws.
My first experience with honey buckets (bucket toilets) was over 30 years ago when as a teenager I visited the community of Pond Inlet on Baffin Island in what is now Nunavut.
At the time, honey buckets were common in the village. The primary school washrooms had a flushable toilet in each stall but operated as bucket toilets buckets because each was lined with a black plastic bag.
Even today, several families we know who live off the grid in our area choose honey buckets over other off grid toilets - and waterless toilet options.
How to Set up a Bucket Toilet
Setting up a honey bucket toilet is simple. All you need is a seat, a bucket, a toilet bag liner, and maybe some kitty litter, wood chips 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.
However, disposing of honey bucket waste (fecal matter) 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 tackle the challenge of liquid waste using the composting process. They simply evaporate the water in human waste, then convert the remaining solid human waste (and toilet paper) in the holding tank or composting chamber into dry material - compost/fertilizer, safely and without odour.
As with regular composting, the aerobic bacteria helps the composting process.
Benefits of Composting Toilets
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, wood chips, or kitty litter - similar to a bucket toilet.
A second benefit of composting toilets is that some models, like the Nature's Head Self Contained Composting Toilet with Spider Handle Design (one of our Amazon Top Picks) are especially good for tiny homes and tiny washrooms. In fact, any Nature's Head Composting Toilet model could be a good choice.
Waterless Composting Toilets
Another option is a waterless compost toilet, like the popular wall-mounted Separett Villa or the new Separett Tiny Waterless Urine Diverting Toilet with Urine Tube which diverts urine into a lower chamber for disposal.
What's the Best Composting Toilet?
So I get asked this question all the time, and I don't have a definitive answer. Nature's Head and Separett are good composting toilets. And Sun Mar Toilets are also good.
In fact, we installed the Sun Mar composting toilet at our other cabin in northern Ontario. There are also two rundown, ramshackle outhouses on that property. So a few more homestead projects for the big kids to tackle over the next few years.
Cons of Composting Toilets
Composting toilets can be expensive. And depending on the amount of usage and the climate, as they go through the composting process, they can be stinky too.
Composting toilets might not even be legal in your area.
According to an 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 and local laws 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.
Related: Off The Grid Washing Machines: 7 Options to Choose From
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. And we're a good 40-minute drive to the nearest sewer system (and on grid homes) in town.
Plus our house is built on bedrock with no basement. Yet we have regular indoor plumbing - that's right - off grid toilet option #2!!
Our indoor plumbing leads to an outdoor setup that's a little different from the regular city or suburban septic tank systems.
Our Sewage Tank
We have a large 1500 gallon sewage tank. It sits kind of off to the side and partially under our house. It's enclosed by a wooden box, and well-insulated against our biggest challenge, the -40C to -50C (that's -40 to -58 F) winter temperatures.
Three times a year, our local sewage-removal-guy navigates his huge pumper truck over from Dettah. He drives along the two-laned Ingraham Trail.
Next, he makes his way onto a private dirt trail for another five kilometres. Finally, he turns into our short lane, and he backs up to our sewage pipe.
And then he pumps out the waste tank. Not a job for the faint-hearted, or the queasy. He's there for us whenever we call, rain or shine (or snow or sleet).
The tank has held up for over 30 years and lasted through several different owners and families.
This past summer Dan and the boys (nephew Jerod, and our daughter Ashley's boyfriend Chris) insulated and framed it in to better protect it for the winter. We hope it lasts another 30 years!
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. And if you have questions, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm not an expert by any means. Yet I'm happy to share what little knowledge I've gleaned from our own experiences.
Fun fact: our sewage removal guy is a real sweetheart, and his name is Victor Crapeau. Seriously, look him up - Victor Crapeau from Akaitcho Trucking!
It took me quite a while to find exactly what I needed. My house has a basement in its lower parts, and I wasn't sure about it being a good spot for an eco toiled disposal unit. Eventually I found HomeBioGas' bio toilet kit... a perfect match AND 2 Years warranty. So easy
Thank you for your wealth of information.
I just moved back to Halifax after 4 years in wonderful Yellowknife.
I've heard of it, but don't know much about it. Feel free to email me at sarita at anoffgridlife.com with your information.
Have you heard of the Home Biogas system? Turns food waste and human waste into fuel for a gas stovetop. Looks interesting. Homebiogas.com
The best indoor toilet I ever used was a sawdust toilet. No smell, nothing ever went wrong plumbing-wise, and I dumped the bucket when it was 3/4 full on the dog manure pile. (I have 25 Alaskan huskies). There are plans to make one of these simple toilets in the The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins. http://www.humanurehandbook.com/contents.html You can make it as simple or as elegant as your carpentry skills allow. Either way it's pretty cheap and easy. I used sawdust as my cover material then switched to peat moss when the mill closed. I moved to a more northerly and remote cabin ten years ago that came with a Sunmar. It's malfunctioned twice and boyo, that's quite a production when the liquids stop draining out and you have to clean it out. I think I'm going to replace it with a sawdust toilet.
Thanks for the comment Deedee. I remember doing just what you're describing as a kid back in Ontario!
We have a small septic system underground. We do not have running water but are close to a brook so we haul buckets of water for flushing. It works the same as at home except you have to fill the tank for each flush.
Hi Sara - thank you for the comment and for sharing your experiences! Sounds like you're in a similar situation to us, learning about off grid living on the fly.:) We have several friends who either have honey buckets or outhouses, and sometimes I think that the simplicity of either could save a lot of time and headaches!
We have been semi off grid for almost 2 years and chose to go with the incinerator toilet (incinolet brand). They are a great company and very helpful. However this toilet requires much more maintenance then one would first think! It has to be cleaned a lot. You have to empty the ash pan daily if you have more then 2 people *we do*. If you don't your toilet will break. Leaving you with a big mess. Most likely on Christmas morning, when there is 4 feet of snow on the ground and you have to carry it outside to be cleaned. Have gloves on hand. It also needs to be taken apart and thoroughly cleaned inside the unit a few times a year. Or it will break. Ask me how I know these things. That being said, with proper maintenance it really shouldn't break (learning curve) and they sell all the parts and will ship out quickly 😉 its also pretty simple to repair.
We live in an off grid float cabin on a lake. Our lease from the government allows only a compost or incinerator toilet. We chose the compost version because of the ongoing cost of propane to run the unit. We purchased a commercial toilet from Sunmar and it has worked well for us for seven years because there are only two of us. With a large family or lots of friends a compost toilet can become overwhelmed with excessive urine. If it becomes too saturated composting action will cease. A fan in the exhaust pipe eliminates odour indoors. - Margy
Our regular plumbing system was already in place when we bought this house, and had worked well for the three families who lived in it prior to ours, so we just went with it. Also, in the summers when our family come to visit (we have five grown children plus two still at home) there can be as many as seven or eight people using the washrooms. We're a little uneasy at the thought of depending on a composting toilet only during this time. Finally, we generate enough compost from our kitchen to meet our gardening/fertilizer needs. That said, if we have to replace our current system in the future, we may consider composting toilets again.
Thanks for this post. I'm considering some different options after reading the amazing book Holy Shit by Gene Logsdon. I'm intrigued by the composting toilet, but we (especially my husband) have some reservations that it will smell. I'd love to hear more on how you decided to go with your current system rather than something that keeps the nutrients on site because that's the decision I'm trying to make right now. Thanks again.