If you're thinking about moving your family off the grid, researching off grid toilets should be high on your list. Here's what to know.
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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.
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 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 winter.
Whether you're considering a flush toilet, compost toilet, dry toilets, 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.
Research Your Options
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?
How long do you plan to use this toilet?
An outhouse with a hand-dug pit or even a simple bucket with a plastic bag liner is cheap and accessible in the short-term. Yet your family may not feel comfortable using 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 surprise you, 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?"
Then 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.
Get tips and free off-grid outhouse plans - you'll find many 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 took the warm seat with them when they made an outhouse trip in the cold weather. Kind of brilliant.
2. Regular Plumbing System to a Tank or Septic System
In this scenario, you'd have a regular toilet and plumbing pipes leading 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 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.)
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 because each was lined with a black plastic bag.
Even today, several families living 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 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 straightforward (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 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 to tackle over the next few years.
Cons of Composting Toilets
Composting toilets can be expensive. 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.
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.
A few summers ago, 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!