Well, Readers, it’s been a while since I’ve posted about the topic I’m sure you’re all dying to know more about: the composting toilet. As the saying goes, that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. And we’re still here.
If you compost your garden waste or kitchen vegetable scraps, you probably already know that composting is one part science, one part intuition, and one part luck. If you’re dealing with human waste, well, it’s also one part hell. OK, make that four parts.
We were off to a pretty good start this winter. With temperatures regularly below zero, there was no smell. No issues. Mostly because there was no composting taking place and we weren’t here full time yet. Chris and I had agreed from the beginning that he’d “water the lawn” during bitterly frigid temperatures, while I could enjoy the luxury of indoor plumbing, which out here is exactly what a composting toilet amounts to. This arrangement would prevent us from having to install the emergency drain, which would require all sorts of pea gravel and mounding and digging. Since the yurt and deck are already established just a few inches aboveground, it’s obviously sort of too late for all that. So we bagged the idea.
Then, little by little, we began to get the idea that our ingenious little contraption wasn’t going to quite live up to our expectations. Number one was the issue of the fan. We’ve come all the way out here to Glacier National Park to enjoy wild and natural sounds, not a perpetual drone from a few feet away—all day, every day, nonstop. It’s been said that living in such a remote, quiet place can make a person a little nutty. Well, try adding the sound of whirrrrr to your existential moments of reflection and relaxation.
Our solution was simple: periodically unplug the toilet (and hence the fan, because the two cannot be operated separately). That approach worked nicely because of the other unexpected problem: the built-in heater in the evaporation chamber. This heating element actually burns more solar energy than we can produce in a day, even a sunny one. So it turns out, much to our chagrin, that the toilet is not sustainable with our limited solar system. The issue is not the battery power but the panels. We don’t have enough.
But that’s OK, we thought. It’s a composting toilet. It should just compost, whether the fan or heater is on, now that we’re headed into summertime and favorable temperatures (70 and above). The stuff should sit there and break down and we’ll add the microbes and rotate the “patented bio-drum” every few days and that’ll be that. How difficult can it be, really? I’ve done plenty of composting in urban and home gardens and even taught others how to do it too (an absolutely laughable thought at this point).
With the nights still bringing hardy frosts (another nightmare for another post … as the garden has been struggling for its life), and the days bringing rain, highs in the lower 50s, and dark cloud cover, the solar system hasn’t exactly been packing away amp hours. Plus we’ve also had to rely on the woodstove quite a bit for heat, which is what caused issue number three to rear its head.
With no fresh-air intake vents on either the toilet or the woodstove, we have inside this well-sealed yurt a virtual vacuum, the by-product being one of the foulest smells on earth. Rising up from the depths of the SunMar Excel demon beast and plowing straight across the living and dining area, this vile cloud of putridity whirls around and then slips right up the stovepipe and out into the open air (what must the deer and elk think?).
Right en route of this fiendish waft is my knitting/reading chair, where I’m supposed to be cozy with the cats, enjoying my romantic adventure with the man of my dreams in the Land of Milk and Honey. Instead I’ve found myself, through any means necessary, trying to get through the evening without revisiting my dinner via regurgitation, which, needless to say, would not be happening with my head down this loo. Such has been the situation for the past week or more.
In light of all the aforementioned circumstances, Chris and I decided a few days ago to make the most of a sunny morning and take a hike. We were going to explore Cyclone Lookout (USDA Forest Service Trail 40), the very remote location of a 50-foot fire watch tower, where a female college student lives full time during the summer months, watching vigilantly for blazes started by lightning and/or human folly.
Because the hike is a three-mile uphill trek, Chris took the time to prepare a day pack with snacks, water, champagne, and rain gear. As he retrieved something from the bottom shelf of the kitchen, he noticed a few ants on the floor. He said so, and I moved in quickly with a broom and dustpan and set about ridding our kitchen of these infiltrators, whom I suspected were out on reconnaissance. (The way I see it, they send out one or two “soldiers” to check things out, then they report back with the good news that there are crumbs everywhere. Invade!) So I decided to do a really thorough job and sweep the whole yurt. Including the bathroom.
“Uhh ohh,” I said with a heavy sigh.
“What?” Chris asked, trying gingerly to fit plastic champagne flutes into an overstuffed backpack.
“We have a problem, Houston. A bad one.”
“F—-,” Chris groaned when he walked up behind me and saw the putrid brown slime puddled around the base of the toilet.
“That’s not what I think it is, is it?”
“Yep, ’fraid so.”
We stood there for a minute, letting it sink in what we were about to deal with. Then Chris said, “Well, we’re all packed up and can continue about our day and have a nice hike, or we can deal with this.”
“Are you kidding me? Do you know what we’re dealing with? Who knows what kind of situation this is going to turn into. This is an all-day thing and we have more severe weather on the way soon. We have to deal with this now.” I was beside myself with disgust and despair … and, frankly, fear. Toxic only begins to describe what deadly bacteria lie in wait.
Cursing everything known to man, Chris changed into the dirtiest work clothes he could find then uncorked the fine French bubbly from the daypack. “Here’s to yurt living,” he said as he raised his plastic wine glass.
A cursory inspection of the “f-ing toilet from hell,” as Chris affectionately calls it, revealed right away that we should have installed that emergency drain right from the get-go. It was also obvious that before Chris could drill a hole to attach a hose to the said drain we were going to have to bail the positively brimming evaporation chamber. I got out pails, latex gloves, and red Solo cups. Then I fetched our cloth sunset-striped dinner napkins.
“Here, tie this around your mouth and nose, and whatever you do, breathe through your mouth!,” I said from under my Zapatista-style kerchief. Because there might be young children reading or listening to this post, I can’t finish the rest of the dialogue. Suffice it to say that it went like this: curse word, sigh, grunt, bail; curse word, gag, sigh, bail; grunt, curse word, curse word, curse word … gag. And that’s pretty much how the afternoon went.
At the end of the day, we dumped just about everything that we had touched or even looked at into a giant cesspit that Chris had dug far away in the bushy part of the meadow. With a sense of finality, we covered it all up and headed back to Whitefish in the Expedition, so uncomfortable in our own skin that we could hardly move. After long hot showers and detoxification, we treated ourselves to takeout pizza and an episode of Madmen, grateful for such a luxury.
Early the next morning we returned to the yurt, where the nightmare is not yet over. Although we have installed a DC adapter kit with a four-inch vent and solar panel for a fan, potentially solving the smell, ventilation, and evaporation issues, we are still stuck with an incessant whirring.
Then there’s also the new problem of the biodrum malfunctioning. Somehow during the DC kit installation it shifted, meaning it no longer lines up properly to receive “deliveries.” So Chris will now have to take the tank apart, all over again; curse every living thing, all over again; and probably go for years of therapy to undo the effects of all this toilet trauma.
As he has wisely said, “We spend a whole lot a time out here doing things in vain.”