Episode 106

Can you use a composting toilet in a Campervan?


June 15th, 2021

9 mins 33 secs

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About this Episode

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A question we get a lot Vansage.com as well as one that I see all over the internet is, Can you use a composting toilet in a camper van?
Yes, but there are pros and cons, as follows:
• Using a composting toilet in a campervan requires a vent hose with an outlet through the floor or side wall
• An electric fan is required to vent the air from the composting toilet reservoir to the outside
• Composting toilets often need to be permanently mounted, not portable
• Composting toilets require a special medium that breaks down human waste
• You cannot put paper or other debris in the campervan composting toilet
Of course like so many things regarding van life and campervan design and build and outfitting, the answer is not cut and dried. It depends on your van and your lifestyle.
So we'll get into a few tips that will help you decide if you can use a composting toilet in a camper van. First of all, some of the advantages of a composting toilet that will help you decide if you can use one in your van.
Probably the biggest advantage is that you can go longer between emptying the reservoir.
So in that way, it's more like a “normal” RV or full-size RV toilet where they fill a black water tank over a long period of time, maybe a week or longer, and then they pull into a dump station and empty the tank all at once and they're done with it. They don't really have to think about it other than cleaning the head.
So that's nice to be able to go a bit longer. And one of the reasons you can do that is because the composting medium masks smell very well if you're handling it properly. We'll get into that in a second here. The medium. That is.
Then another advantage is that there's less environmental impact.
A lot of people are concerned with using a lot of plastic bags or nasty chemicals in a basic folding toilet or a portable cassette toilet. And so they like the idea of creating compost where basically what comes out is dirt, instead of this slurry of again, chemicals and human waste. So that's an advantage as well.
And then the fact that you have this toilet that is not too bad in terms of smell and requires less emptying. It means that you have kind of more normal access to a toilet in your van.
It's important to understand that a composting toilet requires some installation. So basically you can think of it kind of like an air conditioning unit, good air conditioning doesn't result from just putting a freestanding unit in your van and turning it on. You need ducting.
Well, it's the same with a composting toilet. It needs to be ducted.
It also needs a fan to be wired. So the way a composting toilet works is there'll be a fan that pulls air out of the reservoir and then pushes it out through a tube and that tube is connected to a hole that you've either cut in the floor or the side of the van.
There's both wiring and ducting to deal with in terms of installation, those aspects also limit the portability and location, obviously, of your composting toilet.
So you need to choose a spot in your campervan where the toilet will live more or less permanently.
And I say more or less because it is possible to install a composting toilet with some portability and you could even have it completely portable as long as you're willing to have a kind of extension cord and then to run your hose outside each time you use it or to have it where you can unplug the hose and stick it out through a window or a door or something like that.
But honestly, I think it's better to have the air hose permanently installed through a port in the outside of the van. Again, either through the floor or the side of the van so you're not having to worry about that.
And you can have the fan on at regular intervals so that the smell is just never an issue. Therefore, I would recommend that you choose a spot where if you do have to move the toilet, if it does need to be more portable for you, that it be only a few inches that you would move it out, such as on a set of sliders or where you'll drag it out from under a counter. So that's something to think about.
I've seen a variety of designs with regard to the encapsulation and storage of composting toilets and other toilets, such as cassette toilets. For example, you can put it inside of a bench cabinet.
I saw a great design where this lady had a bench built that held the composting toilet and you would lift up the foam bench top and then drop the front of the bench down, and then now you have a toilet and you can just use it and then you lift the face of the bench up and close the lid and nobody sees the toilet in your van and it was ducted so that nobody could smell it either.
So that's pretty cool and there are a lot of different ins and outs and possibilities with regard to storage and encapsulation of composting toilets in campervans.
A couple of the disadvantages with regard to composting toilets:
There's a learning curve regarding the medium. Now I'm not going to get into the medium, the kind of material you need to use as that is technical.
I'll just do another episode about that. Suffice it to say that there is a bit of a learning curve with regard to getting the ratios right, and learning how to clean it and how to keep the toilet clean after each use… So it's not as simple as the toilet that you would have in your house.
Another negative is that you can't put paper in the toilet. And this gets back to environmental impact. I suppose if you're, you're not concerned about that and you'd prefer to just use a chemical toilet, then you won't have to worry about the paper thing.
The paper can just go in the cassette or, or the container each time you use it. And then you take that and you'd dump it. End of story.
But with a composting toilet, the paper needs to be contained separately. Now I've seen that in the extreme in Southeast Asia where the plumbing is just not made for the Western concept of toilet paper they use what is often referred to as a “bum gun”, which is just a spray nozzle then, and you clean yourself with water instead of paper, in many ways, that's a better way to go. But unfortunately we have very little of that here, and that would be a very difficult thing to do in a campervan.
But getting back to the toilet paper issue, a disadvantage of composting toilets is that the paper has to be separate from the other, natural waste.
Those are the disadvantages, just needing to kind of understand how the chemistry works and needing to spray and clean the toilet well after each use and then, no paper or other stuff in the toilet.
Another disadvantage is that the urine and solid waste needs to be separated. Now the better composting toilets do that sort of automatically. And again, I'm not going to get into the details of that in this episode.
So the question: can you use a composting toilet in the camper van? And the answer is yes, with caveats and understanding.
Thanks for listening.