What About a Composting Toilet?

rural cabin

Off the grid in my mind’s eye.

Last week I ran into a colleague on the ferry and we spent the half an hour trip talking about how he has gone OFF THE GRID. Yes, that’s right. Armageddon could hit tomorrow and he and his wife would still have power and water. It would not even put a blip in their day because they’re not plugged into the system.

So many questions ran to the forefront of my brain that it jammed and I just stared at him in shock. “So, you’re a survivalist?” I managed to ask.  No, he and his wife had found an island where they wanted to live and it didn’t have any utilities, so he “did some research” and learned how to:

  • Capture water from their metal roof, store it under their house in huge barrels filtering it down to a micron it so that it’s potable (removing any giardia). He also had to secure water rights. (I didn’t realize but people aren’t allowed to collect rainwater and use it. I guess we can’t be trusted to not poison ourselves.)
  • Convert all AC power to DC because it takes fewer AMP’s to run electronics.
  • Store electricity from their solar panels in a battery bank.
  • Install a composting toilet in their house – yes, like the ones you see in parks. Human waste, woodchips, repeat – no toilet bowl cleaner needed. They selected a Clivus Multrum. I think they went with the trailhead version.
  • Install LED lights throughout their entire house.
  • Reduce their laundry power usage to 9 AMPs per load. (They line-dry their clothes, of course.)
  • Reduce their refrigerator power usage.
  • Reduce their total ANNUAL power usage to 250 kwh – amazing.
  • Still live comfortably, running as many lights and computers as they want.

My friend, who asked to remain nameless, said he’d never go back to a regular toilet again. I was taken aback but tried to remain low-carbon-girl cool. “Really? “I don’t like that our toilets use potable water, but what if we could do what Australia does and run two lines?” I asked. “One potable for sinks/showers and one for gray water for toilets.” No, apparently, low-use composting toilets don’t smell and require only yearly maintenance.* Hmmm!

Here’s the rub. Americans like things easy.**  Quite a few of us make buckets of money and we’re ready to spend it. We are like dieters who think we can eat diet cake and loose weight (tip: don’t eat cake). We want clean air and water but we still want to use all the fun stuff we created. OK, I get that. So, here are two easy tips from my friend:

  1. Buy an LG washer without the preheat element. Sounds so simple. And, it is. Most of us run cold-water washes these days (detergents are doing a better job of cleaning with cold water) anyway, but apparently, even if you don’t use warm/hot water the preheat element uses power. So, there you go – get your laundry down to 9amps a load. And, then, if possible, line-dry your clothes. Second part is a little harder, but I thought I’d throw it out there in case you were feeling ambitious.
  2. Buy a German Steca refrigerator.  As you probably know, cold air sinks, so it takes less energy to power a refrigerator with a lid versus the French-door type we’ve gotten used to with all of the brightly-lit shelves. They don’t take up much space either.

Refrigerators and washer/driers are the biggest energy consumers in our homes, followed quickly by large flat-screen TVs. When looking to buy your next appliance, look for an Energy Star rating at the very least.

* There is even an office building in Seattle that uses composting toilets and has a net-zero footprint – The Bullitt Center. Their energy and water bills are zero – image that!   Solar panels generate all the electricity they need – in Seattle no less!

** How could one person’s actions have any impact on the environment at all?  Some people might be confused by their role in climate change.   If you’d like to help people who seem confused, or are put off by seriousness of climate change, then consider backing a cartoon book on climate change – we need to keep this fun!

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