Yes, we have a bathroom. No, it’s not an outhouse. And yes, it has a toilet AND a shower.
These are questions that we get asked all the time, so in an effort to quell some of the rampant curiosity, I decided to write a blog post about it.
Our house, like so many others in the great state of Alaska, lacks indoor plumbing (homes like this are called dry cabins). This feature is common in cold, Northern climates where pipes are prone to freezing, and is also a great way to simplify your build while saving money in the process. Living in a dry cabin typically means hauling your water, using an outhouse, and seeking showers elsewhere (like at the gym or laundromat). And this is where our house differs from most dry cabins; we designed it to have an indoor bathroom, complete with a toilet and a shower.
Instead of an exterior outhouse, we have a composting toilet. And before I go any further, let me answer the question on everyone’s mind by saying that no, it does not smell. Not even a little bit. And it’s really not that different than a typical flush toilet; you just add a scoop of sawdust after doing your business instead of flushing. There are lots of fancy (expensive) models of composting toilets out there, but we made ours ourselves for less than $30 and it honestly works better than those fancy models anyways. To put it in the simplest terms, our toilet is a 5 gallon bucket inside of a plywood box with a toilet seat on top.
The beauty of our composting toilet is its simplicity. Though some composting toilet users have “urine diverters”, we both pee and poop in ours, and since toilet paper is biodegradable, we throw that in there too. We empty the bucket as needed (usually about once a week) into our outdoor compost pile (which doesn’t smell and looks like nothing more than a pile of sawdust) where it gets broken down via microbial processes. The key to reducing/eliminating odors is maintaining the proper balance of carbon and nitrogen in the pile (called the C:N ratio). This is a bit of an over-simplification, but suffice it to say that human waste is extremely high in nitrogen, and the microbes that break down the waste don’t like to eat concentrated nitrogen, so it has to be “cut” with materials that have a high carbon content such as sawdust. If your toilet or compost pile is developing an odor, chances are that adding more carbon-containing material will fix the problem.
Before I geek out too much on the intricacies of the composting process, I should say that everything that you ever need to know about composting toilets can be found in one of my favorite books ever: The Humanure Handbok, by Joseph Jenkins. This book is a fantastic resource and guide and can be found as a free PDF here! If you are considering installing your own composting toilet, this is a must-read and great first step. Let’s be honest: not only is a composting toilet super cool, it’s also a great way to save water (clean drinking water, I might add!) and increase nutrient cycling. Plus, you don’t need to leave the comfort of your house to use it. Who needs an outhouse or a flush toilet!
The second feature of our bathroom is our shower. Currently, it is incredibly simple (it’s the same shower that we described in a previous post), though we have plans for making it a little nicer and more permanent in the future.
We heat up our shower water on the wood stove, then we use a submersible camp shower pump (this is the one we have) to pipe the water through the shower head. Since we don’t have plumbing, the water is funneled down the shower curtain (which is strung around a hula hoop suspended from the ceiling) and collects in the shower basin (a wide 20 gallon bucket). We then take the basin bucket outside and dump the shower water into our grey water pit after we’re done showering. Because we are recycling our water in this way, we make sure to use biodegradable shampoo and soap, and I use a 50/50 mix of water and white vinegar as conditioner (seriously, it makes your hair super shiny and soft and doesn’t even smell like vinegar once your hair has dried). We both can take a pretty nice shower from 4 gallons of water (navy shower style, of course!) and the submersible pump can be recharged with a cell phone charger.
We are both extremely happy with our decision to put a bathroom in our dry cabin, and we can’t say enough about how much we love our composting toilet and the fact that we can shower at home. We would definitely recommend that other off-gridders and dry cabin dwellers do the same!