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THE REALIST IDEALIST

Taking the plunge with a composting toilet

After grappling with the gross factor, the system itself turns out to be fairly unobtrusive. And with water rationing possibly ahead, now's the time for a backup plan.

By SUSAN CARPENTER

February 28, 2009

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Inspiration comes in many forms. For me, it was my toilet backing up into my bathtub -- a situation that was not only disgusting but potentially expensive to fix.

My usual response was to whip out the plunger and go to town, resorting to a plumber if that failed. Well, that failed -- and so did the balance in my checking account. The last time I'd called a plumber, it had cost me $110. At Christmastime, when my toilet decided to fail again, I didn't want to tap my emergency savings.

So I tapped my inner resolve instead. I eventually cleared the clog myself, then I built an emergency toilet.

I'd been meaning to install a waterless (a.k.a. composting) toilet for months. I just hadn't been able to pull the trigger because of the social stigma. What would people think? Where would I put it? What if it reeked?

I'm single, dating and a mom. Much as I liked the idea of saving water and detouring sewage, I couldn't replace the one toilet I had with something so. . . .Berkeley.

Although composting toilets look better than one would expect considering what's going on under the lid, the more hands-off models that divert waste to a holding tank under or outside the house still use water and require electricity (to churn excrement into gardener's gold). Composting toilets are also expensive. Even ready-made (or "self-contained") units with a holding compartment right under the seat begin at $1,400. That's at least 10 times more than the cost of regular low-flow toilets (which use 1.6 gallons of water per flush).

I already have a low-flow model. What I wanted was a low-cost backup. What I didn't want was some kind of mountain man rig -- a bucket with a toilet seat or an outhouse. I needed to see how one worked.

Composting toilets are not difficult to find. Considering how far from prime time they are for most Americans, a surprising number of manufacturers sell them to the public online. Home Depot even offers them on its website.

It was finding an installed composting toilet that was the problem. Months ago, I'd approached a customer service representative for Envirolet manufacturer Sancor to see if she could refer me to an L.A.-area customer. My request was denied due to "privacy concerns" -- an indication of how taboo these devices are.

Eventually, I found two people in California with functioning composting toilets inside their homes. Both were built by hand. Only one person was willing to let me see (and use) it, and she was, predictably, in the Bay Area.

When I checked it out, I was pleasantly surprised. It didn't smell. It did, however, look different. The toilet was built into a tiled pedestal topped with a traditional seat and lid. Next to it was a bucket of a wood dust "bulking agent" that's thrown down the hole after every use to absorb moisture, reduce odor and aid in decomposition.

Just under the seat is something called a Separett, a device that sends urine through one hole and feces down another. Each lands in lidded, 5-gallon containers, which are vented to the outside and accessed through a small door on the side of the house. When the receptacles fill up, they're emptied. Nitrogen-rich urine is diluted with water and fed to plants; feces is left to mellow for a year, at which point it has decomposed enough to ameliorate health concerns and can be used for amending soil.

Disgusted? I certainly understand. One of my main arguments against installing a composting toilet was that it was so hands-on. Did I really want to be mucking around with my own body waste?

Uh, no. But that's a bogus defense. We, as socialized, acculturated humans, are already mucking around with it every time we sit down on that molded slab of porcelain. We just don't like to admit it -- or think about it once we flush. Parents or pet owners deal with doo-doo all the time, but there's something about handling our own waste that's way more revolting.

Even so, I decided to give it a go. Sort of. I found a Separett online and bought it for $127. But I wasn't ready to follow through. It sat in my closet for months.

Then my toilet clogged in December. I could have busted my budget with a plumber or embraced my inner survivalist. I did bust my budget -- on a pair of plastic buckets and a wooden storage bench that I bought for $142 from OSH, purchases I rationalized as Obama-esque investments in infrastructure.

Because I only have one bathroom and it already had a toilet, I planned to put my backup toilet in my bedroom. That meant it needed to look like furniture but could be moved outside if needed. The chief environmental health specialist for the L.A. County Department of Public Health couldn't tell me if composting toilets were even legal, so I also wanted to make sure my system could be easily disassembled.

Following advice from the Separett manual and a book that is something of a composting toilet bible, "The Humanure Handbook," I affixed the Separett into the supporting sides of the bench, just beneath its hinged lid. I set up the collection buckets. Then I repurposed my runaway hamsters' pine bedding into the necessary "bulking agent" and waited for nature's call.

That was early December. The following day, I used it twice -- both times for the more frequent and less offensive of the two excretory acts. That's as far as my experiment went.

For the next two months, the contents of my "catchment basin" sat in the bench -- untouched, unemptied. I had a few parties, during which some guests sat for stretches of time, entirely unbeknownst to them, on my composting toilet.

My homemade commode probably would have remained idle until the next time my toilet clogged, but then California's drought led to speculation that water rationing may become necessary. Did I really want to be flushing away all that water? My son and I were sending about 30 gallons of water every day into L.A.'s sewers. In a month, that added up to 900 gallons. In a year, almost 11,000 gallons.

The numbers were kind of sickening. Then again, so was the thought of touching what I'd put in the bucket, until I remembered one of my mother's favorite sayings whenever I protested cleaning the bathroom: Hands wash. If my worst-case scenario came true and I accidentally sloshed myself, the solution wasn't to run away screaming in disgust but to remember the ideals that had prompted me to embark upon this project.

After two months, I finally lifted the lid on my composting toilet. Without incident, I emptied my bucket into the mulch around my lemon tree after diluting it with rainwater.

I've been doing the same thing every day now for about two weeks. I still feel weird about it, but I'm betting that feeling will go away as we head in to a long, dry summer.

Carpenter's past columns on green home improvement and sustainable living are archived at latimes.com/realist.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com