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Real-life Humanure experience – Elizabeth’s Skoolie Home
Elizabeth and her family have been living in their Skoolie for over three years, first traveling and now stationary on their land in northern Vermont. During that time they’ve tried several different composting toilets, and are now using the DIY THRONE composting toilet for their family of four.
They’ve started their four-season Humanure journey last year and are learning as they go.
Tell us a bit about you!
We went off-grid when we began converting our school bus to travel in. We chose a composting toilet to avoid the dreaded black tank. After 3 years of traveling, we bought land and are now living a stationary, homestead-type lifestyle. We are working toward building a house and want to live with a lower impact on the environment, build soil health, and grow food.
We all know life isn’t always roses and unicorns. What where some obstacles with transitioning to off-grid life?
Ha! We are 2 toilets in at this point (about to be 3). The first required you to churn it with a crank (too difficult for kids to do) and had to be fully removed and upended to empty. Its solids tank filled about every 2 weeks (MAX) and the liquids tank overflowed multiple times and had to be emptied every 24-48 hours (family of 4). The second toilet didn’t require any churning and the solids bucket could go a little longer between emptying but the big improvement is that you just had to lift the bucket out, not the entire toilet. The liquids, we plumbed into a large tank under the bus that we would empty at RV dump stations every couple of months. Now that we are stationary I fill 5-gallon buckets to pee-cycle the liquids in our compost bin and garden. Both of these toilets had one other major issue: cleaning. The first had inaccessible places that the liquids regularly got into. The urine scale builds up and just looks nasty (plus smells nasty). We also toilet paper get jammed in there (kids) that we had to pick out with tweezers. Barf! Toilet 2 has a long narrow tube that drains the liquids to their tank. If not plumbed with a fast enough drop, we learned that scale will build up and have to be snaked from below. By far the grossest chore I’ve ever done.
What do you love about living off the grid? What do you like, and what did you come to enjoy even though you maybe didn’t expect it to?
I love the freedom! As much as repair and maintenance chores can be a hassle, not having to depend on others for certain services means we can decide what we spend money on. Now that we are living stationary, I’ve found that I bristle at any rule that tells me what I am and am not allowed to do on my own property. I definitely didn’t use to be like that! I’m not sure it’s a good thing but I do like that I now question what services I need to pay someone else to do versus the ones we can do ourselves if only we can work our way through the red tape.
Having a Humanure setup is still pretty unique. How did you learn about it, and which resources did you use to learn more?
Well, the toilet said it was “composting” so I wanted to understand how I could actually compost the contents to reduce waste. I learned that there wasn’t really a way to do that living on the road. There are no places you can take your toilet contents to be composted (at least not that I found). As we settled down onto our land I knew I would compost to reduce waste and return the nutrients to the soil from which we would grow food. I read the Humanure Handbook which I jokingly referred to as my bible (I’m pretty free with this title. I also have a bread cookbook that is my bible.) I just love the mental image I have of a nutrient cycle where the energy doesn’t flow in a line from fertilizer to food to my body to a septic tank where it dies, but instead, continues to feed microorganisms who in turn feed my soil and the food I grow in future years that provide me with food…. and so on.
Do you also recycle your pee, or do “just” have a Humanure pile?
Yes. I pee-cycle some of the pee into the garden but there is far too much pee to water my plants. I dilute it at least 5 parts water to one part pee so I don’t burn the plants and I just don’t water my garden that often but rely on rain mostly. The rest of the pee goes into the compost pile to keep it nice and wet (good for the little organisms living in there) and put those pee nutrients in a place where they can be used rather than go to waste.
What’s something you wish you’d known before starting your Humanure journey?
Maybe just encouragement to keep trying new things until you get it right. I’ve been doing it for about a year and my first compost bin didn’t get very hot. I don’t think I added enough carbon material to get the heat up. Because of this, it’s kinda gross and sludgy now and I need to take apart the bin, add a whole bunch of wood chips, turn it around with a pitchfork, and leave it for another year. I’ve been putting this off because when I dug into it and discovered that it was all sludgy, I also discovered its intense stink! I was adding hay to the top every time I “deposited” in it. But because we haven’t been using a cover material in the toilet, I think I really needed to add more carbon at the time of the deposit. With this year’s bin, I’ve added a ton more hay. The pile was getting a little warmer but not much. I started putting wood shavings from a local sawmill and after about a week I had that pile up to 120! I’m thinking that maybe hay just doesn’t really contribute that much carbon compared to wood. Still learning. I don’t have it all figured out but I’m excited to see some results from my changing methods.
Will you be continuing to use a Humanure?
Yes! Because why would I throw away all those good nutrients and then go out and buy compost for my garden?!
What would you tell people who are afraid of having a Humanure setup?
Enough cover material on your pile and no one will smell it. Trust me. Even though I messed up and mine got nasty inside, I didn’t even know it until I dug down because I had plenty of cover on top. And my favorite way the Humanure Handbook described how you can understand that you are not putting your poop on your garden: If you eat a piece of pie, what comes out the other end is no longer pie. It has been transformed into something else by digestion. The same goes for Humanure: the things you put into the pile are transformed into something else by digestion.