By GLENN GARNETT
The late humourist Erma Bombeck once said the grass was always greener over the septic tank. But for many cottagers with aging septic systems - especially those living downwind - there doesnít appear to be a bright side.
If thatís your problem - or if the romance of visiting the outhouse behind your cottage has died - composting toilets offer an ecologically and economically sound solution.
Mother Nature has been in the waste composting business for billions of years, decomposing critter dropping on forest floors and converting them into nutrients used by plantlife. Modern composting toilets provide a enclosed environment for this natural process called aerobic decomposition. Because over 90% of toilet waste is water content, this can be evaporated through a venting system while microbes go to work on the rest.
During the Ď60s, Swedish inventor Hardy Sundberg developed a number of cottage waste systems, including the unforgettable incinerating toilet, which may have been delightful on chilly mornings but wasnít so hot from an environmental point of view. In 1971, he invented the first self-contained composting toilet which went on to international acclaim and the creation of Sun-Mar Corporation, today a world-leader in cottage toilet systems.
Sun-Marís Dan Lampkin says composting toilets are a timely solution for a continent filled with aging cottage properties.
"What our systems enable cottagers to do is put in sort of a quick-fix and a permanent fix at the same time," he says. "What it does is composts solid waste, evaporates off the liquids and vents everything outside so there isnít an odour issue."
A septic system, an outhouse or even a sewer system uses anaerobic composting, which means that the bacteria is at work without oxygen, underwater in most cases. Underwater composting happens very slowly and with septic systems, thereís also the issue of environmental impact.
"With our system weíre dealing with a small space, so we are promoting aerobic composting, adding oxygen by turning a drum, and separating the liquids from the solids," Lampkin explains. "This process of composting is ten-times faster. Human waste also breaks down faster than a kitchen composter, for example."
With composting toilets, waste is mixed into peat bulking material and some top soil while excess moisture is allowed to evaporate. An interior drum is turned at regular intervals, mixing in oxygen and ensuring an odourless breakdown of the compost. Toilet paper requires no special treatment.
"Itís very low maintenance and takes about a minute a week to look after," Lampkin says. "All youíre doing is adding a little bit of peat moss each week, and rotating the drum so you can oxygenate the compost."
Lampkin adds that a lot of people feel they have to empty the system often, as you would have to do with a Portapotty. But you only have to take out finished compost once or twice per season and when you do, youíre not dealing with a raw product - itís a processed compost, finished topsoil which you could spread in the garden.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the composting toilet is the volume of compost created by it. You might assume your family would create tons of volume to deal with every summer.
"In fact, a family of four using a cottage every weekend from May until October, as well as two or three weeks during the summer on a full-time basis, take out the equivalent of about a bushel-full of finished compost," Lampkin says. "If you picked it up in the garden, you would not know it was derived from human waste."
While Sun-Mar has specialized in chemical toilets for 34 years, this year theyíve introduced their first kitchen composter to look after food waste, which can be a headache for cottagers far from the nearest dump. It can be located in a garage, basement or wherever itís convenient to put it. Itís about the size of a small dishwasher and while it can be mounted in the kitchen, most are placing the units in garages, laundry rooms or other storage areas.
Perhaps the toughest thing about composting toilet systems is choosing the right one for your particular needs. Sun-Mar alone makes about 25 different systems designed to accommodate varying degrees of traffic. Some systems are electric and some are not, with the non-electric systems vented differently.
As far as installation goes, there are one-piece systems that are self-contained, or you may wish to invest in central composting systems with a flush toilet in the bathroom and a composter in the basement or beside the cottage. Theyíre fairly easy to install but you cannot use existing toilets.
"We use the Sealand brand toilet, which is a high-end RV toilet and uses a pint of liquid for each flush," Lampkin says. "Weíve found that effective because the aim is to evaporate the liquids once it does get down to the composter, with the liquids stored in a portion of the composter tank where they can evaporate."
Lampkin says the central systems are very popular because the business end of the operation, well, looks like a toilet.
"A family will get used to a self-contained system but frankly it does look kind of odd and you may have to get up on a step to use it," Lampkin says. "But when you have visitors, they may get a little squeamish about it. The central systems are best for space and conventional appearance."
The basic system starts at about $1,100, which is a one-piece, non-electric system. The two-piece electrical system, at the other end of the scale, is just over $1,600. Everything in between depends on your personal aesthetics, budget and size preference.
"Itís a do-it-yourself installation - you shouldnít need a plumber or an electrician," Lampkin adds. "It plugs in and itís a matter or installing a vent pipe which is included with the system."
If youíre like me and approach projects like this with a hammer, you may want to get a local handyman - itís about a two to three-hour installation for just about anyone. Sun-Mar composting toilets also warranteed for 25 years, giving you plenty of time to meditate on this green solution to cottage waste.
For more information on Sun-Marís composting toilets, check out their website at www.sun-mar.com or call 905-332-1314.