Saturday, April 26, 2008

Warning!! Bathroom humor

The final installation of the composting toilet system, a Pigpen-Redbeard joint venture, was marked by much yukking it up betweenst these forty- and fifty- somethings going on eleven- somethings. I wish I could remember the repartee, which seemed pretty funny at the time. Oh well, a lot of it was unprintable anyway. Montalban the carpenter, urbane sophisticate that he is, maintained his dignity throughout.

As I've mentioned before, composting is kind of a slow process, therefore there is a lot of "it" in-process at any given time, which requires a bin about the size of Magic Johnson's jacuzzi. But in this cottage, as in 99.999999% of U.S. homes, the bathroom is not designed to accommodate such a bin. The scheme Pigpen came up with was to put the bin in the attached greenhouse, and to put an upflush toilet in the bathroom, and pump the stuff up and over to the bin.  Let's tour:

Raised platform and drain pipe for toilet.

The completed bathroom setup.  The toilet is a Sealand 510 plus.
The macerator pump is in the utility room on the other side of the wall.  It sits in a homemade "just-in-case" tub of welded plastic.

The pump is a Saniplus.  Pigpen fondly calls it the "Dairy Queen machine". Some of you will get this right away but for my interplanetary readers I should explain: Dairy Queen is the only fast-food restaurant in town. They have a machine which exudes an ice-cream-like food substance, typically coiled into serving cups, where, if you had that kind of a mind, you might say it resembles fecal matter except that it is smoother in texture, delicious to humans as well as dogs, and the peanuts are added afterward instead of beforehand. Fortunately we don't have that kind of mind; we love the Dairy Queen and would never make fun of them.

The pump needs to be vented to the outside.  Here's the guys drilling a hole through the 3-foot thick straw bale wall.  They used a metal pipe with teeth filed onto one end.

Here's the completed utility room work.  The discharge line runs up the left.  It's translucent PEX tubing.  I can't decide whether to backlight it or wrap it with bunting.
April 24 was the inaugural flush.  We fed it water, then toilet paper, then a pear.  Pigpen declared operational readiness.

The compost bin is a Phoenix, out of Whitefish, Montana.  We have high hopes for it.  Pigpen says, "I've killed several composting toilets.  It looks like they've learned all the lessons in this design."  

The Phoenix is normally intended for use with a waterless toilet (direct deposit) or a vacuum-flush toilet.  The macerator combo we are using tends to use more water, and on installation day we soaked the pile with test flushes.  In the first 24 hours I probably flushed six or seven times more, not particularly paying any attention, and filled up the overflow catchbasin.  Since then I've found I can use a lot less water if I'm quick on the flush pedal, and the problem has not recurred.  That is good, because it turns out the floor drains in the greenhouse don't go anywhere.  One at a time these fascinating factoids come to light.

For so-called bulking material we used locally available coarse sawdust (half-rotted).  We filled the lower half of the bin, and threw in some finished compost to inoculate it.  The composting microbes need the right balance of carbonaceous and nitrogenous organic matter in order to do their jobs (live, eat, be fruitful and multiply.)  Pee and poo are too high in nitrogen, sawdust is a high-carbon material.  

The bin is vented with a 5W muffin fan.  So far there is no odor.  The fan needs to run anyway so that the microbes in the pile can breathe.  I threw a bucket of kitchen compost in there yesterday.  

At this point your Correspondent feels compelled to touch again upon the subject of Why Anyone Would Bother With A Composting Toilet. In a word, food. Here on the Hunt Utilities Group campus we are no longer willing to rely entirely on the grocery store, and the industrialized agriculture that supplies it, which is quite dependent on artificial fertilizer made from natural gas, as I explained in a previous post. We want to be able to grow at least some of our own food. Trouble is, our soil is pretty much no good. Any of you living in a suburban development built in the last forty? sixty? years are probably in the same boat - about that time developers took to scraping off most of the topsoil and selling it, leaving only a couple of inches. Therefore, we could use some fertilizer, and we don't want it to come from fossil fuel.  Under the current system, even crucial mineral nutrients that could be recycled are being treated like fossil resources.  Google "peak phosphorous", if you will.

The good news is, the makings of pretty good fertilizer come out of your butt. And uh, whizzer. The bad news is, it "needs some work." When fresh "it" is nummy food for various Microbes, most of which are Good, but some of which are Bad, that is, disease-causing. To fix this problem, it must be fed to Good, Air-Breathing Microbes until there is nothing left in it that any pathogenic microbe might want, then it is (almost) safe and ready for fertilizing plants. Municipal sewage treatment, septic systems, and composting all involve this reduction of "it" by Good Microbes. Only composting keeps the plant nutrients close at hand, in accordance with the permaculture principle of "catch and store". Consult actual experts for details, your Correspondent is an electrical engineer and has only glanced at the jacket notes on the Cartoon History of Biological Oxygen Demand For Dummies Kids.

According to Pigpen, the compost needs to "finish" by sitting outside a couple of months.  (The design of the Phoenix is such that the solid material, mostly the bulking, is stratified but the "liquid" recirculates to keep the pile from drying out.)  Most authorities caution against using it directly on annual food plants, but okay for orchards and cover crops or mulch crops.  

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