Not just for camping
New pilot study looks at long-term feasibility of composting toilets, gray-water systems
If things go the way Sarah Salisbury would like them to, it won’t be too long until residences throughout Butte County have water-saving composting toilets and gray-water systems. But first, she’d like to see them pass, with flying colors, a smaller-scale challenge being set locally for these innovative, water-saving sanitation features.
Salisbury is part of a three-person team that is promoting a pilot study—called Composting Toilets and Graywater Systems for Camping—being conducted by the environmental-health division of the Butte County Public Health Department. Her two partners are Amanda Pyle, a friend and fellow Concow property owner, and Butte County Public Health’s Environmental Health Director Brad Banner, who is overseeing the project.
The pilot study, which so far has only one participant—Chaffin Family Orchards in Oroville—is seeking rural property owners “who want to use their land for long-term camping and are interested in alternative sanitation,” as a recent press release described it (see column note for info). Chaffin’s new Feather Down campsite, which offers farm-stay vacations, features four well-appointed tents equipped with composting toilets and a gray-water system that distributes used kitchen and bathroom water into an outdoor “mulch basin,” from where it percolates into the ground.
“This pilot project will give Butte County Environmental Health the information needed to assess whether, in certain specific situations, ‘non-discharging’ toilets and simple gray-water systems will protect public health and result in user satisfaction,” the press release continued.
Outside of the study, composting toilets are illegal in Butte County, except for certain non-residential and non-commercial uses, “such as agricultural storage buildings and primitive-type picnic grounds, campsites, and recreation areas where on-site wastewater systems are not feasible,” according to item C-10 in section 19-7 of the Butte County Public Health Department’s Environmental Health Division’s On-Site Wastewater Ordinance.
“Here’s what it means for my neighbor in Concow: It means that while he builds a permanent structure to be on-site, he will be living in a trailer—a camping trailer, a fifth wheel, a school bus or whatever,” explained Salisbury. “He can live on-site, and he can take care of sanitation this way—with a composting toilet. Or maybe you’re working and saving for retirement, and you own property but you’re not ready to invest in a septic system at this time …”
Installation of septic systems can range from roughly several thousand dollars to $15,000 and higher. On the other hand, a decent composting toilet can run from less than $1,000 to around $2,500. Costs for installing a gray-water system range from $500 to $2,000, according to Brian Ladwig-Cooper, co-owner of local permaculture landscape company Gaia Creations, and the person in charge of installing the gray-water systems for pilot-study participants. Gray-water systems installed for study participants—unlike other gray-water systems in Butte County—are allowed to process kitchen-sink wastewater, in addition to the usual bathroom (shower, bathtub, sink) and washing-machine run-off.
Under the study’s terms, the toilets and gray-water systems may also be installed in an outbuilding, such as a workshop or shed, that exists on rural property.
In addition to paying for installation and all components, participants in the three-year study are required to purchase a permit that costs $265. If the study proves to be a success, as determined by the public-health department, participants will be allowed to keep their composting toilets and all-encompassing gray-water systems.
For the unfamiliar, a composting toilet works as the name implies. It “recycle[s] human excrement safely by containing it while microorganisms turn it to humus,” according to Chris McClellan, education director of the Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit Natural Building Network, writing in Mother Earth News. Composting toilets—many of which are indistinguishable in appearance from conventional toilets—also use very little or no water.
“By comparison,” McClellan wrote, “a ‘normal’ toilet adds up to five gallons of pure drinking water to an ounce or so of waste so it can be flushed into an expensive septic or sewer system, where it is treated. The American Water Works Association Research Foundation finds that over 30 percent of household water use is just for flushing toilets.”
Among the increasing number of critics of potable-water-wasting flush toilets is Robert Glennon, whom Chicoans will remember as the author of last year’s local Book in Common, Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It. In an interview with the CN&R (see “America’s water woes,” Oct. 4, 2012), Glennon said that he would like to see the creation of “a national commission to look at the problem and figure out different ways to get rid of human waste,” such as via waterless urinals and incinerating toilets.
Incidentally, Glennon’s home state of Arizona, as well as the parched country of Australia, are notably ahead of the curve as far the widespread use of water-conserving gray-water systems.
“So far, it’s worked pretty well,” said Kelsey Maben, manager of the Feather Down campsite area at Chaffin Family Orchards, of the attractive, easy-to-install Sun-Mar composting toilets and gray-water system that were installed in April.
“It’s been interesting introducing a lot of the public to [composting toilets],” she said. “Every now and then, some people get daunted because it’s something they’ve never seen before.”
But, Maben insists, “they are simple to use” and do not smell, contrary to what some might imagine, thanks to the toilets’ solar-powered fans that both prevent odors and facilitate the composting process.
For her part, Maben is hoping that the three-year study works out well, so that the gray-water system and toilets can remain in place.
Composting toilets are “non-electric, non-water—they are more eco-friendly [than conventional toilets],” Maben said. “Since [the campsite] is not a permanent residence, it’s a cheaper and better solution for the tents than shelling out for a whole septic system. That would be hard to justify when people aren’t there all the time.”