Your first concern when you go off the grid is likely to be getting food and water, but once you’ve accomplished that, you’ll be left with another, potentially smelly, problem. That is where to go when you really need to go!
The perfect toilet for you and your situation will depend on several factors. These factors include whether you have a rural or urban property, how much you want to spend, and how long you anticipate needing your off-grid toilet.
With that in mind, here are several options that could work well in a variety of setups.
1. Septic System
A septic system is the most common type of waste management for homes not connected to the municipal sewer system. And while many homes with septic systems aren’t technically off grid, it’s still an option for off-grid living.
There are many designs and combinations for different septic systems, but almost all of them rely on a settling tank and drainage field.
I could talk about septic systems all day, but here is the short version.
Waste first goes into the settling tank with one or more chambers. Once in the tank, solids move to the bottom to break down further, and liquids rise to the top. The liquid then runs from the top of the tank to a drainage field, where gravel, sand, or peat moss filters the liquid back into clean water.
Most homes with wells rely on an electric pump to move water into the house, but they don’t have to. Some lots with a natural slope allow gravity to do the work of the water pump. Without electricity, you can also gather water from the well or another source and pour it directly into the toilet to flush it.
- You might already have an off-grid toilet
- Long-term costs are low
- Only needs to be pumped out every 3–5 years
- High upfront cost
- Can’t be installed everywhere
- Larger lot size required
Composting toilets are one of the very best options for doing your off-grid business. They take human waste and break it down into rich organic compost.
The best models divert urine through a small drain pipe outside. Each time you produce solid waste you add dry cover material to the toilet and turn the chamber to ensure aeration.
Composting toilets shouldn’t produce odors under everyday use in warm temperatures. Some brands perform better than others, so check out our guide to the best off grid composting toilets before investing.
- Should not smell
- Cost effective
- Produces fertile compost
- Must be used in a warm space
- Requires other compostable material
In a short-term emergency, there isn’t a much better option than a couple of bucket toilets in the garage for most people.
The pee bucket doesn’t need a liner; just make sure there are no holes, and you can drain onto your property.
The poo bucket should have a bag as a liner for disposing of waste. Solid waste can be incinerated, composted, or buried. You can also dispose of it once your emergency ends and regular services have resumed.
Line your poo bucket with plastic bags or compostable liners and dispose of solids after every use. You can buy compostable bags online and in bulk if you plan to compost your solid waste.
- Super affordable
- Easy to set up
- Not a great long-term solution
- Disposal can be difficult
The chemical toilet we are most familiar with is probably the often maligned porta-potty you get to use at public events or on construction sites. Several manufacturers make smaller versions for home use as well.
All chemical toilets use a blue chemical solution waste falls into. The chemicals in that solution serve a few functions.
- Breaks down waste and eliminates odors: It usually has a smell of its own to disguise less desirable smells.
- Indicate when the chemicals need to be replenished: When the color changes from blue to green, it’s time to clean it out.
If you plan on using a chemical toilet as your off-grid toilet, you must have it pumped out regularly or store waste somewhere for future disposal.
Check with your local waste disposal authority to find out how to dispose of the used solution where you live.
- Low up-front and continuing costs
- Possible to stockpile chemicals
- Complicated disposal
Dry-flush toilets are an off-grid option similar to a bucket toilet. It’s a portable toilet that uses rolls of specifically designed bags to contain the waste.
When you “flush” a dry toilet, the bag inside twists shut, creating an air-tight and odorless seal. The sealing process does take a small amount of power, which can be supplied by a 12-volt battery or solar panel.
While the toilet is relatively inexpensive, the bags are about $1 per use. You must also find a way to dispose of all the waste-filled plastic bags.
Given the cost and the ongoing need for bags, it’s not much better than a bucket toilet. However, I could make a good case for a dry-flush toilet on a boat not equipped with a head or other specialized applications.
- Low up-front cost
- Odorless and portable
- Ongoing need for bag cartridges
- High cost per use
- Left with many plastic waste-filled bags
You may have used a latrine or outhouse a time or two in your life. Even though I haven’t fully recovered from the outhouses at Girl Guides camp as a child, they are still a welcome sight at the beaches I pass on my long training runs.
Latrines are essentially a hole in the ground with a shelter and seat to do your business. If you have the space on your property, a latrine can still be a good simple option for a long-term off-grid toilet.
You can construct your own by digging a hole above the water table and flood level.
Ensure you dig your latrine downhill and far away from your water source.
Latrines can work with a composting toilet that is too cool to keep up in winter.
A word from the experts: when it’s cold, store your seat inside and bring it out to the latrine with you when you go. Latrines can also work well as a backup to more temperamental systems.
- Long-term solution
- Not as pleasant as other options
Camping toilets usually aren’t the best choice for an off-grid toilet. In most cases, you’ll be happier and spend less with just a simple bucket toilet. Camping toilets are essentially grown-up potties, and waste falls into a chamber where you can clean it out later. Yuck!
- Small mixed chamber
- Unpleasant to clean
For long-term use, installing an incinerating toilet is the way to go. Waste is incinerated within the toilet at high temperatures using either electricity or gas.
Gas-powered incinerating toilets require a small amount of electricity, which can be supplied using a small solar panel in the bathroom. Incinerating toilets must work with an installed vent provided by the manufacturer.
A typical user can expect their waste to generate about a cup of ash weekly.
- Small footprint
- Can be used at any temperature
- Very expensive
- Requires gas and or electricity supply
Separating Tank Toilets
Separating tank toilets are essentially permanent camping toilets with one significant difference. Tank toilets separate solid wastes from urine, dramatically reducing smell.
They are designed to work with a small fan and vent to reduce odors further. The fan is small enough to work on a small solar panel in the bathroom window. Separating tank toilets can be hooked up to an existing plumbing vent or a manufacturer-supplied vent.
Once separated, waste does have to be removed from the toilet. Urine can be drained to a small tank or leaching field outside the home or treated and used as fertilizer.
Solids fall into a collection chamber and can either be composted or incinerated once removed. Separating toilets can be installed in almost any location and used at any temperature.
- Cost effective
- Can be used in cold locations
- No need to add material to the waste
- You have to clean out waste
Picking the Right Off-Grid Toilet for You
It’s essential to have a waste-management plan in case of an emergency.
Think about what emergencies are most likely to occur where you are. For example, if your area might experience deep flooding, your only option might be on the top floor of your house. When planning for your off-grid family throne, consider the following:
- How long do you plan to use it
- The most likely reason for the emergency
- The climate in your location
- What municipal services are likely to still work
- Number of users
- The temperature of the location
- Ongoing need for consumable supplies
Some of these options, like septic systems, composting toilets, latrines, and incinerating toilets, are viable as permanent everyday solutions for off-grid toilets.
Others, like bucket and camping toilets, are budget-friendly solutions for short-term emergencies. Some options, such as dry flush toilets and separating toilets, might only be acceptable for occasional use in far-flung locations.