Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


We Have a Compost Toilet!

Compost Toilet Update
March 23, 2004

For the past six years our toilet, made by Sun-Mar, has been used by staff members and some visitors. Use of the toilet has been "light" because it is not our home toilet, and because there are two alternative flush toilets inside the building where we work.

Sun-Mar Composting Toilets. Zero environmental impact. Use no water. Works with nature to produce fertilizer and evaporate liquids. Useful in cottages, cabins, pool cabanas, residences.

No odour or pest problems have troubled us. It was two years before we removed anything from the toilet and we have only removed finished compost, at most, once a year after that! Both the composting process and the fan are responsible for taking care of our human waste. Removing finished compost from the toilet was easy; we simply turned the drum handle anti-clockwise while pulling a release plug which in turn let material fall into the bottom drawer. Three full trays of nicely digested compost were removed that first time which left us with lots of compost for bedding in the holding drum.

Maintenance has included:


We, the staff of City Farmer, met over lunch recently (October 1998) to discuss our new compost toilet which sits in Vancouver's Compost Demonstration Garden in a beautiful shed made from cedar timbers recycled from discarded utility poles. Many thanks to "Canada Trust's Friends of the Environment Foundation" for contributing to this project.


We went over old stories about stinking, exploding, overused and underused compost toilets - - stories about other people's experiments. Having our own unit will allow us to judge it in the same way we judge backyard compost bins, worm bins and water barrels, that is, up close and personal.

"But how do we use it", the staff wanted to know? "There's no water in the bowl, no handle for flushing. What can we throw in it, how do we keep track of how much human waste goes in, and what words should we use to describe our waste?"

We imagined the diners at neighbouring tables listening to our discussion, and our embarrassed laughter grew louder. And then one of us felt ill from visualizing human manure tumbling around inside the toilet, so we decided to finish our meeting outside in the cool air.

What did we decide at that first toilet-training meeting? Below are some of our ideas. Over time this page will be updated and our experiences recorded for your interest.

How Do We Use It?

The toilet is for use by staff only, however on occasion special guests may use it. All users must mark what they have "deposited" on a calendar which is tacked to the wall next to the toilet - an "X" for liquid and an "O" for solid waste.

compost toilet

Soft unbleached toilet paper can go in the toilet however female sanitary supplies cannot. After each solid waste deposit, a small cup of cover material, [either compost bedding or sawdust (pine, hemlock, spruce, fir, maple or oak)] must be added.

We placed a half bag of compost bedding plus some of our finished worm compost in the toilet to start it off. In the coming months some of our red wriggler worms will be added to the mix to help the process along.

The handle, for turning the interior drum of the compost toilet, will be turned once every few weeks. Turning the handle in the opposite direction moves the compost in the drum to the finishing tray beneath. This action will be performed every few months.

Men may stand to urinate into the bowl as long as they lift both the lid and seat.

We have replaced a plastic step-up stand at the foot of the toilet with large blocks of wood to make it sturdier.

The surface of the toilet will be cleaned regularly with a paper towel and scented organic cleanser.

Compost Toilet Arrives!

From The Compost Hotline News - September, 1998

Not only is the Compost Hotline operator located inside a Solar Greenhouse adjacent to Western Canada's first Compost Demonstration Garden, and Vancouver's beautiful Water-Wise Garden, but now she is just a few paces from her very own Compost Toilet!

On Thursday, September 17th, Jack Rockandel delivered a Sun-Mar Excel AC/DC to our garden. It now resides in its new home, a small building made from recycled wood, specially designed by Ross Waddell. The building was constructed over the past few months, by volunteer extraordinaire Don Ellis who taught wood working in Vancouver schools for 33 years, and by his friend Wes Barrett our head gardener.

The Excel is made of marine grade stainless steel and polished fiberglass. Under the seat is a large Bio-drum where the composting takes place and beneath that a similarly large finishing drawer and evaporating chamber.

NSF Tested
The Excel has been successfully tested by the National Sanitation Foundation over a continuous six month period at its maximum rated residential capacity of four adults. The key test criteria were that the unit operated odorlessly throughout, and produced a compost that was clean and dry.

As a waterless unit the Excel requires no plumbing hookup. The main task is the installation of the two inch vent which is attached at the top near the rear of the unit. Under normal conditions the electric fan (using 25 Watts), and the 250 Watt thermostatically controlled heating element in the base of the unit, combine to evaporate any excess liquid which the compost cannot absorb.

Although the Excel is normally able to evaporate all the liquid it receives, an emergency drain is attached at the rear. We have also installed a backup 12 volt fan powered by a solar panel which is attached to a car battery.

Newest Addition
This newest addition to the Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden will provide yet another rich source of information on composting for our Hotline staff who next year will celebrate their 10th year answering compost questions. The Hotline number 604-736-2250, has been used continuously since 1990 at the 2150 Maple Street location. Over 30,000 calls have been answered by our professional staff who grow more knowledgeable every year.

Other Toilet Locations
Composting toilets can be seen at a number of locations in Vancouver's Lower Mainland. Ten Clivus Multrums have been installed at UBC's Choi building, another Clivus sits in a building at Strathcona Community Gardens, and an Excel like ours is housed in a trailer at the City of Vancouver Landfill in Delta.

Resources on the Net
On City Farmer's web site you can find a long list of composting toilet manufacturers, and current book titles. Compost Toilets

The Composting Toilet System Book: A Practical Guide to Choosing, Planning and Maintaining Composting Toilets, a Water-Saving, Pollution-Preventing Wastewater Alternative
by David Del Porto and Carol Steinfeld 1999
8.5" x 11", 240 pages, 300+ photos and illustrations, Black and white with color cover.
In this book, you will find

To buy directly on-line follow this link:
The Composting Toilet Systems Book: A Practical Guide to Choosing, Planning and Maintaining Composting Toilet Systems
Or by mail: The Center for Ecological Pollution Prevention (CEPP)
P.O. Box 1330 Concord, MA 01742-01330
Tel.: 978/369-9440
Price including shipping: US$ 33.25 (USA), US$ 43.95 (EUR 38.60) (International)

Rainwater Collection from the Roof of the Compost Toilet Shed

By Ross Waddell

During the summer of 1998, a pilot project initiated by the non-profit organization, City Farmer, has been under construction at the City of Vancouver/City Farmer Demonstration Garden. The purpose of the project is to demonstrate at the residential scale, a number of ecologically-based technologies involving water, sewerage and solid waste. The project offers an opportunity to educate the public about some new and innovative water-conservation technologies that could be used to reduce consumption from the city's water supply.

The project is located in the Compost Garden at the rear of 2150 Maple Street and includes a compost toilet and a rainwater collection system using two City of Vancouver rainbarrels and a number of different roofing materials. The compost toilet uses no city water and produces no sewage. and its ventilation is partly solar-powered. The building itself incorporates a number of ecological design features. It is constructed of cedar timbers and lumber recycled from discarded utility poles and uses hardware made from recycled metals: the roof surfaces are made from untreated cedar shakes and bare aluminum protected with a non-toxic nylon coating. The purpose of the roofing component of the project is to demonstrate different materials that can be used to collect water for use in the home garden.

Presently, two City of Vancouver rainbarrels collect water from the asphalt and tar and gravel roof surfaces of the main building at 2150 Maple Street. These barrels were installed in 1995 together with a larger barrel from the City of Edmonton. Staff are frequently asked by people visiting the building and garden about the toxicity of different types of roofing materials, the quality of the water running off of these surfaces and whether the water can be safely used in organic food gardens. Some initial research has been done on this topic through Internet searches, reviews of technical literature and consultation with members of the roofing materials manufacturing and installation industries. There has been little research done in the industry on this issue, though it is of considerable interest to those contacted, as well as to the public.

Passing of the Backhouse

By James Whitcomb Riley

When memory keeps me company, and moves to smiles or tears,
A weather-beaten object looms thru the mist of many years;
Behind the house and barn it stood, a half a mile or more,
And hurrying feet a path had made straight to its swinging door;
Its architecture was a type of simple classic art,
But in the tragedy of life it played a leading part,
And oft the passing traveller drove slow and heaved a sigh,
To see the modest hired girl slip out with glances shy.

We had our posey garden that the women loved so well,
I loved it too, but better still I loved the stronger smell
That filled the evening breezes so full of homely cheer
And told the night-o're taken tramp that human life was near.
On lazy August afternoons it made a little bower
Delightful where my Grandsire sat and whiled away an hour:
For there the summer morning its many cares entwined
And berry bushes reddened in the steaming soil behind.

All day fat spiders spun their webs to catch the buzzing flies
That flitted to and from the house when Ma was baking pies.
And once a swarm of hornets bold had built a palace there;
And stung my unsuspecting Aunt, I must not tell you where;
Then my father took a flaming pole, that was a happy day,
He nearly burned the building up, but the hornets left to stay.
When summer bloom began to fade and winter to carouse,
He banked the little building with a heap of hemlock boughs.

But when the crust was on the snow, and the sullen skies were gray,
In sooth the building was no place where one could wish to stay;
We did our duties promptly there, one purpose swayed our mind,
We tarried not or lingered long on what we left behind.
The torture of that icy seat could make a Spartan sob
For needs must scrape the gooseflesh with a lacerating cob
That from the frost encrusted nail suspended by a string -
My father was a frugal soul and wasted not a thing.

When Grandpa had to go out back and make his morning call,
We'd bundle up the dear old man with a muffler and a Shawl,
I knew the hole on which he sat, 'twas padded all around;
And once I dared to sit there, 'twas all too wide I found;
My loins were all too little and I jack-knifed thru to stay,
They had to come and get me out or I'd have passed away.
Then father said ambition was a thing that boys should shun,
And I must use the children's hole till childhood days were done.

But still I marvel at the craft that cut those holes so true,
The baby hole and the slender hole that fitted sister Sue.
That dear old country landmark I have tramped around a bit,
And in the lap of luxury my lot has been to sit,
But 'ere I die I'll eat the fruit of trees I robbed of yore;
Then seek the shanty where my name is carved upon the door.
I ween the old familiar smell will soothe my jaded soul;
I'm now a man, but none the less I'll try the children's hole.

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Revised December 21, 2005

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture