Compost Toilet in Suburbia (Update)

So we’re about 8 days into the compost toilet experiment, and I can report that the Humanure method of collecting your waste is extremely well received. I have had waste in the bucket inside the house now for over a week (here’s the original post.) There is absolutely NO smell to it. It’s really quite remarkable. It makes you wonder why all of suburbia doesn’t just use this method. If you have a spot to compost somewhere on your lot, it would save the average household a LOT of water and give you ongoing, great compost for your flowerbeds or garden…etc. I guess water isn’t expensive enough yet. Ha!

Anyway, what a great system for off grid living. That is one challenge overcome. On to the million other challenges.

I’m still experimenting with my water catchment system. I’ll post some pictures and perhaps a video, soon.

One of the ways I’m looking at building out the mini basement (inside crawlspace for the kids to play in, under the house) is to use ICF forms. These are relatively inexpensive, great for insulation, awesome for below grade use (below ground level) and is really, really simple to construct. I think I’ll use them to build the crawlspace area, up to where the first floor joists will hang, and then assess it from there. They are more expensive than just using traditional stick framing so I’m not sure if I’ll use them for the entire shell of the house. But they’re darn near unbeatable for below grade walls. So, I’ll definitely use them for the crawlspace “stem” wall. Then I’ll see if I want to continue and just build the entire structure out of ICF. We’ll see.

Cabin update…after a LOT of thought and planning and mulling over things… we’ve decided to build a 14′ x 14′ structure, with a full second story (no loft overlook.) So, the official footprint size will be 196 sg ft. But the upstairs will be about 172 sq ft of usable, open space. Then we’ll have a flat roof that can be used as a roof deck.

Of course, I say all this but then I’ll probably keep changing the plan until the last nail is in place. I just want it to be exactly what we need for the second cabin. No more, no less.

My HOPE is to break ground sometime in Oct. But you know what they say about the best laid plans….

Composting Toilet in Suburbia

I have embarked upon a grand experiment. I have set up a “Humanure” composting toilet here in the bathroom closest to my office.

It’s about the simplest set up there is. Some peat moss (purchased from Home Depot) and two buckets. One to hold the peat moss and one to do your business in.

I used a Home Depot (no offense to Home Depot) for the defecating receptacle and I got an aluminum bucket to hold the peat moss. The metal bucket seals quite nicely, so there is no smell of peat moss in the bathroom (although peat moss smells pleasant.) I want the air to be nice and clear so if there is any lingering odors from the Humanure toilet, I want to know.

I did put a plastic garbage bag liner in the orange bucket to facilitate easy handling of the waste. I actually just got some compostable plastic bags in the mail today, after I set up the toilet. So, I will use that after I empty the current “batch”.

The pictures inside the defecation bucket, below, is pictured prior to any human deposits. What you see at the bottom is the first layer of peat moss you’re supposed to put down before starting a new batch of waste.

So far, I can report, it works. Haley has done a #1 in it and I have added #1 and #2. That was approximately 2 hours or so ago. There is no smell in that bathroom, whatsoever. After doing your business, you’re supposed to cover the deposit with a generous layer of peat moss. That’s it. NO WATER. Actually, if you use water, you ruin the effect of the Humanure toilet and it WILL start smelling. There are two ways in which waste is managed. There is anaerobic and aerobic. When we flush our toilet into the sewage, we’re using the anaerobic method. The Humanure system is aerobic, which means air only. No water is inserted into the system until it reaches the compost pile outside, and is exposed to the weather. But by that time, you have it covered with straw and it’s outside. While it’s inside, it is quite non smelly.

One thing I have discovered is, we’ll have to use an actual toilet to sit on. Sitting on the Home Depot bucket, with a compost toilet seat on it, does NOT work well for… um… men. Without going into too much detail, we have parts that don’t fit into the bucket all that well, when they are needed to be pointed in that direction. So, I think we’ll use an actual full sized toilet, but just line the toilet with compostable plastic bags and when it’s ready for emptying, we’ll just take it out and replace it with another bag. And we can store the unused peat moss in the tank that normally holds water behind the toilet. I think that’ll work nicely.

Family reactions to my experiment;

Haley… “Can I use it? PLEASE??”
Zoe… “What? Why? Huh? Mom, can I do your hair?”
Mom… Look of extreme disgust at the mention of it and refuses to talk about it. Ha!

I’ll update you on this experiment as it unfolds.

Part 2 of this post

Off Grid Advice – Expert Opinions

Shows where our new mini cabin location will be compared to the main cabin spot and I threw in the zip line location so you can see that too.

If you check out our Facebook page (link on our front page), you’ll see I posted some photos and videos of the property yesterday. We took a trip during the holiday weekend.

The main reason for the trip was to consult with someone (Ken) who knows a lot about the area, about building stuff, about the land, and water and sewage and, well… he’s just knowledgeable.

We’ve had 3 different spots in mind for the mini cabin and what we finally came up with was yet another spot. Best laid plans….

Some things I’ve determined based on my consult with Ken, are:

  1. I need to place the pier footings about 30 inches down, just to be on the safe side from a frost heave perspective. He said 18″ to 24″ would be fine. And my piers will be well within the interior of the home’s imaginary borders and I’ll be cladding the underside of the cabin with materials that will help to trap heat under the house. All that combined probably means I could go even shallower. But I’ll probably put about 6″ of pea gravel in a 30″ hole so the pier blocks will rest at the 24″ level. With that, I’ll be confident we’ll have absolutely no problems with front heave.
  2. A septic system is just out of the question. He said it’ll probably cost around $5K. Heck, that’s probably about half what the entire cabin is going to cost. I’m not going to spend that on a septic system. That’s just crazy. So, compost toilet it is. I’ve been reading a LOT on this topic and have come to the conclusion that the Humanure system is simply the best and most simple (and cheapest) system to compost human waste. I bought the book and it is quite detailed in what you need to do in order for the system to work well (with no smell…etc.) If you can weed through the sanctimonious “save the world” speeches, it does have some good practical information.
  3. A well is also out of the question. Ken said if he had to take a guess, he’s say we’d find water around 300 ft down. That translates into about $10K. Again, that’s just crazy when it falls free from the sky. Even if we had to truck in all our water, we wouldn’t hit $10K of usage for 4 or 5 years. And I’m pretty sure we can get about 50% to 100% of our water needs from the sky. (We’ll see what that ends up being.)
  4. Rocks are no problem. Ken said he wouldn’t be too concerned with rock slides on our hill. He said, at the most, just put up a retaining wall to block some more worrisome rocks in the event one becomes dislodged. But the slope is such that even if one came down, it would come down fairly slowly. But with where we’re going to put the the mini cabin, there is really no rock danger anyway. So, the question was mainly for any fort activity we build for the kids, into the hillside, than for the cabin.
  5. Great building season. The part of Arizona our land is in has a year ’round building season. He said the first frost doesn’t come until around mid Oct and it’s mostly really nice weather all the way through Thanksgiving. Even the winters, although can be a little cold, are not bad at all for building. Very little moisture to get in the way…etc. So, that’ll be nice to not be hampered for months on end due to the weather. That is completely different than where we moved from, in Oregon. Ha!

So I have many of my preliminary questions out of the way. My blueprints are at the drafter’s office. He’s tweaking the plans to my specifications. Once we get that finalized, it’s off to the county for a permit. That will take about 3 weeks, give or take. Then I hope to be breaking ground in mid Oct.

Allison wants to spend Christmas at the cabin. I have some work cut out for me. Ha!

Picture above gives you an idea of where our mini cabin will be (the newly picked spot) compared to where the main cabin will be built. Bonus points… I drew where our zip line will go, too. Just for the fun of it. The zip line will go from about 100 ft above that valley to about 40 feet. It’ll definitely be a heart pumper. (BTW.. this drawing is not to scale. The cabins will appear smaller if they were actually in the pictures.)

Water Catchment & Bonus Rant

Obviously, water is a REALLY big deal when planning to live off the grid. It’s amazing what we take for granted in this country, as it relates to everyday necessities. And there’s no reason we shouldn’t… we’ve worked hard, as a collective society, to create that ease of living. But when you decide to go it alone, replicating those conveniences becomes quite the challenge.

SIDE MINI RANT… It should be explained here that I’m not going off grid to “save the earth.” I’m doing it because it’s just really cool to challenge one’s self and shake life up a bit in the process. And it’s kind of important to know HOW to live without modern conveniences in case the world goes to hell in a hand basket and we need to rely on ourselves to survive. And it gives my kids an experience they’ll never forget. And last but not least, I get to build a cool place to come on the weekend when I’m not swimming in my larger-than-necessary pool, back here in the valley, when we move back to the grid.

Yeah, yeah… I love the lump of rock we’re spinning through time and space on as much as the next, long haired hemp lover… and yeah, I try to be kind to it by NOT peeing on it’s historical parade. Okay? But you’ll never hear me blathering on about how we’re destroying mother earth by taking long showers, blah blah blah. The earth isn’t a woman. It’s a lump of dirt with things crawling on it. It was here before us and it’ll be here LONG after us, humming right along, quite nicely. And what cosmetic scarring we do to it during our relatively short tenure here, will be repaired to a “like new” condition by our future selves, through advanced methodologies and technology. Someday, humans will have a good laugh about the ruckus some of us made about taking 50 gallon showers.
Just in case you’re a Birkenstockers reading this blog. I have mad love for you and your craziness. Our different conclusions to the same observations is what makes this 80 year ride on this ball of dirt, so fun. But if you’re aghast at what I’ve said and you MUST leave in a tizzy since I’m obviously stupider than you… ta ta and cheers. Wish you well. Remember to not hate. Tolerance is key to your chi… um… or… whatever.
If you’re staying… congrats!! You’re practicing what you preach… diversity. Kudos. I promise to dance with you later.

Anyway, where was I?

You would think, living in one of the driest regions on earth, that water would be our hardest problem to solve. Surprisingly, it’s not.

To put some context to what I’m saying, we’ve lived in our current home for 13 months. It’s 5100 sq ft on about 1/3 to 1/2 of an acre, with a lawn, larger pool and shrubs everywhere that need watering, all the time. I’m not counting the bigger anomalies like emptying our pool and refilling it and we replanted grass for winter…etc. Taking out those anomalies, we’ve averaged approximately 3400 gallons of water usage per month for the past year. Here is the graph:

That’s about 40,000 gallons a year (give or take.) For that water, we’ve paid a whopping $850 for the entire year. That’s about 2 cents a gallon. (These are rough estimates, but close enough for government work.)

For the move off grid, we have three options. Dig a well, truck it in or catch it from the sky when it falls as rain.

Digging a well will cost a BUTT load of money. Approximately $35 a foot and you go into it blind. Having no idea how far down they’ll have to dig. I’m not willing to risk thousands of dollars at this point, for a well. Just not worth it, considering the viability of the other two options.

Trucking it in will cost about 16 cents per gallon. Minimum delivery is 1000 gallons. So, that’s QUITE a bit higher (8x) than I’m paying here in the valley. But it’s doable, considering our usage will be much, much less at the ranch than it will be here. My guess is, we’d use about 1800 gallons a month (maybe more if we have a lot of animals). So, if we trucked every ounce of it in, that would be about $288 a month. Seems like a lot, but when you factor in all the money we’re saving living on the ranch compared to the valley, it’s chicken feed.

Rainwater catchment is the neatest and cheapest way to get all your water supply. If you haven’t heard about this, do a google search (or youtube is even better) for rainwater reclamation, harvesting or catchment. They are all interchangeable terms. I figure, based on the total average rainfall at the ranch in the past 12 months of about 7 inches, I can “catch” about 75% of our need for water, for free (the cost of getting storage tanks and catchment supplies, notwithstanding.) When we fall short, we’ll just have a truck come out and top us off. Easy peasy.

What WILL be one of my biggest challenges is building a large enough catchment system to keep our supplies going through even the driest of seasons, yet not scar the beauty of our ranch with a big whopping “thing” that is designed to catch water. Anyway, I have an idea on how to do this without a visual eyesore on the property. I’ll blog more on this as I experiment with some unorthodox ways of doing this. The way most people do it is to catch the rain from their roof via a gutter system and divert it into a barrel or some other large water container or cistern. However, for us, even with our future larger cabin, that will provide a good solid 2% of our needs, not 75%. Because the roof area is not large enough to capture what we need based on the average rainfall now a days, of 7 inches. Incidentally, the normal rainfall for our ranch area is 12 inches a year, but with the drier conditions recently, it has fallen to 7 inches. I do anticipate that will come back up closer to normal at some point, and we’ll then be able to catch all our water needs.

Sooooo… on the list of problems and their solutions…

Water?…. CHECK!!!

Piss Off Hippies?… CHECK!!! (jk, hippies. I love ya!)

Cabin Change of Plans

Since we only have 324 days until we move to the ranch (yes, we even have an official countdown page) and this is the first time I’ve built anything larger than a… um… okay, I’ve never built ANYTHING before… I’ve come to the quick realization that my goals are bigger than my talents.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to do a PRACTICE build. It’ll be a 192 sq ft, itty bitty cabin. That’s smaller than most people’s living room. The entire house will be 12’ x 16’ with a low ceiling, crawl space, kind of attic of 16’ x 18’. This will allow me to have something to stay at that has some sort of comfort to it (shelter, bathroom, shower, power…etc) as I tackle the bigger goal of building the larger cabin. Then we can use the tiny cabin for guests or whatever, after we move into the larger cabin.

I actually want to build several smaller cabins on the property, for people to visit the land and enjoy it’s beauty and solitude, without cramming everyone into the main cabin. So this fits right into the plan. And I’ll definitely need the practice, I can tell you that much for sure. 🙂

Here is a link to the plans for the itty bitty cabin. Not shown is a 16’ x 18’ attic space that we’ll most likely sleep in when we stay there. The headroom, at the tallest point in the attic, will be about 4’ 11” down the center line. I’m 6’, 2”, so I won’t be doing any stretching exercises upstairs. Ha!

I’ll be changing the elevation (outside look) of the cabin to closer match our terrain. It’s definitely NOT going to look like a farmhouse.

Next post, I’ll discuss some of the things I’ve been researching, that’ll bring all this plan together. I’m exhausted every night. Didn’t realize how much energy this was going to take, even before swinging a hammer.

Welcome to Grid Rid

This is the first post of what I hope will be an interesting blogumentary about getting rid of the grid. (Hence the not altogether clever name of the blog and web address.)

I’m going to blog, in detail, my family’s move (two young daughters and a wife) from a 5100 sq ft home in Gilbert, AZ to a 1000 sq ft cabin (not yet built) on our 40 acre piece of land in NE Arizona. (I’m actually going to build a smaller cabin first, for practice.) We’ll be completely off grid as our property is no where near electricity or any other modern amenity. The nearest town is St John’s, which is about a 30 minute drive away. Cell service is spotty to none and there is no well or water source. Nothing. It’s simply a beautiful piece of land, waiting to receive our guiding hands.

My goal is to have a small cabin, power, toilet, water and high speed internet, all in working order, by August 1st of 2013. That is 0 to livable in exactly 1 year.

My experience in such matters? None. Zero. I am an entrepreneur. I have exactly no skills in building, power creation, water management or any other skill that will be required in the next year.

God help us all. 🙂

The picture you see here on the blog, in the background, is a view from what we call the “gulch” on our property. Over time, you’ll be able to recognize the different features of our ranch, of which there are many and varied.

Anyway, here goes nothing. As they say in showbiz… stay tuned!