Van life is not without its challenges, and probably one of the biggest is what to do when nature calls. RVs come with separate bathrooms; however, there isn’t enough room for one in a camper van. But is it even possible to have a composting toilet in a camper van?
You should get a compost toilet for your camper van because it’s odor-free and small enough to fit. It will need to be permanently mounted and require slight modifications to the camper. However, they are expensive and better suited to a van lifer who will be on the road for weeks or months at a time.
Keep reading to find out about the advantages and disadvantages of composting toilets in campervans. You will also get an idea of what you need to install one and several other recommendations.
What Is a Composting Toilet?
Composting toilets for a camper van are waterless toilets that separate liquid and solid waste. Separating the two prevents odors. However, these are different from the composting toilets for homes. Instead of composting waste, they dry out the solids with peat moss or coconut coir.
True compost toilets require holding tanks and electricity, and they turn waste into compost. Household composting toilets are also too large for campervans, so some toilets, such as the Sun-Mar Excel, are excellent options for homes but not for campervans.
So even though they technically do not create compost, let’s stick with that name, which sounds better than a liquid and solid waste separator. We could also call it a dry toilet, a term sometimes used.
Pro Tip: The Separett Weekend composting toilet won’t work in a van (unless you plan to add a urine collection tank to your van).
What Are the Benefits of a Composting Toilet?
The most obvious benefit of a composting toilet is not finding a place to use the bathroom. You won’t have to search for an open gas station at night, nor will you have to head out in the rain at 2 in the morning. You also can avoid all those pee-in-a-cup strategies some van lifers come up with.
Composting Toilets Do Not Smell
When solid and liquid wastes are mixed, the result is a sewage smell—the same smell you find at a dry trailhead toilet. Since composting toilets keep liquids and solids separate, the only odor is an earthy smell in the solid tank, and a small, continuously running fan pulls the odor from the tank to the exterior of your van.
On the other hand, chemical toilets might not smell like sewage, but they do smell-like chemicals. And cassette toilets also smell if you use them for both number one and number two.
The Tanks Do Not Need to be Emptied Frequently
Many van lifers report being able to go up to two weeks before having to empty the solid tank, with the liquid having to be dumped more often. Of course, use a gas station, store, or restaurant bathrooms when possible to extend the time between emptying.
You don’t have to look into the solid tank to find out when it is full—the spider-handle on the tank will be difficult to turn. When that happens, you should empty it in the next two to three days before becoming too difficult to turn.
Emptying a composting toilet is a lot less messy—or disgusting—than emptying a cassette toilet. Liquids can be dumped into a toilet, and the solids put into a trash bag and put in a dumpster or trash can.
What Are the Drawbacks of a Composting Toilet?
If a composting toilet has so many advantages, why don’t all Van Lifers have one? Here are some of the reasons:
- Composting (or dry) toilets are expensive compared to other portable toilets.
- They need to be vented to the outside, and the fan requires a power source.
- These toilets are permanent fixtures, so you need to plan them into your build.
Cost of Composting Toilets
A composting toilet can easily cost two or three times what a port-a-potty or cassette toilet will. A top of the line port-a-potty like the Thetford Porta Potti 5.5 Gallon costs under $250. The VivoHome Portable Commode costs around $150, and you can find plenty of others in that price range.
Compare that to the cost of the two most popular composting toilets for Campervans—Nature’s Head, which is usually around $950, and The Airhead, which is another hundred dollars.
A composting toilet is a substantial financial investment, so someone planning a few weekend getaways in their van might decide the cost is not worth it. But if you see yourself using a camper van as a home or using it for extended trips, then the investment will be worth it.
Venting and Power Requirements
Composting toilets have an air exhaust system to make sure the odor goes out of the van. A small, computer-sized fan runs continuously, pulling air from the toilet through the exhaust vent. To make this work, a hole must be cut, typically on the floor of the van.
The small fan draws a tiny amount of power, about 0.1 amps, but it needs to be wired to the van’s power. Anyone can do this, but it will require some time. Follow this link for the manual for how to install the Nature’s Head composting toilet, or here for the Air Head toilet.
Planning Its Placement
No doubt, much planning has already gone into the floorplan of your van. Adding a composting toilet means losing some room. The method used most is to hide one under an extra chair or extension of a couch. Also, placement is a permanent one.
You need to add several inches to the measurements of the given measurements of the toilet. The handle will require two or so inches on the side, and an inch or so needs to be left between the toilet and the wall so it can be removed. Estimate that you will need to devote 2 by 2-foot floor space to one.
The Composting Medium
The composting medium is essential to the proper functioning of a dry toilet. The medium dries out solid waste while allowing air to pass through (and out the vent). Most van lifers use either peat moss or coco coir.
Peat moss, also called sphagnum moss, is absorbent and excels at combating odor. Although it is easy to find, it has gone out of favor with many people. This is partly because of environmental concerns about sphagnum and sustainability.
The other reason is that peat moss manufacturers have been selling a finer product, which is excellent for planting but less ideal for composting toilets. Also, peat moss takes up more space than the more recent alternative—coco coir.
A by-product of the coconut industry, coco coir is another absorbent composting medium. Its chief advantage is size—the compressed blocks make it ideal for a camper van. There are numerous mixes available, such as this Plantonix Coco Coir Brick, which consists of only coconut pith and fibers.
Make sure that your medium does not contain additives or nutrients. Some coco products, such as Kempf Compressed Coco Coir Block, include hummus, which is not ideal.
Although you could eventually make compost, the goal here is to dry out solid waste. Also, do not use soil unless you want bugs or worms in your toilet.
Pro Tip: If you have a reoccurring pest problem, add some pest killer like this Safer Brand 51703 Diatomaceous Earth.
For the serious camper van enthusiast, a composting toilet is almost a must-have. The lack of odor, being low maintenance, and an infrequent need to empty the solid container make them far superior to other toilets. However, they are expensive and require installation, so make sure you will spend enough time sitting on one before spending a thousand dollars.