This Is How Portable Toilets Work


When there is no plumbing infrastructure in place—or when mobility is required—portable toilets provide a hygienic and convenient option for going to the bathroom. However, there are different types of portable toilets, each working differently.

Portable toilets work by providing a form-factor that men and women can be comfortable in using. The main difference in how different portable toilets work depends on the mechanism used to store and dispose of the waste. These can be chemically-based or involve various containment mechanisms.

If you are seeking insight into how a portable toilet works, read on. This article will cover the different types of portable toilets and how they function.

Collapsible Portable Toilets

Collapsible portable toilets are also known as folding toilets. These are among the most portable options. As the name implies, they can collapse or fold into an easy to carry form-factor for added portability.

This short video provides you with the basic setup of a generic sample of such a portable toilet:

How Collapsible Portable Toilets Work

Collapsible toilets function by providing the user with a sturdy seat that closely emulates a traditional toilet seat. There is a disposable bag or container immediately below the seat. This is used to capture liquid and solid waste.

After each use, these toilets require the user to seal and dispose of the waste-filled bag or empty the waste container following local waste disposal regulations.

Examples of portable toilets that fall under the collapsible toilet design include the TripTips Portable Toilet and the Reliance Fold-to-Go Collapsible Portable Toilet.

Bucket-Style Portable Toilets

Bucket-style toilets are aptly named because they make direct use of a bucket in their operation.

How Bucket-Style Toilets Work

These toilets incorporate a toilet seat that is attached to a bucket. Usually, the bucket is of a 5-gallon (18.9-liter) capacity—very similar in size and shape to that of a generic paint bucket.

The seat is designed to snap firmly on top of the bucket. This provides a sturdy sitting surface and also a secure attachment point for liner bags used to trap the waste.

Similar to collapsible toilets, bucket-style toilets need to have the liner bags removed after each use. Technically, these toilets could be used without the liner bags, but then, when emptying and cleaning the bucket, you would have to deal directly with the waste matter.

When bucket-style toilets are used without liners, a dry ingredient, such as potting soil, peat moss, or kitty litter, may be added to the bucket to improve waste absorption and make emptying less messy and minimize odors.

The Camco Portable Bucket Toilet with Seat Attachment is a classic example of this type of field toilet.

Composting Portable Toilets

The portable variety of the composting toilet works in the same manner as its larger fixed variety. It relies on the decomposition of organic matter for its waste removal. Since they rely on a “dry” system of operation, they are well-suited for situations when you might not have immediate access to supplemental water for cleaning and disposal.

Portable composting toilets come in a variety of sizes. Their intended use determines this—be it inside a mobile home or outdoors in a camping environment.

How Composting Portable Toilets Work

There are three parts to a portable composting toilet’s operation:

  • The mechanism for the separation of liquid and solid waste: When the toilet is used, the bowl is designed to route urine and solid waste matter to different receptacles. The urine receptacle should be emptied daily to avoid foul odors.
  • The solid waste bin: This is where solid waste is collected. Unlike the urine collection unit, this does not have to be emptied daily. The solid waste bin is meant to hold the solid waste matter until natural decomposition degrades it. This receptacle is lined with a protective liner to facilitate emptying.
  • Odor minimization: The solid waste collection bin of a portable composting toilet is designed to only open to the bowl when the unit is being flushed. For the remainder of the time, the solid waste receptacle is sealed by a valve at the bottom of the bowl.

To speed decomposition and minimize odors further, most require that you add a carbon-based material, such as coco coir, straw, wood shavings, hemp stalks, peat moss, or diatomaceous earth, to the solid waste bin.

Additionally, some units are equipped with a foot-powered or AC/DC powered agitator. This should be activated every time solid waste is deposited to speed up the decomposition process.

When the solid waste bin is full, it can be opened, and the liner is removed and sealed for disposal.

An example of a portable composting toilet that is mobile-friendly and apt for camping use but that can also be used in semi-fixed instances, such as in RVs, is the Sun-Mar GTG Composting Toilet.

Flushable Portable Toilets

Flushable portable toilets can be further subdivided by the type of flushing mechanism that they employ. These being chemical-based portable flushable toilets and dry-flush toilets.

How Chemical-Flushable Portable Toilets Work

A chemical-flushable toilet covers everything from traditional “porta-potties” found on construction sites and outdoor events to smaller personal units suitable for camping and mobile living.

They function by having two tanks: a water tank and a holding tank. The water tank contains freshwater. It is located above the seat, similar to a household tank-based toilet. Just as in a house toilet, gravity pulls water into the bowl to flush the waste matter when the unit is flushed. This is channeled to the waste holding tank located beneath the bowl.

There may be a manual or powered pump in some flushable units that draw the water from the water tank to the bowl for flushing.

In the holding tank where the waste is collected, a disinfecting and waste degrading chemical is added with each use. This helps to break down the waste in the holding tank and keeps bad odors at bay. To further cut down on odors, portable chemical toilets have a sealed valve that connects the holding tank to the bowl. This is only opened when the toilet is in use—it is closed immediately after flushing.

The Zimmer Portable Toilet Camping Porta Potty is an example of one of the most portable flushable toilets on the market. Likewise is the Coleman Portable Flush Toilet. Both can hold approximately 5 gallons (18.9 liters) of waste material before needing to be emptied.

How Portable Dry-Flush Toilets Work

A portable dry-flush toilet does not employ any chemicals or water to accomplish the flushing action. Instead, it uses a mechanically powered roll of moisture-resistant liners to line the toilet bowl’s inner portion. These liners are installed in a cartridge format and allow for multiple flushes.

When the toilet is flushed, the liner roll wraps around the waste material in a twisting motion, wrapping and sealing it. This is then deposited into a holding tank located below the bowl. Fresh liner material then covers the bowl again to await its next use.

The wrapped and sealed waste can be removed from the holding tank when full. Since the waste is compartmentalized within sealed liners, odors are minimal or non-existent.

Final Words

As explained above, portable toilets come in different form-factors. All of them provide users with a safe way to contain human waste in situations where traditional water and sanitation connections are not readily available.

The variety of waste containment options make portable toilets suited for different situations, such as camping, worksites, bedside bathroom facilitation for the elderly, and mobile homes. By knowing how different portable toilets work, you can best choose the one that is suited for your particular need.

Hivan Team

As an independent team of travelers, we do share positive and negative observations as we find them and make our best to help and inform other vanlifers around the globe.

Recent Content