Nature’s Head Toilet

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Oh how we love our Nature’s Head

What??? A composting toilet in a van? How does that even work? Does it smell? Does it do #2s? How often can you use it? What becomes of your poop? SO MANY QUESTIONS! Read on for all our dirty details…

Like many others, we stumbled onto the Nature’s Head’s amazing capabilities from The Wynns. However, over the past year, we picked up a few tips and tricks we had to figure out through, well, trial and error. So, we thought we’d share our hard won wisdom… from our head, to yours.

Where the magic happens.

First off… we read several blogs and talked to lots of people… and many of them said their pee jugs and compost (solids) containers last eons longer than ours. I am not sure what the deal is, but…

Here Are Our Stats:

We have to empty our pee jug once every 24-36 hours. Yep, essentially once every day. I can tell you that I try to drink ¾-1 gallon of water a day, so maybe that’s why…I have no idea….

Regarding solids, we have to change our compost every 3 weeks when we are using it every day (and we are quite regular thank you very much for asking). We’ve heard others get anywhere from 3 weeks – 3 months (!?!) – and all of these people swear they use theirs full time. I don’t know, maybe they poop tiny deer pellets or something, but we have never been able to go that long with full time use.

The Changing Process

Pee Jug:

  1. You unlatch the top half and lift ‘er up to about 45°.
  2. Put the cap on the pee jug BEFORE removing it from its holder (we have not experienced any pee calamities nor do we want to).
  3. Take it out, and, well, go find your dump spot (read on for pee dump options).
  4. When I put the pee jug back in its holder, I wipe off the inside of the cap and the jug’s neck area with a wipe, but that may be my own personal paranoia showing.
  5. This whole process takes anywhere from two to ten minutes, depending on how far I’m walking.

I will not lie, when the pee bottle is open to the air, you can smell it a bit. But it’s a very small price to pay for the ease and conservation of using a composting toilet. If it gets too smelly or there’s buildup, Nature’s Head recommends adding some vinegar with pea gravel, giving it a good shake, and rinsing. (We have done this about twice in a year.)

Some may ask, “where on earth do you dump it?” Our most-frequented pee dump spots are toilets in rest stops and parks. For these spots, we have a handy cloth bag that we put the pee container into. (As I sling the bag over my shoulder, I make up a story in my head that I am just “carrying my swimsuit and changing in the bathroom” so I can walk proud. Nothing to see here folks.) When in nature and not against any regulations, we will give the local plantlife some nutrients. Finally, our least favorite place to dump is a proper dump station. For one, they can be disgusting. And two, they can be disgusting. For anyone who may have a problem with any of these methods, I will direct you to any number of people and research on water conservation and I do not feel a need to reinvent that particular wheel, but feel free to ask me any questions as I am at the ready with information!

Pro Tip

  • Nature’s Head recommends keeping a spray bottle on hand with a mixture of 2 ounces of vinegar & water to spray the toilet bowl after use. We found that we couldn’t stand the smell of the vinegar, even in minute quantities, so we started using a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water, with a few drops of peppermint and tea tree essential oils. Much more better for our noses.
  • I stuff a piece of paper towel into the hole when I take the pee jug out, you know, just in case any drips might want to show themselves. It wastes a paper towel but saves me an OCD meltdown. Worth it.
  • It probably goes without saying, but we do NOT recommend dumping the pee jug just after using the toilet. Ask us how we know.
Paper Towel Placeholder…

Compost Bin:

  1. We set up our camping table outside our van’s back doors so we have some semblance of cover in case anyone gets overly curious (one of us who shall remain nameless is a bit anxious about strange onlookers seeing this process, so we usually try to find a spot in the middle of nowhere. Someone still gets anxious.)
  2. We unhinge and slide the top half of the toilet off and set it on the ground, preferably on a surface where no bugs will crawl up into it. Gross.
  3. It goes without saying, but obviously remove the pee jug before dumping the compost bin upside down. 🙂 
  4. Meghan holds a big garbage bag securely around the lid of the compost bin, and Stephen dumps the bin into the garbage bag.
  5. We then tap on the bin like a drum to really make sure all the compost is out. We may also compose a song or two while doing so. You never know.
  6. We dump the new compost into the bin, add water, and break it into chunks (don’t freak out, we wear gloves)
  7. Re-assemble the toilet.
  8. Dispose of the compost in nearest dumpster.

Pro Tip

  • Any composty bits left in the bin will just help the next composting process; no need to get the bin super clean. Another fact we love about our Nature’s Head.
  • Again, it probably goes without saying, but we do NOT recommend changing the compost just after using the toilet for ANY function. Ask us how we know.

Our methods of dumping and preparing compost have changed some over the past year as we’ve experimented and learned what works best for us. While we initially followed The Wynn’s protocol for coco coir (fiber) preparation, we noticed after a few compost changes it was not lasting super long for us (two weeks max). I think I was doing two things wrong: adding too much water, and making the medium too fine. (OK – true confession – Stephen and I argued about this point for many months… with me insisting I was doing it per the Wynn’s video and him trying to get me to try something different. I may have fought him so long because, honestly, I LOVED breaking up the new coco coir; it is the closest I got to gardening in the van. Don’t judge. I finally agreed to try his chunkier method and wouldn’t you know – the larger chunks of coco coir break up just fine on their own AND we get more use out of our compost. I hate it when he’s right).

Pro Tip

  • In addition, I think my (Meghan’s) pee style was also getting in the way. Let’s get personal. The composting toilet works so well and has no smell because it separates the solids and liquids. As the Nature’s Head website states: “Allowing the overflow of urine into the composting chamber will cause unpleasant odor and prevent proper compost action.” There is a “trap door” that you open when you deposit your gifts into the compost container. You keep this closed when you pee; the toilet’s magical design ensures that the pee flows into the pee jug. But wait, as a woman,it is not the easiest thing to not pee when you poop. Soooo, I think for the first few months, “some” of my pee was sneaking into the compost bin. This caused our compost to become too wet and need changing more often than necessary. This is, let’s just say, a work in progress that is getting better over time. Mostly by me peeing RIGHT THIS MINUTE when I wake up, before any other, ugh, urges, hit.
  • The other thing that makes the toilet run swimmingly, beside not mixing your liquids and solids, is the computer fan that continuously runs and vents to the outside of the van. It uses 0.1A, and constantly sucks the moisture out of the compost, with nary a whiff coming toward your nose. Since your life will quickly turn funky if this fan ever gives out, we suggest carrying a backup so you can replace it ASAP.

You may ask yourself, how do I know when it’s time to change the compost anyway? We’d say there are two main clues…First, the agitator handle becomes difficult to turn. Specifically for us, when Meghan starts needing two hands to get the handle turning, that usually means a compost change is about two days away because the bin is getting too full. As the toilet has NO SMELL, when we start to get a whiff of something other than earthiness (really, it smells like dirt), it usually means the compost is coming to the end of its lifespan and can’t absorb much more poop.

Fun Fact

The toilet, even when full of liquids and solids, is not that heavy. I (Meghan) can lift it easily out of its house.

Composting Snapshot

That Was Then

New to van life, we used 2.5 (PetSmart/Petco sized) bricks of coco coir and roughly 1.5 liters of water. We broke up the coco coir until it was all fine and happy, and moist. We filled the bin to just under the agitator, per manufacturer recommendations.

This Is Now

2 bricks of coco coir. Drill through them to break them up. Add about 1 cup of water. Leave coco coir chunky. (After finally trying Kilty Man’s idea it was determined that he is, in fact, all-wise. Dammit.)

Some other common questions of a personal nature…

People wonder about toilet paper and menstrual cycles. — We do not put toilet paper in the compost bin, although you can. We don’t want our coco coir to work harder than it needs to. Personal choice.

I do not put any feminine hygiene products in the compost bin; the manufacturer recommends not doing so.

People also wonder about throwing up and diarrhea. Per the Nature’s Head website: “vomiting and diarrhea, if not persistent, are unlikely to affect the head function. If increased wetness of the compost results, the situation may be corrected with the addition of a small amount of dry compost medium.” We have found this to be sage advice regarding one of these issues and thankfully, not needed to test the other. That’s all I’ll say on that topic.

Pro Tip

  • As alluded to earlier, we use coco coir as our composting medium. (We have tried sphagnum peat moss and did not prefer it, nor was it financially or spatially economical for us.) However, coco coir bricks can be quite dense and difficult to break up into smaller chunks (our first 10-pound brick required a crowbar and axe, no joke).  We discovered a blog, which I sadly cannot remember now, that recommended drilling through your coco coir bricks to help break them up. Duh! GEN-IUS. Thank you drillmasters. Thank you. I am sorry I cannot find your blogpost to link to.
  • Since Amazon shipping can be tough on the road, and storing a 10-pound brick can take up a lot of space in a van, we buy coco coir blocks from Petco or PetSmart’s reptile isles; Stephen drills through each brick, and voila.

Fun Fact

We were scared to poop in our Nature’s Head for, like, three months. I have no idea why, but we were. It is hilarious to me to think that this was the case. If you are weirdos like us, just know you are not the only ones. But once you use it, you’ll be in love, hopefully. We love ours so much that even in our next iteration of living, we will install one in whatever bathroom we call home. And I say all this knowing that we’ve conquered the worst of the worst – the fruit fly infestation. Read on…

Stephen snuck this picture of me after the first time I was brave 🙂  — To boldly go where no man/woman has gone before!

OK… Bugs.

Yes, we’ve had them. Twice. Ugh. Recently, a Nature’s Head rep we met at a tiny house show recommended putting stocking material over our hose air intake valve to prevent them coming in the van. We will try this and hopefully never have to deal with them again. It’s about on par with getting a cavity filled for me. OK, maybe not that bad. Here’s the story(ies)…

Infestation #1

We lived in denial a few days. Shockingly, the appearance of more fruit flies quickly told us this was a bad idea. They will not go away. They like toilets. They set up beach umbrellas and inflatable pools. You cannot pay them to leave. We tried diatomaceous earth (DE). It did not work. (Hmmm – alright – I can’t even make this up. Literally JUST THIS MINUTE when I googled how to spell “diatomaceous earth”, I stumbled onto a website stating that in order for it to be effective, it has to stay dry. So, perhaps, using it in moist coco coir, you know… IS NOT THE BEST IDEA. Learning every day here folks, every. Damn. Day.) Anyway, I digress – after the DE did not work, we moved onto other means we’d found… namely, taping carcinogenic moth balls (we were desperate) under the seat and using another product, BT Thuricide, which we found at Homey D’s. This seemed to kill the flies. But (and things are about to get real people), when we went to change the compost a few days later, it was, to our horror, crawling with larvae. Dis-gus-ting. We then proceeded to bleach the *&^% out of our toilet. Every nook and cranny. Around every screw within reach. It took A. Long. Time. It. Was. Hot. We. Were. Grumpy. But we had heard that if even ONE egg survives this battle of the bins, you are doing all for naught. We did not want to do all for naught. So we sweated and cursed and bleached. Of course, do not think I don’t know there was one place us van dwellers couldn’t reach – the ventilation tube. Sometimes you just have to do your best and hope and pray. (We have talked to others who, without our space constraints, literally submerged all their toilet parts, including the ventilation tube, in bleach.) Anyway, this seemed to do the trick. No new bugs. Until… there were.

Infestation #2

Jump three months or so ahead… this time we threw in ONLY our remaining Thuricide. Right. Away. We were not desperate enough to use carcinogenic moth balls. Probably because this time we did NOT live in denial and started the killing spree after noticing the first fly. Upon emptying the compost bin a few days later*, we still re-bleached all surfaces within reach. Twice. Just for good measure. We were considerably less grumpy because we knew what was coming. Still, n’est pas fun, no?

*This may be a good time to explain why we waited a few days to change the compost. First, a visual:

Life cycle of Drosophila (from Carolina Biological Drosophila manual)

As you can see, the fruit fly eggs take a few days to become larvae. If you use a product to kill your flies, they may die AFTER having laid eggs that then hatch and become larvae. Therefore, it may be a good idea to wait a few days to change your compost after your last fly sighting, to ensure that all the little eggies have hatched and become larvae. They will then be thusly jettisoned from your home. I use the term “may” loosely, as we are newbies here, and hold no official credentials regarding fruit fly elimination; just sharing what we’ve observed in our little petri dish.

What We Learned

  • The whole “disgusting larvae in the bin” episode may have actually been a blessing in disguise.
  • Do not live in denial – act immediately upon seeing the first fly.
  • We started keeping all produce in the fridge – even our tomatoes and berries and such – because – you just never know…
  • We are trying the “stocking over the hole” precaution and will let you know how it all turns out.
  • Neither of these unfortunate incidents made us love our toilet any less. I doubt there is anything that could. We loves it we does.

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