Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Pondering Utilities For The Shed-House

Part of the fun of planning my shed-house(for the distant future) is finding economical ways to make it livable and comfortable. I could go with the traditional methods of hooking up to a septic system and bringing electricity from the electric company. But there are other options to consider.

A septic system costs about $6,000 to install. I might be able to attach my shed to the existing septic but it would still cost a grand or two because they would have to dig under the mobile home. Another option is to buy a composting toilet such as this Biolet composting toilet. Here is a blog about a girl who built her own tiny house: Turnbull tiny house complete with a composting toilet and solar panels. Those toilets are quite expensive. The model she used was priced at $1,400! That's a lot of money for a toilet and that was the cheap model! There are other low tech options such as a 5 gallon bucket with a toilet seat. Sawdust is used to absorb liquid and cover the smell. I even saw a homemade version on ebay from what looked like a Rubbermaid container. They wanted $500! Those homemade toilets look an awful lot like human litter boxes. I might as well just share with my cat :) Oh no! My mother's fear has come true! I am turning in to a crazy cat lady! An in-between option would be to buy a portable camping toilet which costs from $70-$150. I do have access to the septic drain. I would just need to empty my toilet once a week. I have to empty my RV holding tank once a month so I am used to the chore anyway. All other waste water from the shower, sink and laundry could be directed to the landscape so if I had a composting or portable toilet I wouldn't even have to be connected to a septic system.

Electricity is a little more complicated. Air conditioning is a must! I found an ad for a wall mounted AC, the kind I saw on the home tour. LG brand wall mount air conditioner Guess the price? $1,400! Yikes, the toilet that I want AND the AC cost $1,400 a piece. I think I could live with a plain old thru the wall version. They only cost $150.

Now, I'm not sure how much it would cost to bring electricity to the shed but I do know that I can't seem to find an electrician willing to come out here for such a small job. There are solar panels from Camping World that cost from $30 for a small panel that just keeps an RV battery charged (good for a few lights) to a large panel for over $2,000 that would run a water pump, microwave and TV. That still leaves the water heater, AC, and room heater without power. Hot water could be heated by the sun at least half of the year. I could just buy a snowsuit for the short winter. Propane gas is an option for both the heater and water heater. AC is still a problem. I don't how much it would cost for enough solar panels and batteries to run one of those wall mounted AC units (the house on the home tour had enough panels on the roof to run the AC)but I bet it is expensive. I guess an easier option would be to install a RV outlet in my shed and buy a 50 foot, 30 amp extension cord. They only cost $80 and would run all of my electronics. I wonder if my shed is more than 50' away from the electrical box? That could be a problem.

I would love to do all of the new cool stuff but sometimes simple and cheaper is the way to go. Well, I have a few years before my shed-house will be a reality. I can't wait to see what innovative stuff they invent next.


Over the Cubicle Wall said...

I wonder if they still make/install outhouses?

Daizy said...

Someone at work said exactly the same thing! No way would I dig an outhouse, and no I don't think they are legal. I am not going outside for that purpose and I don't even want to think about the creatures that would like to live in there. Icky!

Over the Cubicle Wall said...

They would be my last option that is for sure.

I saw a report on metaefficient about solar powered air conditioning units, but they are not widely available right now, and cost $5-6k. Plus, I believe you had to buy the solar panels separate. I think they were size for 800 sf or so. Maybe, as you say, one day.

moocifer said...

Try the sawdust toilet and compost pile. ( I assume you've read Jenkins's "The Humanure Bible"). I do it in a much more populated area than your shed looks like it is in.

Actually, the sawdust doesn't "cover up" the odor, it basically prevents it (for the 3 or 4 days you use it before emptying in on the compost pile and covering it with straw/hay/leaves or whatever) by combining with the nitrogen in your urine to prevent the creation of ammonia gas.

Anyways, the sawdust bucket carry system is very easy and you don't have to go outside to "do the do".

And it's just about free.

moocifer said...

@"There are other low tech options such as a 5 gallon bucket with a toilet seat. Sawdust is used to absorb liquid and cover the smell. I even saw a homemade version on ebay from what looked like a Rubbermaid container. They wanted $500! Those homemade toilets look an awful lot like human litter boxes."

Yes, they are human litter boxes, except you don't walk in them like my cat walks in his.

Just get a 5 gallon plastic bucket that some restaurant is throwing out (or buy one for $5 at Home Depot or wherever) and some sawdust. Sit on the edge of the bucket (that's what I do). It's plenty sturdy--would probably last 50 years doing that.

Have another container for the sawdust to cover after you're done and put a scoop in it like a cut off soda bottle or milk bottle.

The bucket edge is not as comfortable as a seat, but you don't need a toilet seat on it just to try it. Heck, you don't need a toilet seat at all to tell you the truth.

If you decide to go "luxury" on it you can just buy a toilet seat and build a plywood box and mount the seat on top, with the bucket under it. That's how most people do it. Save your $500 bucks.

Once you try this system (and see how well the compost pile works and how easy it is) the ridiculous lengths people go to to handle their excrement and urine will look just like that--ridiculous.

Daizy said...

Wow, bugbear, thanks for all of the first-hand info. I am trying to think of a low or no-cost alternative to sawdust. Since I live in the desert it seems like the only free material is sand. Do you think sand would be sufficient or do I really need to find a sawdust source?

moocifer said...

Hi Daizy,

Sand would do the trick of covering the #2 up so flies can't get on it and lay eggs. But it won't stop the urine from smelling. You could try
peeing in a gallon milk bottle (with funnel) and then emptying it out
when you empty the bucket with the "#2". That way it wouldn't smell in
your cabin because the pee would be sequestered and contained.

That kind of system is called a "urine diversion" system. Most of the nitrogen is in the urine, and it's the urine that starts to smell real intense after a short time, like a day and a half. #2 just smells a tiny bit at first, then the
smell goes away (at least, in my experience, using organic cover

Do you have any kind of dry organic material there at all? Shredded agave leaves? You could newspaper as a bottom liner for the bucket and
shredded paper as the material. Just shred some newspapers in your
document shredder, or some credit card bills, before you go. There
will be chemicals in them from the dye, but paper will work.

I actually use leaves from the maple trees on my property. In the past I've had the best results from sawdust in a bucket, then hay/straw on the compost pile. Any kind of dry woody material that's a little absorbent and not too coarse seems to work. The desert scenario does
seem a little different than what I am used to thinking about. It may
be worth thinking about using a low pit, just spreading the manure in
a 4x4 area that is fenced off with rocks (like a "fire pit"). I would
guess that the sun would bake it dry in a few days and heat it up to
temperature that would take care of any "health concerns". (Actually, there is a technique called "frosting a rock" that you can use at high elevations to safely "dispose" of #2 when you are hiking. You spread it thinly across a rock, then the uv rays from the sun sterilize it(!).( Hopefully no one comes across it before it is dried up and

One thing I would try to be aware of what happens when you get a lot of
rain, where the rain flows--you don't want the "pile" being washed off
into the nearest river/arroyo. Being aware of the characteristics of your site, you may have an idea about where would be good to avoid
flood runoff. (That's on thing the compost pile is supposed to
prevent, as well as destroying any potential human pathogens due to
both time, compost heating, and just plain biological competition in the compost pile, where bacterial human pathogens are not adapted very well to. Parasite eggs are a big fear for some people but i'd guess (a) you don't have them and (b) even if you did, you can just use a
rotating system of using one pile for one year, another pile for
another, that takes care of that (even roundworm eggs, which remain
viable up to one year). That's if you even cared about using the
"compost". If you're just looking for a "waste disposal" method, you
could just use the same pile all the time because you aren't planning on using it for any agricultural or horticultural purpose.

I wouldn't overthink it too much. Just give it a try and see how it goes.

Also, maybe try emailing Joseph Jenkins on his website. (he's the
author of the Humanure Bible). He may have had some contact with
people who are faced with a desert situation and be able to point you
in a better direction more knowledgeably.

Ok that was long. Good luck!

Daizy said...

Wow again. The urine diversion method was what I was thinking about. And I'm not planning on using it as compost other than to plant a tree or two nearby. The sun pretty much dehydrates everything rapidly. I tried a simple trash can compost pit once for kitchen waste but didn't have enough extra water to keep it moist. Of course if I divert my grey water to the same area that would give me more moisture but I rely on rainwater so I am forced to conserve.

Your shredded credit card junk mail idea is too funny. What a perfect use for them!

moocifer said...


I guess you could say I know my shit.


moocifer said...

For the bucket cover material and bedding (what I call the material i put in the bottom of the bucket to "go" on) , maybe get an end roll from a newspaper if there's one in your town. It'll just be a big roll of blank newsprint that's too small for them to use on their next print run. The newspaper will often give them away for free. I wouldn't tell them you're going to shred it, though. You can shred up a ton in a document shredder before you go to the cabin and put it in a big plastic contractor garbage bag. Or there may be a document shredding company near you that would let you have a bag of shredded paper.

Actually for your situation, if you are doing urine diversion, and it's all gonna dry up in a day and a half anyway, I would say just go in the bare bucket and don't even bother lining the bucket with paper--I suspect that your pile will be so dry that the newsprint won't have time to decompose and once it dries up, it could just blow away and become "litter", whereas without the paper there'll just be extremely dried out #2. And when you empty it out just use a scrubby brush and some greywater to swish the bucket clean. The sun is going to dehydrate it all so don't bother with the carbon and nitrogen combining part. The only part that would smell is the urine and you'll have that in a capped container.

If you had a covered container with vents to compost it, that would be different. But maybe try the bare bucket approach with no cover material for toilet bucket-just a lid for the bucket.

Of course, the guests may be appalled!

BTW, please let me know what you end up doing and how it ends up working!

moocifer said...

@ "I tried a simple trash can compost pit once for kitchen waste but didn't have enough extra water to keep it moist."

Okay, I reread this--that's your perfect system! Your urine (like, 1.5 liters a day where I come from) will provide all the moisture. Do the kitchen scraps in with the humanure, which is how it's supposed to be done. The only thing that might happen is that without enough high-carbon stuff (sawdust, newsprint,dried shredded agave leaves)it might start to make ammonia gas. In that case, go back to just pouring the urine somewhere else.

moocifer said...

RE: the electrical: PV for AC would definitely be beyond astronomical.

Running a line out to the shed is a more feasible plan. Even if it is too far for an RV extension cord, "they" do make cables that will carry electricity as far as you want. An electrician could spec it out for you, accounting for the resistance of the extra distance and calculating the type of cable that would be needed.

As for solar hot water: I bet you could have that all year long, including winter, IF you install an evacuated tube preheating system. The water goes into a black tube that is within a clear vacuum tube (to reduce/eliminate convective heat loss) and a system pumps fluid through it. But you would need a reliable electrical supply to operate it (so it doesn't freeze at night and break) so maybe that wouldn't be the best thing for your situation. Unless you run that line out to the cabin.


Daizy said...

Bugbear, you are a fountain of information. You almost make me want to go out and use a bucket in my shed-house even though I have a perfectly good toilet in my RV at the moment. I am having trouble falling asleep as visions of bucket toilet designs dance in my head :)

Regarding the electricity, I am adding wiring books to my Amazon wish list because I can't seem to get an electrician to give me a quote. 3 guys never came back and the neighbor that smells like beer is my best choice. I'm going to have to do it myself. It is so frustrating!