Five times I wished we had a normal toilet

For living aboard, or off-grid living, it’s hard to beat the simplicity of a composting toilet. One of our first projects after buying the boat was to remove the aging head and all of the associated plumbing and tanks. The smell from those hoses and tanks is breathtaking. Literally, breathtaking. We chose to replace that system with a simple composting toilet made by Nature’s Head.

Check out an excellent video explanation of the Nature’s Head here!

Nature’s Head is a urine-diverting composting toilet. In essence, it separates liquids from solids to allow the solid matter to more readily compost and to reduce the smell which is largely attributed to the urine’s interaction with the solids. In addition, there is constant ventilation by way of a small 12-volt fan to keep the solids dry and to direct any odors outdoors. It’s one or two steps in sophistication above a pit toilet, but those subtle differences are what make it work so well.


Since the head sits on a ledge, I built a step that folds down from the wall so that our legs don’t dangle from the throne

We absolutely love our composting toilet 99% of the time. Sometimes even the best systems have hurdles to overcome, though. Here are five times I really wished we had a normal toilet:

1. The liquid tanks are full, and it’s the middle of the night. The tank towards the front of the toilet holds the diverted urine. We have an extra tank that we can swap in when the first tank becomes full, but sometimes we forget that the tank has already been changed once, or we get lazy and procrastinate carrying the tanks up to the marina bathroom to empty. One way or another, in the middle of the night, it’s a long walk to the bathroom. For the two of us, we usually have to empty the tanks once per week.

2. The liquid tank overflowed. Sometimes, particularly when half asleep, you may not notice that the tank is full. This rarely happens when it is just the two of us aboard as we have a good mental record of how long it takes to fill the tanks based on average use. The issue more often arises from having guests, whether for a dinner party or an overnight stay. Forgetting to account for the extra use, we assume there is plenty of room left. That’s when reality hits, and we break out the gloves and cleaning supplies. I’m happy to report this has only happened a few times, but a few times too many nonetheless.

3. The liquids diverter failed. The key component of the system is the urine diversion, which keeps the solids dry and relatively odorless. This is beneficial for daily living but also significantly improves the ease of emptying and cleaning the solids tank. When the composted solids remain dry, they resemble dirt and easily empty into a trash bag. When the diverter fails, however, the solids tank resembles that of a porta-potty. It’s disgusting. Thankfully when we had an issue with this, which is exceedingly rare, the fine folks at Nature’s Head immediately responded with replacement parts.


4. The solids spilled out of the trash bag while emptying. This isn’t as bad as it sounds because, usually, by the time you are emptying the solids they have at least begun to decompose and resemble a fertile soil in texture and smell. It can, however, still make a mess. On more than one occasion I have been a little too hasty in my efforts to dump the contents of the bin into a trash bag and have either ripped the bag or missed altogether, dumping the partially composted solids onto the deck. We usually empty this bin about once per month, so it is rare that I have to deal with this, and rarer yet to have a spill.

5. The liquids spilled while emptying the tank. This, unfortunately, happens more often than not and is my one major complaint about the system. Whether you are draining the liquids into a shoreside facility, overboard (offshore), or in your backyard somewhere, the design of the tank can be challenging to empty. The problem I have run into is that if you pour too fast you risk splash-back, and it’s as terrible as it sounds. If you pour too slowly, the liquids dribble down the side of the tank. There is a sweet spot in the middle, but I rarely find it without first experiencing one end of the spectrum first. I wear nitrile gloves whenever I empty the liquid tank now if only to protect me from the heebie-jeebies. I’m not sure what sort of design change would improve this, possibly a spout of some sort, but it’s the only design flaw I’ve found.

Despite these challenges we are completely satisfied with the Nature’s Head and would never go back to the traditional marine system. Though we may have to interact with our waste more than the average person, we can count on the fact that it is (usually) planned and very manageable. Simple. Sustainable. Satisfying.

As I’ve said before, “We must not confuse convenience with simplicity. It is convenient to use a flush toilet, but it is simple to use a composting head. In going right to the dirtiest of examples I wish to relay the sense of satisfaction that can be attained from doing things the simple way. We can find fulfillment in the reclamation of our own responsibilities and in doing so will leave a positive impact on the people and places that surround us.”

Matt Garand

About Matt Garand

Lifelong Mainer, and professional mariner, Matt Garand is the creator of A Life Aboard, a look at year-round living on a sailboat in Maine. Matt and his wife, Skye, live aboard in South Portland and use every available chance to throw off the lines and explore the coast.