If you are not yet composting human waste on your homesteading survival retreat or bugout location, you should be. For far too long folks thought there was no way to turn safely compost human waste and deemed it forever to be useless “black water.” Now, creating “humanure” is a lauded and growing trend.
When living off grid, during good times or bad, disposing of human waste is an issue. Human waste is a massive disease spreader that can quickly cost lives when folks are living in unsanitary conditions – especially when calling a doctor is not an option.
Horse manure has long been a covered natural fertilizer and used in gardening plots and as a basis for composting piles in rural regions all over the country.
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What is Humanure Composting?
Humanure is the fecal and urine of people that is recycled for agricultural purposes. The waste of humans must be properly recycled, or composted, to eliminate any potential health risks and the contamination of water sources the raw sewage can leach into.
During the composting process, organic material is aerobically decomposed as internal and biological heat develops. The humanure, livestock manure, and food scraps put into a compost pile are eaten by microscopic organisms, insects, fungi, or worms – or all of them at once.
After the composting helpers digest the human waste, it begins to turn into a soil like matter that is then mixed with other organic materials, like straw, grass, or sawdust, or leaves.
The addition of the dry matter helps soak up the moisture in the human waste and draws away some of its nitrogen content the composting helpers do not like to consume.
Humanure Sanitation System
Even if you have no desire to treat your growing crops with humanure, you should still learn how to treat human waste so you can make an off grid SHTF sanitation and leach bed system.
You do not need an extremely expensive commercially manufactured composting commode or an inexpensive dry composting commode, to make a humanure sanitation system for your prepper retreat.
In the second part of this humanure article series, we will offer step-by-step instructions on how to make your own human waste composting system (which health departments may very well frown upon) that uses a standard wet flush conventional toilet.
Instead of paying a few hundred dollars to have your septic tank pumped out every couple of years, or having it overflow and back up during a long-term SHTF situation, you could put in a humanure system now so you can vastly reduce the amount of raw sewage at your homesteading survival retreat on day one and better protect the health of your family.
Humanure Composting Collection System
Typically, a large plastic square container or several plastic 50-gallon drums are used as humanure composting collection receptacles when making a sanitation system.
White, almost see-through plastic square bins that can hold between 50 gallons up to 100 gallons of material are sold at agricultural supply stores and are often used by farmers to tote water to livestock.
VC pipe and some other common supplies and tools are also needed to construct a humanure compostng system to attach to a dry or wet flush commode.
Until humanure completes the composting process, it can be deemed a threat to public health and must be kept contained. It is illegal to put raw human waste on the soil.
Typically, two human sanitation rules cover the collection and use of humanure.
- Excrement from humans should ever come into contact with the soil – I doubt any of the people that made these laws ever went primitive camping!
- Human excrement should not ever come into contact with any waterway.
Human Waste Composting Legalities
Some states, including Washington, Oregon and many East Coast states, have laws on the books that regulate composting toilets. In some locations, a permit is needed and a NSF certified composting toilet is required.
In rural regions like where I live, there is no government permit office or even any zoning laws (that little tidbit of information just shocked all you suburban and urban preppers, right?!) so any regulations governing human waste composting would stem from the county health department or be subjected to a blanket state law.
Homemade composting commodes have become legal in some states in recent years – other states, like
Arizona, have embarked on pilot programs to further investigate the use of site-built composting toilets.
Even in states where homemade composting toilets are legal, they may have to meet an approved guideline or be inspected before they are put into use.
Typically, a family who already lives inside the home where the composting toilet will be installed and are not building a newly constructed home, can install a composting commode without going through any permit process if they maintain at least one conventional commode that is attached to either a septic system or public sewer – whether or not they ever use it.
The humanure created by the composting commode cannot be transported off the property nor can it create any public nuisance via odors, leaching, or similar types of issues that could pose a health risk or cause a complaint to be filed by a neighbor.
Outdoor Humanure Composting Toilet
You could skip the entire humanure collection and sanitation process and opt instead for an old-fashioned outhouse and simply move it or build a new one and dig another hole.
But, there are two great reasons NOT to do that – in addition to missing out on the benefits of using humanure in your compost pile.
It is illegal to defecate “into holes in the ground” in most states. But as a rural Appalachian resident I can assure you that outhouses still exist and are used on a daily basis – without any public health outbreak that I have ever heard about.
1. You will have to go outdoors in the bitterly chilly and rain to use the outhouse. This is not a fun prospect and could make your more susceptible to catching a cold, the flu, or pneumonia.
When you cannot call a doctor, even the common cold could become deadly if you become dehydrated from repetitive diarrhea or cannot bring down a high fever using stockpiled or natural medicines.
2. Going to the outhouse at regular interviews, like in the morning after you get out of bed or in the evening before laying down for the night, potential attackers can easily track your movements and move in when you are in a very vulnerable position – or shoot you on the way to the outhouse.
Is Humanure Safe?
The use of human waste is still a hotly debated topic and likely still strictly frowned upon by your local health department. But, why? If you own survival livestock, you already know how beneficial using their manure is for your compost pile and ultimately – your garden.
The controversial aspect of using human waste for composting stems from the ability to separate urine from feces. Some experts staunchly content humanure is not safe for use around edible plants, fruit trees and bushes, or in the vegetable garden.
The waste is rich healthy nutrients, but is also contains bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens… if they are not removed properly.
Many so-called experts on human waste compost use believe it is not either responsible or sensible to process the waste at home, that such activities should only be conducted in commercial facilities that are regulated by the EPA.
Those are probably some o the same folks who would wag their fingers in your face because you make your own natural medicines instead of going to a pharmacy to help heal your body. Since I have not had a reason to go see a doctor in over a decade, I think I will stick to my natural medicines routine.
Human Urine As A Fertilizer
Raw human feces is not only smelly and bulky, it also often contains more pathogens than urine – which can be diluted and used almost immediately in the compost pile or garden.
This is why some humanure composting systems are set up with a flap inside the pipes that connects to the commode to divert the urine stream from the feces strain to keep the waste separated into two different exit pipes.
Some recent studies have proven that human urine is a great and safe fertilizer for tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, beets, in particular, but just about any other crops that grow in most gardens.
Human urine typically has a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratio of about 10:1:4 – and also boast other beneficial trace elements that can help plants thrive.
If you are separating urine from feces via your off (or on) grid sanitation system, mix up to 10 parts water with a 5-gallon buckets of collected urine and then spray it AROUND the garden plants. Some gardeners are so pleased with the results stemming from the use of human urine as a fertilizer, they refer to it as “golden irrigation.”
Still, you really shouldn’t start peeing directly onto the plants in your garden. The high concentration of nutrients can harm the microorganisms in the soil and actually burn the plants. You can, however, urinate directly onto your compost pile and onto straw bales you are going to use to cover or condition planters.
The diluted human urine should only be sprayed or poured onto the garden soil or the compost pile when it is at least 50 degrees outside. The beneficial microbes in the urine are not really “active” and capable of soaking up excess nitrogen in the soil when the thermometer sinks too slow.
You can stockpile human urine during cold weather and keep it in a bucket with a firm-fitting lid until warmer temperatures arise. If someone in the household has been ill, quarantine the urine for about 14 days to kill any possible pathogens in the waste before using it in the garden or on the compost pile.
The rich nitrogen content in human urine makes it a great fertilizer for both leafy crops and seedlings. The urine does not usually possess a high potassium count, making it a less effective fertilizer for fruits, flowers, and roots of many plants.
If you toss some wood ash into the urine bucket, it usually will pack the boost it needs to make it a better fertilizer for fruits and flowers – and can even make tomatoes taste far more sweet. Wood ash is rich in calcium.
Urine commonly also contains substantial levels of salt that can harm plants during a dry season – stunting the growth of the plants and causing its leaves to wilt and appear scorched. Adding more water to the urine bucket should alleviate this potential problem.
Human “Poo” As A Fertilizer
There are several ways to turn solid human waste into viable and enviable fertilizer. The humanure must be turned into a “hot pile” to kill potentially dangerous pathogens, treated with earthworms, or storing it in a container with a tight-fitting lid for at least 12 months to kill off bad organisms – or a combination of the three.
Using worms to process waste into safe and viable composting material is called vermicomposting. Red worms are used for this type of composting because they thirve in 55 to 77 degree temperatures and are well-suited to live inside a “worm bin.”
Red worms are also commonly referred to as manure worms, tiger worms, red wiggles, or red hybrid worms. Typically, one pound of worms per a ½ pound of waste are considered a prime composting ratio.
You can dig up your own red worms, they are common in most regions of the United States, or purchase them from most gardening, agriculture, or bait stores.
Once you make or buy a simple bin for the worms to live in and fill it with some bedding, simply take the worms in your hand and scatter them on top of the bin. The worms will instinctively burrow inside the bin once sunlight beats down on their skin.
The bins inside the waste pile should be fairly shallow, about 1-inch deep, to allow the worms to feed on the top layers and to prevent possible odor issues. The length of the worm bin will be determined by the dimensions of the waste barrel or collection container it is placed inside.
A plastic storage container from the local dollar store will work just fine as a worm bin – or make a shoe-box size bin out of scrap wood. Drill up to one dozen up to a ½ inch in diameter holes in the bottom of the worm bin to allow for airflow and necessary drainage and aeration.
A loose-fitting cover or lid must be placed on top of the worm bin to provide the darkness the littler critters need and to conserve the moisture created inside the bin. A piece of burlap will suffice as a lid if the worm bin is not directly exposed to the outdoors.
Heap or Free Worm Bin Bedding Options:
- Shredded Paper
- Peat Moss
- Shredded Cardboard
Commercially manufactured worm bedding works also, but is rather expensive. Worm boxes should be filled about two-thirds full with loose bedding. A 2-foot by 3-foot worm box will need to have about 13 pounds pounds of loose bedding.
Once the bedding is placed inside the worm bin, moisten the material and let is absorb as much of the water as possible – this process typically takes about 24 hours. I use peat moss in our worm bins. Ring out the moistened bedding like you would a wash cloth and dump any excess water from the bin before filling it with worms.
When we somehow got involved in rescuing tortoises, they required some very specific humidity levels in their enclosures to get them healthy and keep them that way. Peat moss seemed to hold moisture better than any other material, even commercially manufactured products designed for that purpose.
Turn A Regular Toilet Into A Flushing Compost Commode
Composting commodes are expensive, unless you don’t mind using a waterless camping version that you have to dump every few days… yuck.
Setting up a sanitary system to dispose of raw sewage should be an integral part of your survival homesteading retreat preps. Untreated human waste can spread deadly diseases now, before a SHTF disaster when you can still call a doctor.
A person with just moderate “handy man” skills, a free weekend, and several hundred dollars to spare can turn a water flushing conventional commode into a reliable humanure composting sewage system.
What Happens Inside the Composting Tank?
You need five basic components to compost human waste – or any organic material
- Organic Material
The composting commode described below – or any type of off grid composting commode for that matter, functions almost exactly like the compost pile you are probably (or should be) cultivating out of food scraps and livestock manure, for your garden.
Human waste almost always include more liquid than common kitchen scraps, that is why a separate pipe diverts the fluid either from or through the bottom of, composting commode systems.
Aerobic respiration is the very technical term who what happens to our poo when it goes through a composting commode. It is the process of producing cellular energy with oxygen. The cells in the organic material break down the food and/or waste in a multi-step process.
The first step in the process involves glycolysis, then come the citric acid cycle and finally the electron transport part of the system.
Even if you opt against using the processed human waste in your garden composting pile, the humanure should no longer pose a health risk to yourself and your loved ones.
Vermicomposting Flush Toilet Basic Components
- Standard commode
- Worm Bin
- Green Filter Bed
You can read this article on how to make it.
Setting Up a Conventional Flushing Commode Composting System
1. The flushing drains from the commode will filter through a waste pipe that runs into an insulated container. A plastic agricultural tank or a 55-gallon plastic barrel (or two) work great.
A 1,000 liter livestock water hauler tank is the perfect size for a system designed to house the waste from a three to five person household. You will need approximately 5,000 worms to handle the processing of the human feces in the tank when it is filled.
2. Dig a hole large enough to house your container and the rocks and auxiliary insulation material that must go around the holding tank system. The red worms need temperatures of roughly 55 to 80 degrees in their environment to survive.
The hole for the tank must be dug below the level of the commode and as close as possible, to the toilet. Line the hole with rocks to form a stable rock wall and then use polystyrene insulation to fill the space between the rock wall and your tank.
Do not forget to put insulation under the tank and attach a layer to the underside of the lid you make to cover the hole the tank will fill – wood or galvanized metal work great.
3. Make an access hatch to allow you to get into the system for maintenance and worm care by cutting half of the top of the stock tank away. Plastic 55-gallon drums may or may or may not come with a removable lid. If your barrel does not, an access hatch will need to be cut into it, as well.
The thick plastic used to make either container should fit back together quite snugly when the hatch is closed – but the opening will still need to be screwed onto the container to prevent excess water from getting inside and the smell for the goings on inside the container, from getting out.
4. The PVC waste pipe coming from the commode to the tank must be secured onto the tank, barrel, or similar holding container. You can run the waste pipe into the tank via the hatch door, using standard hardware to secure it into place. Wherever you choose to inset the waste pipe, keep the gravity feed necessary for the human waste to flow, in mind.
5. The plastic container will house the worm bin filled with moisture-retentive bedding and a significant amount of red worms.
6. The worms will thrive and dine upon the incredibly carbon rich organic matter you also must put in the tank. A layer of sawdust, wood shavings, leaves, wood ash, straw – or a combination of these or like materials, will be the surface layers inside the plastic tank or barrel. They layers should comprise up to ¼ of the space in the tank.
7. Place material from your composting pile that is only about half processed, inside the tank or barrel on top of the organic matter. The composting material should comprise about 1/8 of the space in the tank.
8. When the conventional commode is flushed, the solid human waste will remain on the surface layers in the tank and be consumed and processed by the red worms.
9. The liquids (urine and water) that flow through the drain and into the tank will filter through the layers in the tank or barrel and exit at the bottom of the container through a waste pipe – and into a green bed. The bed must also be layered with carbon rich material so the liquids can either be processed by bacteria in the soil or plants you put in the green bed.
10. The green bed will function much like a sponge and soak up the bacteria from the black water (solid human waste and water) and also function as a carbon reserve. A branched two to four pipe system coming from the holding tank will allow the black water to gravity feed into the green bed. No liner should be needed on the bottom of the bed because the waste will flow through the filtering material after being processed by the worms and organic material in the holding tank, before it goes into the ground.
Do not put the green bed in an area that floods, but even if you get a heavy rain, the processed black water should act aid and not harm, surrounding trees, grass, bushes, and plants. The growing or green bed should be dug large enough to hold up to 400 gallons of volume at one time. The green bed must be filled about one and half feet deep, with organic matter – like straw, wood ash, sawdust, wood shavings, etc.
11. Back fill the green bed with quality topsoil. You can even place plants that thrive on nitrogen right inside the bed.
You may notice a very slight smell coming from your humanure composting system when it first gets up and running, but the stink should dissipate in a few days to a week once the red worms get hard at work processing the fecal matter.
Tara Dodrill is a homesteading and survival journalist and author. She lives on a small ranch with her family in Appalachia. She has been both a host and frequent guest on preparedness radio shows. In addition to the publication of her first book, ‘Power Grid Down: How to Prepare, Survive, and Thrive after the Lights go Out’, Dodrill also travels to offer prepping tips and hands-on training and survival camps and expos.