Category Archives: H2O

Watershed Management Group brings composting toilets to Tucson!

I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in a composting toilet pilot project by Watershed Management Group (WMG).  This pilot project, Soil Stewards, began this summer by inviting some 25-30 homes, test sites, and organizational partners (such as the Community Food Bank) to construct and host a composting toilet system on their property.  The purpose of this pilot project was to test out two different types of home composting toilets, with the goal of lowering the cost of materials as well as simplifying the process for installation and permitting.  It is a two year project, in which we use, maintain, and monitor the composting systems in an effort to demonstrate the ease and accessibility of composting human waste in a safe and affordable way.

Below is a slideshow of the process of construction and installation for my composting system.  You will notice that I went perhaps a little overboard in building the privacy structure to house my outdoor, composting toilet.  You might also notice that it’s downright awesome.  It, along with the other numerous backyard features that focus on sustainability, will be part of WMG’s Second Annual Home-Scape Tour.

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So you’re probably asking, how does all this all work?  Does it smell?  Or simply, are you serious?!?  So first of all let me say that David Omick (who designed the barrel system that I am using and is working with WMG), and Watershed Management Group probably explain things endlessly better than me.  David’s open-sourced details on the barrel composting system is here, and WMG’s Soil Stewards page has tons of information including this video.

But down to the nitty gritty details.  Because I know you have questions.  The process goes like this: you do your business, you use a squirt bottle of some sort to wet the toilet paper as it lies to aid with decomposition, and you cover everything with a layer of dry material such as wood shavings, mesquite duff (leaves), or even shredded paper.  The point is that the next person who uses it won’t see anything but dry cover material at the bottom of the barrel, as well as provide the necessary carbon to offset the nitrogen that is in human waste.  There are three barrels because once one is filled, it needs to sit and actually compost (or finish composting) without the addition of new material.  You need at least 4-6 months for this process to fully become useable compost and have killed any dangerous bacteria and other vectors (this has been tested and is indeed extremely safe).  So having three allows a continuous rotation that is both safe and requires minimal user contact with feces.  Smell?  I can honestly say that the only time there is any disagreeable smell is when I use the compost hand crank to turn the compost every couple times per week.  That process lasts about one minute (seriously), and even that is more ammonia-y than anything you might be imagining.  Bugs?  Well the design is a completely sealed one, minimizing any bugs that are able to make it in, but there is a very simple fly trap (the upsidedown mason jar you see in the pictures) where flies head towards the light and can’t use their bug brains to figure out how to get out.  Flies have been a non-issue for me the entire time.  In terms of using the finished compost, well I haven’t gotten that far.  People who have used this system for years, have it down well enough to know that they are safe to use it even on their vegetable gardens.  However it is recommended that one start with compost application on trees, shrubs, and other non-food items around the yard.

Now I get that at first glance this may sound like someone who is over the top with sustainability ideas and therefore making it sound much better and easier than the reality is.  I can tell you, I am not.  And that is the entire point of this pilot project – to find a system that is both affordable and easy to use for the average home-owner.  Which is why part of the project is a regular monitoring component that allows WMG to more effectively work with the ADEQ to move forward on making these systems available to anyone who is interested in them.


I want one.


If you do too, you can find out more at Technicians for Sustainability in Tucson, AZ.  (That’s where I borrowed the image from at least….)

Outdoor shower…

Just in time for the 100 degree temps the outdoor shower is completed with lots of help from all sorts of people. Chris helped cement posts, my dad showed up to work on the copper plumbing with me, mom, Chris, and Megan stained the slats at various times. My neighbor of course thinks I am crazy but the shower is quite possibly the best thing we have done to the backyard so far… And for those of you who are wondering what in the world I am thinking, well here are the three main reasons we wanted an outdoor shower:

1. Water goes into the ground, and helps to recharge the terribly depleted aquifer. (We only use biodegradable soap outside and hair washing will take place inside.)
2. Water from our outside spigot is often cooler (after the initial blast of superheated water lava) than water that is piped into the house, which when low temps in the summer rarely get below 80 degrees at night, the desire for cold showers nears obsessive.
3. Seriously, there is nothing better than a refreshing shower under the stars or in the morning sun as birds are singing.

Here is some evidence.


Come on in!

Notice the beautifully stained wood and the wonderfully welded copper piping – thanks to everyone who helped! Also the bench to the right. Don’t worry, it’s sanded very smooth.

Aerial photography.

November rain.

Yesterday morning I woke up to the sound of water dribbling down the ABS pipe along the house that leads to the cistern. This was a new sound, and as a homeowner (especially early in the morning) new sounds are by definition suspicious. I sat up very startled, and was quickly calming myself, satisfied that everything was going where it was supposed to and indeed making all the right noises according to their little water paths – I had just never heard these things before.

So today, I googled images for “chicken” and “rain” and this snapshot of Don, Jim, Bob, Alva, and Bud is one of the photos I got. Not exactly what I was looking for – I have never met those five hefty, mountain men, but I am sure they had a good time eating the chicken if the rain didn’t keep the fire at bay.

I am really writing because I could barely contain my excitement that it is actually raining and the water catchment tank is filling up (slowly as there is really only a light drizzle here and there). This morning I could even turn on the spigot to find free, untainted agua pouring out. This is all very exciting as the cistern has now lost its catchment virginity of sorts. I also saw a little toad between the aloe patch and the cover crop I have planted in the summer beds. I always take it as a good sign that random little creatures live in the yard – unless they are feral cats going after the chickens (there’s at least one that I regularly am forced to throw rocks at) or hundreds of swallows making off with free chicken feed (I’m thinking a scarecrow?).

And with the rain, the gutters have not fallen off (though there are a few places I will have to seal up), the tank hasn’t fallen over, and the plants in the basins look very content with their new found locations. According to all the weather websites and forecasters, there is a 100% chance of rain for the rest of the day and night, into tomorrow. For anyone who knows anything about Tucson, saying that it will rain with such certainty is nearly unheard of, and tantamount to saying something like Dick Cheney is going to have another heart attack, take his shiny, black helmet off, and beg forgiveness just like he did in Star Wars – don’t get our hopes up if it isn’t absolutely true.

Well at least it’s raining.

Catching Water: A progression

Day 1: Before we got started. I actually just put the ladders there because it looked too empty.

Day 2: Progress has been made – more is about to take place. This time we actually needed the ladder.

After all sorts of hard work and sweat. No ladder, just wishing for rain…

Catching Water: Day 2

Day 2 was oh-so-satisfying I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day. Even before 5pm the backyard looked totally transformed with the cistern all finished and sealed, and two whole basins lined with rocks, planted, and mulched. Everyone worked fabulously and seemed to enjoy the whole day. Before I knew it, time was up and we had accomplished way more than I had anticipated. Planting native flowers and grasses is so instantly gratifying, especially here in the desert where greenery is sparse and plant life certainly more subtle. (For great help and a wide selection of native plants visit Desert Survivors.)

Because things went so smoothly I have very little in the way of photo documentation during the bulk of the day’s work. The work mostly included extending PVC pipe to the spigot, cutting inside ABS pipe to length within the cistern, and ensuring that the basin was deep enough to accommodate overflow from the ABS overflow line. Enough technical details. Here are the photos.

This is Basin 1. It is actually not for the water cistern but will be fed by a gutter system off the shop roof.

Working, digging, planting, supervising on Basin 2 that will receive overflow water from the cistern.

Still working on Basin 2. The river rocks along the edge help to prevent erosion.

There is a lot of standing around happening in this picture, but consider it similar to one of those moments when suddenly there is silence among a large group of people – before, it was really chaotic, but for that moment it seems calm and ordered. Either way, we got heaps done.

Everything is sealed, sawn, and ready to get filled with water – as soon as we take the ladder out.

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