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Tiny House Composting Toilet Blues

composting toilet

I’ve been living in my tiny house now for a good while and the big challenge of composting toilet has been going well.  Initially I had wanted to have a flush toilet and my house is setup so I could drop a toilet let in quickly, but the quotes for a sewer line alone started at $50,000 so I begrudgingly went with the composting toilet.

I haven’t really read too much online about people’s experiences with composting toilets, the few I’ve read were just over the moon, glowing reviews.  So I thought I’d share my experience so far.  It has mostly been positive and easier than I thought, but with this recent incident it goes to show it isn’t all great.

more-than-dietThe other thing I don’t think people talk about in their composting toilet posts is diet.  I have learned that a good diet beyond good health, impacts how easy it is to use a composting toilet.  Good healthy foods, meals with salads, and less processed foods makes composting toilets easier to manage.

With a good diet your body functions better, it can extract more moisture and nutrients out of the what you eat and keeps things with composting toilets easier.  I also know the better one eats, the more regular one is; for my body, I usually need to visit the restroom at 10:30 am almost without fail, which 9 times out of 10 means I’m out and about, where there are toilets for me to use.  So diet is worth noting and was something I felt was missing from the discussion.

Currently it is illegal in my city have a composting toilet, as it is in most municipalities; plus I’m renting my land, so I wouldn’t want to be composting on land I don’t own.  What seems like the happy medium and it is what I do, is bagging the waste every week into a biodegradable “plastic” bag and then sending it along with the city trash; at that point its essentially like a diaper, but the plastic will breakdown in a landfill quickly.  There are other options out there for this too and I considered them, but for me this works.

I am currently using pine bedding (from the pets section) which has a nice scent, but I don’t think it absorbs as well as other options.  I’m thinking I’m going to switch to a mix of half pine bedding and half mix of peat moss which is very absorbent.  Peat moss is a pretty good option, but it isn’t a sustainable material, it’s harvesting is actually quite destructive to wet lands.  I know for gardening that coconut coir (husks) is the sustainable version of peat, but I don’t know how it performs in composting toilets.  I’ve ordered an 11 lb block of coconut coir for $16 to try out, which I’ll report back on later.

It has been pretty straight forward, but I still opt to keep my bucket setup outdoors.  I do keep my liquids and solids separate, which at this point means I go peep in the woods and then use the bucket.  Later on I hope add a urine diverter later on, but it isn’t a must at this time.  I have a mini deck space that I keep it on.  The smell isn’t anything to be concerned over, but I’m not sure having it inside with no moving air would be a good idea at this point.

luggable looMy bucket has a pretty tight seal on the lid, so it is pretty hard for things to crawl in, but it is possible.  The other day I went to use my setup and when I opened the lid, I was greeted by a swarm of fly larva.  A hundred wriggling maggots.  It was gross!    What was interesting was they were on the seat between the seat and the lid.  What I don’t know is if that was because the flies couldn’t get into the toilet or if they just preferred that narrow space.

Luckily it was very simple to take care of.  I easily popped off the lid, then hosed it off in a very sunny spot.  I figured the intense sun would kill the larvae so I didn’t have a ton of flies.  I double bag the bucket so I closed the first bag, then tied up the second bag that was still clean.  Job done, took all of two minutes, but I realized something is flawed in my system.

I did some googling to discover that this is a semi-common issue when the heat of summer comes on.  You’ll be going along in the winter, it gets warmer and then all a sudden the flies come out.  I learned about a product called Mosquito Dunk, which you crumble into a spray bottle, mix up with water and then when you use the toilet, you give it a few mists on the surface.

mosquito dunkMosquito Dunk as described by the maker  is a “larvaecide that kills mosquito larvae only. It is deemed organic by the USEPA.  Dunks are harmless to beneficial insects, pets, birds, fish or wildlife.  Kills within hours and lasts for up to 30 days.”

So I’m going to give this option a try and see how things pan out.  I will report back in a few months as I learn more,

Finding Land For A Tiny House

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for tiny houses is finding land to put your tiny house, it can be tough to find land that will be well suited for it.  I wrote a very detailed post that outlines all the things you need to consider when setting up your land for a tiny house, read it here.

In more rural locations this may not be as hard as land is pretty available and cheap; not to mention building codes and enforcement are often a bit laxer.  However, most people live in cities, like myself, and land is tricky to come by.

In my city, Charlotte, there is very few empty lots that aren’t in a planned neighborhood that is governed by a HOA.  Land can be very expensive and the remaining lots often are not being used for very good reasons.

In general I think it’s best to find a place where there is a house there already, then piggyback off their utilities.  This can be a really easy option if you’re in a place that doesn’t have HOAs.  In Charlotte, most of the housing is about 20 years old or less, so Home Owner Associations are pretty much everywhere here in my city.  It’s just a matter of meeting the right people who might consider allowing you to live in your tiny house in their back yard.

Tiny Houses Are Hard, But So Is Everything That Is Worthwhile

The truth is that when it comes to tiny houses, there are many things that will be difficult.  No ShortcutWe all love to dream, we all love to imagine what could be, but when it comes time to actually pull the trigger you need to grapple with some of the realities.  This isn’t to say you can’t live tiny, it is to say that it comes with a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it.

More and more I have come to realize that the things in life that are the hardest are the most worthwhile.  If you think about it, what I show you how to do on this blog or at the Conference is changing the trajectory of your life in such a radical way that it boggles my mind even today.  So when faced with having our lives change in such a dramatically positive way, it makes sense to put a lot of hard work to make it happen.  So here are three reasons why tiny houses are hard, but really worth it.

1. Its a lot of hard work

It takes a lot of really really hard work to build a tiny house.  It’s not scare anyone, but I think people don’t always grasp this fact.  While the process is easy, the scale is approachable and the learning cure made easier with the awesome resources we have now, it doesn’t make the work any easier.  So the process is easy, but the work is hard.

2.  Tiny House Bring An Inherent Risk

When you build and live in a tiny house, you’re taking a risk.  You will most likely need to do it under the radar.  In the ebook mentioned below, I show you how to mitigate the risk of flying under the radar.  In the end, when it comes to codes, people’s perceptions, dealing with neighbors, and much more: its messy.  There will be drama, sleepless nights of worry, having to move and convincing the guy from the power company that you need a panel setup in the middle of the woods, but “I promise I’m not building a meth lab” type of talks.

Our Writer Andrea had to move three times in a single year because of various things beyond her control.  I thought I found land only to have it pulled out from under me.  There is an inherent level of risk that comes with tiny houses and you need to be able to deal with that; if not, then tiny houses might not be for you.

3. Building Codes Are Sticking Point

No matter what anyone tells you, getting your tiny house legal with codes is rare and if it happens, it took a ton of legwork. I see it in the comments all the time “all you have to do is X” and while we want to to believe that its “just that easy”, it is not.  If you doubt this fact, give your code enforcement office a call and try out that person’s magic phrase or loop hole, make sure you mention you want to LIVE in a house that is 150 square feet, see how that works out.

That said if you put in the hard work, you can find solutions to building codes, but it will take a lot of time, piles of paperwork, getting variances, and maybe even go to court; only then you can get it done…. maybe.  I talk about this whole process in my ebook, so I’m not going to belabor this point much more.

 

So while these three things a very tough, they are very much worth the time, effort, and hard work that comes with it.  Tiny houses have the ability to change you life, isn’t that worth some toil?

 

Your Turn!

  • What are the tough points for you and how are you trying to overcome them?

Response To Tiny House Listings’ Tiny House Insurance Post

A while ago I did a post on the topic of Tiny House insurance, which you can read here. I have not forgot about that article and have been doing a lot of thinking around it as of late.  Then I saw the wonderful post done by Laura Moreland over at Tiny House Listings and in the end she said that she hoped to start the conversation.  So I thought it would be fun to do a response to her post!

Like Laura, I am not an insurance expert, so there is a lot to learn about the field, but I’ve done a good bit of research on this and I certainly know tiny houses, so take it for what it is worth.

One thing that Laura pointed out, as I did in my last post, was that there isn’t a real viable option for insuring tiny houses.  I have had a rare few tell me they were able to get insurance through a traditional insurance company by doing this or that.  Regardless of how the did it or arranged it, I’ll be honest, I don’t trust it.  I think if those few folks had to make a major claim they’d never see a dime; I say that not to be ugly, but to make the point that insurance companies will take one look at the tiny house, realize that they should have never said yes to it in the first place and then find a way out of paying.

The one point of contention I will take up with Laura’s post is her logic on how much a tiny house should cost to insure.  She stated

In terms of my home [900 square feet], I pay roughly $800 for insurance a year for the house and contents. It stands to reason then that I would expect to pay $200 a year to insure THO because as it stands, it is roughly ¼ of the value.

The point is a fair one in some respects, but I thought I’d propose an alternative line of thought:Insurance companies work on the premise of risk management, to be viable you must take in more money than you would expect to pay out.   They operate on the assumption that if they can have a pool of people, that only a certain percentage of them will make a claim.  In an ideal world you’d have a large pool of people who are very unlikely to submit a claim.

So essentially when you have a person you want to insure you must be able to determine the risk that insuring that person brings, meaning the likely hood they will submit a claim, how often and for how much.  The higher the risk, the higher the cost of the insurance.  Insurance companies determine this risk by developing actuarial tables that will predict the likelihood that someone will make a claim.  It’s a pretty complex process and based off of really big data sets.  The complexity and level of detail that goes into this means that insurance costs vary wildly from location to location, as well as on a ton of other variables.

So the line of thought I’d propose on price is that the cost of insurance for a tiny house should not be based off of value solely, but that of the assumed risk and that you should be collecting more money than you pay out.  I think many insurance professionals would agree with this statement.  So the question now is, how much risk does a tiny house bring?  I think if we were honest about it, the answer is a lot.  It is after all why traditional insurance companies won’t insure us, because we are too risky of a proposition.

So while the cost of a tiny house is much less, the risk is much higher.  So the costs to insure it will still be pretty high.

This isn’t what a lot of people want to here, but I have a few solutions to this that could help make swallowing this pill a bit easier, but also help keep tiny house insurance premiums lower.  The two things we’d want to achieve is to minimize risks so that the group as a whole can cover their members appropriately while being able to ensure stability for the future; second we want to weed out potential bad apples that will abuse, extort or try to game the good intentions of insuring tiny houses.

Be Transparent

I am a true believer that you need to be honest in your dealings with people and when it comes to someone’s home, there is few 44262008807272831LfIY43STcthings in this world that we care about more (of course the people matter more).  So the mantra trust, but verify is key here.  We need to build a system that is very transparent because we need to earn the trust of our members.

However we choose to structure this, we need to be crystal clear about it.  Even though I propose a non profit model, even though it should be transparent, even though this project would have the best intentions, there are some realities and decisions about those realities that will need to be made.  Things like the points I propose below are good examples.  So we need to be practical, but we also need to be really clear up front and make sure people can easily understand the minimal fine print.  If we can do that, then people can make informed decisions about if they want to join or not.  If I have learned anything from blogging it is, be honest about who you are and what you stand for and own it.

Enact standards

In order ensure that the tiny houses that are insured aren’t poorly built, we need to develop some sort of standard.  The idea being that since tiny houses are often DIY affairs, you need to be sure people aren’t making honest mistakes that could have dangerous consequences.  I don’t think this would have to be a huge set of standards, but there are some key areas of focus that we could advise on which would address safety and structural issues.

Now many people will not like to hear me proposing what amounts to building codes, but I think that if we don’t do it ourselves, someone else will at some point; I think we’d rather help determine the direction than a profiteer or politician.  Next is that these should be accessible, meaning free and easy to understand.  The should also be community driven and reviewed, meaning that people from our community help steer this process, then open it up for feedback from the rest of the community.  It should also be used a teaching tool, not as a way to penalize people; the goal should be to empower first time builders and ensure safety.

High deductible policy and diminishing rates

To help reduce the cost of plan, I think we should have it designed in a way that people only make claims on major damage and total loss.  If you break a $80 window, it shouldn’t be a claim, because small claims will lead to the insurance fund getting nickled and dimed out of existence; we need to balance being their for people in times of needs and being sure that we can stick around as that protection for tiny house people for the long term.

So to achieve this I propose a high deductible, a level TBD and one that could be lowered as the co-op grows to have more members, which will have people in the insurance co-op will handle small things on their own, but sleep well at night knowing that if their house burns down, we are there for you.  The other thing we can do is to encourage people who don’t have any claims by reducing their monthly rate after a certain period of time.  So if you have been with the insurance co-op for a few years, your monthly bill will be negligible; this will encourage people to stick with the co-op long term, but also only make a claim when it is really needed.  I will also propose an unpopular point here, if you make a claim, your rates will return to normal rates for a pre-determined period; this too will help people make claims on only big things.

Trust, But Verify

With dealing with new members to the co-op I think you should always be trusting, but being that this would be a non profit (meaning for the public good) and that existing members are entrusting you to make decisions for the group to ensure that their tiny houses are protected, you need to do your due diligence  on vetting new members and ensuring claims are legitimate.  Again, this won’t be a popular point, but if I am going to say to someone, I got your back if things take a turn for the worst, If I’m going to say I am here for you, I mean it.  So again, I think if I am transparent about the process, that it will include checks and what those checks are, then you can make an informed decision to join or not.

Okay this turned out to be a lengthy post, I had to gloss over a lot, but here are some of the ideas I wanted to put out there for the conversation.

 

The Fallacy Of A Cheap Tiny House

So over the years I have seen many people touting their tiny house as only being a few thousand dollars to build and many crying out in protest over how much some Tiny Houses cost.   While I do think there are many ways to save quite a bit of money during the building process, the fact is Tiny Houses cost money and a good bit of it.

Even though Tiny Houses pale in comparison to the cost of traditional homes, the price tag of a tumbleweed style house or similar often leaves people wondering how they can cost so much.  So I thought I’d break down some key factors that those who claim their house is only a few grand often neglect to mention.

 

istockphoto_5212090_time_is_moneyYour Time:

One of the biggest places that people often don’t assign costs to is time spent on your house; Particularly if you time spent on building your house takes the place of working a normal job.   The fact is that many people don’t have the money to build a tiny house all at once, but they do have time.  So they build it themselves and many spend time sourcing reclaimed materials.  While there absolutely nothing wrong with this, I am taking this approach, you simply cannot say that your time is free.  You have value, your time is valuable, and you are giving it up to build/source in the place of something else.

When it comes to finding reclaimed materials, dumpster diving, checking craigslist every day to find all or some of the materials you need, it takes a huge amount of time.   For those of you who haven’t tried to source materials for an entire house, it can be very hard to understand how much time.  If I were to estimate a figure, I would guess you spend twice the hours spent on building.  Additionally, the ones that do reclaim their materials often have pre-existing social connections that facilitate this that the majority of us simply don’t have.

 

Their Time:

I get a lot of people asking me how to get a tiny house built for them and for many, this is how they want to get to their dream of living in a Tiny House.  For many they don’t have the skills to build a house (though I firmly believe almost anyone can learn)or they have the time to do it.  The fact is that regardless of it being a Tiny House or a McMansion, labor costs to build a home can be anywhere between 40% – 60%.

Now there are some that criticize tiny house builders of charging $50,000 when it costs $25,000 in materials, as building in huge profit margins.  The fact is, if you sit down and really crunch the numbers for what it takes to hire workers, insurance, rent a build site, tools, utilities, and a million other things, I’m surprised that they can eek out a modest living; in fact I don’t know for sure that anyone has been able to have it as their sole job.  Even Jay Schaffer had to expand into books, classes and plans when he first started.

 

Consumables:

15839812-a-close-up-of-a-screw-in-woodSo I am going to cry foul on many people who claim they made their home for only $3-5,000 because at this point in building my Tiny House (only about 1/3 of the way built) I have spent almost $900 on nails, screws, bolts, glue, fasteners, brackets, etc.   There is no way you can get around buying these things because you can’t really reuse nails, screws or glue.  As for brackets and bolts for tie downs, you might be able to reclaim them, but in most examples (not all) I have seen, people simply were cutting corners and not adequately anchoring their houses to the trailers.

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