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Saturday, October 20, 2012

What Every Woman Wants For Her birthday...

"The toilets at a local police station have been stolen. Police say they have nothing to go on." ~Ronnie Barker

   After seven years the Vacu-Flush cassette toilet system on the boat gave up the ghost. I cannot say I miss it. It was a good enough system when Les was living aboard alone however adding a female user seemed to strain its tender capacity.
Vacu-Flush toilet cassette
   When it charged up it was incredibly noisy--so we never ran it after bedtime, requiring a flush first thing every morning. The cassettes weighed in at about 45 pounds when full and they were of such an awkward size and shape that I couldn't lift them. Changing the cassette required Les to get on his knees, open the door under our bed, reach in and release the clip which held the cassette in place. I always thought it was an awkward placement.
   Every six months Les had to use a special file that came with the Vacu-Flush system and clean around the toilet trap so it would shut properly and seal tightly. We also knew when the system under the bed needed a clean because a whiffy smell rose up to the person sleeping near the edge--me! The Vacu-Flush also used a LOT of our precious water for flushing. It works like an airplane toilet, sucking bowl contents into the cassette and macerating everything into a liquid.
   I have the most sensitive sense of smell and the weakest stomach in the world. The cassettes had to be emptied at a British Waterways (now renamed CaRT) Elsan disposal station. I cannot be within fifty feet of an Elsan or a boat pumping out its loo tank. The stench makes me drop to my knees retching in what feels like a vain attempt on the part of my stomach to throw up an internal organ. This means Les always had toilet detail which didn't bother him and he was more than willing to do it. It did however bother me. I am a firm believer in being an equal partner in all the S****y jobs in life. Men get stuck with them more often than not. 
   As an Alaskan girl born and raised, I am more than passing familiar with outhouses. We had one. Swept out frequently, limed generously after each use with a dose of Rid-X beneficial bacteria to help the deposits compost down, an outhouse is not a bad way of dealing with human waste. Up north it is COLD in winter and there are bears to contend with in summer...still it beats squatting in the bushes.
   On long weekend family road trips (there are no other kind in Alaska where one can drive for hundreds of miles and see nothing but Spruce and moose) eventually one of us kids would need to wee. After pulling the car over to the side of the road, mom instructed us to squat and go. My older sister used to complain that passing cars might see her. Mom replied, "Turn your A** to the road. No one should recognize you from that angle; if they do you are in serious trouble." I always waded into the brush along the roadside and contended with mosquito bites on my exposed flesh.
   My goal before I fell in love with narrow boats was to buy a parcel of land in the back of beyond upon which to live, build a straw bale, earth sheltered dwelling and live totally off the grid: solar and wind power with a composting toilet.
Envirolet composting loo aboard NB Shoehorn
When I fell in love with narrow boats I wondered if a composting toilet was even a possibility. My search found NB Shoehorn. Built by Simpson Boats, it was the 2006 Crick boat show winner. The original owner specified a composting loo and a Canadian Envirolet composting toilet was installed to mixed reception. You can read the boat test about it in the link above.
   A further search turned up Boatwif--the blog of Ken and Sue Deveson on NB Cleddau. They had a composting loo on their boat so I emailed and our friendship began. We finally met up aboard our respective boats on the Peak Forest Canal a few months ago and I had a chance to see their Airhead Marine composting toilet in situ. Ken and Sue assured us it not only worked brilliantly but there was indeed, no odor.
Envirolet turbine fan
   Several weeks back while queued up for diesel at Trent Marine Industries just before Boot Bridge on the Coventry canal, we came alongside another boat. I spotted the turbine wind fan venting on the boat roof, typical of Envirolet toilets, and had a good chinwag with the gent on the stern.
   He and his wife wanted a composting loo as they believed in the concept and the technology. He did say they still used a Porta Potti for urine since the Envirolet doesn't separate it out and they had problems with it being too wet to compost. Even still they preferred the composting toilet to either a pump out or a cassette.
    Our conversation was a revelation for me. It made me aware of the issues with which one has to be concerned when choosing a system for installation aboard a boat. I found the Airhead composting Toilet website and spent a great deal of time comparing it with the Canadian Envirolet which was designed for cabins and off grid housing. 
   Airhead loos are marine toilets designed specifically for boats. Thousands are installed on U.S. sailboats with great success. Key to its operation is the fact the Airhead separates urine from solids which facilitates quick composting of the latter and easy emptying of the former.
   After viewing the Airhead toilet online I hoped someday we could install one on NB Valerie so I could take my turn in shouldering toilet duties. I had no idea that day was just around the corner and in time for my 55th birthday!
   Tuesday, October 2nd dawned cool and bright on the Ashby canal. Les and I were feeling totally chilled and relaxed, languidly lounging over our morning coffee and tea after our weekend visit with family down south. One of us used the loo and the charging system on the Vacuu-flush refused to shut off but it wasn't emptying the bowl into the cassette either.
   Three tense, smelly, and disgusting hours were spent by my beloved husband, following the convoluted piping of the toilet from the bathroom, under the sink cabinet, behind the bathtub and under the bed. After giving a good clean to every moving part he could find, we tried turning it back on again to find the same issue still existed. The loo had crapped out on us!
   We cleaned up the mess and set to cruise as quickly as possible to Hawksbury Junction where Les caught a bus to Coventry. Meanwhile I went online to Argos and reserved a Royal brand Porta-Potti. Seven hours after the initial problem broke our calm morning, Les had returned with the Porta-Potti and we cruised into the dusk, finding a quiet spot for the night. We cruised on to Brinklow where we stayed moored for four days while Les removed all traces of the old toilet system.
   In the interim we scoured the web for information about the Airhead system. Mainly used in the U.S. where it is manufactured, sailboat owners who installed Airhead's loved them. The system worked exactly as advertised. I emailed the company which contacted their U.K. distributor, Richard Saillet, owner of the Canal Shop at Hillmorton Wharf.
   We stopped in to his establishment last Monday and purchased our new loo. Richard has had an Airhead on his narrow boat for some years. He was impressed enough with how well it worked, he decided to become the U.K. distributor. Richard sold Ken and Sue Deveson their Airhead system three years ago. 
   Before we purchased, Mr. Saillet took us through the operation and showed us how all the parts worked. For £660.00 ($886.00) we walked out of the Canal Shop with system in hand in one box. Quite a difference in price from the Envirolet which now costs $2,479.00!
   After a trip to Daventry via Braunston for a Mushroom vent, plastic pipe and a round steel cutter for the drill, Les returned and spent all day yesterday putting in the new loo.
Les on the roof with the drill

   He cut the hole through the roof down through the interior ceiling, and installed a 3 inch long 2.75 inch diameter piece of plastic pipe in the vent hole, sealing it around the circumference at both ends so no air could escape. The majority of his time was spent locating wiring with which to run the vent fan and wiring it into the bathroom.
The fan vent hole sealed with plastic piping, silicone, and plumbers caulking.
The newly installed mushroom vent for our composting loo system.

Airhead installed!
   After attaching the mushroom vent to the roof so rain and debris cannot enter the vent hole, we decided where we wanted the toilet to live, marked the bolt hole placement in the floor, Les screwed in the plates and the toilet snapped into place. The remainder of the installation took very little time. The vent hose connected to the toilet and the fan dropped into the coupling, screwed to the bottom of the vent hole and Les connected the hose to it. He turned on the juice and viola! out toilet system went live!
   Composting toilets in the States use Coir (coconut fibers) or re-hydrated peat moss bricks as a composting medium. Coir is not available in the U.K. and Peat moss comes from endangered, non renewable, fragile environments so it is not available here either.
A handful of Cocoa bean husk

   What is available in the U.K. is cocoa bean husks! Cadbury's chocolates factories import the raw cocoa beans and roast them here in England. The husks are leftover debris which is sold to a company that bags them for trade to garden centers for garden mulch. The husks are a dark, dry material that smells like chocolate!
   The airhead is in, we are using it, and it is working brilliantly. No odor, no mess either. I will say my initial use gave me a queer feeling indeed. The sound of urine flowing into the fluids container gave me an initial start--I thought I had wee'd on the floor at first! Leaving a solid deposit felt strange too. We are so conditioned to flush it away in water or hide it away in a holding tank.
   So exactly how does it work? One places a large paper coffee filter in the loo basin for a solid deposit. The paper filter contains your deposit which is dropped down into the holding tank with the cocoa husks. The trap door shuts and you turn the side handle which gives your deposit and the cocoa husks a good turn, stirring it together.
Closed solids trap and 2 forward urine holes which divert liquids to front container
   Due to the design of the toilet tank, urine flows forward into a well designed 2 gallon fluid container with a measuring window on it so one can see when it needs to be detached easily from the main toilet and emptied. A Tablespoon of sugar keeps the urine from smelling.
   The 0.06 watt 12 volt fan draws air across the bowl pulling moisture out of the solids and venting it and any smells away.
Clean cocoa bean husks inside the composting tank

What makes this system turn poo into compost? The bugs in the human gut. We have two kinds of bacteria is our systems: aerobic (requiring air to flourish) and anaerobic (requiring a closed system without oxygen).
  Aerobic bacteria are those contained in yogurt for example. They are the good bugs which break things down and dissolve them. Anaerobic bacteria cause disease and smells, which is why they flourish when dumped into water--a low to no oxygen fluid. In a relatively dry, high oxygen environment, anaerobic bacteria die quickly. Aerobic bacteria grow and proliferate, breaking down the solid deposits in the loo with help from the cocoa husks. A sweet ending to a messy problem!
It's not every wife who gets a cocoa scented loo for her birthday!! (It's undoubtedly not every wife who wants one either but there 'ya go--I am usually the anomaly in any given situation!)+1year LINK
    Along with phone calls, cards, emails, and posts from friends wishing me a happy birthday, Ma nature also gifted me with a Kingfisher just outside our window this morning.
   In magical parlance, Kingfishers bring a gift of prosperity in new undertakings, love and growth. They are a signal it is time to dive into something new out of which prosperity will grow. When we return from the States in late November we will black the boat and then I will dive into re-formatting, editing and re-writing my blog So This is Love... for publication.  


Adam said...

I did a boat test last year on a boat which had an Airhead composting loo fitted, and they were very pleased with it. When these types of loos first came out they were enormous, which is one reason why they didn't take off. The Airhead looks to me like a big step forward.

Derek Bird said...

A new twist on getting chocolates for your birthday - not sure Carrie would go for it though

Sue / Boatwif (nb Cleddau) said...

Jaq: congratulations on a) birthday; b)convincing Les of the way to go! c) a very impressive description of the entire toilet episode. Anyone thinking of installing an Airhead composting loo should read this. And it's true, in three years of usage on Cleddau we have had no problems at all with our loo. (The odd thing is, when you return to shore you realise how noisy a conventional flushing loo is!)

Les Biggs said...

Hi Adam,
I love reading your boat tests. What a great job you have. :) thank you for the link--we will check it out. As you say some of these loos are too big and bulky for a narrow boat. I had only ever heard of Envirolet composting loos. Airhead was news to me and a complete revelation.

Les Biggs said...

Hi Derek,
Admittedly it is not Godiva! LOL--but the difference the Airhead makes to our comfort on board is amazing. Hope we catch up with you and Carrie sometime this next year. We are considering cruising the Southern Waterways next spring and summer. Give Carrie a big from us.

Les Biggs said...

Hello Sue,
a. Thank you! I had a brilliant day and was really touched by all those who wished me Happy Birthday. b. It didn't take much convincing when he knew you and Ken and trusted you both. After a thorough review of Airhead's website it seemed like a no-brainer for us. C.Using a water reliant system seems strange already. I wish we could convince the world to switch to Airheads. (Nothing worse than a reformed ..... fill in the dots!!)

Anonymous said...

Hi Jaq,

Well I think you've just about closed the lid on things there, covered every angle & flushed out any doubts!

PS: There'll never be anyone else as funny as the late great Ronnie Barker, in an all round sense.

Here's another of his, he used it on Open All Hours whilst reading the paper:

""Aye dear me Granville listen to this:

In a certain church in Hertfordshire both the vicar and his housekeeper have been reprimanded by the church committee after allegations of misconduct. They found his vest in the pantry and her pants in his vestry.""
[Spoken in a yorkshire accent]

First time I heard that a toilet might've come in useful I was laughing so much!


Dave Winter said...

Hi,I don't know if this link would be any good to you for a supply of coir in the UK.

Les Biggs said...

Hi Heth,
Thank you m'dear, I did my best. And thanks for the Ronnie barker bit. Les and I got a big kick out of it.
Stay warm!

Les Biggs said...

Thanks Dave!! We will check it out.
Jaq :)

Dave,Beryl Bradshaw said...

Happy Birthday Jaq that was some present. Hope it works out OK how long before the Old holding tank is removed.Dave

Les Biggs said...

Hi Dave,
Our boat didn't have a holding tank--only boats with a pump out loo have those. We had a Vacu-flush cassettes system and Les removed all of it in the 4 days we rested at Brinklow, before we purchased the Airhead. It is still working brilliantly and we are quite pleased--and relieved!

Carol said...

Hi Jaq - only just read your posting re the operation of the composting loo - absolutely fascinating and very detailed.

By the way - wishing you a belated happy birthday - you certainly had the most unusual present!

Just one question though about the loo - presumably if you add a handful of composting material each time 'you've been' the container must become full - how and where would you empty it - the same would apply to the urine container too. Hope these are not 'silly' questions!!

Best wishes to you both and hope to meet up again in the not too distant future.

Les Biggs said...

Hi Carol,
Thank you for the birthday wishes. :)
A composting loo operates a bit differently than a compost pile. We only add cocoa shell mulch after we empty it each time. The fan pulling air in across the compost bin part of the loo really helps break things down fairly quickly. We also added a compost activator to be on the safe side though we were told we didn't have to.
Because we live aboard and use it daily it won't be totally composted when it needs emptying--probably about once a month or every six weeks.
We just unbolt the seat/toilet top from the bin at the bottom, set the toilet top aside, place the locking lid on the compost container and empty it at an Elsan station.
The urine container can be emptied anywhere on land--off in the bushes.
CaRT says we can also empty it in the canal but there is so much good nutrient in urine they would prefer we fertilized the grass with it. Urine is sterile --a urologist will verify this, so no worries there.
If the contents of our lower toilet bin were broken down completely we could safely empty it in a wood or in the hedge.
Hugs to you and George!
Jaq and Les

Carol said...

Thanks Jaq - we're going to look into it - we'll be going through Hillmorton in the next week or so.

Unknown said...

What can I say?

You have done a better selling job on composting toilets in this blog that I have achieved in 15 years!

We now have a new website for these and similar toilets with lots of useful info about them and all the spares and accessories you might need - hope I can list it on here - www

Les Biggs said...

Hello Richard,
Thank you for the compliment! Airheads are a brilliant, elegant boat loo and we are pleased to support their sale in any way we can. We will definitely put a link on our main blog page to your new website.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jacqueline,
Want a great storyteller you are. Thanks for the inspiration on a composting toilet. I had a couple of questions:
What do you use to clean the pan? Not water I'm thinking, or anything that would kill the helpful bacteria....
Second, if you had somewhere to store the decomposing matter (I don't live aboard ) then one could finish off the process in a bin perhaps?
My last question is presumably the mass is never completely decomposed in a system where 'fresh' deposits are being added daily - have I understood that right?
Many thanks again - and for your story of Sianna - they are such life-changing friends the felixes.
Best, Emma

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Emma,
We use Flash with bleach foam spray which doesn't run. It cleans the toilet bowl and the outside bits fine. WE don't have to clean the bottom container where the solids go. We use a small folding spade to scoop out the contents. The residue is left behind because it has good bacteria which jump start the next load of poo to composting. There is no bad smell and no spoilage. We did a hole somewhere wooded and off the towpath, bury the bottom container's recently removed contents, and add the recommended amount of cocoa husks to the bottom container getting it going again. We do this once a month because as you say it will not compost completely when being added to every day.

Anonymous said...

Dear Jacqueline,

Many thanks for last reply. I am getting ever closer to a decision. It's so refreshing (oddly) to be able to have a direct conversation about poo :).
Another question - if you have a moment. I have understood that a fan needs to be installed which can be solar-powered or run off 12v. I am concerned about a constant noise. Does the fan need to be running all the time and do you hear it when moving around inside or outside the boat when there is nothing else running?

I saw another blog today whose installation you inspired. It's good work you do....

Best, Emma.

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Emma,
If you go with a composting loo, go with an Airhead. It is a marine toilet--designed specifically for boats. the kit comes with the fan in its casing and the hose to attach it to the toilet. The fan only draws odors out of the toilet--more importantly it draws moisture out. We don't recommend the solar fan as it will not keep running all night and the fan must run all the time. The electric fan which comes with the Airhead kit only uses a minute amount of battery energy. We really have to listen to hear it. We only notice it now when we are in the bathroom--even still it is not loud or intrusive. this is our first summer with the composting loo and we find we change it twice a month--as active decomposition is taking place due to the warmer summer air in the boat. If we let it go for a month the loo begins to smell a bit swampy--not a poo smell but literally a compost bin scent. We address it by emptying the loo every two weeks in warm weather.

Rhys said...

Hi Les and Jaqueline

Have you considered getting another Airhead so you have two?

I am considering getting an Airhead in the future (don't have a narrow boat yet). I was thinking if they don't take up much space, you could use one, and when that is full you could then move onto the other one. Then when that is nearly full, the first one should be fully compost and can be disposed of anywhere that's suitable?

I was also thinking it may be a good idea to install a high RPM fan instead, and have it connected to a fan controller so you can adjust the speed. You could speed it up while using the toilet to act as an extractor fan, or if the temperature slows down the composting maybe the increased airflow will speed it back up.
If noise is a concern you could then turn the fan down at night before bed.



Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Rhys,
We would have purchased a second Airhead bottom container if we had room, but we don't. Well thought out narrow boats builds make maximum use of every bit of precious space but this boat was a bachelor's dream of simplicity and there is a lot of wasted space as a result. Never mind, we love our floating home, and even though our loo doesn't completely compost it all each month, there is amazingly no nasty smell. It is like digging clay out of a narrow bucket. :) As for fans, the one provided with the Airhead is ample and does suits the job perfectly. It is small, unobtrusive, and can barely be heard at night when it is quiet. It also doesn't draw down our batteries. Best of luck with your boat Rhys. Please let us know when you are on the cut--your boat's name, and if you start a blog of your own we will be happy to link to yours.

Cindy said...

Great article, thanks. I don't live in the UK, but I hope I can find a cocoa husk supplier. I want MY poo to smell like chocolate!!

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs