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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Airhead Marine Composting Toilet--One Year On

“When you've finished your own toilet in the morning, then it is time to attend to the toilet of your planet, just so, with the greatest care”~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

    It was one year ago in October that we installed the Airhead marine composting loo in NB Valerie. Since we weren't cruising recently, we thought it time to provide a loo update for the curious and concerned. This will be a frank and open discussion of the use of this loo system so change blogs now if you are sensitive about bodily functions.
   Basically as we said in the first post about this (October 20, 2012, What Every woman Wants For Her Birthday), if this loo is being used daily the contents will only be half composted when the toilet requires emptying. The very bottom and middle layers will have begun the composting process but the newer layers will not be broken down completely. Nevertheless, there is no rank smell, and with a bit of planning and a well constructed  Army spade, Les and I managed as a team to clean the new loo once every six weeks. It took a total of thirty minutes and while not a pleasant chore (who can really call any toilet cleaning exercise pleasant?), the semi-monthly loo cleaning aboard NB Valerie was not awful. The scent of a peat bog or a cooking compost heap was the main odor--one Les never found offensive in any way and that was only when the toilet was apart for cleaning. Otherwise--no odor. We've never once smelled anything unpleasant wafting out of the toilet roof vent when we've been cruising, moored up, or when either of us have been up on the roof.

   When Les' colon literally went south this past summer as cancer took hold of him, very nearly blocking his rectum with a massive tumor, Les had to take Dulcolax stool softeners throughout every day in order to pass anything at all--and everything came out liquid with trips to the loo necessary as many as twenty times a night as his health worsened and months passed while we waited for the surgeon to book the operation.
   The Airhead tried valiantly to keep up with this. As anyone knows who has really reviewed this composting marine loo, it works so well because the liquids and solids are separated. From July until October when Les underwent surgery to remove the mass, we went from cleaning out the loo once every six weeks to cleaning it out every three weeks, then every two weeks, and finally once a week. The unpleasant whiff of soured chocolate (cocoa shells remember) that occurred then was only very obvious to me--Supernose. We had visitors aboard during this time who never had a clue what was happening or not happening under the toilet pan. 
   We cleaned the loo together the last time on October 14th--the day we locked up the boat and spent the first of two nights at the Watford Travel Lodge so Les could undergo the experience of a total bowel cleanse before surgery on October 16th. At this point it was only me using the loo so I cleaned it all by myself for the first time. 
   Now I empty it once every four weeks because that is what I am most comfortable with doing, but the Airhead loo could easily accommodate another two weeks. It still only takes thirty minutes. The process goes as follows: because we have a teeny, tiny postage stamp sized bathroom, I remove all towels, pajamas, robes, rugs, and anything else which could get in my way. 
   I set out a package of nappy wipes (diaper wipes), and a spray bottle of Flash cleaner with bleach. I get a large, thick black plastic bag and close one side of the opening in the two doors underneath the bathroom sink. This holds the large bag open and in place. I don a pair of plastic gloves and loosen the four wing nuts holding the top to the bottom, remove the top which is essentially the toilet seat compartment and set it upside down in the bathtub.
Folding 25" Army spade
   I get the spade which lives in a plastic carrier bag, discreetly tucked away outside on the bow and scoop the solids out of the bottom of the loo, disposing of each shovel full in the black bag. When the solids compartment is empty, I clean the spade with baby wipes and bleach spray and put it away in its plastic carrier bag on the bow.  I change my plastic gloves, and with clean ones on, I use nappy wipes to clean up the outside and part of the inner section of the bottom. I also use this opportunity to clean up the wall and floors around the loo of any accumulated dust and grime from the month. 
   I strip off the plastic gloves, fill the bottom of the loo with fresh cocoa shells and a Tablespoon of compost starter. Then I don another pair of plastic gloves and using the spray cleaner with bleach, I turn my attention to the top toilet compartment resting in the bathtub. Once that has all been wiped down clean, I set the top part back on the bottom section and remove my plastic gloves to screw the wing nuts back in place and re-attach the fan hose. The urine bottle is cleaned out every two days when we empty it. Job almost done!
   I tie up the black plastic bag and set it out on the bow for disposal. Then I clean out the bath tub, wipe down the sink and cabinets, sweep and mop the floor, hang all the towels, robes, and pajamas back in the bathroom and call it good. Thirty minutes from start to finish which equals six hours a year.
   The point of all this narrative is to say that while not pleasant, it is easy enough to do, offers me a chance to really scrub up the entire bathroom once a month and I only have to do this twelve times a year--not every two and a half days of faffing about with awkward shaped, fifty plus pounds of loo cassettes which have to be negotiated from awkward places aboard the boat, and which sit literally stewing into a nasty, bacteria breeding, stinking stew which then must be disposed of when we find a service point with an Elsan.
   Not only could I not lug the cassettes we used to have, but I couldn't maneuver them off and on their tracks while rooting around in a large, deep cupboard underneath our bed, and I certainly could not go anywhere near an Elsan, popping the lid on a cassette to empty it.
   If we had still had the cassette toilet system in place when Les went into hospital we would have been screwed to put a not too fine point on things. I would have had to find some poor bloke who was willing to come aboard, get on their knees, pull the full cassette out, put the empty cassette in place, and take the full unit down to the service point to empty--every two days!!
   Even now I make sure we go to the service point for water very early in the day before folks are using the Elsan services. The last time we got up there late in the day, some poor boater was in the process of emptying his loo cassettes as I rounded the corner to throw some rubbish away. The smell hit me like a punch to my gut. I dropped to my knees and puked up lunch while the bloke at the Elsan--oblivious to the odor of his ordure--stuck his head out the doorway to inquire if I was all right.
   We still love our Airhead loo and me even more so now that I am the one who cleans it out from start to finish. For Les, it means he no longer has to tackle the toilet chores on his own. For me it means independence. I can do it myself and we are not tied to Elsan points at least once a week to empty cassettes. Finally, we are no longer using our precious water supply to flush poo. We are also not contributing to the sewage plants of this country. Left to its own devices, the solids in the black plastic bag will compost and return to nature something that is useful and harmless requiring no sewage plants and chemicals.

   Different strokes for different folks. I do realize this system is not the choice for everyone. Recently in a surf through boater's blogs I came across one on which the boaters described their trials with the same toilet system we have. They quickly found themselves disenchanted with their Airhead loo. After several months use they found their loo smelled; unpleasant smells came from the roof vent and wafted back to the stern, and cleaning out the loo was a onerous task for them. We were quite surprised and sad to read of the problems these folks experienced because, honestly we haven't had any problems at all. 
   We tried to think of why they might have encountered problems and we decided to share the following:
   We've only had problems twice in just over one year. One month after we installed our Airhead, the fan for it suddenly quit working. Almost immediately I could smell the toilet. Now Les didn't smell it unless the bottom flap was opened but I could smell it out in the hallway when the flap was closed. A quick word with the UK distributor at Hillmorton and a new fan was dispatched without charge. In the meantime Les discovered that small, round computer fans will also work and we have an extra on hand in case this occurs again. To date the second fan is still working fine.
   About three weeks ago our toilet quickly developed an unpleasant smell like an over full cat box when someone came aboard and disregarded our instructions for the use of the loo. They urinated into the toilet with the solids flap open, saturating the solids compartment with liquid. Within 24 hours I could smell it and the loo had to be prematurely cleaned out and reset with cocoa shell and compost starter. 
So here are some tips we've found which ensure our composting loo functions perfectly: 
   1. Be absolutely religious about keeping urine and solids separated. For women this means after urinating, throw your toilet wipe away in a rubbish bin. This keeps the solids receptacle from filling up with soggy wads of toilet paper.
   2. Again mainly for women, since men have a longer urethra and a built in short term storage system, one must develop strong sphincter and pelvic floor muscles. If you are making a solid deposit and need to wee, you have to do one first and then follow up with the other. In other words, either go wee first so it all goes in the urine bottle and then open the bottom flap and get on with your solids business, or vice versa.
   3. When we purchased our Airhead, all the literature that accompanied the toilet recommended the use of crenelated paper coffee filters set in the toilet pan whenever one had to make a solid deposit. Lower the lever, the flap opens and the filled filter drops into the solids compartment; however Richard, who
sold us our unit, said after awhile one gets comfortable enough using this toilet to do away with the filters. Just sit, open the flap and go. The solids drop down and the bottom compartment fills less quickly and without the paper filters filling it up. This works fine for us but we keep the paper filters on hand for guests to use. If children visit the boat it is essential an adult accompanies them to the loo and explains how it works. Children are easily distracted and can forget one must "be here in the moment" and pay attention when using a composting loo.
   4. Churn it up!  It is essential for the composting action and airflow on this loo to crank the handle on the bottom solids compartment at least once a day. After every solid deposit is best.
   5. Every Saturday I add about one cup full of cocoa shells to the solids compartment. Even though there is no liquid going into the solids container,
human solid waste is still a bit wet. Adding in cocoa shells once a week keeps a very good balance between truly dry ingredients and slightly wet stuff, which is essential to any compost be it in one's heap in the back yard or in the composting loo. A 70 litre bag of Arthur J. Bowers Cocoa Shell lasts us one year and costs on average £12.99. 
   If you have just found this post and would like to read more about our installation of the Airhead with pictures, then please click on the bold title below and it will take you to the post titled, "What Every Woman Wants for Her Birthday." 
   You can also read an interesting article on composting loos in which ours was one of those featured, in Canal Boat magazine, September 2013. The link is available up on the right hand side of this blog. Just click the picture of the magazine cover. 


Carol said...

Hi Jaq, thanks for writing this blog it was good to compare it with our experiences.

The only thing that we notice (and wonder if you do too) is that the rotator doesn’t rotate the cocoa shell around the edges of the pot and therefore doesn’t mix ‘everything’.

Have you tried it without the composted starter? We stopped using it not long after we had the loo and didn’t really notice any difference although we contribute more cocoa shell more frequently than you do.

Your comment would be welcome or message me on FB.

Kind regards to you both.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jaq

Because I designed the loo compartment around the airhead I have room to tilt the top half back when cleaning out the solids. I also have a box that I line with a black bin liner and put horsebedding (Aubiose or Bliss) in the bottom of the bag and then I rest the box on the side of the loo. With rubber gloves on it is easy to empty out the container straight into the box without making any mess. I then put a layer of horsebedding on top and carefully fold the Bin liner over before putting the lid on the box. The box lives on front deck until such time as I next have to empty the loo so it has a chance to compost further before being disposed of. The box is not air tight. I also use the Bliss in the bottom of the loo so it soaks up any liquid making sure the turning device clears that layer smoothly then I add compost from the recycling centre. As you say it only needs doing about every 6 weeks and is not too smelly. If I do have guests on board I tell them to go for a walk while I do it though. I might try the cocoa shells when this lot of Bliss runs out.

Glad you are both up and about again. Maybe we will run into each other next year.

Till then
keep on boating

K1 said...

Hi Jaq,

I suspect the secret agenda here is to convince us you poo doesn't stink! :-)
An interesting post and I did consider a composting toilet for waiouru but in the end was put off by a blogger who was a market gardener and couldn't get their composting toilet to work. Oh.. I'm not sure what you do with the "stuff" afterwards but I'm not eating any of your tomato's! :-)

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Carol,
We fill the bottom of the toilet with cocoa shell until the mixing shaft is covered at the bottom end. That seems to have eliminated the side build up for us. We've run out of compost starter and didn't replace it for awhile and didn't notice any difference either. We put it in there because we figure every little helps!At any rate it won't do any harm. Which toilet system are you having installed on Still Rockin'?
Love and hugs to you and George,

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Kath,
The cocoa shells work brill. CaRT told us to bag our solids in a large, heavy duty lawn bag and put them in the rubbish bin--so that is what we do. It will continue to break down over time. We were digging a hole in the woods and burying it with some compost activator and then laying a layer of ash form the boat stove on top but CaRT would prefer we not do that. Some folks take their full bin bag of solids to an Elsan and empty it done the drain. It sounds like you are all set up to be as green as possible!! Here's to catching up with you somewhere on the cut this year.

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Tom,
Not all composting loos are equal and not all of them will work on a boat. Our is a marine composting loo--designed specifically for sailboats in the USA, so it works well on a narrow boat. Read my answer to Bobcat's comment above for how we dispose of it. I didn't know it was possible to grow tomatoes in rainy and overcast England! Have you got a butty attached to your boat with a conservatory?? ;)

Unknown said...

A late friend and his wife have have a
physically large cottage some five hours drive north of the northwest end of LakeOntario in Canada. The cottage is built partially on a large flat rock (pre-Cambrian sheild) and given the location traditional toilets and a pump-out system were not practical. They installed a compost toilet similar to what was on their 35 foot sailboat. Over the years the toilet did very well. Some five years ago (before my friend passed) the composting systems was removed and placed in the sleeping cabin (for guests) some distance from the main cottage.
A newer large composting toilet was installed with a built in bag retieval system, so no holding unit, rather the waste goes into an
industrial strength garbage bag which is placed in a special surround. When the bag is 3/4 full, the owner walks under the raised portion of the cottage (raised two stories to obtain a view from the hiltop on which the cottage is constructed) unlocks the door to the the bag area, dons surgical gloves and removes the bag, and rolls the top over to seal. A new bag with coconut shells is then placed under the toilet.
As there is maybe two inches of soil covering rock in the area, the plastic bag is taken to the local regional sewage works who are familair with compost toilets and they in turn ensure the bag and its contents are recycled.
The family has five children,and two years ago, a family reunion had all five children plus their own broods from all across Canada at the cottage for two weeks and the system didn't even burp. The idea is ecologically sound, and for those on a narrow boat or in an area not serviced by holding tanks, or septic systems or municipal sewage systems, it is wonderful.

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

Jaq - only you could turn this topic into a fascinating subject, which indeed it is! Convinced and sold but may have to work a bit more on the pelvic floor! Hope the sun continues to shine on you both xxA

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Bryce,
In early 2010 when I began to design my own narrow boat I wondered if a composting loo were a possibility on a NB. a Google search turned up a blog post by Boatwif--Sue Deveson aboard NB Cleddau. They had installed an Airhead on their boat. I emailed Sue and a great friendship started.

As someone who used a an "outhouse" as a child, composting loos make much more sense to me than flushing waste into our drinking water.

Hope you are feeling better dear friend,
Love JaqXX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Alistair and Angela,
Thanks! It isn't for everyone, but so often those who pontificate--especially on Canal World Forum--about composting loos, have never had one on their boat but they always carry on about how awful they are. So I do try to be straight forward and factual in the hope of dispelling the myths of the composting loo in order to offer boaters a third reliable option as to what to do with all their poo. ;)

Peterboat said...

Hi have the Seperate Villa I did a quick test on the Airhead proved that it was not for me or my partner. I have a large bathroom so space was not a problem. I regularly go 14 weeks between emptying and cleaning which is much easier with the Seperate just open top and lift out bucket put in new bucket after quick wipe clean. Yje wee side pumps into a container at the rear of the boat and takes seconds to change as well. Glad we are all happy with our loos such a good choice for me and so trouble and smell free


Claire said...

Hi, we are on the verge of buying an Airhead toilet for our narrowboat after discovering our holding tank has not one but four holes in it! The only concern my husband has with the Airhead is whether all our urine will easily flow down into the collecting bottle or whether some may accidentally spill down the flap into the solids compartment. On the Airhead we looked at, at the canal shop at Hillmorton, the flap over the solids container didn't seem to have a watertight seal. From your experience, is this something my husband should worry about?

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Carol,
the Airhead is designed with a forward tilt of the toilet pan so all urine runs into the bottle however, everyone has to sit down to pee--no standing up. Do check out the Separett Villa and Nature's Head as well. The Villa is a great loo if you have room in your bathroom. Most boaters don't. Our friend Kath on NB Bobcat, commented above on her Nature's Head which she loves so you might want to read her comment. Whichever one you choose we wish you great joy in freedom from Elsan points and pump outs!

Unknown said...

Hi Jaq
I hopefully will be buying a boat this year, started looking and preparing 1 year ago and feel the time is right now. Part of my info gathering has been with toilet systems. I am always doing the green thing in everything I do and this composting toilet is no exception. However, I am considering taking it a step further by the introduction of a worm bin. The worms will be treated to the waste when it is time to empty the toilet. The worms will process every part of the remains, paper and solids and at any stage of the composting. In addition, it will provide a useful place to fill with all the waste from the galley as well. When they are finished eating everything, the waste will become worm casts, which are proven to be a better fertilizer than any chemical based fertilizers on the market. But as this compost has come from humans it is best to be used in the flower beds or shrubbery and not on edible crops, although all pathogens are destroyed when they pass thru the worms. The only manure compost that can safely be used are those from herbivores (no meat eaters). I know quite a few people who would love to have this finished compost. They are also good at processing newspaper and their favorite is corrigated cardboard, with some cattle manure. Just remember to stack the manure first to burn itself out before giving it to the worms, don't want to cook any of the little fellas, lol. Properly looked after, there will never be any smells or flies. As you can gather, this is a topic close to my heart and do go on a bit. My best wishes to you and a safe cruising year and hopefully, somewhere meet out on the cut.

(I've got worms and love it!!!)

Unknown said...

We wanted to let you all know that we are temporarily transitioning to a new distributor in the UK. In the meantime, you can contact us directly for purchases at or through our website:

Ask about discounts on UK orders. Happy travels!

Air Head Composting Toilet

Anonymous said...

Hi Guys,

My partner and I are purchasing a live aboard and want our narrowboat to be as green as possible. This is probably a stupid question but can you put loo roll in with the solids?


Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Bev,
You can put t.p. in your Airhead but it gets spooled around the mixing bar and makes a right mess. We prefer to put all t.p. in the covered rubbish bin and empty it when it fills up--every three or four days. There is not bad smell in our airhead, or rubbish bin or our bathroom and this was recommended to us by other Airhead users but we do know of many other boaters with composting loos of various makes who do toss their t.p. in there as well.

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Rob,
Thanks for the heads up about the change of distributors.

Unknown said...

I have purchased the airhead following yours and others reviews but I am finding it impossible to buy cocoa shell in any decent cost effective quantities, can you recommend a supplier please?

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Andy,
Sorry to take so long to reply to your comment; my computer went on vacation and I've only just got it running as it should.

Yes, Cocoa Shell is rare now and most of us are using pet bedding (wood shavings) in its place. It cannot be very fine though--it needs to have some substance to it.

If you are on FaceBook I recommend you ask to join the page titled Compost Toilets for Boats
and Off-Grid Living. You will get fantastic advice and ideas from this group!

Tim said...

a lot of messing about just get a more modern separator compost toilet that these days are a third of the price and far superior !!

airhead are overpriced and fraught with problems

Maxolar said...

I am about to buy my first canal narrowboat, and have been advised to include an Airhead composing toilet. Any comments regarding separating the toilet from the shower and washbasin room. My feeling is that I want to keep my toilet and basin, including toothbrush and battery razor reasonably dry.

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs