Part of being ‘off-grid’ is not being hooked up to the systems of electricity, water or sewage. While electricity usually gets the limelight in homestead discussions, when you go off-grid, your sewage system is very (very) important. So, this post is about everything from toilets to sewers and the pipes in between so you can get your off-grid homestead flowing smoothly.
There are several alternatives to septic systems for off-gridders, the most popular ones is a cesspool, but other options that are growing in popularity are a composting toilet and Biogas toilet.
Whichever option you choose, this is vital to do well from the start of your homestead, as these pipes and lines are likely going to be integrated into the structure of your home’s plumbing. If you’re not sure what the difference between a cesspool and a septic tank is, keep reading, Iʻll get into that in further detail below.
First and foremost; learn about your area’s regulations around sewage. Zoning laws and state laws usually apply to your off-grid sewer set-up, so know the rules before you get started.
A great resource is Septic Regulations, which has information for each state in the USA.
Some of the common regulations relate to:
- Distance from your residence
- Distance from property lines/neighbor’s land
- Depth of septic tank
- Natural water sources (like springs) in the vicinity
You may need a permit or a licensed professional to approve the job before you can start digging your septic tank or cesspool.
For example, in Hawaii, septic tank regulations are governed by the Environmental Management authority, Wastewater Division. In my state, any homeowner setting up an off-grid sewage system needs to work with a licensed engineer to draw up the designs for a septic system.
The design plans must be approved by the Wastewater Branch of the Environmental Management Authority before installation. Part of the plan must include a ‘sludge disposal plan’ (and there are companies that can pump your septic tank on the islands), so you have to think some years ahead when drafting everything up.
Difference Between Septic Tanks and Cesspools
First off, let’s look at the differences between septic tanks and cesspools.
A septic tank is an underground tank that filters solid and liquid waste, allowing the liquid waste to leach into the soil over a long period of time. A septic tank is recognized as better for the environment.
A cesspool, on the other hand, is an unlined hole in the ground that does not filter waste. The soil can become contaminated over a long period of time because there is no filtration. Cesspools will eventually have to be pumped in order to be emptied.
In 2005, the US federal government passed a nation-wide ban on the construction of new, large-capacity cesspools, as they are not environmentally-friendly and could contaminate natural water sources, like rivers and lakes.
While this ban usually applies only to apartment buildings or larger facilities, in some locations (like New Jersey) it is illegal to sell a home that has a cesspool, even a small one – you must upgrade to a septic system before selling.
I wouldn’t recommend building a cesspool for your off-grid home, but if you intend to, make sure you are within the legal statutes, as there are federal and state laws regulating the use of cesspools.
Hawaii’s ban on cesspools
Most people aren’t aware of this, but Hawaii has the largest number of cesspools per capita in the United States, but we are working to change that.
In 2016, new cesspools were banned in the State of Hawaii. Further, all currently existing cesspools are required to be changed to another method of waste disposal by 2050. Read more about the ban, here: https://health.hawaii.gov/wastewater/files/2019/10/FinancingConversions.pdf
If you are living off-grid in Hawaii, you are not allowed to dig a cesspool, and if your property already has one, you are required to convert it over the next few decades.
Since cesspools are not environmentally-friendly, and pose health-risks to groundwater and other sources of water in the long-term, let’s turn our attention to septic tanks.
A septic tank is superior to a cesspool because it filters waste. Mostly, it separates liquids from solids and sends the liquids underground, into your property. The layers of soil process the liquids, offering hydration to your ground without health risks.
The solids are retained by a baffle within the septic tank, holding them in the tank, while allowing the liquids to pass through to pipes or a smaller chamber and then move into a drainfield, often called a ‘leechfield’.
If you’ve ever noticed a particularly lush, green patch in an otherwise dry yard, you’ve probably located the septic system’s leechfield.
Planning is essential
As you may have already figured out, it is important to plan your septic system with regards to your properties topography (specifically, downhill from underground streams). Which is why it is often required that you work with licensed professionals and properly plan your system before installing.
Within the septic tank, there will eventually be a build-up of ‘sludge’ (i.e.: solid waste). If this waste gets really full, you may need it to be pumped out.
You can reduce the build-up of sludge by adding microbes; these bacteria will eat away at the sludge, turning it into liquid waste that can then be filtered out. Some of this bacteria occur naturally and thrive in the septic environment, effectively helping to handle your sludge situation without you having to do much of anything about it for several years.
Composting toilets are becoming more and more popular for off-grid use. While different states are still debating the approval of composting toilets, in Hawaii they are legal.
Some areas of Hawaii prohibit individuals from building their own DIY versions – in such cases you may need to make a hefty investment in purchasing a commercially-produced composting toilet which has NSF certification to adhere to Hawaii’s laws.
Learn more about legal requirements of composting toilets in Hawaii.
However, I have found the best composting toilet to be a homemade, 5-gallon bucket solution, which Joe Jenkins writes about in the interesting Humanure Handbook. More on that, below.
What is a composting toilet?
A composting toilet creates ‘humanure’, which can safely be incorporated with your garden soil after approximately 12 months of decomposing.
There are a lot of misconceptions around composting toilets, so let me clarify:
- Composting toilets can be located in your home. They do not have to be outdoors.
- Composting toilets do not cause a bad odor – if you’re using it properly.
- Composting toilets can be waterless or use a minimal amount of water.
- Some composting toilets require a small amount of power, however many of them run off of DC power, so they can be hooked up to your solar battery.
- Composting toilets are safe! It’s all about how long to allow that humanure to decompose before using it as compost.
Pros of composting toilets
- Off-grid option that doesn’t require a septic tank or indoor plumbing.
- You are in complete control of your waste (no need to hire contractors or a plumber).
- Benefits to your yard/garden – you truly don’t waste anything with a composting toilet!
- If you use my favorite method (below), it’s so cheap and simple, you will wonder why you ever used anything else.
Cons of composting toilets
- Commercial composting toilets are expensive (over a thousand bucks in some cases!).
- Composting toilets may need permits in your state.
- Depending on where you live, you may be required to have your composting toilet outdoors.
- You have to clean them out regularly
My favorite compost toilet
My preferred compost toilet is very simple, requires little maintenance (I did not like cleaning out my other, commercial compost toilets), and is cheap, too!
Just build yourself a simple, wooden toilet seat frame and sit a 5-gallon bucket underneath it. After ‘doing your business’ you will need to cover it with organic matter (which contributes to the decomposition process), like sawdust, mulch or peat moss.
When the bucket is full, take it out and dump it in your humanure compost. Or, just cover it up and dump 4-5 buckets of humanure at once, to start a new compost pile. Cover your humanure compost pile with leaves (I like to use banana fronds) and let it sit.
Humanure compost needs to sit for a good 12 months, so I like to add a little garden stake with the date on it in front of the pile so I know when it’s ready.
Now, if you’ve been thinking of pit latrines (also called ‘outhouses’), keep in mind that in some states, like Hawaii and Florida, they are illegal or at least regulated by zoning laws (like in Kentucky). In some states you have to prove that you cannot effectively set up an alternative like a septic tank, in order to get a permit for your pit latrine.
And really, I think the concept of ‘getting a permit for an outhouse’ is pretty comical. If you’re considering it, I really encourage you to go with the DIY composting toilet, 5-gallon bucket method, instead. After a year, your garden will thank you.
Living off-grid is not synonymous with ‘roughin’ it’. I have a washing machine and running water in my home while off-grid, so why not set up a great system for my toilet waste, too?
A new option recently released to the market is the HomeBiogas Compost toilet. You can think of it as an above ground septic system in a bag, except this one turns your waste into compost as well as converts the methane gas made during that process into cooking fuel.
Thatʻs right, cooking fuel.
Ok, I know what you might be thinking, thatʻs pretty much cooking with my farts! Itʻs a strange idea. Funny thing is though, it works!
These systems provide gas that powers your kitchen stove/oven with no unpleasant odors.
Talk about a win-win.
To find these HomeBiogas systems, youʻll have to visit your local off grid dealer or find them online at homebiogas.com.
Greywater vs Blackwater
Have you heard of greywater? Itʻs that soapy stuff that comes from your washing maching, shower and bathroom sink.
This water can be used to water your plants in your garden, as long as you use biodegradable soap.
If youʻre interested, I have a whole post about Greywater and how to effectively use it.
Now notice I didnʻt say anything about the water that comes from your kitchen sink. Thatʻs because that water is considered blackwater, which is in the same category as toilet water.
The kitchen sink has a lot of nasty stuff in it, that can attract insects and other critters, as well as potential pathogens and disease. This type of water should be disposed of in a septic or sewer system or in a bioengineered system that is able to filter the water naturally.
If you use a composting toilet, your only ‘blackwater’ comes from your sink (which I run through a mulch bed that gets picked through by my chickens).
You no longer have a toilet that creates blackwater, a dangerous waste product. Instead, you have humanure, which can be used on your garden to make your plants thrive!
All in all, if you’re living off-grid the best alternatives to the government septic system is either a septic tank or a composting toilet paired with an effective greywater recycling system for all other sources of water in your home.
Good luck with your homestead project. Remember, setbacks are just that, setbacks. They donʻt stop you from achieving your goals. Developing your homestead might be a lot of work, but itʻs SO worth it once youʻve reached your goal.