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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dealing with Waste During an Emergency Part 2

via Wikipedia

Composting Toilet

A composting toilet is an aerobic processing system that treats excreta, typically with no water or small volumes of flush water, via composting or managed aerobic decomposition. This is usually a faster process than the anaerobic decomposition at work in most wastewater systems, such as septic systems.

Composting toilets are often used as an alternative to central wastewater treatment plants (sewers) or septic systems. Typically they are chosen (1) to alleviate the need for water to flush toilets, (2) to avoid discharging nutrients and/or potential pathogens into environmentally sensitive areas, or (3) to capture nutrients in human excreta. Several manufactured composting toilet models are on the market, and construct-it-yourself systems are also popular.

These should not be confused with pit latrines, all of which are forms of less controlled decomposition, and may not protect ground water from nutrient or pathogen contamination or provide optimal nutrient recycling.


Manufactured composting toilet systems

Self-contained composting toilets complete or begin the composting in a container within the receiving fixture. Remote, central, or underfloor units collect excreta via a toilet stool, either waterless or micro-flush, from which it drains to a composter. Vacuum-flush systems can flush horizontally or upward with a small amount of water to the composter. Micro-flush toilets use a small amount of water usually 1 pint (.5 liter) per use.

Self-contained composting toilets are slightly larger than a flush toilet, but use roughly the same floor space. Some units use fans for aeration, and optionally, heating elements to maintain optimum temperatures to hasten the composting process and to evaporate urine and other moisture. Operators of composting toilets commonly add a small amount of absorbent carbon material (such as untreated sawdust, coconut coir, peat moss) after each use to create air pockets for better aerobic processing, to absorb liquid, and to create an odor barrier. This additive is sometimes referred to as bulking agent. Some owner-operators use microbial starter cultures to ensure composting bacteria are in the process, although this is not critical.

Remote, central, and under-floor models each feature a chamber below the toilet stool (such as in a basement or outside) where composting takes place. These are typically used for high-volume and year-round applications as well as to serve multiple toilet stools. Several systems are available as well as many build-it-yourself options. (See Youtube Video Below)

Build-it-yourself, site-built, and owner-built design

Site-built indoor composting toilet designs vary, ranging from rollaway containers fitted with aerators to large concrete sloped-bottom tanks.

These are not to be confused with direct outdoor composting, which typically uses a collector bucket, where each deposit is covered with sawdust or other dry organic material, with the collector periodically being hand transported to an outdoor composting bin, where it may be added to yard waste or other organic material being composted.

Operating Process

Although there are many designs, the process factors at work are the same. Rapid aerobic composting will be thermophilic decomposition in which bacteria that thrive at high temperatures (104-140 °F) oxidizes (breaks down) the waste into its components, some of which are consumed in the process, reducing volume, and eliminating potential pathogens.

Drainage of excess liquid or leachate via a separate drain at the bottom of the composter is featured in some manufactured units, as the aerobic composting process requires moisture levels to be controlled (ideally 50%): too dry, and the mass decomposes slowly or not at all; too wet and anaerobic organisms thrive, creating undesirable odors. This separated liquid may be diverted to a graywater system or collected for other uses.

An approach that is becoming more common is the dry toilet, or urine-separating toilet. Where solar heat is used, this might be called a solar toilet. These systems depend on desiccation to achieve sanitation safety goals features systems that make use of the separated liquid fraction for immediate area fertilization.

Urine can contain up to 90 percent of the nitrogen, up to 50 percent of the phosphorus and up to 70 percent of the potassium present in human excreta. In healthy individuals it is usually pathogen free, although undiluted it may contain levels of inorganic salts and organic compounds at levels toxic to plants.

The other requirement critical for microbial action (as well as drying) is oxygen. Commercial systems provide methods of ventilation that move air from the room, through the waste container, and out a vertical pipe, venting above the enclosure roof. This air movement (via convection or fan forced) will vent carbon dioxide and odors.

Most units require manual methods for periodic aeration of the solid mass such as rotating a drum inside the unit or working an "aerator rake" through the mass. Composting toilet brands have different provisions for emptying the finished product, and supply a range of capacities based on volume of use. Frequency of emptying will depend on the speed of the decomposition process and capacity, from a few months (active hot composting) to years (passive, cold composting). With a properly sized and managed unit, a very small volume (about 10% of inputs) of a humus-like material results, which can be suitable as soil amendment for agriculture, depending on local public health regulations.


Dealing with Waste in an Emergency

One subject that probably isn't talked about enough is sanitation. As preppers we are preparing for the likelihood of being without a food and water source. We have our water stored for cooking and drinking but what about sanitation? All the conventional ways of getting rid of human waste rely on electricity and most importantly, running water. Without these sanitation is going to become a real issue in an emergency situation, especially if it's a situation that's going to last a while.

This is something that homeowners should be concerned with. How are you going to get rid of your waste without being able to flush the toilet? Probably the best option for homesteaders and preppers alike is building a working outhouse. People used outhouses for years. They could be a good thing if the grid ever went down. To build an outhouse you first want to choose a location that is 50 - 150 ft. from your home. This is to keep the smell at a minimum. A hole should be dug around 5 ft. deep and up to 3 ft. in diameter. A small building should be constructed on top of the the hole. Vent pipes should be ran from the pit to on top of the roof to vent the methane gas that would build up.

It might seem pretty primitive but if the grid went down it's going to be one of your only options to get rid of your waste. A well built outhouse would last years and with a 5 ft. deep pit your going to always be in a constant cycle of decomposition which shouldn't ever fill up. The outhouse would need to be well built and sealed up good around the pit itself. Outhouse specific toilet seats can be purchased to seal the pit and keep bugs and the smell down as much as possible. When people used outhouses they would sprinkle lime into the pit to aid in decomposition along with keeping the smell down. If you are a homesteader, you might want to look into building one of these if you expect the grid to go down for any length of time. Below is a diagram of an outhouse to give you an idea of how to build one.


Wrapping Up, With Blankets

As snowflakes begin to frequently drift down, my wife begins her odd seasonal transformation from warm, to cold-blooded being. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with this process, but it is the true mark of seasonal change around my home. Appendages seem to have ice permanently on them, and thus have an odd habit of always finding their way to me, which is cause to no small amount of distress.

With that in mind, we have discussed what else we can do in my family to increase our ability to stay warm inside (because my wife sure doesn’t want to go out). Beyond just comfort in the dark months, my southern CA native wife is petrified of the idea of being without power/heat, and our ability to deal with that.

So among our Winter preparation (and Christmas present) plans, we’ve been looking at improving all things snuggly in the house. We want to focus on making sure we can stay warmer during the night, especially since our home does not have any form of off-grid heating beyond our portable means. With three children, we want to make sure they are well covered, and avoid the need to share our bed.

With that in mind, I figured it would be good to make a post about some of the factors we’ve considered in outfitting our home with more blankets. From purchasing to fabricating, there are several things you need to look at when selecting yours.


One of the first things to discuss about blankets is the material they will use. Different materials can make a lot of difference in how well they work, how much they cost, and whether you are willing to use them.


Most of us likely have cotton sheets on our bed, and for good reason. It’s really comfy, and often cheaper (unless you are buying something really fancy). You also likely have blankets that incorporate some amount of cotton exactly for those reasons. Whether it’s the outside of a comforter, or making up a quilt, cotton is common, and very useful to have something comfortable. There are some cons to cotton however; the main being that it does not work well if it gets wet.


Modern textiles such as Polyester, Acrylic, and others are attempts to reproduce many of the features of cotton, at a cheaper price. They often avoid problems such as shrinking when washed, but are not always as nice as the real thing. The main liabilities I’ve seen to these are often fragility because of cheap construction, or that they can melt if they get too close to flame. This of course is more of an issue if you think about candles or lanterns being used in an emergency.


Microfleece, Polarfleece, and related fabrics are a modern synthetic material that was developed as a synthetic alternative to wool. While it might not surpass wool in all areas, it does very well in a lot. It also has several advantages in it’s own right. Fleece itself is comparatively inexpensive to wool, is Hydrophobic, very lightweight, and allows perspiration to pass through even when wet.

However, it is not perfect. Being a petroleum-based product, it is flammable so make sure you get something to treat it for fire resistance. It also easily generates a lot of static electricity, so be careful when wearing it and dealing with any fuel sources. Also there are varying qualities of material, and cheaper ones can easily tear, pill, and generally fall apart.


Wool has been the king of cold-weather gear forever, for very good reasons. Nature has created a perfect form of winter protection from each of the animals we might get wool from to protect the wearer. Wool can keep you warm even when wet, if frozen can be the best wind protection you can get, and more. As for cons, I know my biggest one is that most wools, especially cheap ones cause me to itch until I’m losing skin, and of course the cost for good wool is astronomical.


One thing we’ve done to help our blanket situation is make some of our own. Now we don’t have the room to set up for quilting, much less the long time to dedicate to it. But if you do, that’s one of the amazing skills that could do your family a lot of good. Barring the quilting lifestyle, we’ve learned some other types of blankets we can make with our lower skill level. My wife has a favorite type of ‘no-sew’ fleece blanket that she has produced for several of us, and quite a few Christmas presents. And seriously, there isn’t much better on a nice snowy Christmas morning that opening up a warm comfy blanket! For the cost of whatever size and type of fleece she wants to get, she can quickly make something that our kids can each keep on their bed (and do they ever love theirs), and keeps them quite warm for just a single blanket.


One of the more popular types of often homemade blankets that I remember from my childhood in the Afghan blanket. These are crocheted or knitted blankets of yarn. While they don’t score points on the windproof scale (large holes in the design), they are wonderful additions when layering on a bed, or having around on the couch.


Mrs. Bill Stagg with state quilt, Pie Town, New Mexico (via WikiMedia Commons)

Mrs. Bill Stagg with state quilt, Pie Town, New Mexico (via WikiMedia Commons)

Now quilts, these scare me. Why? Because have you ever encountered quilters talking shop? Listen, I’m one of those hard-core computer geeks that loves to get into the details of what he does, and I’ve got nothing on some of the quilters I’ve known. If my wife got the quilting bug, my office would be quickly taken over to make room for the construction of quilts.

That said, this old-world craft is an amazing skill, producing some of the best blankets there are. In my non-quilting-certified summary, a quilt is basically a sandwich of material, a shell filled with ‘batting’ (the nice stuffing inside). They can be sewn or tied together following a couple different styles, and the work going into them tends to drive people to really invest some quality time in creating wonderful patterns and designs in the quilt itself.

And for any of you readers that are of the quilting lifestyle, hey, we’d love your article submissions about it!

Our youngest daughter has a beautiful quilt given by her grandmother, it’s an excellent example of how a blanket (quilt in this case) can be a practical gift.


While we *love* our homemade blankets, we do want more. Just a single blanket is nice in the winter when the thermostat is still keeping things at that point where my wife just *grumbles* about the temperature. However in a time of need we will require more. So we’ve been shopping around for potential family Christmas presents with blankets in mind. Here are a few types to consider.


The armies of the world have been making various types of wool blankets for years to keep the troops warm during the ‘cold’ war. And of course, these are now all available throughout the internet, and the various catalogs and surplus stores everywhere. Prices have gone up over the years on these, but there are still many types around in the sub $20 range, but they can vary greatly. Most of these will be the common twin size, perfect for an individual bed, stuffing in your sleeping bag, or similar usage. I took one with me to college and kept it under my fitted sheet, keeping the underside a little warmer.

What you need to look for in a surplus wool blanket is first, how used is it. Some are new, some, not so much. And it is wool, so you have to be careful cleaning it. After that, check out what type of blend it is. Different countries used different amounts of wool, from 50%, to some even 100%. What makes up the other amount? Some are cotton, some might be synthetic. If you are planning on taking this camping in the snow, avoid a cotton one of course. The price of the blanket will often reflect the wool percentage, which then also effects the overall weight, form 2.5lbs, up to 4 on a single twin sized blanket.

But maybe you want something a bit larger, or like me, you really want something a lot more comfortable. The wool quality in the surplus blankets sure isn’t Cashmere or anything nice. So while we have some of these blankets, we want a little more. This goes doubly so when my wife explains that ‘dirty gray’ surplus colors just don’t go with the decorations she has planned.

Hudsons Bay

4 point hudson Wrapping Up, With BlanketsThe king of the wool blankets is the legendary Hudsons Bay blanket. These blankets were created by the Hudsons Bay corporation, and used by mountain men when trading with natives. They are the ones who came up with a standard point system that is still used today. Each blanket would have a series of bars sewn into a corner defining what size/weight the blanket was.

Nowadays the blankets are a licensed brand, made in the US by Woolrich. You can pick from the original colors, or they of course have fancier newer designs to fit every form of chic my wife wants. What is nice though, is that with the shockingly high price tag that I see, I can always remember that they actually use those really nice types of wool that aren’t cheap enough for the military. As somebody who gets hive’s from wrapping in a surplus blanket, I like that I can cuddle with one of these, and actually feel comfort. They also last forever, of a quality level that you can have with your through the years, much like good quilts can get handed down between generations.

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Woolrich Hudson’s Bay Multi Wool 4 Point Blanket


While Hudsons Bay brand is a well known name, there are some other manufacturers creating blankets of similar quality (but also price) out there. Reputable manufacturers such as Pendleton have equally comfortable coverings in a variety of styles. Before buying from a different manufacturer than one of these well-known brands I would try to find a local source to get an actual feel for the blanket. If I’m spending that much money, I have to make sure it’s worth it, and not just slightly above surplus material, steel wool, or carpet feel.

Down Comforters

Another important addition to the blanket world is the comforter. From the ultra-cheap, purely synthetic, to fancy down-filled these puffy bags of air are important. Why? because they work, that air in there is holding in the heat, which is why sleeping bags have used them as a basis for years. Down, like wool, has been used because it is what nature created for the purpose. It was a natural resource that farmers could harvest each year to get warmer. Modern synthetic versions can improve in certain respects, by providing less expensive alternatives for those of us with realistic budgets, as well as being able to clean them at home.

Electric Blankets

I can’t go without mentioning this. This is one blanket that my wife considers one of the greatest gifts I ever gave her. Every Winter night I get a nice reminder of how amazing the blanket is. Now, is an electric blanket something we can just count on for emergency preparedness? Of course not, if the power goes out, then it’s just a slightly thin fleece blanket. However, the blanket is very useful for the preparedness-minded person in other ways. First off, with the blanket on our bed we are able to lower our thermostat to a much lower level than we used to, heating only our bed itself is a far better deal than heating the whole house. This practice is something that is very good to get used to, because it helps you conserve your resources far better in the event of a real emergency.


Of course most of our blankets wind up covering us on the bed during the winter, but remember to always have some extras. If you are comfortable with your blankets when the heat is on, you’ll obviously need more when there is no power. But there are also other uses you might want some for. I keep an extra surplus blanket in my car kit during the winter, in case I get stuck. Not only is it great to keep you warm if you are stuck in the car, but a cheap surplus blanket is a great thing to kneel down on when changing a flat tire on the side of the road. I’ve even wound up using one for extra traction on a very stuck car, and while very hard on the blanket, it actually stood up just fine to the abuse.

The blankets are also great to help cover windows, or doorways to enclose rooms in your house to retain heat during a power outage. This segmenting/partitioning lowers the actual area you need to heat, and the thicker the sheet (like wool), the more efficient it is.

After spending so long typing this, I think I now hear the ominous sounds of the jaws-theme, as my wife approaches with ice-clad hands and feet. So before their more than magnetic attraction to my natural heat production causes me to shriek in pain, let me finish by encouraging you too to look into adding to your selection of warmth retaining bedding. From surplus blankets, to ultra-high-end wool blankets, homemade fleece, to large quilt projects, there is a vast selection of blankets that you can add to your bed. Or in this season of giving, why not consider a blanket. An emergency preparedness item that can go well even with the most uptight person you know.