We have just finished having a new bathroom fitted and as part of the changes we have installed a composting toilet to replace the 50 year old conventional toilet that was there when we moved in.
Reactions to this so far have ranged from “You’re completely insane. That’s disgusting!” to “What a great idea! More people should do that“. But the most common reaction is simply “Why?”
Well, the reasons are fairly simple if you look at them rationally.
So perhaps a better question to ask is “Why not?” and I can think of a few reasons for that too.
The first issue is purely cultural and if composting toilets were more common and well designed then I think this could easily change. The price is largely due to the fact that they are produced in small numbers, which would change if they were more popular, which means some people need to suck up the cost and buy them now to give the industry a boost. The final is a challenge for the manufacturers who seem to be living in a utilitarian bubble and haven’t realised that bathrooms are places that people spend a lot of money to make beautiful and that they are competing against a lot of very high quality and elegantly designed conventional toilets.
We’ve had it now for nearly a month and I thought it worth writing a review, since I can’t find any other reviews for this toilet online.
I’m going to divide this review into the key areas that I think are relevant for a composting toilet – User Experience, Style, Smell, Noise, Waste, Installation and Maintenance.
The user experience is something that I have been really impressed with. The guys at Separett have been rather clever in figuring out that no matter whether you are a guy or a girl, when you sit down on the loo your urine comes out the front and the poo plops out the back. This has allowed them to seperate the urine and faeces (I’ll explain about that later) without any inconvenience to the user. You just sit down and do your thing like you normally do.
Some women might need to sit a little further on the sit than normal, but they have even included a little extension piece that can be clipped on if you find that to be a problem.
The thing that many people are worried about is seeing the poo underneath them, but the toilet hole has a trapdoor keeping it closed that automatically opens when you sit down, and thanks to the urine funnel at the front it is near enough impossible to see down the hole between your legs. The only time that you can really see it is if you stand up to wipe your bum and the have to manually push the seat to open the trapdoor to throw the paper in. This part of the process isn’t ideal and although it is not a big problem I do think that it would be a big selling feature if the designers could find a clever solution for this.
If you have kids, the toilet even comes with a special baby seat that fits on the top and allows you to use it during potty training, which I thought was a nice touch.
One big difference compared to a normal toilet is that men have to sit down to pee. That trap door won’t open unless you sit down, and even if it did you’d probably piss into the poo chamber instead of the urine funnel, so the trapdoor rather cunningly forces men to sit down. Men might find this a bit annoying, but I think for the ladies of the house this is actually quite a big selling feature.
Finally, one thing that seems a little strange at first is that you can’t flush the loo. It is amazing how strongly some people (and it does seem to be more with women so far) have an irrepressible urge to flush the loo. If you live with it then you get used to it soon enough, but it is a bit odd for guests. I think they should add some sort of pretend flush handle that makes people feel that they have somehow finished their business.
Overall, I am really impressed with how well the design works from a user perspective and how easy it i to adapt to, since you use it almost the same as a normal toilet.
When it comes to style I don’t know whether to be cruel or kind. On the one hand, the Separett Villa 9000 is by far the best looking composting toilet that I have seen anywhere. In fact, it is one of the only ones that I have seen that actually looks like a toilet at all. So I have to give the guys and girls at Separett credit for being at the front of the industry in this respect.
Having said that, if you compare it to even a cheap conventional toilet then it doesn’t fare so well. To some extent it’s bulk it unavoidable and Separett have already done a good job of keeping it almost within the same footprint as a regular toilet, but the shape is bulbous and unrefined.
On top of that there are little details that just seem careless. The toilet seat is flimsy and isn’t even the same shape as the toilet, which looks ugly, as if they just got some cheap plastic toilet seats from China and clipped them on. There is a big blue metallic badge with the Separett logo in pride of place, which looks like the sort of naff 1980’s badge that you expect to see on a disability aid (not that that is any more excusable) rather than in a bathroom and lastly the trap door and the seal around the vent pipe are both blue, which isn’t the end of the world but I can’t imagine that it goes with the colour scheme of most bathrooms. Something more neutral would have been a much better idea.
The other problem aesthetically is that the whole unit is made of plastic, and it looks like plastic. Not the type of high quality, tactile plastic that you see on a iPhone or even a nice plastic bath, but more like the type of plastic that you expect to see on a bucket or gutter pipe. It doesn’t look that bad, but you can’t escape that fact that it shouts out PLASTIC!
Having finished my little rant about the styling, here is the good news. It doesn’t smell – at all! Even my Mum who has the world’s most sensitive nose for unpleasant smells didn’t notice anything when she visited.
We did have a problem in the first few days because the vent pipe hadn’t been properly sealed, but we got this sorted and it has been fine ever since.
By separating urine from faeces, the poo is able to dry out and start decomposing instead of turning into the rancid toxic sludge we usually expect, so it doesn’t produce as much smell as you would expect. On top of that, the toilet has a low power fan unit to constantly evacuate any smells to the outside. It has two speeds, so you can boost it i required but so far this has not been necessary. The fan uses about 280 watts per day, which isn’t ideal but could be worse. They also offer a solar powered option on the fan too.
There are really only two aspects to the noise.
First is the thonk that the trapdoor makes when you sit down. It isn’t a big problem and certainly less than the noise of a conventional flush, but it does somehow irritate me a little that the manufacturers haven’t found a way to just soften the noise a little.
The other noise comes from the fan, which is fairly quiet like a normal bathroom extraction unit. Most of the time we don’t notice it at all, but if we leave the bedroom and bathroom doors open at night then the hum does penetrate the silence and we end up getting up to close the door. Not a big deal though.
As mentioned, the Villa 9000 separates urine from faeces. This keeps the faeces dry so that it doesn’t smell as much but also allows it to compost, which it won’t do if it is soaking wet. At the same time, it keeps the urine clean, which can be piped off and used as a rather potent plant fertiliser. This requires the use of some sort of storage tank (which is an optional extra that we haven’t bought – yet) and is a really good idea. I like us you don’t get that all organised you can just pipe it down the drain.
Emptying the toilet is really easy. You just pop the top open like a car bonnet, stick a lid on the bucket to keep the smell in while you remove it (this does require a few seconds holding your breath) and then you can take it outside to either compost inside its own bucket or empty it into a larger composter.
The only issue that we have found so far is that it fills up a lot faster than we expected. When I asked Separett before we bought it they said that we should get about 1-2 months out of a single bucket. In practice it is more like 7-10 days. That is a big difference! There are probably three main factors for this. Firstly, we work from home a lot, meaning that the toilet gets more use. Secondly, we have had a lot of guests since it was installed and thirdly, we eat mainly high fibre plant based foods, which does significantly increase the bulk of your poo. We asked Richard at eco-toilets.co.uk about this and he said that the easiest option is to use a HotBin composter, meaning that you can empty the buckets into the large HotBin and compost it all down in just 90 days, keeping the number of buckets required down to a minimum. We’re going to try this and will post an update in a few months time.
Installing the Villa 9000 is relatively simple and they have an excellent YouTube Video to show you how to fit it. Ours was a little more tricky because we didn’t have it on an outside wall and had to vent it up into the roof, but it was nothing that our plumber Mike Kinna couldn’t handle. The best thing is that there are not many limitations on where you can fit it. We wanted to move the toilet to the opposite side of the room to the old toilet for a more space efficient and practical layout, but moving the waste pipe for a conventional toilet is a big job. The Villa 9000 can be fitted almost anywhere and the vent pipe can either go through a nearby outside wall or up into the loft cavity and through the tiles or an external wall.
As far as I can see, there shouldn’t really be any maintenance other than emptying it. Our plumber did say that there could be a risk of the urine pipe scaling up with mineral deposits so we have been making a point of rinsing it out from time to time. You can also get eco friendly anti-scaling agents that you can rinse down to be on the safe side.
The instructions also say that the filter on the fan should be cleaned out from time to time, which is a pretty small job.
Other than that, as long as the fan keeps on running then there isn’t really anything to maintain, which is great!
Overall, I have really impressed with the Separett Villa. I might not be in love with its looks, but it is a really clever and simple design that makes using a composting toilet a simple, pleasant and familiar experience, and that is really all you want. If you are thinking about taking that huge leap of faith and installing a composting toilet then I think this product probably is one of the best on the market and definitely a good choice.
So was it a good idea to buy a composting toilet?
So far, the answer is yes. I’ll update this review in a few months time to let you know if I’ve changed my mind!
So it has been about 8 months since we had the composting toilet installed and I am pleased to say that we are not regretting our decision. It has been an interesting learning curve for us and a point of interest for many visitors.
So what are our highlights, lowlights and interesting experiences so far?
Since we installed the Separett Villa composting toilet I have been keen to find out how much water we actually saved in reality, as oppose to theory. It has been hard to work out because our water company do meter readings very very infrequently and so I have had to wait a long time to gather enough data to actually know for sure. But finally that day has come!
Before we installed the composting toilet we were using 192litres per day (already well below average for a 2 person home in the UK – average is about 270litres/day). We are now using an average of 117 litres per day, a reduction in water use of 75 litres per day or 39%. That is a seriously good result in my mind as it will save around 27,000 litres of clean tap water every year. It is also worth noting that we changed our shower at the same time and the new one, despite the water saving head, certainly uses more water due to the more powerful pump. The toilet has probably therefore saved even more water than these figures show.