Do separation toilets really work? Otherwise known as ‘composting toilets’ these units can replace chemical or maceration toilets in caravans and RVs. We tested an Airhead unit while out bush camping for three months and the results were very positive.

Airhead composting or ‘separation’ toilet
(photo: Airhead website)

If you’re heading out for a long trip on the road, you’ll need to carefully plan and prepare. One of the key decisions that you’ll have to make will be on your toilet set up. There are some basic options:

  • Simple chemical toilets or ‘port-a-potty’ set-ups. Cheap and easy to set up, but with the key disadvantage that you’ll have to find a ‘dump point’ every two to three days. Admittedly, dump points are now very common around the country, but it’s still a nuisance and severely limits the time you can spend in remote regions. There can also be an issue with smells. The chemical products that are usually supplied with these units stink worse than the waste itself and should be avoided (especially for environmental reasons); grey nomads have been using alternate products such as Napisan for years, and these do help to reduce the smell, while being less toxic to the environment
  • Maceration toilets. These are used a lot in boats and also in some caravans and RVs. They’re a lot more expensive than chemical toilets and require some pretty sophisticated plumbing. Basically, the waste is macerated into liquid form and then held in a ‘black’ tank. This black tank may hold up to a week’s worth of waste, but eventually, you’ll have to find a dump point and pump the waste out. This may be a little more tricky than emptying a port-a-porty, which usually have portable cassettes; with a maceration black tank, you’ll have to manoeuvre your vehicle to within a hose length of the dump point. Other disadvantages are that they use a lot of water (and water is SO precious to campers) and weight, since that black tank will weigh a considerable amount when it’s full
  • Separation or composting toilets. The key to these is the separation of waste: liquid waste is diverted into a simple container (gents, you need to piss sitting down); solid waste is held in a composting chamber to which compostable material has been added; a continuously running fan extracts air from the solids chamber, eliminates smells and encourages healthy aerobic decomposition. The liquid waste (that would be the ‘piss pot’ to those of us who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths) needs to be emptied every day, but as it presents very little danger of contamination to the environment, that’s really no big deal. The solids chamber will need to be emptied when it gets full, and that will depend on how many people are using it. Used every day by just one person, it may last for a month or more. Used by two people, it may need to be emptied every two to three weeks. In any case, it eliminates the need to search for a dump point, as the solid waste (which is relatively inert) can be buried or bagged for landfill. Other advantages are that they use NO water and weigh comparatively little.

We’ve been using the US-made Airhead composting toilet for over ten months now, and are totally converted. It works so much better, and is so much less messy than the chemical toilets we have used in the past. Without the Airhead, we would never have been able to spend extended amounts of slow camping time in remote areas. Previously, we always had to consider getting access to a dump point, and that certainly influenced where, and how long, we camped.

Emptying the solids chamber, when you do eventually have to do it, need not be particularly confronting either. Most of the waste breaks down quite quickly into inert compost-like material – and the longer you leave it, the better it gets. This compost can be used in gardens, around trees or flower beds, but not on vegetables or any plants that you’re going to eat.

The Airhead toilet that we used needs 12v power to continuously run the fan; this has a tiny power draw, similar to a PC or laptop fan. The unit is simple to set up and easy to remove for emptying and cleaning. There are a growing number of brands of separation toilet out there but we are very happy with our Airhead; it made life as a digital nomad in some very remote regions much more possible, and much more pleasant.

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