When my partner Aaron and I were planning our bus conversion layout, we made a list of “must-haves” and a composting toilet was high on the list. At the time in late 2017, the only composting toilet that I regularly saw in campervan tour videos and read about online was the Nature’s Head.
So, that’s what we chose (over a port-a-potty or DIY composting toilet), although since then a few other legitimate composting toilet options have been introduced, causing a dramatic “composting toilet schism” of preferences in the vanlife and buslife communities. In this article, I’ll share my experience with the Nature’s Head and the reasons that I still believe it’s the best composting toilet, and we’ll hear from another skoolie couple who chose the same one.
So, what’s the best campervan composting toilet? The best composting toilet is, in my opinion, the Nature’s Head. We chose it because it uses diversion to separate liquids and solids which eliminates the vast majority of unpleasant smells, it only requires a tiny bit of power to run the fan, there is no black water tank, and it most resembles a standard home toilet.
Whenever I tell the uninitiated that we have a composting toilet on board our bus conversion, I barely get the words out before the questions start. So, I’m going to dive right into some FAQs and we’ll get to the specifics of the Nature’s Head later in the article.
Overview of the Nature’s Head Composting Toilet
Let’s take a look at some specifics of the Nature’s Head composting toilet.
What’s in the box?
When you order a Nature’s Head composting toilet, you will receive the toilet itself with the fan built in, a liquids bottle with a cap, an interior vent flange, an agitator and handle, two mounting bracket assemblies, an 18” wire to hook up the fan, a fuse and fuse holder, 5.5’ of flexible vent hose, a spray bottle, an installation and user guide, and a warranty card.
When we ordered the toilet in 2017, there were two agitator handle options: a standard handle and a spider handle that was designed for use in small spaces. Now, however, the company offers three handle types: a foot spider handle, a shifter handle, and the classic spider handle.
We opted for the spider handle when we made our purchase, but the shifter handle looks much easier to operate so we may retrofit ours when the handle conversion kit becomes available. We have found that the spider handle can be pretty hard to turn once the solids bin starts to fill up since you don’t have a lot of leverage.
You can also opt to purchase several add-on accessories for the toilet, like an AC/DC adapter for the fan, an extra liquids jug, various vent options, a lid for the solids bin, extra fuses, and even an extra toilet base with a lid.
Dimensions and Space Requirements
The toilet measures 19 inches wide by 20 inches tall by 17.75 inches deep and it weighs 28 pounds empty. It’s designed so that you can change the fan and the agitator handle to either side of the toilet for whatever arrangement suits your space best.
Since the toilet seat and bowl must be tilted back in order to remove the liquids jug, the toilet needs to be installed at least 1.5 inches from the wall behind it. To remove the top portion altogether, it needs to be able to slide 2 inches to the left. However, chances are the width of your shoulders will be the biggest factor in how small you can make your bathroom space.
We built one wall, put the toilet in place, and then Aaron sat on it so we could determine how much space was necessary for comfort and ease of operation. We did not want to go for an airplane bathroom feeling where you somehow bump your head, elbows, and knees just trying to unbutton your pants.
Also, the different handles have various amounts of required clearance. We chose the spider handle because at the time, it took up the least amount of space, although as I mentioned we may retrofit with the shifter handle for easier cranking without having to bend over as far.
The installation of the toilet itself could not be any easier. Once you know where you want to toilet, screw the brackets onto the toilet and set it in place. Then trace around the brackets as accurately as possible, remove the brackets from the toilet, and set the toilet aside.
Line up the brackets in your traced lines, mark where the holes are on the floor, and drill a ⅛” pilot hole before using the provided countersunk screws to attach the brackets to the floor.
If you are uncertain about lining up the brackets properly, attach one to the floor first and then check the alignment of the other bracket by setting the toilet in place and measuring once more. Then, whenever you need to remove the toilet to empty or clean it, just undo the thumb screws and lift the toilet free, leaving the brackets in place.
The trickier part of the installation process is properly venting the toilet to the outdoors. If you’re thinking of skipping this step, don’t. Our fan broke one time and we didn’t know it, but the bathroom felt and smelled tropical until we figured it out and replaced the fan. The scariest part here is chopping a hole in the side of your campervan, but from there it’s relatively simple to hook up all the parts.
When we bought our Nature’s Head, they did not have all the vent covers that they have today, so we just made our own out of some sheet metal with slats cut into it to keep the rain out. Now they have vent covers for almost any scenario. You can also vent the toilet out the roof or floor of your campervan, although if you go through the roof you’ll need to be careful of rainwater getting in.
You’ll also need to connect the fan wiring to a 12V power source, or purchase the adapter separately so you can plug it into a normal outlet.
Nature’s Heads aren’t cheap. A new one costs $925 from the manufacturer’s website, plus $35 for shipping anywhere in the continental US. However, there are a few ways to get a deal. You can shop for used Nature’s Heads, or you can visit a Nature’s Head booth at any of the events they attend (usually things like tiny home shows, bus fairs, etc.) to score a discount.
This was the single most expensive component of our bus build, but it has been so worth it. The convenience of having our own toilet every day for the last 2+ years far outweighs the one-time expense.
Tips For Using a Nature’s Head Composting Toilet
Over the last couple of years, I have discovered a few things about the Nature’s Head toilet that they don’t tell you much about in the owner’s manual.
First up is the amount of water necessary to reconstitute coco coir. We decided to use coco coir after reading that it is more sustainable than peat moss, which apparently takes a super long time to grow. We order 11-pound bricks of coco coir on Amazon, saw/break it into four 2.5-pound smaller bricks, and seal each brick in an individual 2-gallon Ziploc bag (1-gallon bags will be too small).
Then when we are almost ready to change out the substrate, we grab one of the bags, poke some holes into the brick with a screwdriver so water can penetrate more easily, dump one cup of water into the bag, and reseal it. We then place the bag in a sunny spot if possible for a day or two, then crunch up any leftover hard parts with our hands until it is all fluffy.
The Nature’s Head user guide simply says, “if your peat moss or coconut fiber is dry, add a small amount of water,” and that material should be damp and crumbly, not wet or soupy. These very broad and inexact directions didn’t cut it for me, but luckily in my research I found a blog that prescribed one cup of water per 2.5 pounds of coco coir, and that has worked wonderfully.
My other piece of advice is regarding gnats. We had gnats get into our toilet and it was… bad. They were everywhere, flying around, in the pee jug, in the toilet bowl, etc. We had to bleach and scrub the entire toilet to get rid of all the gnats and kill any larvae.
Then, to avoid having to go through that again, we took some preventive measures: we put a piece of pantyhose over the vent hose that leads to the outside and started adding a tablespoon of Gnatrol (a chemical gnat killer) to the coco coir every time we put in a fresh batch. No more gnats.
If you can’t already tell that I love this composting toilet, here are my favorite things about it in a succinct list:
- No black water or gray water from the toilet.
- It feels and looks the most like a real toilet.
- Amazing customer service from Nature’s Head – when our fan broke, we emailed them asking if we could buy just the fan assembly and instead they immediately mailed us two new ones for free.
- It’s expensive (although its biggest direct competitor, the Air Head composting toilet, is actually more expensive at $1,029).
- It takes a little while to get used to it if you have never used a composting toilet before.
- It can be hard to crank the agitator with the spider handle, especially when the solids bin is getting full.
Zak and Diane’s experience with their Nature’s Head
I spoke with Zak and Diane (@zakanddiane) who use also use a Nature’s Head composting toilet in their skoolie conversion, and here’s what they shared:
“We decided to go with the Nature’s Head because it comes highly recommended by other DIY bus lifers whose opinions we trust. The brand is well-recognized among this community. It is simple to care for and simplicity is part of the reason we chose this lifestyle! It’s nice to not have to lug around water tanks and sewage.
We also love that it’s more natural and less wasteful than regular toilets. We haven’t had our Nature’s Head for very long – only about a month because our bathroom is the part of our build we left last – but so far it’s been great! The only thing we wish was different is the size of the urine collection bucket.
That requires more frequent emptying and it can be kind of inconvenient and embarrassing to deal with that when we have guests.”
How does a Nature’s Head composting toilet work?
The key element of Nature’s Head composting toilets is that they separate liquid and solid waste. This prevents disgusting smells (an issue with port-a-potty type toilets) and eliminates black water (which you would have with a flushing RV toilet) which means you don’t have to pay around $15 to visit dump stations regularly.
You use it like a regular toilet (except it works best to sit down, no exceptions) and urine is automatically diverted into the jug because of the contour of the bowl and placement of the drain holes. There is a trap door that covers the solids bin until you move the handle on the side of the toilet into the open position. Keep the door closed to go #1, but obviously for #2… be sure to open the door first.
At this point, you will have already placed substrate into the solids bin – either sphagnum peat moss or coco coir. The substrate material allows oxygen to reach the aerobic bacteria which creates a speedy and odor-free compost process, as opposed to anaerobic bacteria, which does not require oxygen but results in a much slower and stinkier compost process.
So, after going #2, simply close the trap door and the toilet lid and give the agitator handle a few cranks. This will “aerate” the poo and create the oxygenated situation described above for optimal composting.
Do Nature’s Head composting toilets smell bad?
They do not. There is no noticeable odor day to day with a composting toilet. Of course, while someone is actively using the toilet there may be, ahem, unpleasant smells but that’s the nature of all toilets.
However, when you empty the liquids container, there is a brief waft of unpleasant smell. But, this can be minimized by placing the toilet as close as possible to an exterior door for easy emptying and is nothing a small squirt of air freshener can’t fix.
Are Nature’s Head composting toilets gross?
This depends on your definition and tolerance of ‘grossness.’ Using the toilet is not gross at all – significantly more pleasant than using an outhouse or pit toilet. Emptying the toilet isn’t the most enjoyable task, but it’s not the worst thing either. I’ll be honest though, Aaron empties the toilet 99% of the time.
Do you have to empty a composting toilet?
Yes. The liquids (pee) jug needs to be emptied pretty regularly (every 2-3 days for 2 people using it) while the solids bin requires less frequent emptying (every 1-3 months depending on how much you use it).
How do you empty a composting toilet?
The pee jug can be dumped anywhere it would be appropriate for your dog to pee. For example, NOT on your neighbor’s pristine lawn, but on a dirt patch or near a tree would be fine. In fact, urine is good for mature trees as a fertilizer, and it is nearly sterile when it leaves your body.
The solids bin can be emptied into a garbage bag and thrown out or, if properly and completely composted it can be used to fertilize non-food plants. Eyebrows are always raised when I say that we just throw it out in the trash, but it’s no different than throwing out dirty baby diapers. The solids bin is designed so that a standard kitchen garbage will fit over it, although we use the ‘tall’ ones to get the best seal.
Simply stretch the bag over the opening, turn the toilet upside down, and give it a few good whacks to get everything out. You may have to “burp” the bag if the seal is super tight. You can also bury the waste so it can fully finish composting, but that’s not always practical depending on where you are.
Can you use toilet paper with a composting toilet?
Yes. You can use any TP you prefer, but single ply composts faster and takes up less space in the solids container. To further save space, we put #1 TP in the trash and only #2 TP goes in the solids bin. Don’t put anything else in the toilet though – no food composting scraps, no period products, and no wipes.
Is urine considered gray water?
Technically, gray water is any waste water that has not come into contact with feces, so urine can go into a gray water tank. However, it can also just go on the ground in an appropriate place, which will save space in your gray water tank for water that has traces of soaps and chemicals which needs to be dumped with more care.
Do Nature’s Head composting toilets need electricity?
Yes, to power a small 12V fan. The fan is integral to drying out the solid waste, which minimizes smells further and speeds the composting process. It is a negligible amount of power draw, about 1.7 amps per 24 hours.
Can it be placed in a wet bath?
Yes, although you need to make a few modifications. The mounting brackets need to be completely sealed to prevent leaks below your shower pan, and you’ll need to drill a hole in the urine tank holder so water drains out of it, or just cover the toilet when the shower is in use.
Additionally, you will need to waterproof all the wiring components so you don’t short out the fan or shock yourself, and cover the toilet paper so it doesn’t get soaked.
My final thoughts…
If you are considering a composting toilet for your campervan, a Nature’s Head is the way to go. There’s a reason that these are so popular among the vanlife and buslife communities as Zak and Diane mentioned, and that’s because Nature’s Heads are simply the best option as far as composting toilets go.
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