Every buslifer or vandweller you ask will no doubt have an impassioned opinion on whether or not bathrooms are necessary in a vehicle conversion. For my boyfriend Aaron and me, it was a hard yes, but we have several friends who swear a bathroom isn’t necessary and are perfectly content without one.
There are so many elements and hundreds of different ways to configure a bathroom, so let’s start out by taking a look at some of the options.
There are three main categories to consider when it comes to skoolie bathrooms: toilets, showers, and plumbing. After being on the road for over a year, we have met a lot of fellow travelers and toured a lot of buses and vans. While there are certainly trends in skoolie bathrooms, we have seen all kinds of set-ups!
Toilet Options In A School Bus Conversion
- Plumbed RV Toilets
These types of toilets are the most similar to ones you’d use in a traditional home, both in appearance and function. Although significantly less water is required than for a standard home toilet, a considerable amount is still used with these types of toilets. RV toilets are permanently installed, and they need to be connected to a freshwater tank and a black water holding tank.
When you are done using the toilet, there is typically a foot pedal or a button that you push, which opens the hatch and triggers a water rinse, similar to an airplane toilet in that gravity helps this process along. The waste, toilet paper, and the flush water drain into the black water holding tank, which you then periodically need to empty at a dump station.
Pros: Using the toilet is quite similar to using a house toilet. They look sleek and classy and there’s no smell.
Cons: You have to deal with emptying a black water tank, which means visiting a dump station where you may have to pay and/or wait in line. Black water tank emptying is not for the squeamish, as you can imagine what comes out. RV toilets also have the potential to get clogged, which will require lots of water, plunging, and/or wanding the toilet to resolve.
- Cassette Toilets
Cassette toilets are also permanently installed, but they have a removable and portable black water holding tank. These tanks are much smaller than with regular RV toilets (4-5 gallons as opposed to 30-50 gallons) so that you can feasibly move them, since one gallon of water weighs around 8 pounds. Many of the black water tanks for cassette toilets have wheels and an extendable handle like luggage, to make it easier to transport and dump.
Pros: Cassette toilet holding tanks can be dumped in public toilets since they are removable and portable, so you don’t have to go to a dump station every time. Waste is flushed away so there’s no smell in the bathroom.
Cons: You will be lugging around ~40 pounds of your own excrement when you do have to empty a cassette toilet. As with RV toilets, these can become clogged, or if not enough water is flushed into the holding tank, the waste can solidify and become difficult to dump.
- Composting Toilets
Composting toilets are generally removable, and are not plumbed at all. Some, like the popular Nature’s Head and Air Head composting toilets, have a separate tank for urine, which helps prevent smell and speeds up the composting process for the solid waste.
Both urine and the solid waste compost can be used to fertilize non-food plants, and is not considered a biohazard since urine is sterile and once the solid waste has been broken down by the composting process, it no longer poses any viral or pathogenic threat.
Pros: There are no black water tanks to empty, and no water is used with this type of toilet. It doesn’t smell when in use and requires little maintenance. Urine can be emptied outside and solid waste can be emptied into a trash bag and placed in the garbage, or used to fertilize non-food plants.
Cons: Emptying the urine jug does create a bit of a smell, and it needs to be emptied frequently depending on how often it’s used. You will need to purchase a composting material like peat moss, coco coir, or sawdust to use with your toilet.
- Bucket Toilets
This category includes both DIY toilets made from literal buckets, and mini “portapotty” type toilets that are engineered to look more like a typical toilet, but essentially amount to a bucket with a seat on the top. Most people who go with a bucket toilet use it only for emergencies, and empty it as soon as possible.
Pros: This is a much cheaper option than any of the toilets we’ve covered so far, and can come in very handy in a pinch.
Cons: These toilets aren’t necessarily designed for daily use. Emptying them can be a bit gross, and they can produce a smell if not emptied and cleaned promptly.
- No Toilet
Some skoolie owners opt to go with no toilet at all! If you plan to always be at campgrounds or RV parks with bathrooms, this won’t be an issue, or if you will always be completely off the grid and are comfortable with going outside (following Leave No Trace principles of course), then this is a totally feasible option. Public restrooms are usually easy to find as well.
Pros: There are no toilet-related expenses, and you save a significant amount of space in your skoolie by not having a bathroom.
Cons: If you are camping in an urban location and can’t find a public bathroom, you could be forced to use a bottle or baggie.
Private Stall vs. Slide-out Toilet For Your Skoolie
Some skoolies opt to frame out a bathroom with a door, while others simply hide the toilet in a cabinet or under the couch or bed. For a single person or multiple people who are VERY comfortable with each other, having a slide-out toilet can be a great way to save space. Having visitors in the bus can create awkward situations though. Most multi-person skoolies I’ve seen opt to have a private stall for their toilet.
Shower Options In A School Bus Conversion
As with toilets, there are several different ways to include a shower in a school bus conversion.
- Interior Shower
An interior shower is set up just like a shower in a house, except that the water that drains out of the shower goes to a gray water tank, which then must be emptied periodically. Interior showers present some challenges in terms of completely waterproofing and sealing the shower stall, as any moisture or leakage issues will be magnified in the small space of a bus.
Additionally, unless you’ve raised the roof on your bus, chances are the shower head will not be situated above your head unless you are quite short. However, with an interior shower you have the freedom and privacy to shower whenever you want!
Some skoolie owners with 40-foot buses have enough space to make a separate shower stall inside their bathroom, but in a smaller bus, it’s more common to have the shower and toilet in one stall, which means that the toilet will be wet for several hours after each shower.
Pros: Private, contained shower can be used anytime. It most resembles a house shower.
Cons: Requires a lot of water and more intricate plumbing than other shower options. Mold and water leakage can be an issue. Essentially requires a roof raise to be a comfortable height. You will need a water heater and a sizeable gray water tank.
- Exterior Shower
There are several different ways to have an exterior shower on school bus. You might have a plumbed line to a shower head that can be extended out the back door of your skoolie, a sink that swivels out the window to become a shower, a black PVC pipe on the roof that heats water with the sun, a portable propane camp shower, or a solar bag shower.
Taking showers outdoors obviously means you have less privacy, but many skoolie owners who go this route will either rig a shower curtain, shower in a bathing suit, or just go au naturel if they are boondocking in a remote location with no one else around.
Pros: An outdoor shower doesn’t require a gray water tank, and generally less water is used with these types of showers. Depending on your setup, you might not need a water heater.
Cons: Precautions must be taken to follow Leave No Trace principles, i.e. using biodegradable and natural soap, taking care to be away from natural water sources, etc. Most outdoor showers aren’t practical to use while city camping or in cold weather.
- No Shower
Showers take up a lot of space, use a lot of water, and can be challenging to install correctly. Additionally, there are several ways to stay clean without having an onboard shower. For instance, many skoolie owners will purchase gym memberships at a national chain like Planet Fitness so they can shower and get a workout in whenever they come across a gym.
Many recreation or community centers also offer cheap shower passes. Skoolie dwellers also often shower at friends’ houses, or, if they are out boondocking, they can get clean with a swim in a lake or river. In a pinch, Wet Wipes work great, or I’ve frequently washed my hair in the sink in order to look and feel more presentable.
As gross as it sounds not to be able to shower every day, your body adapts and after a while, you will stop feeling dirty as your body cleans itself and produces fewer oils. Obviously, personal hygiene is still important (hand washing, clean underwear, etc.) but people survived for thousands of years without the need for daily showers.
Pros: You don’t have to bother installing and plumbing a shower in your bus, or keeping enough water on board to shower.
Cons: If you shower at gyms or rec centers, the costs can add up. You don’t have a personal shower, so the conditions might not always be clean and sparkling. Shower flipflops are a must in public showers!
Plumbing Options In A School Bus Conversion
Installing the plumbing in a skoolie is often a daunting challenge for people, unless they have experience plumbing or hire professional help. There are, of course, several different methods that are commonly used.
- PEX Pipe
PEX pipes are made from polyethylene, and they are flexible, durable, and easy to install. This makes them a superior choice to, say, copper or PVC pipes, because with the flexing and jostling of a moving bus, having rigid plumbing is simply not feasible. Although I don’t have any personal experience with PEX, I have seen beautiful, clean plumbing set-ups created in this way.
- DIY Plumbing
Obviously most skoolie plumbing is DIY, but for our purposes, this category includes plumbing that is cobbled together from various pieces and not part of a cohesive system like PEX. For instance, the popular SHURFLO water pump has an optional pump silencing kit, that includes two high-pressure hoses to install between the pump and other plumbing elements to reduce noise and vibrations.
Most faucets also come with cold and hot water lines. Hardware stores sell all kinds of connective pieces for plumbing systems that can fill in the gaps in a simple system. Some people opt for a hand or foot pump style sink, which is also fairly basic and does not require intense plumbing.
- No Plumbing
Some skoolie dwellers opt not to plumb anything at all, instead going with portable water jugs that have a dispenser nozzle. While this works for some, it means no hand washing, dish washing, etc. in the bus. This is usually a more practical setup for those who aren’t full-timers in their skoolie.
Our Skoolie Bathroom
My boyfriend and I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos and perusing Instagram accounts to see what other people have done in terms of their bus layout, and then we made a list of what was important to us. We had several late nights of drawing out layouts and debating the importance of various aspects. In the end, here is what we came up with.
Nature’s Head Composting Toilet in a Stall
We absolutely did not want a black water tank, but we definitely wanted a toilet on board. After a lot of research and reading hundreds of reviews, we decided to go with the Nature’s Head Composting Toilet despite the nearly $1,000 price tag. The separation of liquids and solids was a huge selling point for us, and we couldn’t be happier with this toilet after over a year of full-time use.
We opted for the more compact spider-handle version of the toilet.
We built out a little toilet stall, because although you certainly have to make some personal space concessions in 100 square feet, I draw the line at using the toilet in the open. This is especially nice if we have guests over. We put in a small trash can that is screwed to the floor, a swanky toilet paper holder, a shelf to hold spare toilet paper and baby wipes, and a wall hanger with pockets where we keep other small toiletries.
We made sure not to make the stall TOO small though, as we wanted to be comfortable in there. Plus, the toilet requires cranking after using the solids portion, so we were a bit more generous with the width to facilitate this.
We use coco coir in our composting toilet which has worked great so far, and we only have to change it out about every two months with just the two of us using it. We purchase the coco coir from Amazon in an 11-pound brick, which we then section into four 2.5-pound pieces. These smaller bricks go into individual 2-gallon Ziploc bags until we are ready to use them, at which point we add one cup of water to reconstitute it. After a few days and some manual breaking up of big clumps, the coco coir is ready to go.
We also add a scoop of Gnatrol to the fresh coco coir every time we change it out, which, combined with pantyhose over the vent hole, has eliminated the proliferation of fungus gnats – highly recommend taking preventative measures on this!
Sink/Outdoor Shower Combo
We initially thought about putting in an internal shower in the toilet stall, but nixed that idea after realizing that without raising our roof, neither of us would comfortably fit into the stall for a shower due to the curve of the roof, and the shower head would be below both of our heads. We also didn’t like the idea of having the toilet get wet every time we showered, and the potential for mold and leaks was intimidating.
We also only have 20 gallons of fresh water, which was the maximum that would fit without giving up some other element of our build.
So, we decided to just have our faucet swing out the window to provide an outdoor shower for when we were really desperate to rinse off. We have an Excel propane water heater that is designed for use in confined spaces, and it works wonderfully when we do take showers. Otherwise, I just wash my hair in the sink periodically, or we shower at gyms, rec centers, friends’ houses, etc.
Our faucet came with hot and cold water lines, and we got the silencing kit with our SHURFLO water pump, so we already had most of the components we needed for our very simple plumbing set up. The only complicated part was splitting the output from the pump to go to both the cold water line straight to the faucet and to the water heater before it went to the hot water line of the faucet.
Luckily our local hardware store had a massive plumbing section, so we were able to find the exact piece we needed.
Our gray water gravity drains straight from the sink down to a 7-gallon Aquatainer below it. The downspout unscrews from the jug so that we can take it out and dump it as needed. Obviously since our gray water container holds only about a third of our freshwater, we have to be diligent about checking the water level.
Our system is very sophisticated: holding a flashlight against the container and jiggling it to see the water line ripple.
Would We Have Done Anything Differently?
I honestly don’t think so. Of course, without having tried every kind of toilet and shower that I’ve mentioned above, I can’t be certain that our setup is absolutely optimal, but we have been very happy with it so far. Sure, it would be nice to have more than 20 gallons of fresh water, but we have a spare Aquatainer with 7 extra gallons, plus a few 1-gallon jugs stashed around the bus.
We love the Nature’s Head toilet, and we have gotten along just fine with our outdoor shower.
We recently filmed a bus tour for a friend’s YouTube channel, and most of the comments were from people who were very concerned that we hadn’t put in a shower in the bathroom stall. It’s all a matter of preference though and we don’t mind being a little grungy. 😉
Here’s Some Other Skoolie Bathrooms Ideas
As with anything buslife-related, there isn’t one right answer. I asked a few friends to share what their skoolie bathrooms are like and if they would change anything if they could.
Lena and JJ of @maebusadventure
Lena and JJ have a short bus that is similar in size to ours, but they opted for a totally different bathroom setup! They have a Campa portable toilet that is not permanently installed in their bus. This toilet has a flushing mechanism and a separate waste holding tank so there is no smell, and since the tank is small it can be emptied into a toilet rather than requiring a trip to the dump station.
They also have a Zodi propane shower, which can be affixed to the side of their bus.
However, JJ and Lena don’t currently use either their toilet or their shower very much, since they are boondocking near Moab. Instead, they shower at the local rec center, use public bathrooms, or use the facilities at their places of work. JJ mentioned that when they do use the toilet while boondocking, they like to set it up in the forest to have a nice view.
By not having a bathroom stall in their bus, they have extra room for other amenities, and so far the setup has been working well for them.
Chris of @shortbuschris
Chris also has a short bus, and he initially built it out to include a shower but no toilet. He does not live full-time in his bus, but currently works four 10-hour days per week, which gives him 3-day weekends every week to go on bus adventures.
His shower has a 40-gallon freshwater tank and a propane camp-style hot water heater. He says if he is sparing with water during his showers, he can go a week with 40 gallons. The only thing he says he might change about the shower is his gray water tank, which currently only holds 20 gallons, so he has to empty it usually after three showers.
Although he doesn’t currently have a toilet, Chris plans to install an Air Head composting toilet soon. He said that he prefers the Air Head over the Nature’s Head because of the opaque liquids jug, which is something that I hadn’t considered but a totally fair point when you consider the discretion factor of emptying it in public.
Aaron, Amanda, and Family of @broccolibus6
Aaron and Amanda and their four kids live in an incredible full-size 320-square-foot bus with a roof raise. After following them on Instagram for a while and seeing how meticulous and precise some of their other systems are in the bus, I was excited to learn about their plumbing and bathroom setup that can handle full-time use by six people.
They have a Nature’s Head composting toilet, although Aaron has modified it by removing the liquids tank, and installing a beefier venting system than the factory fan. He says this has been very effective at mitigating odors and helps the solids desiccate faster, which is definitely important with so many people using it. He changes out the composting material every two weeks.
Aaron also installed a shower, a bathroom sink, and a two-basin kitchen sink, which are all supplied from a 100-gallon freshwater tank. A 100-gallon gray water tank collects all the waste water.
Their hot water is supplied by an on-demand Girard propane water heater. He installed a third line on each of the water fixtures that he can switch on to recirculate hot water, preventing the “cold water sandwich” as he aptly described it — the initial blast of cold water before the water heater kicks on each time a fixture is turned on.
I asked Aaron if there was anything he would have done differently as far as the bathroom goes, and he mentioned that having 200 gallons of freshwater would have been optimal, since freshwater is often the limiting factor for how long they can be out and about, away from amenities.
He also said that he would prefer to have a hybrid hot water system that combines a hot water tank and the on-demand style, but that using the on-demand heater has saved them a lot of propane overall.
Impressed by the scope and efficiency of his plumbing system, I asked Aaron if he had any pro tips for those faced with the prospect of plumbing their bus. He shared some excellent advice, saying, “Design and use a system you understand. If you don’t know how to do that, get someone with experience to do it for you because it’s one of the most important systems to have in a mobile situation.
And don’t limit yourself to overly simplistic – having someone with experience designing or installing something like that can pay dividends far beyond the original cost in the form of robustness, energy savings, and water savings that directly translates into longevity of systems, and time spent enjoying things besides feeding the machine you built.”
Bottom Line: Are Bathrooms in Skoolies Worth It?
In my opinion, yes. But as with anything in a skoolie, it’s a matter of personal preference and priorities. If we had planned to spend all of our time in cold places, we might have prioritized a wood stove over a toilet stall. Some skoolie dwellers are totally fine without a bathroom, but for us personally, we love the convenience of having a toilet and the option to take an outdoor shower if we want to.