Composting Toilets, Solar Energy, and Greywater Systems, Oh My!

Updates From All 3 of Us on What We’ve Been Researching and Thinking About . . . 

Travis: Solar Energy & Childhood Dreams

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of using solar panels to achieve off-grid energy independence for as long as I can remember. My parents got me one of those educational electrical science kits when I was five, and my favorite piece of the kit was the tiny Photovoltaic panel that came with it. I’d hook up the kit’s tiny DC motor to the palm-sized solar panel, and stand out in my front yard, holding it up to the sun. I remember lighting up with excitement as the motor, with it’s blue turbine, began to spin and whine. The idea of light being a source of energy, literally pulling power out of the air, seemed like magic to me. In the back of my mind, I’ve always fantasized about “cutting the cord” from the electrical pole at the street, and running my home off-grid, using nothing but the power of light.

#sandiegosustainablelivinginstitute

A post shared by Terra Cultura (@terra_cultura) on

Now that Terra Cultura is about to move onto the land, that dream is very close to a reality. Before we get started however, there are hundreds of decisions we need to make about our system that I hadn’t really thought about or researched before. What wattage panels do we need? Which type of cells should we buy? Do we need monocrystalline cells, or can we get away with polycrystalline? What voltage panels should we be looking at? Will 12 volts be enough, or should we upgrade to 24 volt panels? How many panels in series do we need? Beyond these solar questions, there’s a whole world of power infrastructure and battery storage to consider as well. Will our system be grid-tied, off-grid, or some hybrid of both, with a battery backup? What kind of batteries should we use? How should we wire them? How far will we be running cable between the panels, the battery, and the building? What gauge wire do we need to run that distance? How far down will we need to dig to bury that cable? Can we dig a trench by hand with shovels, or will we need a backhoe?

This rabbit-hole of discovery and decision-making very quickly starts to feel like the old children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Numeroff. If you give a Travis a solar panel, he’s going to want to plug it into a battery. When he decides on the battery he wants, he’s going to want to know everything about how to get that battery’s power distributed across the land. Once he learns about burying cable, he’s going to want to dig a hole. Et cetera. Before starting an infrastructure installation project like we’re about to take on with Terra Cultura, it’s hard even to know what you don’t know. It’s only until you start digging that you realize how many things you need to be informed about and make decisions about, before you even install that first solar panel, and take your first steps toward energy independence.

Jessica: Composting Toilets and Travel Reminisces

I’ve been tasked with figuring out the composting toilet. Disposing of human waste might be one of those things that’s easy to overlook– that little lever that sends your waste away is pretty convenient, and doesn’t require much thought or attention. But human waste has actually played a significant role in this land-search process. It’s often one of the first questions we’re asked by anyone familiar with zoning ordinance, since a property’s capacity to handle human waste is often the limiting factor in how many people a piece of land can accommodate. So, with a project like ours, where we plan on having an open door policy and welcoming our community, it required serious consideration from the beginning.

Composting toilet in the works.

A post shared by Terra Cultura (@terra_cultura) on

One of the reasons we narrowed in on San Benito to begin with, aside from it’s beauty, amazing location, and rich heritage, was because their General Plan specifically states “…composting toilets should be considered for appropriate situations”. That one little legally binding half sentence separates San Benito from most counties in California. The majority of county health departments still feel uneasy about the prospect of composting one’s own waste. Occidental Arts and Ecology Center is working hard to shift that perception, but it’ll be some time before policy catches up with the science. The fact that San Benito recognizes the benefits of composting toilets, and encourages their use, means we can welcome many more people into Terra Cultura.

But, what kind of composting toilet will we build first? During the year Travis and I spent traveling, we got acquainted with a surprising number of different kinds of composting toilets. Some were in beautiful mosaiced structures. Some were just hidden behind strategically hung bamboo screens. Some were western style, and some were eastern style, but they essentially felt exactly like any other toilet. The only difference was that instead of flushing, you’d just toss a few cups full of sawdust, or other carbon-rich material, down the hole of the toilet. Underneath the toilet might be a five gallon bucket, or a large trash can on wheels, or a barrel. Whatever the receptacle, when it got full, it got covered up and carted away. It would either be added directly to the center of a compost pile, which would be left to compost for a year or more before it was used to give nutrients to trees or non-edible plants, or sealed up and left to compost anaerobically for 6 months before being added to a larger compost pile, where it would compost for an additional year. There are fancier versions, too. Some separate solids and liquids, to aid in the precision of your composting process. Some have fans and air vents, which speed up the decomposition process, and some empty directly into holding tanks or underground compost piles, but at Terra Cultura, we’ll probably start off pretty basic.

We’ll use the bench, toilet seat, and bucket method, which we’ll aim to build entirely with reclaimed materials. We’ll probably start with tarps hung from tree branches for privacy, but we plan to have a proper structure for the toilet within the first year. We’ll begin the composting process by sealing the buckets for 6 months, which will give us time to get to know the land before we make a final decision about where our compost piles will be long term. It’ll take some getting used to, but we’ll each be saving 16-24 gallons of perfectly good water per day, reducing our energy use, and putting nutrients back into our soil. Plus, we’ll be giving everyone an opportunity to try it out, and decide whether the benefits outweigh the small adjustments. We’re pretty confident they will.

Rachel: Hot Showers and Big Questions

There have been more than a few sleepless nights around here for all of us. Our minds can’t stop buzzing with all the things to think about and learn. It’s easy to get overwhelmed flipping the two-sided coin of excitement and anxiety. But valerian tea and a lot of research are helping to fortify our bodies and minds in preparation for the big move. Eventually, we want to prove that energy efficient, eco-friendly living can offer all the creature comforts of home. But to start, we’ll be roughing it. Things are pretty darn cushy, creature comfort-wise, where we are now. This will be a big change. I know there will come a day, probably in the not so distant future, when I will be cold, sore all over, wet, hungry, broke, exhausted, and probably feeling like crying—but I won’t cry—I will laugh. I will laugh because this daring little dream of Terra Cultura is everything we’ve wanted, and been working so hard for, for so long. And it, and all that comes with it, is happening. So if you see me laughing at myself in the rain you’ll know why.

There is one creature comfort I’m dead set on having from the get go. I figure any dirty, sweaty, arduous physical labor is manageable if there’s the promise of a hot shower at the end of it. So I’ve been researching propane-powered tankless water heaters for an outdoor shower. You can buy a small one pretty much ready to go for $120. You just connect a garden hose and the propane, throw up a little privacy enclosure, and viola —a piping hot shower with decent water pressure to boot. We’ll direct the runoff to use for irrigation to make the first of many greywater systems on site. I really love an outdoor shower and look forward to making it a daily ritual. Maybe we’ll have a see through roof, and you, dear guest, can be naked as you came, bathing blissfully under the sun, and stars, and treetops.

As we dig deeper into a site plan for the property, I’ve been thinking a lot about the responsibilities that come with signing on to be stewards of this land, financially, environmentally, physically, emotionally, and socially. What can we do to be really great neighbors? What are the best ways to get to know the community, and best ways to listen to them for how Terra Cultura can serve their needs? How can we make the place as welcoming as possible to people from diverse backgrounds? How can we be the best nurturers to the flora and fauna, from mega-fauna to microorganisms? What are the best models we can come up with for health, resilience, and sustainability financially, environmentally, and socially?

And I’ve been thinking about the narratives. Where do we fit into the hostile story of land ownership in this country, and what can we do to right the wrongs we inherited? What are all the ways that art and agriculture have woven themselves simultaneously messily and elegantly into my life, and what does it mean to go from a masters degree in the arts to farming? And we’re thinking of the people and places we’ll be saying goodbye to for now, and all the things they’ve taught us, as we gather our few belongings and head north to where we’ll put down deeper roots than we ever have before. Many of you have promised to come through and visit, when you pass on the 101, and we’re holding you to it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.