Humaure Hacienda

The Humanure Hacienda is a term coined in The Humanure Handbook to describe the place where humanure and other organic waste is collected and left to compost. It is a 3 chamber structure. Two side chambers are for alternate composting – one is filled for a year and then left to sit for another year while the other is filled. The middle chamber is used to store hay which is used to cover the compost piles – it can be a roofed chamber to both keep the hay dry and to collect rainwater which is useful in washing the buckets that are emptied into the compost pile.

By the time we moved out I had the instructions for building a humanure hacienda memorized. When I sat out to actually build it I encountered a series of humbling and priceless lessons. When I finally got around to building it we had already accumulated some waste (in an old wooden box that we placed near where the hacienda would be built) from the compost toilet which we had already built so we really needed to get it done.

Size & Location

We have chambers that are approximately 1.5 meters square. It seemed like an overkill (I was rounding up the sizes in the book as I was converting them from feet to meters) but it isn’t. We have been using the chamber for just over half a year and it has filled very nice. The pile slowly sinks down as the lower levels are decomposed but is still a hefty pile. Since we eat lots of vegetables we add to the pile a lot of organic food waste.

Taking out buckets of waste is something I do once every week or week and a half. It is a task that takes about 20 minutes. I usually make two trips: (1) two buckets of humanure; (2) a bucket of organic waste and a bucket of water (we still don’t have a water collecting roof over our hacienda). The location we chose took into consideration both the existing house and the new house we plan to build. It is a bit far (and a bit uphill) from the existing house for my liking, but at an excellent location relative to where the new house may eventually be. I have yet to travel to the hacienda in the snow … so we’ll see how that goes.

Another thing to keep in mind when choosing location is where you will be using the compost. We still do not have a clear view of what and where we will be growing things so we could not incorporate this into the location. It now looks like we will be hauling compost in a wheel-barrow. But, I am happy with the location because I didn’t want the hacienda in my face … it’s set aside in a functional location.

Excavating

The location for the hacienda is on a slight slope so some excavation was required to create a flat space. I began doing this by hand and that’s when the first lessons hit me in the face:

  1. I haven’t decided what is harder to dig out – impenetrable hard clay or wet, muddy and heavy clay. Both are very tough work.
  2. Digging is hard enough work, it is that much harder without good tools. At the time I didn’t know what good digging tools were and the ones I had were definitely not good. If you’ve never done this kind of work before you cannot begin to imagine what a difference good tools make. Also, at least here in Romania, good tools are hard to find … so that in itself is an undertaking.
  3. A tractor with a backhoe is a superior digging tool. It can do in an hour what would take two strong men (me does not feel into this category) a day to do.

Fortunately we had a tractor on site digging a trench for our water supply so we asked him to help out and indeed, in about 45 minutes, I had a level surface AND holes for the posts. These holes were another hugely humbling lesson. Reading the instructions was very easy … one of the steps was to dig 8 holes in the ground. In the spirit of reading (and maybe watching movies where other people dig) I was thinking “OK, no problem”. Then you take your lousy digging tools and poke them into the ground and the ground says “no thank you” … and you realize that one step “dig 8 holes” is about to become an unexpected project of unknown scope.

A large part of me – the part that spent a couple of hours of futile digging – felt like an idiot when the tractor came and leveled the ground  in no time. But fortunately there is still a part of me, no matter how small, that is grateful for the lesson learned.

Cement

To this day I have avoided working with cement. We’ve had to use cement but hired help has done that work, not me. I am turned off by it and though will eventually get around to working with it I am happy to have stayed away from it so far.

In the hacienda this will probably turn out to be a mistake – how big a mistake only time will tell. The instructions call for a cement mix to set the posts. I didn’t to this – the posts are simply buried in the ground. The instructions also call for a rot-resistant wood – we didn’t have any on hand so we had to use pine (which is abundantly available and used for almost everything here) General wisdom is that these posts will rot in a few years. I guess I am OK with that because (a) I think that the structure itself may continue to hold up because it isn’t a load-bearing structure; (b) I am pretty sure this can, with some effort, be fixed; (c) I am OK with eventually having to (re) build a new hacienda. I have learned that I do pretty much everything better the 2nd time around so … 🙂

Walls

We used almost all used wood that was either lying around or from demolition work we did around the place. We had only a little available at first so I put up just enough to give the structure support and to make it possible for us to start collecting waste.

I then added more as more wood became available.

Another precious lesson hit me when I got around to using some old beech (a hard and rot resistant wood) planks. I failed miserably at hammering nails into these planks. My first assumption (from above mentioned humbling lessons) was that I was doing something wrong … and I lived with that guilt for some time (because I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong) until a neighbor mentioned in passing that it is almost impossible go hammer nails into dry beech. Hah!

Roof

I was really looking forward to building the roof over the middle chamber. It is a small roof and therefore a good learning project. I only got as far as putting up two girders to support the roof. Another lesson here – such things are better cut to actual size then planned size. I tried to be efficient and cut them in advance (according to plans) but I cut them to short.

I didn’t get much further because we didn’t have more wood on hand and then I didn’t have time to get around to it. So the structure is now pretty much closed (sorry I don’t have a recent image) off and roofless. We have nice pile of rich compost building up … we started it in June, we will switch over to the second chamber this spring and we will harvest our first compost in Spring 2013 🙂

Together with our composting toilet it is a superbly simple,cheap, sustainable and hugely rewarding method of handling with organic waste and converting it into a precious resource.

Shit

I think that on the previous time-line post I made an error. The first wood-working project was not the temporary poultry cage – it was our composting toilet.

It’s nothing glamorous but it was a huge relief to have a more decent and comfortable place to shit then the dirty wooden-shack-over-a-hole-in-the-ground behind the house (a common Romanian outhouse). It was dirt-cheap to build and to the best of our knowledge we are almost the only people in the village (a rather large village that does not have a sewage system, though I am guessing there are a few houses that may have septic tanks installed) who do not need to go outside into the freezing cold when we have to pee or poop.

This can be a long post, but I am going to try and keep it short … mostly because the sun is coming out today and I want to take advantage of it to make progress on our cabinet. The bottom line is this:

  1. We shit in a bucket set in a simple wooden box. There is no smell, no flies and most importantly no sound of fresh water being flushed at the end.
  2. A bucket fills in about 4 days.
  3. We have numerous buckets so they can be emptied once every week or two.
  4. The buckets are dumped into a composting … structure.
  5. I do try to pee outside as much as possible … good for the plants and less weight to carry away (pee is surprisingly much heavier then poop).
  6. We dump all of our organic waste there too.
  7. The structure has two containers. One container is filled for a year and then left to rest for another year during which the second container is filled.
  8. In two years (actually 18 months as we’ve been active for 6 months) we will begin to harvest excellent fertilizer.

The choice to use composting toilets kept us on edge for many months while we were planning our house. Though it made sense and seemed like the simplest and most sustainable solution we were very disturbed by it. Ultimately the universe solved the dilemma for us by placing us in a situation where we had no alternative other then building and using a composting toilet.

It wasn’t as easy to build as it should be because, like almost everything else here in Romania, we had a hard time finding materials we needed to build it. We do not have access to affordable plywood. We could not find properly sized, proportioned and lidded buckets. We could not find a toilet seat that would fit and seal. Anything we do here that is outside the far-from-sustainable main-stream requires much effort, time and patience. We eventually found plastic buckets that fit (though they need to be carried carefully  because the lids cannot be fastened down). We built the toilet from sanded OSB. We just barely found a simple and cheap toilet seat that didn’t have raised notches that would prevent a seal between the seat. and bucket.

We have done (and continue to do) much research and have pretty much come to know most of the available alternate solutions. If money is not an issue then there are alternatives that remove the need to carry buckets of waste to the compost pile. But for us money is an issue and more importantly simplicity and self-build are core values. So honestly, even if money was not an issue, we would mostly likely still be using simple bucket-based composting systems.

If you want to know all you need to know (actually much more then you need to know) then all you need is the “Humanure Handbook“. Other then maybe curiosity you won’t need anything else besides this book (probably only a third of it will do).

I will write a separate post about our Humanure Hacienda – that “structure” where  we dump all of our waste. It too is taken from the Humanure Handbook.

As I make the final edits to this post I am smiling to myself  … it has been a process of maturity and expansion that brought me to the point where I can freely write about “pee and poop”. Somewhere in the history of society (at least those societies I have lived in) we took a wrong turn and moved away from practical honesty for the sake of some superficial social appearances. We all pee and poop and we all do so on the same planet that we all must continue to be able to inhabit for a long time. I know what happens with my shit … do you know what happens with yours?

 

Waste Management

Most of my life I didn’t really give any thought to what happens with waste – it was all somehow transported away from the home and magically disappeared. Moving into a village home changes that. Nothing happens magically – everything needs to be consciously handled.

Waste Basics

Garbage is pretty easy. All food leftovers are either fed to animals or tossed into a compost pile. Glass containers are all kept and used for storing preserved foods. Plastic containers are used sparingly, and when possible used for short-term storage (like milk!). We haven’t had any aluminium cans in our lives in many years and we don’t expect a comeback.

This leaves three kinds of waste:

  • Grey water is water that comes from sinks, showers, washing machines, etc.
  • Black water is water that comes from toilets (discernible from grey-water due to the potential presence of feces or feces-related bacteria).
  • Solids that comes from toilets (including toilet paper).

The most common solution to these three wastes in standalone houses is usually a septic tank with an optional leach-field. A septic tank accumulates all the waste and needs to be emptied periodically. If liquids are filtered out of it using a leach-field then it can be emptied less frequently.

Grey water can be treated separately using either mechanized filtering systems or with organic solutions such as constructed-wetlands (or marsh fields) where a combination of soil and plants are used to clean the water to the point that it can be either reused (the uses depending on the level and quality of filtering) or simply released back into the ground.

Composting Toilets

The most simple and ecological solution for toilets are composting toilets. Basically these are storage containers with a top that looks like a toilet. There is no flushing mechanism – waste drops directly into the container. The basic premise of composting toilets are that if (1) liquids need to be separated from the solids; (2) there is proper ventilation; (3) the remaining solids are allowed to settle (in a cycle that takes 12-18 months – which means that fresh materials shouldn’t be added to it) then they will decompose into an excellent compost materials (about 10% in volume from the original waste).

Simple composting toilets can be self constructed. Their containers need to be manually emptied out into composting piles. Ready made composting toilets come with engineered containers that make the emptying process at least psychologically easier.

There is a very wide range of products and solutions under the name of “composting toilets” – I recommend you look around – it is an educating inquiry. One interesting solution I came across is called a trench-arch (explained in this PDF) – it is an improvised solution that was created by Nick Grant of Elemental Solutions for churches that do not have sewage access . I contacted Nick to inquire about the trench-arch and he replied that it is not suitable for the capacity of waste generated by a household.

Composting toilets are super ecological since no water is wasted on flushing and there is no waste – just compost. But the greatest challenge for us has been a mental one – the lack of flashing and having to carry out waste is, at this point in time, not appealing to us. So we are seeking a middle-ground to combine flushing and composting – which brings us to composting systems.

Composting Systems

In this section I will be describing a certain kind of composting system – a kind that I have grown familiar with and that we are considering for our house. There are other solutions out there and I encourage you to do your own research – and would be grateful if you come back and share your discoveries in the comments of this post.

Had money not been an issue we would probably go with a solution called an Aquatron (a complete system will cost us ~2500 euro). In this kind of system the toilets are unchanged – they standard water-flushing toilets (though we will be trying to find water-efficient “low-flush” toilets. The Aquatron system is made up of three strategic parts:

  1. At the heart of the system is a patented separator that uses centrifugal force to separate liquids and solids – the genius of it is that is requires no electricity and has no moving parts.
  2. The solids are then deposited in a rotating container that is separated into 4 chambers. The container is rotated once every 3 or 4 months so that filled chambers are isolated and allowed to rest and decompose. The decomposition process is accelerated by adding earth-worms.
  3. The liquids are funnelled through an ultra-violet filter and can then be treated as grey water.

Disclaimer: There is an excellent video of an installed and working Aquatron system – complete with the resulting compost (and other interesting videos!). I do however feel obliged to point out that I feel that the project to which I am linking, despite demonstrating some of the most advanced ecological systems available, is anything but ecological. It is a hugely wasteful construction project that does not in anyway exemplify my understanding and experience of ecological awareness. So … onto the video.

For us money is an issue so I am looking for a way to use just the Aquatron separator (~600 euro) with a self-built container. This video of an installation of another composting product demonstrates the core concept of a rotating composting container:

I also came across this website which offers detailed plans for creating your own rotating container. I haven’t purchased the plans yet – but it does seem like a reliable and feasible solution which will enable us to benefit from an affordable and ecological – part purchased, part do-it-yourself – composting system which together with a reed-bed system will provide us with an encompassing solution.