Monday, January 11, 2010

Response to NYTimes, "Broadband, Yes. Toilet, No": Why not have both?

You may have already seen Sarah Maslin Nir’s New York Times article “Broadband, Yes. Toilet, No” (12/30/09) about an adventurous couple that moved their young family to a yurt in rural Alaska. The Higman-McKittricks are an inspiring example of a wave of folks who are moving to yurts, making nature a part of their everyday lives-- not just a holiday treat-- and staying connected to a broader community through the internet. It’s Back to the Land 2.0!

From a yurt-dweller’s perspective there are some great points in the article: I loved the concept that the amount of living space in a yurt expands and contracts based on need at any given moment. I also liked the fact that they have internet in the yurt-- this allows them to connect all the diverse bits of their lives, remain active, stay in touch, and get written up in the New York Times.

But, by focusing on this one couple, the article doesn't give the full picture of the yurt-living experience. Toward the end of the article Ms. McKittrick is quoted as having said, “I’m someone who doesn’t mind giving up some level of convenience for having an interesting experience.” Many bloggers found the story to be inspiring but said that the couple sacrificed more than is reasonable for your average NYTimes reader. The worst part? The frigid trek from the yurt to the outhouse. I can't argue with that. This begs the question: Is sacrificing convenience a pre-requisite for yurt living? Most definitely not.

There are plenty of good options for putting a bathroom right inside your yurt, even if you’re off the grid. Below are a couple of toilet possibilities that our customers have used with great results:

The Incinolet toilet is a good option for folks who are hooked into electricity, either from a power plant or solar. The toilet requires no digging and no water. It works by periodically incinerating waste, so all that's left is a small amount of clean ash. Below is a picture of our customer, David Stewart’s Inciolet:

One of my favorite toilet options (for homes of all kinds!) is the Sun Mar composting toilet. Sun Mar makes a couple of models-- some require electricity, some don’t. These toilets are self-contained and compact. Installing a composter in your yurt is as simple as fitting an outlet, similar to a stovepipe outlet, into the yurt wall. They are odorless and produce fertilizer that can be used in growing non-edible plants. The Colorado Yurt Company is now a Sun Mar distributor, so give us a call at 1.800.288.3190 if you’d like any information or to place an order.

Perhaps the simplest and most rugged option (but still a far cry from an icy outhouse) is the do-it-yourself composting toilet. These toilets are as cheap as $25. They require little more than a 20 liter bucket, a box to house it in, a seat, and organic material, such as sawdust, to aid in the composting process. The waste from these toilets is also processed into fertilizer. The only problem with these toilets is that you have to figure out a way to protect against freezing. Click here to read about this type of toilet at the Humanure Handbook. Here is an instructional youtube video on making such toilets by the folks out of Pennsylvania that make the "Loveable Loo."

This lovely bathroom with a homemade composter is in Everett Boutilett and Louis Johnson's Colorado Yurt in upstate New York:

All of these toilets can be installed in a yurt bathroom, which is built by constructing a few walls inside the yurt. The yurt WC pictured below is a literal closet but without the water:

By adding an energy efficient toilet, like one of these, to a yurt, you can have the “experience” without sacrificing a shred of "convenience." No subzero dashes to the outhouse for me!

Other parts of the Higman-McKittrick yurt experience struck me as not necessarily representative (albeit cool). For example, the fact that they have to walk an hour to town to take a shower. Even yurt-dwellers without grid-based plumbing find all kinds of creative ways to have plenty of water right in their yurt, but that's a subject for another post.

Happy New Year,
Sam Kigar


  1. great post! We live in a yurt with traditional plumbing and a bathroom. Oh, and wifi internet. ;)

  2. Thanks James. The pictures of your yurt on Facebook are beautiful!

  3. SUPER!! I really enjoyed this article.I wondered why the yurt in Alaska did not have a composting toilet.
    EVEN a non powered one for the winter at least.
    Good job!