*Biolet NE Review*
By: Penwu
30 July 2009

While I'm working on building El Rancho Penwu, I've been living in a small apartment in a generous neighbor's barn. One of the first things I did when I got here was to turn one room of it into a functional bathroom. There's no septic line near the barn, and no plumbing in the concrete floor to allow one, so a regular toilet wasn't an option (the sink and shower are both run out a simple greywater drain). Instead, I put in a Biolet NE (non-electric) composting toilet. The NE is the most basic model that Biolet makes, and I chose it over the various electric types simply because I already had this one.

This model doesn't appear to be quite the same as the NE model currently on Biolet's website, as mine has a vent stack, as you see in the photo.

The idea behind a composting toilet is that with air circulation and some mulch-like material, human waste will safely decompose into compost like any other organic matter. In theory, it's an idea system for a place where a septic system or city sewage isn't an option, and it can be put right inside a cabin like a normal toilet - so you don't have to use a frigid outhouse in the middle of a winter night. The composting, "green" aspect also appeals to lots of people. Many more people, I think, than actually use the things.

Installation of the toilet was really easy. It came with about 8 feet of PVC vent pipe (in addition to the 8 feet of flexible pipe attached to the unit), a rubber roof seal, and a screened vent cap. I drilled a hole in the roof of the barn, ran the vent pipe up through the ceiling, and glued the gasket down to the metal roofing with basic construction adhesive. The flexible pipe from the toilet screwed into the ceiling and fit well against the PVC vent pipe. There is also an excess-fluid drain pipe at the back of the toilet that I fed out through a small hole in the barn wall into a small gravel leach pit. The whole toilet is set the pipe has enough slope to drain well.

I set this thing up in early June, and have been using it since. It's been pretty much just me using it, though for almost a week at one point I had a guest here who also used it. My initial fear was that it would smell. Looking at the inside of the thing, you can't imagine that it wouldn't - the unit is really just a big thin plastic tub (I should have gotten a photo of the inside before setting it up, but I didn't, and you really don't want to see a photo of the current contents). The only things inside are two plastic bins with a bit of ventilated pipe inside, to all air circulation through the waste. There is an air inlet in the bottom front of the main tub, and some shallow channels to allow overflow liquid to drain out the drain pipe.

As it turns out, my fear of stink was unjustified. Amazingly, it produces no smell at all - thanks to the vent stack. Air is drawn very well in the bottom of the toilet and right up the vent stack on the roof, thanks to good design and the constant breezes here.

What it DOES produce, unfortunately, is swarms of flies. After about two weeks of use, flies started showing up in the bathroom and by 3 or 4 weeks there were lots of them. There's a window in the bathroom that they tended to all cluster on, so I opened the screen whenever I used the place and let them all out. But clearly the screen on the vent stack was too big to keep flies out, and they were having a great time inside the toilet.

In addition, the capacity claims that Biolet makes regarding this thing (3 people full-time or 4 people part-time) are wildly optimistic. After a couple days of having two people using it, it started leaking some liquid. It seems the little molded channels in the base got plugged, or were too small to begin with.

The first composting bin was full after about six weeks of basically single-person use. The instructions call for you to remove a full bin and set it aside (they don't specify where) to finish composting, while using the second bin. I dug a hole and buried the entire contents - I really don't care about making compost, I just want an indoor toilet. When I did so, it appeared that the bottom third or so of the bin had in fact turned into decent looking black compost, so the toilet may actually do what it claims. However, I'm not going to put up with the cloud of flies long enough to find out. Since I only need to be in this apartment for a couple more months, I'm planning to continue using it, but emptying the bins much more often, and hopefully keeping the flies to a minimum that way.

Overall, I would rate the Biolet NE a 4 out of 10. It does have potential as basically an indoor port-a-john, largely because it doesn't smell at all. I have also lived in trailers and had to drain their black water tanks, and changing a Biolet bin is definitely less disgusting of a chore. It is absolutely not a functional replacement for a real toilet, though. If you install one in a cabin expecting it to live up to the manufacturer's hype, you will definitely be disappointed. And the list price of $1,500 is beyond crazy. Manufacturing cost for the thing can't possibly be more than a hundred bucks - which is about what I paid for mine, new in the box at a flea market. I can't fathom paying full price for one of these toilets - you could build a really luxurious heated outhouse for much less cost.
Penwu



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