Living off the grid and its byproducts

By Carolyn Marsh | Sep 27, 2011
Photo by: Steve Paley

Living off the grid sounds so, so — well, romantic and dashing, despite the fact that the expression brings to my mind one of those medieval depictions of Satan roasting an array of victims on a giant griddle while a host of little devils jab at the sorry sinners with tiny toasting forks, or perhaps whatever saint it was who was similarly prepared for our delectation, not the one with the arrows stuck in everywhere but the one who as I dimly recall was bound to a grill and grilled, to face the fact.

Living off the grid is romantic. There is nothing like flicking a switch and knowing that the ensuing light comes to me directly from the sun, albeit through a pricey system of solar panels and storage batteries, or turning on the faucet and getting water that came directly from the monsoon rains to the water tanks in the basement via the roof, picking up I don’t want to think what kinds of baggage like bird droppings and dead moths and whatever other little foreign bodies were lucky enough to be swept along in the flood, meaning that it is fine to boil the water for coffee or tea or to steam vegetables but that drinking it straight from the tap is a little problematical so that there are always plenty of bottles of water, full or empty and on their way to the bottle recycling center along with all the cardboard and plastic wrap and other packing material that comes with furnishing an off-the-grid (or for that matter, any) house so that one spends days or weeks or probably even months atoning for the sin of creating non-biodegradable waste before one can begin to enjoy the sensation of a self-powered and -watered existence, though “self” may not be quite the right word as the sun and the rain do play a major part in the process.

As I sit at my desk sniffing the last lingering, faintest odor of waste, I am reminded that living off the grid also requires that one read everything, and I mean everything, thoroughly, and including the fine print, that has to do with the processes that go with off the grid, one of those being composting toilets.

As a city and town person whose water pressure has always been constant (unlike my blood pressure, I might add), I was a little disconcerted when I heard the water pump start up every time I turned on the faucet (remember those monsoon rains?) and was very glad to be reassured by my friend Tug that this happens to everyone who is not on town water, which at 6,500 feet up is not available to me, along with some other town services, like the aforementioned (or perhaps aforesuggested is the better word) sewer, and after he had remounted the pump on rubber with offset bolts or something of the sort, the pump activity did not broadcast itself everywhere as before the makeover but will still need to be interred in a soundproof room at some point, which does not mean building a new room but soundproofing the room the pump is in, along with the huge, hulking composter that serves the three bathrooms in the house, though perhaps “serves” is once again, as so often, the wrong word, since the service is spotty at best.

At my feet must the blame for that, or at least some of that, aggravation be laid. I don’t know what I thought happened to waste, except that perhaps somewhere in that immense, brooding composting unit it turned to fairy dust until I was minded to empty the pans, but I can tell you with no doubt or equivocation whatsoever that that is not what happens, nor did I have a clue until the day my friend Todd, who built the house and perforce installed the composting toilets, walked in the front door and turned around and went right back out again and then asked, from a safe distance, where the terrible odor was coming from. The composting toilets, I replied in the somewhat constricted vowels that occur when one is trying to talk and breathe through one’s mouth at the same time, implying that he had somehow erred in the installation so that the composting function was not occurring as expected. You have been adding the additives, haven’t you? he asked in that carefully casual tone of voice that says You can’t be that stupid, can you? and my response What additives? didn’t alter his opinion of my intelligence quotient either, let me tell you.

So we come back to my original stricture to Read Everything. Had I bothered to read everything, I would have known that composting toilets are not modern magic and that every day one must deposit peat moss, half a cup for every person living in the house, in the composter’s innards through what the manual calls the Service Panel, and every two weeks a tablespoon of compost accelerator in a glass of warm water (actually the manual says “a warm glass of water” but I do not perpetuate faulty diction) and from time to time small amounts of rich, black soil (or sawdust or its ilk, though not cedar-based, if rich black soil is not available). Then there is the aerator bar (“more details below,” the manual advises, though I have not yet gotten there) which the manual says to “please try and use every two weeks” for improved composting action.

As I continued to read, there sprang into my head a vision of a couple of small brown boxes (unopened) lying next to the composting unit, in which must be the compost accelerator and who knows what other aids to proper composting. After I have had my shower using the water delivered directly to me by the monsoon rains via the roof, I will descend to the nether regions of the house and see what’s going on.



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