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This Toilet Is On A Roll

Saturday, August 6, 2005 Page L10Key

Special to The Globe and Mail

While miles above Earth astronauts used the Canadian-designed Canadarm to repair the space shuttle, down below another Canadian innovation has been wowing people this summer. It's the Sun-Mar composting toilet, and it's a giant leap forward for toilet-kind.

And it's not just for the cottage, either.

Shirley Blackmore and her husband, John Durnford, decided to give the composting toilet a try to overcome a plumbing shortfall.

"We live out in the country in an old school house we converted," Blackmore says. "We have a small septic system that was put in whenever this place was built. It wasn't really big enough to handle the job when company came

Blackmore and Durnford decided to add a toilet to another building on the property to cope. "I have a thing about outhouses," she says, "because of
the odour and bugs and all. But what we built is as good an outhouse as you've ever seen. It's in a glass building and has heated floors."

Instead of a pit, their self-contained unit has a drum that holds the waste. Peat is added to help the composting and the drum needs to be rotated once a week by a cranking a handle four or five times. A vent with a heating tray and fan evaporates excess moisture and pipes out the fumes.

The drum works like a cement mixer, and the end result is high-quality compost. That's all there is to it.

Blackmore is so pleased with her unit that she will install another indoors when a second floor is added to her house.

"The best part is there's no smell," she says. "Sometimes you have to look
to make sure you've gone."

There is much science at work here.

"Most waste smells bad when it decomposes because it's being broken down by bacteria that don't need oxygen to survive," says Fraser Snedden, sales manager for Sun-Mar Corp., headquartered in Burlington, Ont. The company was founded in Sweden and moved to Canada in the 1970s, and has been developing toilet technology ever since.

"Those bacteria produce methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulphides, and that's where the smell comes from," Sneddon says.

"By adding the peat, about a scoop a poop, and by rotating the drum, we
allow oxygen into the mix. This allows different bacteria to do the job.
They work about 100 times faster and produce mostly carbon and water, so
there's no smell."

It's the drum that makes Sun-Mar special, Sneddon says.

"With other toilets, you have stirring rods or grates that mix the compost, he says. "But that just creates a groove and leaves pockets that aren't
getting mixed and you start to get the smell. The drum doesn't miss anything."

The average Sun-Mar toilet suits a family of four. If it's being used seasonally, say at a cottage, it needs to be emptied only once or twice a year. For year-round in-home use, the compost needs to be removed every two or three months.

Sun-Mar offers models that use water and look like any other toilet, flushing waste to a storage drum elsewhere in the home. Most of their models
don't need water.

"The only purpose of water is to move the waste," Snodden says. "Toilets make up about 40 per cent of the water used in the home, so if you use a
toilet that doesn't need it, that's a big plus."

In a model with the storage drum close by or contained in the unit, gravity is enough for the task.

Rob Johnson installed two self-contained Excel units in his cottage on an island near Bracebridge, Ont., as an environmentally friendly way to avoid
the hassle of setting up a septic system or digging an outhouse.

Johnson carefully weighed his options before deciding on the Sun-Mar.

"My dad had sold earlier versions of composting toilets in the States and he got out of the business because there were so many difficulties," he says. "Thankfully, we've had no regrets with our decision."

The self-contained units sit higher than the average toilet to accommodate the storage drum. The Excel even has a step to help you up.

"Some people think it's going to be like an outhouse or porta-potty," Johnson says.

"The misgivings go away once they use it. It's taller than the average toilet, has kind of a higher vantage point. People get used to that too."

The other perk is the good-quality compost for the garden.

"You'd never know where it came from to look at it, so you never think about it," he says. "That said, we haven't been brave enough to put it on the tomatoes."

Sun-Mar composting toilets retail from $1,265 for the Excel non-electric model to about $2,000. For details, call 1-888-341-0782 or visit