Wendy Howard

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since Jun 29, 2011
Central Portugal, Zone 9
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Recent posts by Wendy Howard

Rebecca Norman wrote:Good idea, thanks. I'll go back and throw some other compostable stuff in there along with the wood chunks.



Just make sure there's little or no fresh green material amongst it or the temperature will get too high for the worms!
3 months ago

Rebecca Norman wrote:By the way, don't use wood shavings! We asked our students to collect wood chips from around our construction site, but they filled the tank with wood shavings instead, so for the first week or two it smelled great and the water coming out was quite clear, but then the shavings clogged up so the water was backing up a bit in there, and it went anaerobic and started smelling bad in the whole area including the kitchen and dining hall. So I dug out all the wet stinky shavings and we filled it up with wood chunks from construction (no, nobody uses any pressure treated or chemical treated wood here, and minimal plywood was used in this project so the chips seem pretty clean). It's only been going another 2 weeks so I don't have anything meaningful to report yet.



I've found a proportion of coarse wood shavings are OK provided they're well mixed up with other material. Wood chunks are great but I'd also mix in some fast carbon sources like dead leaves, bracken ferns, straw, etc. The microbial part of the ecosystem uses carbon to neutralise any nitrates and it takes much longer to break down woody material.
3 months ago

Rob Lineberger wrote:Wow. Thank you, Wendy. I can completely picture what you're saying. Thankfully i can't smell it! You've convinced me. Im also much happier about this once i heard about using grey water or rain water to flush toilets. That makes good ecological sense to me. Is there any issue with using grey water in vermicomposting toilets?



No issue with grey water. You can retrofit these vermicomposting systems to septic systems. In these instances, you just need to ensure you have a well-mixed matrix of organic material that's coarse enough to allow the higher water throughput volume to drain off fast enough.
3 months ago
You could have a vermicomposting treatment system underneath a dry toilet, yes. You don't have to remove the top of the IBC either - you could just enlarge the central hole to fit the walls of your toilet. But bear in mind you need to keep moisture levels in the tank at around 60-75% and you would still need to drain off liquid (urine mostly) which, if it's the only liquid going into the tank, is possibly going to create some problems for the worms through build-up of inorganic salts. Having handwashing water going into the tank will help. As will the water used to clean the toilet (and drop toilets can get really horrid - it's amazing where solids can end up!).

While a properly functioning vermicomposting system doesn't smell bad at all, fresh deposits will provide a welcoming aroma for the next user for sure, especially if it's a straight drop into the tank. The worst nose offender with normal drop toilets though is urine. Many people who run them ask people to pee elsewhere for this reason. If you're not diluting urine with flush water, I can imagine this will also apply with a vermicomposting system.

The expense of a flush toilet is pretty insignificant if you source toilet bowls from the waste stream. You don't have to have a conventional cistern - mine uses a 50-litre wooden wine barrel with a tap so you use exactly the amount of water you need for each flush and there's no waiting around for the cistern to refill for the next person. Again, water containers can be sourced from the waste stream and a proper ball and brass float valve is much more reliable in my experience than these plastic units you find in modern cisterns. So that only leaves plastic piping, which is not exactly expensive. But the biggest advantage besides user-friendliness is the flush water ensures optimum hydration levels in the worm tank and dilutes the urine.
4 months ago

Zenais Buck wrote:We built a system in rural south west Oregon, based on Wendy's post. 2.5 years in and it is working perfectly. When it freezes, the worms just move to the interior of the bin and activity is slow. In early spring I toss in more worms, just to help handle any stuff that has collected over winter. Granted, we don't get 'deep' freezes.  So far we have only one hiccup; in the initial build I did not pay enough attention to screening the exit, and the thing got clogged, resulting in too much liquid retention that killed the worms.  I had to dig into it (it was not too awful) and create a guard around the exit that keeps the mulch out. Then we have a secondary screen right at the exit pipe (similar to Wendy's build). Anyway, once that was cleared it has been working like a charm ever since. It was installed  for my parents house on my off-grid property (my house still uses composting outhouse) and is used by 2 people. However, we had 13 people use it for a week and the system handled the fluxuation just fine. I ordered and installed low-flow Toto toilets for this system - they rock.

Wendy- thank you so much for sharing this work! It has been a blessing for my older parents to have an indoor toilet as they age.



Sweet! Thanks so much for letting me know! Could I ask you to PLEASE send me a write-up and some images for the case studies section on the website (email address on the website)? Be sure to document the initial problems as well! Everyone who installs this system promises me faithfully they will do this but I'm still waiting for the first one.

I want to start raising the profile of the system and am considering either a crowdfunder or applying for some environmental prize competition or another to raise funds to make a series of instructional videos and get professional translations for the website done (friends keep promising but the same thing happens as happens with the case studies ...). Having some good case studies on the site is going to make all the difference in being able to demonstrate uptake and effectiveness. And documenting all the various problems and their solutions is going to make for a much more robust system. That outlet is the weakest point. I've been designing a tank attachment which makes it much less prone to accidental blocking, but the problem at the moment is that the tap area profiles of IBC totes vary from manufacturer to manufacturer so making a universal fitting isn't so straightforward. Watch the website for developments though ...
5 months ago

Rebecca Norman wrote:Will the worms starve to death if we go away?
I don't have experience of this, but I think they'll survive for several months and then leave eggs if they do die, so I believe this system could recover after a few months of disuse.



You can take the guesswork out of this very simply. Many people installing my version of Anna Edey's system here in Portugal have holiday homes, so I recommend they simply add animal manures - horse, goat, etc - enough to keep the worms happy while they're away. I don't recommend cow manure as it's too liquid and a large quantity could tip the tank into anaerobic conditions.
5 months ago

Neil Stratton wrote:I do have a question in regards to dealing with the government. What is the best way to approach this? Would working towards vermicompost or a modified septic tank approach?


The Portuguese authorities I've dealt with are pretty pragmatic and open-minded. I have no idea how that all works in the 'States. I would guess a lot comes down to the individuals in your local municipality? You could certainly blind them with science by going armed with all the relevant research (I've linked some papers on the website}.
9 months ago

Steve Farmer wrote:How about throwing a few flushable chunks of charcoal into the toilet every x number of flushes? Would this save the need to open the IBC and add straw etc, or would it just end in  charcoal sludge similar to the problems of using sawdust?



Charcoal floats! You might have a problem getting it to flush. I really don't know what would happen as it's not something I've considered trying. It's possible to add it to the system, but personally I wouldn't rely on it as the only carbon component. It's not the natural habitat of worms and their associated ecosystem - that's the litter layer of the soil - so I think I would be very cautious about using it in concentration. Bottom line is that I try to imitate nature as much as possible. I think it's far less likely you'll go wrong doing that.

Just to update everyone on the system ...

It's now been approved for use by my local municipality under the provisions for 'septic tank with drainage'. (To alter legislation to give it specific approval would take far too long and the council wanted to start using the system right away.) Last summer myself and a Portuguese architect oversaw the first municipal installation of the system to replace a failed septic tank. There are more in the pipeline.

The design has been open-sourced and I've now created a website for it, including full construction details, maintenance, case studies and a forum where the community of users can ask questions and discuss problems.
1 year ago
Only just saw this post! The OP is linking to an article I wrote for Permaculture Magazine back in 2014. Since then, the system has performed so well I introduced it to my local municipality here in Portugal. It's now approved for use under the provisions for 'septic tank with drainage', and is being installed by the council where septic tanks have failed or are non-existent. Many people in the area are also adopting it as a solution for their off-grid sanitation. I've open-sourced the system and there's now a website devoted to it. I'm gathering case studies of installations and encourage people to join the forum. The more experience gained, the more potential weaknesses are discovered and ironed out, the better the system becomes.
1 year ago
Manel are you Portuguese? Why not go spend some time in the rural areas with the old people who still live there and you will soon find out how to live ethically without much need for money. The old system which has sustained these communities for generations - "you help me and I'll help you" - is still alive and well and continuing to cement community in these places. There are many elderly who would appreciate a hand with their quintas and they love nothing more than to pass on their knowledge and skills. The old ways aren't so very far from permaculture. Many people have so much land it's far too much to care for. It wouldn't be unusual for someone to give you a plot to work on.

Or go north. I heard that land is being given to people who undertake to work on it and revive it for agriculture around Guimarães or Trás os Montes (I can't remember the exact location).
2 years ago