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What is a long-drop toilet?

A long-drop toilet or pit latrine is the most basic waste management solution, being primarily used in rural areas, remote camping sites, or off-grid locations. 

The long-drop toilet usually consists of four simple elements: 

  • A deep hole in the ground
  • A wood or concrete floor with a small hole, sometimes connected to a toilet seat
  • A lid to cover the long-drop toilet seat
  • A structure built around it for privacy and shelter

When building a pit latrine, the trick is to choose a location away from water sources and at least 50 meters from any dwelling or public area.

Despite their simplicity, long-drop toilets are still popular in many areas because they require no electricity or running water. Moreover, such structures are cost-effective since they don’t need plumbing or expensive maintenance and can be built with local materials. 

It’s important to note that many don’t consider a pit latrine a viable and environment-friendly waste management solution due to the risks of improperly storing waste in the ground. You can still turn a long-drop toilet into a sustainable waste management solution for remote areas, though. You must seal or connect the pit to a septic tank to prevent the waste from seeping into groundwater sources and mitigate contamination risks.  

A long-drop toilet or pit latrine is the most basic waste management solution

How does a long-drop toilet work?

The waste falls into the pit, where bacteria break it down gradually and turn it into gases, liquids, and solids. The soil absorbs some of the liquid, and the gases are released into the atmosphere (that’s why long-drop toilets are often associated with bad smells). The solid organic matter in the pit becomes fertilizer over time. 

The decomposition process is slow and rarely impacts pathogen concentration, which means improper maintenance can have significant health and safety risks if you don’t follow hygiene rules. 

Another important aspect when using a long-drop toilet is periodic emptying. This way., you prevent overfilling and ensure proper functioning in the long run. The frequency of emptying can vary with the hole size, the long-drop toilet design, the number of users, and the waste decomposition rate. 

After emptying, proper disposal of waste from the pit is essential. Depending on local laws and regulations, you can compost the organic waste on-site or transport it for chemical treatment in an authorized facility.

The risks of improperly storing waste in a long-drop toilet

  • When not sealed, a pit latrine can contaminate the soil and groundwater, directly impacting human health and the ecosystem. 
  • Improper waste storage will attract pests and insects, spreading diseases and creating unpleasant experiences. 

How deep should a long-drop toilet be?

The depth of a long-drop toilet depends on various factors, from the number of users to usage frequency and local regulations. As a guideline, most pits are around 3 to 6 meters (10-20 feet) deep and have a diameter of 1-1.2 meters (3-4 feet).  

Long drop toilet vs. composting toilet: what’s the difference? 

The design of long-drop toilets is too simple to offer what we consider an adequate waste storage and management solution today. In contrast, compost toilets facilitate the conversion of waste into compost without causing any harm to the surrounding soil or groundwater.

Instead of storing waste in an open tank, compost toilets use a container (composting chamber) where temperature and humidity levels facilitate composting. Moreover, these systems enable the separation of liquids and solids, making it easier to prevent unpleasant odors.

Compost toilets might require additional carbon-rich material to absorb moisture, increasing costs. But the advantages are worth the expense, as users can enjoy a convenient and odor-free experience.

Instead of storing waste in an open tank, compost toilets use a container

How to empty a long-drop toilet

Emptying a long-drop toilet requires specific tools and equipment. The easiest way is to pump out the waste in a specialized vacuum truck. A hand pump could also do the job, but it makes the process more challenging, time-consuming, and riskier. 

You want to get a professional service provider for emptying and transporting the waste to the disposal site or treatment facility. This way, you can avoid hazards and maintain the long-drop toilet functional for as many as 20 years or more. 

Another option is to cover the existing pit and dig a new one. However, relocating a pit latrine is difficult, especially with limited space.

How to prevent a long-drop toilet from smelling bad

The pit latrine design makes it easy for gases produced by decomposing human waste to escape. Methane and hydrogen sulfide gases have a strong unpleasant smell, making it difficult to contain the odor. 

As a rule of thumb, emptying the pit latrine regularly helps to control the smell — doing so won’t eliminate the smell, but it can significantly reduce its intensity. 

Here are some things to consider when using and cleaning a long-drop toilet: 

  • Carbon-rich materials such as sawdust or dry leaves absorb excess moisture and reduce odors.
  • Odor-neutralizing agents can help control the smell. 
  • A ventilation system ensures consistent airflow through the pit. 
  • Harsh chemicals or cleaning agents can harm the bacteria responsible for the decomposition process, increasing the odor intensity. 

It’s important to remember things rarely go as planned with a basic long-drop toilet, especially without proper ventilation to eliminate the odor. The truth is that storing waste in a hole in the ground makes it almost impossible to control factors like temperature and humidity, which directly impact the intensity of the smell. 

Are long-drop toilets legal? 

In most countries and states, long-drop toilets are legal but regulated. The extent of local restrictions can depend on various factors, including the types of residences constructed in your area. For accurate information and guidelines, it’s best to check with local authorities before digging. 

If you can’t use a pit latrine in your area, some sustainable alternatives are composting toilets or HomeBiogas Bio-toilet kits

A sustainable alternative is a HomeBiogas Bio-Toilet Kit

Rules of using a long-drop toilet

Health and safety rules: 

  • Use a heavy-duty liner or concrete to seal the pit and prevent contamination. 
  • Make the hole in the floor large enough to avoid soiling but not too big that a child can accidentally fall through it. 
  • Cover the hole with a toilet lid between usages to prevent insects and animals from entering the pit.
  • Supervise children when they use the toilet to avoid accidents or injuries.
  • Consolidate the structure around the toilet to withstand harsh weather conditions and prevent collapse. Use durable materials such as bricks, concrete, treated timber, or pallet wood. 

Maintenance rules: 

  • Don’t use the pit latrine to dispose of sanitary pads or diapers; it can lead to blockages and obstruct the pit.
  • Empty the pit regularly to avoid overflow.
  • Control the amount of toilet paper that goes into the toilet, as too much can clog the pit. 

Final Thoughts 

Pit latrines remain a popular waste management solution worldwide because of their affordability and ease of construction. However, it’s important to understand the downsides and follow local regulations when building a long-drop toilet to prevent safety hazards. 

Exploring more sustainable options, such as compost toilets, is advisable to guarantee your safety and overall health.

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