Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Our Composting Toilet - ECO or Stinko?

I think it was in May 2013 that we decided to do away with the porta potti and pay a rather considerable cost of £800 (or there abouts) on a new eco composting toilet at the Crick boat show. What we got was the actual toilet, some cocoa bean shells, some flexi hose and a solar extraction fan for the boat roof that sucks all the moisture out of your poo and stops it smelling. Although I thought it was pretty bloody expensive for a hard plastic loo I was pleased for my wife as she really wanted one as she is the only one who can handle emptying the loo lol.

There are major design problems with this toilet system which we will come to later!!!

Fitting the toilet was a pretty simple affair which involved cutting a hole in the roof for the solar fan and then feeding a flexi hose down and onto the toilet. This is where the alarm bells rang for me as I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to gadgets! There was no specifically designed fitment from the fan to the flexi hose so we had to glue an adapter to the fan and hope it held - this is what the suppliers actually instructed us to do! We decided to add some duck tape for added security! The three pictures below show the fitting of the toilet.

Composting Toilet cutting the roof hole
Cutting a hole in the roof
Eco composting toilet flexi hose
The flexi-hose entering the bathroom
Composting toilet fitted in narrowboat bathroom
The Eco Composting toilet fitted in the bathroom

The toilet itself is quite a nice one, it's comfortable and not too massive but it is not without it's problems! I will explain how it works first. You start by adding 2-3 inches of cocoa shells into the toilet base which is supposed to help with the break down of bacteria as well as masking any smells (it does smell like chocolate for a while!) When you need a number 2 you place a coffee filter into the bowl, do your business and then open the hatch and it drops into the base. Next you turn the handle and spray a bit of Ecover into the bowl to disinfect etc. There is no flush and no water - the idea is to dry the poo out. When you are sitting down on the loo the number 1 finds its way into a different compartment which you empty as required.

The first issue is that the actual bowl is not particularly deep so if you have a rather large deposit the poo will touch your bum - nasty!!!! It also has a handle on the side that you turn after each deposit but once it's got a few deposits in the toilet it gets very hard to turn and forcing it around kind of feels like you might break it!

Now to the major, and perhaps deal breaking issue. The fan is totally useless and not fit for purpose due to several fundamental design issues. I will cover those issues in a moment but first I must explain the consequences of these faults. THE TOILET SMELLS BAD - REALLY BAD when the fan stops working - which is basically any time it rains, any time the panel gets condensation build up and when the solar panels have not charged the internal battery enough to get through the night.

You may have noticed that so far I have not named and shamed. I have not done so because I am sending them the link to this article to see what their response is. I am hoping that they sort it out, but if they can't then I will let you all know!

I believe the fan is not even designed specifically for this toilet system, the box was all in Chinese and looks incredibly cheap. Expecting us to glue adapters to it to make the hose fit is not really satisfactory at all, it backs up my theory that this solar extraction fan is an off-the-shelf generic job. The main issue is condensation as shown in the picture below.

Condensation in eco toilet extraction fan
Condensation forms in the extraction fan

The fundamental issue here is that the solar panels inside are not flush with the glass - there is a massive gap between the actual panels and the glass which, of course, is going to allow condensation to form. With all this condensation the sun can not actually get to the solar panels so it works very inefficiently and will not allow enough light in to charge the internal battery. Just take a look at any other solar powered device you have - the panels are always flush against the glass as shown below in this solar light.

Standard lighting solar panel
Note the solar array is fixed against the glass - no air gap

 Having a curved top surface and air gap as with the solar extraction fan supplied is a major design flaw. I have illustrated the issues further in the following illustrations - the first one is the actual fan (not totally accurate but OK for illustration purposes). The second image shows how I would have designed it!

Composting toilet solar extraction fan
This is a rough illustration of the actual extraction fan

1. The boat roof is almost flush with the extraction fan vent hole which means if it rains, of if you wash your boat the water is going to find it's way straight in to the solar extraction fan. When this happens the fan stops working for a few hours (and then the batteries are not charged enough for the night).

2. The solar array is not flush with the glass which allows condensation - this happens almost EVERY DAY and while there is condensation the batteries can not get a full charge.

3. When water does get in to the fan it goes straight on to the motor and it stops!

How I would design the solar extraction fan
A better design for the extraction fan

1. The fan should sit at least 10mm above the roof line and should be designed in such a way that the water runs off it, away from the vent holes as shown - the airflow is shown by the brown arrows.

2. The solar panel itself should be sealed against the flat glass as shown which would help prevent condensation - my solar lights etc NEVER get condensation build-up. It is my understanding that solar panels should be fused against the glass.

3. The fan motor itself should be 100% waterproof so that any water that does get in simply ends up going down in to the toilet and does not stop the fan working.

I would also add that we should have a proper fitment for the flexi-hose that runs down to the toilet, not a bodged up glue it yourself affair!!!

We have had 2 fans so far and both have done the same thing which proves that they are not fit for purpose. What you have to remember is that I have butchered my narrowboat roof to fit this bloody fan!!!

If you are thinking of going eco and buying yourself a composting toilet make sure you get a good look at the extraction fan and if it's anything like what I have described here then run for your life as this is probably the most important part of the whole kit!!!

As a footnote to this article, last night I had to go sit in the cratch as the smell was almost unbearable and I am growing tired of it to be honest. If I can't get it sorted satisfactorily I will post this article EVERYWHERE and name the company that supplied it so that you guys don't end up with a smelly boat like mine!

And one other thing - the fan is not powerful enough by any means and if you stand outside anywhere near the fan you can smell poo.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Digital Watercolours

One thing about life aboard Hannah the Narrowboat is that the environment fosters creativity. Being away from the rat race that most people have to endure just to pay the bills gives you more time to think, more time to reflect and more time to be creative. As a musician and graphic artist I can not think of a better place to get inspiration from, yes it sounds a bit Mary Poppins but it's true. I now find myself taking more walks with my camera in hand, I find myself actually talking to strangers face to face unlike the current Facebook generation who have hundreds of 'friends' they have never seen or ever heard their actual voice. Most of us canal folk feel like we actually belong to a community.

Funnily enough I recently joined a narrowboat user group on Facebook and could not believe how friendly they all were, unlike many other interest groups I have joined and then left on the worlds largest gossip network. I decided that I would run a competition on there to see how many people would respond. It involved people sending in their own favourite photographs of their boat or canal scene and then I would pick what I thought was best and turn it into a digital watercolour using my iPad, a Wacom Creative Stylus and a few bits of app magic! The response was amazing considering I only ran it for around 7 hours. In the end I could not decide on a winner and ended up creating three watercolours! What I liked best was that people actually thought about it and did send in some beautiful pictures which goes to show that the canal folk truly are a creative bunch!

Here are the three watercolours I created for the winners.

Narrowboat canal boater

Narrowboat in the mist

Canal Boat narrowboat on the welsh canals

Monday, 15 September 2014

Working Boats

Working boats have always fascinated me and the sound of their old engines are heaven. It's not thw easiest way of making a living by far but I do admire the people who give it a go and are keeping the tradition alive. I am pretty sure I could not handle the hard work that they do but I do understand why they do it. I do love working on the canal myself, but my work is a lot less physical than theirs! Here is some of my work - depicting their work!

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Narrowboat MiFi

After my previous blog where I had a good old moan about mobile broadband I decided to do a little more research and although I still can't find a great solution where I can have unlimited data I have found an improvement on what I have presently. My pay-as-you-go MiFi (basically mobile WiFi) is costing £15 per 3GB which I have to use within a month, which means over the past 5 weeks (4 weeks aboard the boat) I have used nearly 12GB, which in turn means £60!!!!! OK, I have been using it a fair bit because I have been working for my graphic design company and sending files etc to clients. However, it seems you really do get hammered if you go down the pay-as-you-go route on data costs. Many people who use their boats purely for pleasure do not want to tie themselves down with a full on yearly data contract as they may not spend enough time aboard to benefit from it.

Well, maybe this is a good compromise: Three, the same people I use for my PAYG offers a monthly rolling contract for £16.02 (£29.99 up front cost) which includes a new MiFi box as pictured below and I get 10GB a month.

Now then, 10GB would have cost me just over £45 per month on my PAYG so this is a great deal for me, even if I am away from the boat for a month or two here and there as my average over the past couple of years has been around £25 per month. This obviously does not address the speed and connection issues outlined in my previous post but at least I am not paying quite so much and I also get a nice new MiFi box!!!

Monday, 8 September 2014

Getting crafty

I have been meaning to do this for ages, restore an old ships lamp and decorate it in the same style as we are restoring our boat. Not a particularly hard project by any means but fulfilling all the same. After getting rid of the rust and replacing a few screws and bolts it was ready for a base coat of enamel paint - the same mid Brunswick green that we are repainting Hannah the Narrowboat with. Once that was dry it was time to paint a few daisies to brighten it all up. I fitted a solar panel inside so it will light up once it gets dark!

Paul Massey Canal Art Ships Light

Ships light paited in a canal art style by Paul Massey

Meanwhile the lady of the boat was making net curtains for the cratch to give us a little more privacy, as well as making the cratch look nice and homely. It took a bit of experimentation to work out how to make them hang correctly as the windows are triangular rather than the usual rectangle affair in most homes. We also have a few more brasses to help decorate the cratch - if you look at the bottom middle one you will see a circular brass disk which was actually attached to an old canal horse ear many years ago!

Scenes from the marina

It's been wonderful weather for early September here at Gayton Marina. Here are a few scenes from our mooring.
Watercolour of Gayton Marina

A watercolour of Hannah tha Narrowboat

A digital watercolour of a scene at Gayton Marina

The waiting fleet of hire boats awaiting their next cruise

A watercolour of Gayton Marina by Paul Massey

Friday, 5 September 2014


If you have ever relied on mobile broadband then the title will give you a good idea of what I am going to talk about in this post. All of the adverts on television show an idealic world where you can watch your favourite program's on the move, watch a movie on Netflix, watch your favourite football team gat thrashed on Sky Go or BT Sport, send movies to your friends and family, upload to YouTube, post a picture of your dinner to your favourite social media site and more. What total and utter bulls**t. For one, the data you consume by watching an average football game including build-up and post match analysis is around 1.5GB, if you want to watch F1 the following day that will eat up at least the same. so, that's just two things I have watched and have now used my 3GB monthly allowance that cost me £15 with the Three network, or my £12.50 allowance on my iPad with GiffGaff. Now I have absolutely no data left to email that urgent graphic required by my client, or enough data to FaceTime my daughter or mum - unless I pay another sum of money for another 3GB data allowance.
Now that is not the only thing as most people who rely on mobile broadband who live outside a major city know very well. Data speed is the next big lie from our mobile network suppliers. 4G is the new thing. Makes no difference as I will never get that on the marina, 3G is the best I get and to be honest the fastest download speed I have achieved on my boat is 1.2mb a second, much less than the claimed speed I should get of 3mb a second. Let's not forget that the speed I just quoted is a very rare occurrence, most of the time my speed is measured in bytes, or I lose connection completely.
The odd thing is that when my wifi goes dead on the boat, if I unplug the little mifi box (turn it off) and then power it up again a few minutes later I will be connected again, this is hugely annoying as I have to do it at least 4-5 times a day if I am working on the boat.
The same thing happens on my iPhone with O2. One minute I have 3G and then it drops to GPRS and won't budge. If I reboot my iPhone then I usually get 3G for a while again - it's definitely switching as I can tell from the speed. Talking of my mobile phone network provider, and I believe all the others too. When I got my first iPhone 3G, I got unlimited data on my £45 per month contract. When I upgraded to a 4s a few years ago that data plan went down to a paltry 500mb but I was still paying the same amount. When I upgraded to my 5s I moaned a lot and now I have a massive 1GB which will allow me to watch perhaps 2 episodes of East Enders before I run out of my monthly data allowance. To be honest, iPhones are not really that great for the web - no smartphone is. Tablets are a bit better but for me, I need my MacBook Pro to be connected for real work which is why I went down the mifi route - which is basically mobile wifi for my boat.
As far as I can see, please correct me if I am wrong, there is nobody that offers unlimited mobile broadband for tablets or for mifi. GiffGaff offers a smartphone goodie bag that is unlimited (it's not really though when you read their terms and conditions, use 5GB or more and they will soon be telling you off) but you can not use that phone as a personal Hotspot (using as a modem for your tablet or computer). So they seemingly don't mind us all watching films and sports etc on a tiny screen but if you want to actually see it clearly on a iPad or computer then you will have to pay more! What a pile of cr*p.
Now, on the other side of the coin lets say that I have just purchased a 3GB allowance on arrival at Hannah the Narrowboat. I spend just the weekend aboard and use perhaps 500mb data leaving 2.5GB. If I can't get back up to the boat for a few weeks because of other things that pop up then why should I lose that 2.5GB? Three says I have to use it within a month - that's disgraceful practice, I paid for 3GB so I should get the full 3GB. I could understand if it were an unlimited data plan as then you are actually paying to be connected for a month. Imagine if you went in a pub, bought a pint and then they took it away again before you finished it because you did not drink it within an allocated time period!
Over the past 4 weeks on the boat, I have paid £60 for irritatingly slow broadband and not even watched a football game, or porn before you ask. This is not really acceptable to be honest but if I want to actually work from my boat I have absolutely no choice - unless you know otherwise?
To recap: The mobile network providers, television companies, Sky, BT etc have us believe that we can all catch up on the lastest episode of Britains Got No Talent whilst sitting by the riverside, or catching up via FaceTime or Skype on the train yet in reality the network speeds are not fast enough anywhere outside a major city and if you do get a good connection you will run out of data allowance before the end of that romantic comedy you are watching on your tiny little smartphone screen.
Data costs are too expensive and too slow to be able to work or play away from your home broadband.
By the way, I just had to restart my mifi again as it failed to post due to no data connection (even though my mifi says I have 3G with 3 bars!). Now it says I have used over 2mb since restarting, yet I have not even looked at the web etc - so it must nick a couple of meg when you restart it which, for me, means it will steal 10-12mb a day!