When nature calls, having a private space is a given in any home, but how much effort — and space — should you devote to your mobile comfort station? A skoolie bathroom can be anything from a tiny, curtained toilet alcove to a full bath with a comfy toilet, a sink, and a shower (or even a soaking tub!). You might take some functions outside the walls, with an outdoor shower or a portable toilet. It all depends on your personal priorities and how you envision your everyday life in a school bus.
The space you allot for a bathroom will understandably depend on how much overall space you have available, but finding the right balance between your private needs and your living space is a more personal decision. Perhaps you’re the type of person who absolutely must have a morning shower, or maybe you’re more comfortable with a shower every few days. Maybe you are terrified of public restrooms or of doing your business outdoors, or maybe you are fine carrying a simple emergency “head” just for urgent situations. Bathroom solutions exist for all budgets; just understand that there will likely be compromises to make, as with any off-grid, tiny-living lifestyle.
Toilets on the Go
If you have other showering plans, such as an outdoor setup or a campground or rest-stop shower, you can save space by having only a toilet inside your skoolie. A portable toilet can be stowed away and pulled out when needed, or you can designate a small space of your bus for the toilet to be permanently installed. A toilet room can be as narrow as one side window of your bus. You can wall around the toilet for privacy or simply curtain off the area. Assuming you have a kitchen sink, you can eliminate the sink from the bathroom and use the kitchen sink for washing hands and brushing teeth.
Skoolie toilet options range from inexpensive portable camping units sold at ordinary big box stores, to permanent composting toilets that can cost nearly ten times as much, to DIY units that work surprisingly well and cost next to nothing. Each option has its own system to minimize odor.
Basic portable toilets have two sections: one for the toilet lid and bowl and the other for the waste. There is also a small fluid reservoir that releases a small amount of liquid deodorizer into the toilet bowl when “flushing.” Basic portable toilets can be emptied at an RV dump station.
Composting toilets allow moisture to evaporate from waste, leaving only compost that is easy to empty. A composting toilet vents the odor out of the bus and has a drawer on the bottom of the toilet for removing and emptying the composted waste. The toilet will slowly turn the waste to make the liquid evaporate faster.
DIY composting toilets come in many shapes and sizes — and the price is right. It may sound harsh, but it’s entirely possible to use a simple 5-gallon bucket as a toilet. You can box in the bucket with wood and install a hinged lid on top of the bucket that has a hole cut out for sitting over. To add comfort, you can install an actual toilet seat lid on top of the wood box lid. It will feel just like home!
DIY composting toilets use sawdust or wood chips to cover the smell. You first put down a layer of sawdust to cover the bottom of the bucket, then you completely cover the waste with sawdust or chips each time you use the toilet. (Save sawdust during your skoolie conversion. When it runs out, you can buy sawdust by the bag.) A DIY toilet can be emptied into a composting bin that will break down the waste into a fertilizer for nonfood use. I prefer to line my bucket throne with environmentally friendly, biodegradable portable toilet bags that can be sealed and delivered to a compost bin with minimal hassle. These bags greatly simplify disposal.
If you want to get fancier with your DIY toilet, install urine diverters or separators (available online) that will route your pee to a separate container that you empty at a different time than your solid waste. Keeping the two elements separated helps reduce odor.
Regardless of how you set up a toilet for life on the road, you will have to deal with the waste at some point. If you have a blackwater tank that holds all your waste, you still need to empty it eventually. Trust me: it’s not a pleasant task! Emptying a smaller quantity more regularly is much less unpleasant, in my opinion.
Showers and Tubs
Skoolie showers or tubs come in many shapes and sizes. Some folks like to use a large steel stock tank (sold at farm supply stores) for bathing or showering. Others install conventional tubs or shower stalls. In any case, remember that you’ll need a graywater tank for your indoor shower or tub to drain into. I suggest using a showerhead that has a pause button to conserve water.
Showers can be built by custom-cutting shower wall panels in combination with a shower base. Shower bases come in many sizes, with 30 × 30 inches being the smallest available. A mop sink can be retrofitted as a tiny shower stall if you’re willing to squeeze inside a 2 × 2-foot space. Or look around for a used RV shower base or complete shower insert. RV showers and tubs also can be purchased new.
If you prefer a natural material for the bathroom walls and trim, cedar is best for a shower area because it can handle moisture better than other common softwoods.
Bathrooms with showers or tubs should include a vent fan to remove the steamy air. This can be accomplished with a small window fan in the bathroom area, or you might rely on a roof fan in the common ceiling area of the bus. Simply cracking a window open while showering will ventilate moisture as well.
Outdoor showers don’t take up any space inside the skoolie, and they don’t require additional plumbing! Setup time can be a downside of using an outdoor shower, as can bad-weather days when you will have to brave the elements and the cold. But you’re living in a school bus; you can handle the elements from time to time, right?!
An outdoor shower can use water lines running either to the outside (for an outdoor connection) or to the back door (which you open to access the water lines). Another option is a portable tankless all-in-one water heater and pump. Or you could use a hanging shower bag or DIY CPVC-pipe hot-water rig to heat and gravity-feed your shower water. Whichever method you select, I personally recommend utilizing the bus door as part of the shower privacy strategy.
To outfit the outdoor shower, bend a long piece of 1/2-inch or 3/4-inch PVC pipe (PEX will work, too) to create a rounded curtain rod, then hang a couple standard shower curtains from the rod. You could also make a square rod using PVC elbows. To make the curtain rod removable, use plumbing flanges that are mounted permanently to the bus (with caulk and self-tapping screws), then simply stick the ends of the curtain rod into the flanges when it’s time to shower. For the shower floor, a cedar shower platform is perfect; you can buy one premade or build your own. Remember to use environmentally friendly soaps for your outdoor shower!
Excerpted from Skoolie: How to Convert a School Bus or Van into a Tiny Home or Recreational Vechicle © by Will Sutherland. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.