What is a Vault Toilet and How Does it Work? Pros and Cons of Vault Toilets!

Vault Toilet: What is it and How Does it Work?

vault toilets

A permanent facility that is entirely void of water and is situated above an underground pit that is serviced by waste management is known as a vault toilet. Unlike conventional restrooms, they don’t require any plumbing or electricity, but they need to be accessed by a vehicle for maintenance. Waste is stored in a large airtight underground container, which is also called a vault, and thus these restrooms have been named as vault toilets. Vacuum trucks are used to pump out the vault and transport the waste to a waste management facility. Vault toilets are usually constructed in areas where water is scarce, such as parks and campgrounds.

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Camping toilets is another term used to refer to vault toilets because they are typically found in campgrounds. Other types of waterless toilets include pit toilets, composting toilets, port-a-potties, and bag toilets. They come in single or double vault systems and are equipped with unisex toilets. Wooden frames, reinforced concrete, plastic, or cross-linked polyethylene are common materials used to construct these facilities. Plastic vaults are convenient as they can be moved, but they are not as durable as other materials.

While concrete vault toilets are highly durable, the cross-linked polyethylene variety is the most widely used.

The most significant advantage of a vault toilet is that it does not require plumbing, making it the only option for a bathroom in hard-to-reach rural areas. They also save water and minimize environmental pollution since no energy is required for their use. However, they do need a vacuum truck to remove the waste.

Most public vault toilets meet ADA regulations for toilets and user comfort. They are typically odorless when well-maintained, although this is not always the case. The United States Forest Service has dubbed vault toilets as “sweet-smelling toilets” due to their overall lack of odor.

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How Does A Vault Toilet Work?

vault toilets

Vault toilets function differently than typical flush toilets. They lack plumbing and a water supply, making them non-flush toilets. Instead, they attach to a holding vault that can store over ten thousand gallons of waste. This container fills with waste until a vacuum truck arrives to pump it out. Vehicle access is crucial in this process.

The waste storage container, known as the vault, is buried underground with a concrete slab on top to maintain stability. It’s situated along a slope to facilitate the flow of waste. The bathroom area attaches to a vent pipe structure built on top of the concrete slab.

Vaults can remain undisturbed until a waste management company pumps them out. If a vault’s size is appropriate for its usage, it doesn’t require frequent pumping, usually once a week or two.

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Typically, vault toilets don’t produce odors, but this isn’t always the case. The absence of odor relies on the air carrying it away. If the air is stagnant, it can build up and result in an unpleasant odor. Wind can prevent this issue by carrying the smell away from the toilet. Furthermore, wind increases air pressure, resulting in air flowing out of the building, reducing the scent.

The sun can also aid in odor control. When the vent heats up, it pushes the smell out of the pipe and upwards, making it unnoticeable. Conversely, if there’s no sun, the air becomes still, and the smell can linger in the pipe.

Where Are Vault Toilets Used?

vault toilets

Vault toilets find common application in public parks and campgrounds where the dearth of water and plumbing facilities is apparent. Oftentimes, these toilets are deliberately constructed to blend in with the surroundings and exude the appearance of a petite hut.

Perennial in character, these fixtures are bereft of any means of water or electricity, but they boast an extended ventilation pipe that spans from the roof, which serves as a defining attribute.

In a majority of secluded rural areas, these self-contained structures represent the only viable alternative to erecting a permanent bathroom facility.

Vault Toilet Advantages

Constructing a vault toilet entails a plethora of merits. Its preeminent attribute is its placement. Rural areas, such as campgrounds, are bereft of lavatories. Ergo, a vault toilet’s presence is a boon since it provides a functioning commode in the middle of nowhere replete with a roof, walls, and a locking mechanism, which is infinitely preferable to defecating in the woods.

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vault toilets

Furthermore, the following benefits accrue:

Bathroom: Vault toilets are ensconced within an enclosed bathroom with a door, rendering them highly advantageous when occupying a rural campsite.

Privacy: Vault toilets are diminutive self-contained lavatories with a door, implying that only one person uses it at a time, ensuring privacy. Low Maintenance: Compared to conventional plumbing, vault toilets are less complicated to sustain since they are bereft of plumbing.

Affordable: They are less expensive to erect than a regular bathroom due to the lack of plumbing and water supply. However, the long-term expense of pumping must be considered.

Convenience: Vault toilets are readily available in remote recreational areas. You need not return to your domicile or venture into the wilderness to use the restroom.

Portable: Vault toilets fashioned from plastic are transportable, permitting use in various locations. Distinctive Features: Some vault toilets possess battery-powered lights that facilitate usage in the dark. Additionally, they proffer optional dispensers for disinfecting the toilet after use.

Cost Effective: Vault toilets do not necessitate water, obviating the need for flushing, which curtails water bills and reduces construction costs. Odorless: Vault toilets are designed not to emanate any scent. Nevertheless, there are instances when they do emit a smell.

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Vault Toilet Drawbacks

Despite the manifold’benefits of erecting a vault toilet, it is not without its imperfections, and there are a few disadvantages worth considering. One of the most prominent is the dearth of running water. Granted, this is a virtue in and of itself as it enables the construction of lavatories in nearly any location; however, it would be preferable to have a functioning toilet with a flush system, as well as a sink to cleanse your hands once you’ve finished.

vault toilets

Temperature: The vent pipe requires sunlight to function and dispel odors. On overcast days, vault toilets can start to emit unpleasant smells, and during the winter months, it is problematic due to the lack of heating.

Waste: Debris can cause congestion in the vault, hence it is crucial to avoid discarding anything in the commode that is not intended for it.

Ventilation: In the event that the ventilation system of the vault is defective, the washroom can begin to emit unpleasant odors.

Mobility: Plastic vault toilets are the sole model that can be moved, and even they can be quite challenging to relocate. If you require a mobile bathroom, you would be better off utilizing a portable toilet.

Hygiene: Given that vault toilets operate without water, they require frequent cleaning.

Vault Toilet Odors: How to Reduce Them Effectively

Vault toilets rely on the sun and wind to reduce odors by moving them up and away from the bathroom. Nevertheless, unpleasant smells can persist when these natural forces are not present. Fortunately, there are several measures you can take to address this issue.

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One approach is to add organic filler to the vault. This will convert the harmful odors in the waste, namely Hydrogen Sulfide and Ammonia, into odorless nitrogen gas. Another technique involves placing a burning flame around the vent to incinerate the odor as it leaves the vent. Additionally, activated carbon can be used to deodorize the gas. An alternative option is to use a long underground pipe to transport the odor far away from the toilet. Finally, solar power, a generator, or fuel can be used to power fans that move the odor away from the bathroom.

Caring for a Vault Toilet

Vault toilets are vulnerable to disease-causing organisms and bacteria, necessitating regular cleaning of the bathroom area and pumping of the vault.

Ensure that the vault is pumped out on a regular basis. Disinfect the bathroom’area whenever the vault toilet is used. In addition to maintaining the inside of the bathroom, you must also care for the building itself. Vault toilets resemble small cabins, with four walls and a roof. To prevent leaks, keep the roof in good condition. Check the concrete slab for cracks and fill and seal them as soon as possible if you discover any. Cracks can spread down into the vault, causing more extensive damage.

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Additionally, inspect the walls of the building for rot or weather damage, particularly around doors, windows, &the base of the structure. Rot is likely to develop in the’wooden bathroom area.. Always ensure that the siteis easily accessible by vehicles, as a vacuum truck is required to pump out bathroom. Finally, inspect the working parts of the bathroom, such as door knobs and locks, which tend to break down first in public restrooms.

Tips For Using A Vault Toilet

Vault toilets can be found in remote areas and lack basic amenities like sinks and running water. When using one, it’s important to check for insects such as bees, flies, or spiders nesting inside. Bringing your own toilet paper is also recommended as they tend to run out and rough one ply is often the only option available.

It’s important to note that these toilets are not designed for anything other than waste and toilet paper. Throwing trash down the toilet could clog it up. Additionally, since there is no water supply or sink, bringing hand sanitizer or water to wash your hands is advisable.

Although it’s possible to bring belongings into the vault toilet with you, there is usually no place to put them except on the floor. Therefore, it’s best to leave them outside. Some vault toilets have locking doors, while others do not. Bringing a friend to stand by the door is a good option in this case.

Is A Vault Toilet The Same As A Pit Latrine?

Vault toilets and pit latrines are often confused for each other, but there are some significant differences between them. While both are commonly found in campgrounds and remote residential areas, pit latrines involve digging a trench beneath the ground that collects all thewaste. Essentially, they are deep holes in the ground similar to wells, with the user sitting on top to use them as a toilet.

Unlike vault toilets, which collect waste in a tank that can be pumped clean, pit latrines accumulate waste directly in the soil. They require little upkeep because they do not need to be pumped out, making them easier and cheaper to build than vault-toilets. However, pit latrines are not as sanitary as vault toilets because they are not cleaned or pumped out. The waaste they collect attracts flies and other insects, making users susceptible to germs and disease.

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While vault toilets are modern versions of pit latrines and can be kept clean and sanitary, pit latrines are a viable option when no other toilets are available. After the pit is dug, it can be covered with simple wall’s and a roof to keep it dry. Although pit latrines are not as sanitary as vault toilets, they are a biodegradable option that can be filled up with dirt &left to break down into fertilizer.

Vault Toilets versus Outhouses: What Sets Them Apart?

While vault toilets and outhouses may appear quite similar, they differ in fundamental ways. For instance, outhouses are akin to pit latrines in that they lack a sunken tank under the floor that traps waste and gets emptied out.

Essentially, an outhouse is a small room featuring a seat that is placed above a deep pit. Once the pit becomes full of waste, the outhouse is relocated to a fresh hole and the filled-up pit is concealed using dirt. Outhouses lack permanence, a vault, a vent, and they cannot be emptied out.

On the other hand, vault toilets are a more advanced and hygienic version of an outhouse. They tend to be robust, long-lasting, and can be emptied out. Generally, they have a sturdy concrete floor and ventilation system in place. The presence of a ventilation pipe ensures that there is significantly less odor in a vault toilet than in an outhouse. In a pit latrine or an outhouse, the only place for the stench to escape is up into the bathroom area.

Vault toilets are usually constructed according to ADA standards as they are mostly found in public parks and recreational areas. Such standards are not found in a typical outhouse or pit latrine.

How Much Does It Cost To Install A Vault Toilet?

When it comes to installation costs, the expense of a vault toilet depends on its size and design. For example, a basic one-room toilet with a 5,000-gallon tank, concrete slab floor, and high-quality vent pipe will cost about $7,000 to $10,000 for the materials alone. Labor costs can easily double or triple the number based on the location of the installation. Additionally, since vault toilets are built in secluded areas, transporting the required materials to the site and excavation work might be necessary. A fresh water supply is also required for mixing the concrete.

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An all-inclusive vault toilet installation may cost between $25,000 and $45,000, with the price going higher if the installation site is located far away from civilization. Remember, vault toilets need to be emptied out, so do not install them too far from civilization. And don’t forget the recurring cost of pumping and refilling toilet paper which is roughly $45 per week in New Jersey.

A Vault Toilet’s Depth: A Complex Inquiry

A standard vault toilet is comprised of a 3-foot-deep concrete vault that is positioned beneath the ground’s surface. Its accessibility from outside is why vehicular access is vital, as failure to pump out the vault renders the toilet ineffective. In certain instances, the vault is fixed to concrete footings, which serve to anchor it in place.

On average, the vault’s depth is 36 inches, and it is located immediately beneath the toilet’s floor, which is typically 4 inches thick. Depending on its size and design, the vault may rest on footings that are 12 inches deep, although some vaults do not require such additional support. Overall, the typical vault toilet’s depth is about 40 inches, inclusive of the vault and floor slab.

An 18-inch-diameter pipe exits the vault, extending beyond the bathroom’s roof to diffuse unpleasant odors.

Do Vault Toilets Emit Odors?

It is not unreasonable to claim that all toilets emit foul odors at times, and vault toilets are no exception. However, the architecture of vault toilets is devised to eliminate such stenches.

In spite of this, vault toilets may still emit odors. They incorporate an 18-inch diameter pipe that originates from the vault and extends beyond the roof of the bathroom. For the ventilation mechanism to operate effectively, the wind is essential, as it exerts pressure that propels the odors through the pipe, carrying them up and away from the toilet.

Heat is also necessary, as when sunlight heats up the pipe, it helps to convey the odors out of the vault and away from the vicinity.

Should there be a lack of wind and heat, the malodorous scent may hover around the toilet.

Furthermore, such design features do not significantly alleviate odors when someone has recently utilized the toilet. They are more effective at mitigating long-term odors. For recent malodors, Lysol may be utilized.

Vault Toilets and Their Odor Control Solutions:

Vault toilets are a different breed of restroom. They don’t operate on a water-based system like traditional toilets. Instead, they utilize a waterless system that solely processes pure waste. This process results in concentrated waste with biochemical oxygen demand that can be 50 times higher than the amount found in septic or sewer systems. As a result, traditional products designed for septic or sewer systems can actually exacerbate the smell when they interact with the concentrated waste.

While there are some odor control products available for vault toilets, most don’t work well and can make the situation worse. It is because of this that it’s essential to choose the right product for this unique type of toilet.

BioWorld’s Liquid Optimizer Plus is a viable solution. The product is applied to the vault’s surface and walls with a wand and pressure sprayer. By doing this once a week, the product significantly reduces odor and flies. However, the smell and flies return to their previous levels when the treatment stops.

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Another odor control product, Armor Research’s Blanket 510, is poured through the manhole or vault riser after the vault is pumped and surcharged with water. The product is lighter than water and floats on the surface. The product can also be sprayed onto the vault walls for additional odor reduction. It minimizes both odors and flies and should only be used when the vault is pumped and recharged with water.

Vault Toilet Cleaning

Cleaning a vault toilet is similar to cleaning any other restroom. Disinfecting surfaces, such as handles and the floor, is essential. Disinfecting the entire toilet, particularly the seat, is crucial. If the walls are covered with F.R.P or Fiber Reinforced Plastic Sheeting, they should be disinfected as well. If the walls are wood, they cannot be disinfected, but dirt or debris can be wiped away.

Cleaning the entire floor, especially around the toilet, is necessary. Emptying the trash can, sanitizing the can and lid, and cleaning all the door knobs and grab bars with disinfectant is also essential. Any area that people are likely to touch should be wiped down. It’s recommended to bring some Lysol spray to help with the cleaning process.

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It’s critical to choose the right odor control solution when dealing with vault toilets. BioWorld’s Liquid Optimizer Plus and Armor Research’s Blanket 510 are two options that can help reduce odor and flies. By following the recommended cleaning procedures and using the right products, the overall experience of using a vault toilet can be greatly improved.


Vault toilets, a contemporary and hygienic alternative to the archaic outhouse, are constructed to endure, like a miniature log cabin, with a robust concrete base. Underneath the restroom area is a compartment, known as the vault, where refuse accumulates and can be extracted when necessary. A ventilation tube is included in the vault, which disperses any unpleasant odors. These toilets have transformed the bathroom experience, even in the most remote areas, and most are even built to meet ADA requirements. However, they are not designed to use water, so don’t expect to flush or wash your hands after using them.

Vault toilets are meant exclusively for waste and toilet paper, and not for discarding other items. Therefore, refrain from tossing anything in the toilet apart from these two items.

If you chance upon a small cabin with a tall pipe protruding from the roof in a distant camping or hiking area, it may be a vault toilet.

To summarize: what exactly is a vault toilet?

A permanent and waterless bathroom perched atop a compartment or “pit” that is maintained by a waste management company. Vault lavatories do not need plumbing or electricity, but vehicle access is required to service them. Because these toilets are waterless, they are not flushable, and the waste is kept in an air-tight subterranean container, aka the vault. Hence the name, vault toilet. Vacuum pumping trucks are used to extract waste from the vault and transport it to a waste management facility. Vault toilets are typically erected in areas where water is scarce, such as parks and campgrounds.

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Vault toilets are often referred to as camping toilets since they are commonly seen in camping grounds. Other forms of waterless toilets include pit toilets, composting toilets, port-a-potties, and bag toilets. They are usually made as single or double-vault systems and feature unisex bathrooms. They can be constructed using wooden frames, reinforced concrete, plastic, or cross-linked polyethylene. This is because the material will not crack, reducing the risk of pollution. Plastic vaults are an excellent option because they are portable, but not as sturdy as other materials.

Concrete vault toilets are incredibly durable, but those made of cross-linked polyethylene are the most frequently employed.

The principal advantage of vault toilets is that they do not necessitate plumbing. In rural areas that are challenging to access, they are typically the sole bathroom option. Additionally, they reduce water consumption and environmental contamination since they use no energy. However, they do require a vacuum truck to dispose of the waste.

Most public vault toilets meet ADA standards for restrooms and user comfort. When correctly maintained, they are typically odor-free, although this is not always the case. The U.S. Forest Service has dubbed them “sweet-smelling toilets” because of their overall lack of odor.

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