vault toilet

What Are Vault Toilets and How Do They Differ from a Flush Toilet?

Vault toilets can be found all over the world. They are toilets built into the ground with a cement or stone structure to contain the smell.

This type of toilet is found in many places, including national parks. For example, the vault toilet at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is very well-known. This article will provide you with everything you need to know about vault toilets.

What are Vault Toilets?

The “vault” in vault toilets refers to the large airtight, underground container that stores waste. Vault toilets are a kind of toilets that don’t utilize flushing or water. This toilet is ideal for places with little water supply, such as recreational areas, parks, campgrounds, and public spots.

Vault Toilets are ADA approved and was designed by the U.S. Forest Service to lower dependence on American standard toilets. These toilets are easy to build and can be made from wooden frames, reinforced concrete, plastic, and cross-linked polyethylene.

Vault Toilets have proven to be very sturdy, with the most common type being made of polythene or polyethylene. This type of toilet comes with a low risk of pollution, given that the materials utilized to build them hardly ever crack. 

Having a more portable vault toilet like those created from plastic materials makes them more portable and lighter to use. Some waterless toilets include bag toilets, pit toilets, and composting toilets.

Where are Vault Toilets Used?

Vault toilets are typically found in trailheads, campgrounds, and public parks. Most suit in well with the natural environment, especially as they look like a small log cabin. These toilets are permanent structures that don’t feature electricity or water. 

And just like a small cabin and its chimney or smokestack, vault toilets also comprise a big vent pipe extending from the roof.

While you won’t most likely feel cozy using a vault toilet, most of them will be clean just in case you badly need to answer the call of nature.

Our Advice in How to Use a Vault Toilet

When it comes to sitting down on vault toilets, here are some tips to make your experience a bit nicer, or at least passable.

Look out for Bugs

When opening a vault toilet’s door, be cautious as there will be flies and sometimes bees. There are also often spiders hanging in the corners of the ceiling and floor. Spider crawling up from the vault while setting or getting stung by a bee is also not impossible. But don’t worry because the chances of these things happening are very low. So, if you want to prevent these from happening, along with unpleasant odors, make sure to close the toilet lid when you’re done.

Have a Back up of Toilet Paper Available

While park staffs do their best to maintain the toilet paper supply in vault toilets, sometimes it’s just not available. And when there’s a supply, it disappears very fast due to the number of people using the vault toilet.

toilet paper

Not only could you find yourself without toilet paper, but if there’s any supply, it will most likely be hard to roll off the weird-shaped toilet paper holders. And it will probably be the thinnest one-ply toilet paper out there. To avoid any inconveniences, always bring your own toilet paper.

Please do not Dispose Garbage in the Vault Toilet

Vault toilets are meant for two things only: Toilet paper and human waste.

It’s not a garbage bin for all the small garbage you are picking up along your hike. It’s also not a trash can to discard wet wipes, panty liners, tampons, or anything else.

The waste can’t be pumped out properly if this garbage becomes part of it. And worse, park services might shut down the toilet vault. Most vault toilets won’t have a place for your garbage, and this doesn’t make it okay to leave your trash on the floor either.

It’s not difficult to bring your trash along with you. So bring it and be a good user!

Have Your Own Supply of Hand Sanitizer Available

If you’re constantly cleaning your hands after answering the call of nature, don’t forget to bring a hand sanitizer.

hand sanitizer

Even though some very cool vault toilets come with hand sanitizer pumps and two-ply toilet paper, most vault toilets out there won’t come with any of these features.

Secure Your Belongings against Loss

Don’t just leave your belongings with you. Always bring them, even if you’re going to use the vault toilet quickly.

Most likely, there will be no place to hang your stuff. You’ll come across vault toilets that don’t have a lock feature. So if it sounds uncomfortable, you need to consider an alternative toilet.

How Do Vault Toilets Work?

A vault toilet works by enabling human waste to be temporarily stored in an airtight underground container without sewer lines or running water. Though it doesn’t come with these features, vault toilets don’t harm the environment.

Vault toilets are the toilet pick in recreational parks and camping sites in remote areas. They can offer decent privacy and have low-cost maintenance and cleaning.

Aside from urine and excrement, other organic wastes are also cleared inside the vault. This is essential in guaranteeing the cleanliness of the toilet, mainly because the waste can’t undergo a decomposition process if never contained inside the vault. The water from shower cubicles is also directly inside the underground container.

These toilets are put up in locations with good access roads to allow sewage pumping trucks to access the vaults easily. Sometimes, pit latrines or porta potties are the best alternatives in places that can’t be installed with vault toilets.

A regular vault toilet comprises two main parts: the upper part, which looks like a small cabin, and the vault, which is the airtight underground container. A vault toilet has a unisex design and can be easily set up for some events or activities. The underground container can have a storage capacity of anything from 1,000 to 13,000 gallons.

In building a vault toilet, the ground is dug to fit the size and shape of the vault. The vault is then buried in the ground, with its top being covered with a slab to provide stability.

It depends on some external factors to get it right when it comes to regulating unpleasant odors from the vault toilet. First, the vent needs to be taller than the toilet booth’s roof. Aside from that, you need the wind to take the odor; otherwise, the stench will accumulate around the vault toilet or in a nearby structure. So, good ventilation is crucial.

what is a vault toilet

Other ways of venting the vault toilets include:

  1. Placing a flame at the vent to burn the unpleasant stench out of the fumes from the toilet.
  2. Use of long underground pipes to move the waste to areas far away from the toilet. This is used mostly for permanent vault toilets.
  3. Adding organic filler to the waste can convert the unpleasant smell of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia into odorless nitrogen gas.
  4. Adding activated carbon to remove the strong odor from the toilet fumes.
  5. Heat availability on the vent at the roof of the toilet to control the stench from a vault toilet. Normally, the heat from the sun is sufficient for this one.

When the upper part of the vent is heated, it will immediately force the unpleasant odor out since hot air is lighter than cold air. For instance, you may have smelled sewage gases during the colder season than in the hotter season.

Vault Toilets Advantages

Here are some of the advantages of using a vault toilet:

Water Efficient

A vault toilet doesn’t require running water to work. This makes it very cost-effective. This factor is the primary reason why they are preferred over flushing toilets in most areas.

Excellent Privacy

Vault toilets are single units, which means only one user can use them at a time. Because of this, they give an excellent level of privacy to the user. Vault toilets are also big enough for a change of clothes or other things that you won’t be able to do in public.

Provide Convenience

Vault toilets are very easy to find, be it at an event or in the park. This gets rid of the need to search for a toilet away from your workplace or event.


With a vault toilet, you can add several other features that they don’t usually come with. For instance, you can add sanitizer machines or lights on vault toilets to enhance their usage.

Easy to Maintain and Cost-Effective

The skills and materials required to build a vault toilet are not that complicated, and that’s why it is easy to maintain and cost-effective, mainly because it doesn’t really use water. 

When it comes to maintenance, you only need to clean it and keep draining the waste regularly.

benefits of a vault toilet

Very Portable

Plastic vault toilets can be utilized many times by just washing them than moving them to new places. This exceptional portability makes this type of vault toilet readily available in public locations and for events.

Vault Toilets Disadvantages

Here are some drawbacks when using vault toilets:

Requires Heat to Work Properly

When the vent doesn’t have enough heat at the top, the air-cleaning process won’t be effective. This can be caused by crowds, rain, cloudy weather, or even shade from establishments and trees.

Ventilation Systems May Fail

Even though it’s not common, there are instances where the ventilation system of a vault toilet may fail. In this case, the air around the vault toilet will be filled with an unpleasant stench.

Needs a Regular Cleaning Routine

Because vault toilets don’t use water for flushing, they need constant washing to keep them clean. This can be pretty hard because most parks and other areas where vault toilets are used don’t usually have the amount of water required. Nonetheless, this water is less compared to what would have been utilized when flushing the toilet.

Difficult Waste Management

Since vault toilets are small units, it can be difficult to manage waste because they fill up fast, particularly when in areas with many users. Aside from that, they can get clogged making it difficult to unclog them without taking them apart, which is quite expensive.

Not All Vault Toilets Are Movable

Even though vault toilets are well known for their portability, it’s the plastic-type that is the most portable. The other types of vault toilets are not movable.

Vault Toilet Cleaning

Here are the steps you should follow if you want to clean your vault toilet properly.

  • Pick all the trash around the vault and dispose it in the right place.
  • Dust off the vent louvers to allow fresh air to flow.
  • Combine a disinfectant, detergent, and deodorant on one side of a double bucket and clear water on the opposite side. Use the blend and an abrasive brush to scrub the walls and get rid of all the stains. Then rinse it with water.
  • Mop the floor as regularly as possible using a cleaning solution.
  • Utilized a long-handled brush dipped in a cleaning solution like 3D to clean the inside of the toilet riser.
  • See if there’s still a supply of toilet paper and replenish accordingly.
  • Don’t suppress the odors using chemical products as it can have a negative impact on the sewage final treatment process.

How Much Does It Cost to Build a Vault Toilet?

The cost to build a vault toilet ranges from $500 up to $5,000. This price range includes the materials and labor necessary for installation.

Do Vault Toilets Have Toilet Paper?

In most places with vault toilets, toilet paper is available. But because of the high number of users, toilet paper can quickly run out. So again, make sure to bring your toilet paper.

Is A Vault Toilet the Same as A Pit Toilet?

No, they are not. The main difference between a vault toilet and a pit latrine is that the waste in the former is pumped out after some time, while the waste in the latter is never pumped out. Most of the organic matter will decompose, and the liquids will get absorbed by the ground below.

Vault Toilets vs Composting Toilets

Compared to a composting toilet, a vault toilet doesn’t come with an end product in sight. After the waste is pumped out, it’s taken to the municipal sewage treatment facility.

composting toilet

There are two kinds of composting toilets: Portable composting toilets and permanent composting toilets.

The portable composting toilets can also be utilized for RVs or as camping toilets.

Vault Toilets vs Septic Tank

Although septic tanks and vault toilets are built underground and water-tight, they have a huge difference.

A septic tank is built where there’s a lot of water, while a vault toilet is made where there’s no running water. Additionally, septic tanks are built on people’s houses and don’t come with structures on top.

How Deep Is a Vault Toilet?

The depth of a vault toilet should not be deeper than five feet.

How to Build a Vault Toilet?

If you want to build a vault toilet, follow these simple steps, and you’re good to go:

  • Before excavating, you need to establish your site first.
  • Once your site is established, mark out the vault and the building separately.
  • Then start excavating the vault.
  • Assemble the footing form box that goes under the vault and over excavate under the vault to make space for the box.
  • Compact the film under the footing form box and position the box.
  • Grade the hole, compact, and position the rebar.
  • Now, set the tank so that the tank is level at grade.

Tip: Be sure that the rim elevation of the toilet riser adaptor is at the finished floor elevation.

  • Then fill the tank with water before backfilling around the tank with concrete.
  • Now, form up and prepare for the slab.
  • Start pouring concrete down through the middle of the tank to fill the footing form box.
  • After the middle column is full and the steel post is in the column, backfill with concrete around the tank.
  • Then do your final grading for the slab and set the precast doorframe supports.
  • Once the grading is finished, set the poly floor pan for the restroom structure.
  • Set the building down over the pad. Be sure the door frame is level and attach the poly building pan to the building.
  • Dig the perimeter footings for the final slab and position the rebar.

Tip: Don’t forget to drill the holes in the building to extend the rebar through the building portion of the slab. 

  • Set the roof, drill and install toggle bolts in the preformed dimples and attach the roof to the building.
  • Set the upper section of the vent pipe and install the birdproof screen on the prevailing wind side of the building.
  • Mark, cut, and install the wall vent. Pour the final slab, and make sure you mask off the building with plastic
  • Lastly, finish the slab.

Last update on 2022-10-30 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API