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Human Endeavors.

Seventeen years ago, Clint Elston was in Colorado building dome homes, which gained popularity during the energy crisis of the early '70s. But Elston couldn't help but notice the irony of outfitting those same homes with what he considered wasteful five-gallon flush toilets.

Since then, he has worked to perfect an alternative. The end result is the AlasCan composting toilet and gray-water treatment system marketed by Elston's company, Human Endeavors. The high-tech, self-contained system, designed to handle both human and other organic wastes, has earned attention from federal agencies, environmental groups and consumers in rural communities.

A great deal of the interest is a result of the system's ability to solve water-supply problems. In remote areas, where honey buckets are widely used to handle sewage, Elston's system also can help combat hepatitis, a chronic problem perpetuated by contaminated drinking sources.

The AlasCan works to automatically dispose, decompose and recycle waste as it accumulates. Waste is sent to an insulated tank, where it decomposes into fertile humus.

While getting his ideas off the ground and into the public eye was slow going at first, Elston eventually prevailed. His first major victory came in October 1988, when he won an "Award for Energy Innovation" from the Department of Energy for his "Human Endeavors Geodesic Dome Live-In Research and Testing Project." The Healy dome, where he and his wife, Cathy Peterson, make their home, is outfitted with energy-saving devices that include solar panels and a ground-source heat pump, as well as the composting and gray-water system.

While the couple fully intends to perfect and promote all three ideas, AlasCan alone commands their attention now. A year ago, Elston was awarded a $99,500 Alaska Science and Technology Foundation grant. In September, the U.S. Department of Energy granted Elston another $90,000 through its Energy Inventions Program. The money will pay to perfect the product, automate production and promote the system's use.

The AlasCan system is an improved and expanded version of the old Clivus Multrum composting toilet, in common use worldwide for more than 50 years. With older tanks, maintenance was a tedious, often unpleasant task: It required putting wood shavings into the composting tank and mixing the pile manually to redistribute the liquids that had settled in the bottom. Elston's answer was to automate the composting operation by incorporating motor-driven plastic agitators.

He also married the technology to a modern foam-flush toilet, the Nepon Pearl from Japan. Resembling a regular flush toilet, the foam-flush toilet's up-to-date look and designer colors make AlasCan an acceptable addition to even the most sophisticated interior design, Elston says.

Human Endeavors' toilets take less than a cup of water to flush. Using a small air pump to produce a soapy foam layer inside the bowl, the system contains odor and minimizes splashing. Foam-flush urinals are another option.

The AlasCan system also handles kitchen wastes by linking the garbage disposal to the composting tank. A standard disposal sink, outfitted with a sprayer, is used to process garbage that is channeled into the composting tank, where it joins bathroom waste.

Warm air is drawn in with a fan and circulated to encourage decomposition. Automatic churners keep wastes mixed with wood shavings (or leaves) and redworms, which further speed the process. Sprinklers redistribute accumulating liquids as necessary. A screw conveyer moves decayed materials into the finished compost chamber.

Maintenance begins the fourth year and is limited to removing one to two cubic feet of fertile humus annually from the compost chamber. The only other by-products are water vapor and carbon dioxide, which are released through vents. The system is odorless, because aerobic decomposition does not produce methane gas.

A separate gray-water treatment tank, an optional component to the system, takes in dishwashing, laundry, sink and bath water. The waste water is aerated, and accumulated sludge is transferred to the composting tank. The remaining liquid meets federal discharge standards by the time it is released into the ground.

Elston already boasts more than 75 satisfied AlasCan customers, including the Army National Guard, which uses his systems at its remote village armories, some above the Arctic Circle. Among others are the Admiralty Inn near Juneau and a scattering of businesses and residences statewide.

Last August, Elston installed his first system in Canada, at a college in Whitehorse where students had built an "environmentally aware" demonstration building. A flood of inquiries from across the border followed, he says. In November, Elston shipped another demonstration system to Austin, Tex.

He believes the system also is ideal for use by offshore oil rigs and the marine industry; their wastes otherwise must be discharged at sea or hauled back to shore. Elston also sees abundant opportunities for sales to a wide range of individual and institutional customers. "This town and every community, village and city in this state has a solid-waste disposal problem," he says.

Energy Inventions Program money is earmarked for design and production research, to streamline the manufacture of the composting and gray water tanks. Currently, each tank must be built using Fiberglas in a time-consuming, two-step process. Elston is experimenting with new plastics technologies that would speed things up considerably. Although a single tank now takes between four and five days to build, Elston predicts he could be turning out as many as 20 per day. For the consumer, that could mean the difference between $12,000 - the current price tag on his system - and something closer to $7,500.

In conjunction with his application for the DOE grant, the National Bureau of Standards conducted a technical evaluation of the AlasCan system, validating its efficiency and deeming it worthy of financial and marketing support. "They see it as the only plausible economical and sanitary solution for rural and isolated areas," Elston says.

Elston has drawn on the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation money to set up a workshop in Fairbanks, complete with a demonstration unit that gives prospective customers a firsthand look at a functioning system. An alternative to constantly doing business long-distance from Healy, the shop includes a small kitchen and bathroom upstairs.

Elston also is spending the foundation grant to develop a business plan for his company and to establish a gray-water testing program. Both Northern Testing Laboratories and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Environmental Technology Laboratory are collecting data to verify the effluent quality of the gray water released by the AlasCan system. Studies are under way at three test sites: two in Fairbanks and one in Skwentna.

Final results, expected sometime this year, will determine whether in addition to discharge standards the system already meets, it can be proven to meet federal Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Conservation secondary stream discharge standards - meaning the gray water is clean enough to be discharged without threatening drinking water supplies.

Assuming everything goes according to schedule, Elston expects business to pick up significantly this summer. He anticipates his four-person operation soon will double in size. By establishing AlasCan dealerships, Elston envisions installing one complete system per day.

It isn't difficult to convince prospective customers that AlasCan is good for the environment, Elston says. With modern fixtures and tanks that can can be concealed under the house or in the basement, it's also not difficult to sell people on AlasCan's appearance.

What's tough, according to Elston, is to convince them it's worth the initial cost. The basic household unit consisting of one toilet, a gray-water treatment tank and the composting tank - currently runs the average homeowner $12,000, including installation. The ability to cut that cost will be a major factor in AlasCan's growth, Elston believes.

The cost to the average family to operate the entire system has been estimated at perhaps $100 a year, a fraction of the cost usually associated with heating a sewer line or having waste hauled away by truck. In addition, the average home would save more than 40,000 gallons of water annually, just by eliminating the typical five-gallon flush toilet.

Because one composting tank can accommodate up to 15 people, the system is suitable for both single and multifamily dwellings, Elston explains.

While the location, cost and cold associated with product development in Healy would seem to be inhibiting factors for many fledgling businesses, they have not hampered Elston's efforts, he says. If anything, being able to demonstrate that AlasCan works in such a harsh environment has only served to bolster his product's reputation.

But the big advantage to doing business in Alaska, according to Elston, has been people's attitudes. "We didn't have someone telling us it couldn't be done," he explains. Outside, on the other hand, he was constantly frustrated by bureaucracy and endless confines on his creativity. Since coming to Alaska, Elston says he has been "recognized, appreciated and assisted."
COPYRIGHT 1991 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Special Section: Small Business; Alaskan company which markets a composting toilet and gray-water treatment system
Author:Martin, Ingrid
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:May 1, 1991
Words:1460
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