Tumbler compost bin? Spinning composter? Don’t waste your money.

compost heap

The spinning (sometimes called a barrel) or tumbler composter is a commercial gimmick to convince you that anyone, including small children or pets, can turn the whole pile at once in a few seconds. Most are too small to heat up properly, can’t be turned when full or nearly full, do not provide enough ventilation, do not let the compost contact the soil, and are just generally gimmicky, expensive, and useless. Turning one all day will not mix the contents as well as 15 minutes with a pitchfork or shovel on the ground. Do not waste your money, you back, or your time.

An open pile on the ground, the tackiest homemade bin, the wost designed commercial bin you could buy are all infinitely better than a tumbler or spinning compost bin. Why? They are in direct contact with the ground. Dig into a working pile and you will find insects, worms, and arachnids. The complete functional food web of the compost pile. Examine the contents of the pile in a microscope and you will find a whole additional level of the ecosystem operating (psychrophilic bacteria, mesophilic bacteria, and thermophilic bacteria), these microscopic decomposers are the real backbone of any pile. None of these things can efficiently reach your pile if it is not in direct contact with the soil.

A compost bin that suspends the pile in the air or has a bottom that blocks access to the soil is worse than useless.  A bin without contact with the soil is an expensive garbage can, not a compost bin. It will be a source of smells and an attractor of unwelcome guests.

Don’t even get me started on the silly little doors at the bottom of many commercial bins designed to leave the impression that you can throw stuff in the top and shovel compost out of the bottom. There is no substitute for turning the pile. If you don’t turn the pile you have garbage, not compost.

If you want a pile that turns itself and requires minimal maintenance, an in-home worm compost bin is the real answer. These are easy to make yourself, or readily available to purchase online.  Let the worms turn the pile for you! Vermicomposting worm bins can save the world because they can operate effectively in the smallest of homes.

If you want to have an outdoor pile, the old fashioned open pile, a homemade enclosure, or the simplest commercial enclosure is your best route to composting success! Effective composters are hot AND are saving the world!

43 Comments on “Tumbler compost bin? Spinning composter? Don’t waste your money.

  1. Great article.. as I was thinking about getting one.. You have saved me money!

    • Hi Heather,
      This post happened because a friend at work emailed earlier in the week to ask about the current fad for rotating compost bins. I am glad to know that I have helped more than one person avoid an expensive mistake.
      Regards,
      Kevin and Natalie

  2. wow, an article singing the praises of worm composting. I LOVE IT!
    Worms rock.
    Liz
    BigTex Worms

    • Hi Liz,
      How are things down south? You will be hearing a lot more praise of vermicomposting from us in the near future.
      Always good to hear from you.
      Kevin and Natalie.

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  4. Hi,
    I just purchased a compost box. I hope to get lots of pointers when you visit. Bring scraps and worms, lol.

    • Hi June,
      I am glad to hear you got started composting. Are you composting indoors or out?
      Kevin

  5. Hello!
    Just stumbled across your blog and this entry while searching for info about ecological composters. Great info and interesting ideas. I was considering a compost bin but had heard some mixed reviews…now I have more space at our new home and wondering how to start. I am not sure if a worm bin would be “welcome” inside but perhaps I could do persuading about a compost pile outside. Any suggestions for how big to start or with what? We are a couple and our property is on primarily sandy soil with a wooded area in back. Thanks!

    Have a great day,
    Sheila
    PS: oh by the way, I’m writing from a town west of Montreal, Quebec, Canada 🙂

    • Hi Sheila,
      I just put up a new post on compost bins. I hope it is helpful to you. Why would a worm bin be unwelcome in your home? It is your only real alternative for year round composting of kitchen scraps in your climate.
      Regards,
      Kevin

  6. I was going to buy an off-the-ground tumbler composter, having read that raccoons can dig under the ones that are sitting on the ground.  What would you recommend I do if raccoons frequent my backyard?  Should I exclude fruit scraps, if that helps at all?  Thanks. 

    • Hi Vivian,
      Pests including raccoons shouldn’t be a problem for any style bin or even a free form pile… If you are mixing enough browns in with the greens. They should especially be uninterested in tunneling under since the bottom edge of the pile should have the oldest material that is fartherest allong in the process of decomposition even if you are adding new material to the top or center of the pile. You should only try to keep out the standard items: Meat, Milk products, oil, salt. Nothing else is going to be a problem if you have mixed in enough browns, wet the pile evenly and covered the pile. Keep us posted and don’t waste money on a gimmick.
      -Kevin

  7. I just built a cedar compost bin myself! It consists of 4 – 3 ft cedar posts (home depot cut for me) and 32 cedar slats for the sides. I stood 2 slats up on end to evenly space the distance btwn. slats. Super easy and pretty to look at! P.s. when we lived in Michigan, we had lots of raccoons and possums and they never bothered my free standing compost pile.

    • Nice! Sounds beautiful and the cedar should last a long time. As long as you have enough browns any pile should work great.

  8. I was forced to give up the backyard pile for a couple reasons…yellow jackets buried down and built a huge nest in it last year and it also attracted possums that drove the dogs nuts at night. Therefore the beau (who is super sensitive to insect bites) said o more. i have a couple barrels and was gonna make a tumbling composted for food scraps. If its such a abad idea, could I turn the barrels into a worm composted? Looks like I need to do a bit more research.

    • Weed tea might be a better option for your barrels. A worm bin should be small enough you can easily move it into shelter for the hottest or coldest parts of the year.

  9. Hi I am Reks (a woman) lol, anyway I have two 45 gallon tumbling composters. I made myself, as I am now a single mom with 4 little ones, three of which are still in elem. school and a three yr old. I have been composting, and gardening, and have backyard chicks for a year now. I have used the contents of one of my tumblers in my raised bed gardens, and the other is close to being ready for my fall sowing of winter vegi’s. I have had no problem with my spinning composters, and building them cost me only $23. I got the 45 gallon tumblers from the car wash by my house free, they were the ones that armour all car wash comes in. I had to rinse them thoroughly with hot water, and let them soak overnight filled with water and 1/2 cup of white distilled vinegar. Then they were ready for use, and safe!! I also purchased a couple cartons of earth worms from Wal-Mart and threw them in. If anyone is considering composting, whether spinner, ground pile, or elevated bin, just be sure to even out your green, and brown contents for a successful ending.
    And remember to turn, toss like a salad, or stir at least once a week. Happy gardening!!

  10. I am curious if anyone has somehow used the heat from a hot compost pile to heat their home? I saw a guy on youtube who ran a length of garden hose through his compost pile to heat water for showering.
    Sandra

    • Hi Sandra, Welcome to Backyard Ecosystem!

      If you had unlimited access to compostable materials I am sure this would work. You just need to keep the hose in an appropriate mix of greens and browns that are in the hot phase of composing. I am way to lazy for this. Twenty years ago I would have suggested you try a back box with a lot of complicated piping. Now I would just suggest you buy a solar panel or six and an sell anything you don’t need back to your utility company. Enough panels and you could have a positive balance on the electric bill every month of the year.

      Let us know how it goes,
      Kevin

  11. On the other hand, for those of us who have a bad back and knees and difficulty with turning heavy piles of compost as a result, it seems that tumbling would address a number of problems. It’s easy enough to add a couple of buckets of nice, wormy soil into the tumbler and so incorporate the microbes.

    • Hi Sasha and welcome to Backyard Ecosystem.
      If you can lift buckets of soil, you can turn a pile. It it really isn’t that hard and as long as you use your fork corectly it should be good for your back.
      -Kevin

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  13. Personally I struggle with the idea of leaving the compost on the ground. I know it’s ‘natural’ but it seems so irresponsible. Mostly because (not only because of the potential smell) but also because of the fear of contaminating groundwater when it rains, ESPECIALLY for those of us who humanure. The reason why old-fashion outhouses (the granddaddy composter) simply didn’t work, was because the feces seeped into the free earth, when stormwater forced it down, causing all types of disgusting bacteria infections to pollute the wells and ruin the water. It’s extremely anti-ecological. If someone can provide a recycled wine-barrel to tumble their compost and contain it’s smell, I don’t see what’s wrong with using it. Be one with nature, and ecological, but there’s nothing wrong with finding ways to cut your workload, and be cleaner to mother nature.

    • I don’t do humanure myself. Aside from that a balanced pile should neither smell nor contaminate the water table. If you are worried that this is going on then you probably need to add a lot of browns to the pile.

  14. My over 25 years experience of a tumbler composter is just the opposite of the negative assertions of this post. My composter was inexpensive, bought at a time that tumbler composters weren’t “trendy”, didn’t smell, and worked! This post is a disservice to those considering a tumbler composter as a option, particularly for urban apartment dwellings whose options are limited. (There are plenty of better options. Like an indoor worm bin. You can make one from materials so low cost they are nearly free. -Kevin)

  15. I have a 1.5 acre large lawn that I mow and then use a pull behind lawn sweeper to pick up the grass clippings and leaves. I would like to build something that I can drive over and dump the clippings in. The ultimate goal would be to make compost and use it in my garden or re-spread it on the lawn. Any suggestions?

    • Yes. Use a mulching mower instead to break the leaves and grass down into the smallest possible bits. Your lawn desperately needs those nutrients. Stop robbing it of them with the sweeper. Use leaves from a neighbor who is trying to pack a landfill full to make even more compost for spreading around on problem areas and check out the post on Leaf Mould.

  16. “There is no perfect way or right way to compost.” This applies in the standard-less world of hobbyist composting. Professional composters would vehemently disagree (though they are not about to share their proprietary methods). When time and money are figured in to the equation some methods kick the crap out of others. The reason hobbyist composters argue back and forth about heaps, bins, and tumblers is that the output / input is never measured or judged. We all enjoy the hobby so not much else matters. If there were a composting contest where the end product was judged against the effort that created it, certain equipment and methods would rise above others.

    “Use what works for you.” I feel badly for the novice composter, as this is very common advice. So the poor person needs to try heaps, tumblers, bins, bokashi, worms, etc. and figure out what works for them. Can the compost experts not do any better? Advice like this has to result in frustrated newbies. I am with Kevin, tumblers suck. Bins are much better but all of them are lacking. I agree with Kevin, too, about the stupid trap doors. Those companies are guilty of deceptive advertising by posting staged photos. I make my own bins and they are better than anything you can buy. I am not going public as I’d like to profit as do the charlatans, whom I’d like to put out of business.

  17. What about using a tumber to process the contents of my composting toilet? I live in a community with dogs and little kids that also happens to be a farm business (with inspectors walking around from time to time). Don’t you think it could be hazardous to leave my humanure exposed and leaching?
    Thanks for the input, I’m in the process of reaearching options now.
    Max

    • I don’t do humanure, as it is outside my training. But over at http://www.RootSimple.com (long time blog friends) they recommend The Humanure Handbook. Here is a link to their resources page. https://www.rootsimple.com/resources/
      I would just talk to the inspectors, once it is mixed with wood chips and aged it is used for crops in many areas including Colorado where I received my Master Composter certification.

  18. I just read the “Spinning composter? Don’t waste your money article. I was looking for a part for my 10+ year old “Urban Composter” a pickle barrel affair…(edit, You are not a special snowflake, even in the desert, cover the pile with a tarp when it is at the correct moisture and move on. -Kevin also future special snowflake comments will be deleted rather than approved.)

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