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!

46 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.
      Kevin and Natalie

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

  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,
    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.

  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.

    • 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.

  7. Personally I love my tumbler, so much in fact that I bought a second one this year so I can have one finishing cooking while I’m filling the other. I think Composting is one of those things you just go with what works for the given situation. I get 2-3, 100L batches out of my tumbler a summer (we have very SHORT summers), with no smell and they get plenty hot enough. I did find that the carbon to nitrogen ratio is completely out of wack with what everyone says for general composting. I’m throwing mostly greens, with kitchen scraps and the odd batch of dried grass clippings in, at at best 50-50, but probably closer to 70-30 in favour of greens, not browns so I suspect many of the “failures” are because people are relying too much on what the books say, and less on what the pile is telling them. I do agree that big piles on the ground are ideal, and that tumblers aren’t the magic solution they’re billed as, but I think you’re doing a disservice to people who may be considering a tumbler by being so vehemently against them when they can be the perfect fit for certain situations. I do wonder, many of the tumblers I’ve seen used are rather vertical, where as mine are more boxy, I think that must help it aerate better, because 5-6 turns and stuff is usually fluffed up pretty nicely.

    • Keep in mind I wrote this post because I have seen far too many disasters and I don’t believe in spending money when something simpler and more attractive will do the job better.

      I am not sure you are adding browns at all from your description, grass clippings are just more greens.

      The boxy shape of your tumbler probably is helping, not sure why leaving out the browns would help. Early on that should just make things really messy, latter on you are starving the compost of the bulk (the equivalent of fiber in your own diet) that makes compost useful for storing and releasing water once it is applied to the garden.

      While I have certainly read “the books” everything I post about here on Backyard Ecosystem is based on hard won experience. If it was in “the books” and it was correct I wouldn’t need post about it.

      • After reading some of these posts about the tumblers, I suspect these folks are more urban? I am rural and have never used/don’t want a tumbler. I have far too much greens/browns to ever consider a tumbler(s). I could care less if the big pile looks pretty. But if I think of my city friends, I could not imagine them having anything but a neat and pretty compost pile. Neighbors might complain if it’s unsightly? Oh, how I prefer life in the country. No neighbors or even a thought about appearances/rules.

        • We’re urban (inner suburb of a very big city, you have to drive 45 min+ to get out of dense suburbia), but it’s not prettiness that drives the need for an animal proof bin, it’s that a healthy ecosystem in our backyard would involve coyotes. By deterring the raccoons, squirrels and chipmunks I reduce the likelihood of a coyote being drawn into my yard. I have kids who play outside alone. We do not want coyotes.

      • Hey Kevin –

        I’ll give up my tumbling composter if you;ll agree to come to my house in the middle of a huge piece of FL scrub land and make sure there are no snakes slithering around. I took a tour of Mount’s Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach and the guide told us the snakes love the compost pile. You could see them crawling around all over. The armadillos would be tunneling under my cyclone fence just to have a good roll in the pile, leaving a nice big opening for coons, possums, and lots of other hungry wildlife having a feast on my kitchen/garden waste.

        • I grew up composting in Northwest Florida with no issues from any of these things. No meat, no oil, enough browns and you should have zero animal issues.

  8. 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.

  9. There is no perfect way or right way to compost. Use what works for you. I have two 6×6′ – 3 sided cedar plank bins 4-6 feet high, for yard waste. Anything that is grown and that I can’t use will go into one of these. The other will be from the last 2 months or so and is in it’s final stage of turning it over before I use it for plants, gardening, ect. I alternate each one on a 2 month basis since once you have a good pile of waste, it will heat up and compost in 6-8 weeks. I also like earth worms. They really help, are cheap and once you have them, just keep putting them back into the piles. they Love it. and you will compost faster.

    I also have two small 35 gallon tumblers. They are NOT a waste of time or money. Just keep them small since all I use them for is kitchen wastes. No meat, pasta or fats but all veggie, fruits, ect. I do find that this kind of composting is quite wet so I also use my paper shredder and add brown and white pure paper to balance the moisture.

    Either way of compost you should be able to put your hand in, grab some compost and once pulled out, it should not wet you hand. Figure it like the moisture of very new potting soil. If it’s too wet, add dry. Too dry add wet – even a spray of water. then turn and mix.

    I live in the country and have no issues with animals sniffing around the bins. The key to composing is heat, moisture and turning the stuff over. The tumblers I only turn once a week so that the heat really builds up. they are also in the direct sun. My bins are by my barn and get sun 1/2 of the day. Once they start steaming, I will turn them every 3-4 days.

    • Keep in mind I wrote this post because I have seen far too many disasters and I don’t believe in spending money when some thing simpler and more attractive will do the job better.
      Sounds like you are doing a good job with your enclosures. I tend to be lazy and don’t turn as often as I should.

  10. 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.

  11. 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!!

  12. 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.

    • 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,

  13. 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.

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  15. I have a rotating compost bin and it’s absolutely marvellous. Not a gimmick, it works!

    • Keep in mind I wrote this post because I have seen far too many disasters and I don’t believe in spending money when something simpler and more attractive will do the job better.

    • I agree. I have had a rotating for over 20 years, which allowed me to compost on the second floor of an apartment building, as well as in a backyard. I used it primarily for kitchen waste. If you roll it 4 or 5 times, there is no smell. Has Kevin ever owned a tumbler composter? It doesn’t sound like it.

      • I have tumblers as i have limited space and close neighbors, it works great and compost is both tea and regular compost

  16. 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.

  17. i dont understand why after every comment you have to say something negitive about what other people have posted!

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. “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.

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