Compost Tumblers: What They Are and How They Work

composting tumblers

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, every year in the United States, approximately 31% (133 billion pounds) of the overall food supply is wasted, which impacts food security and resource conservation. And this waste alone contributes to an incredible 18% of total U.S. methane emissions that come from landfills.

Against numbers this unfathomable, what can we do as individuals and families to be more environmentally conscious and reduce our carbon footprints? How can we help do our part—small though it may be?

Well, for many of us, one very doable thing (that’s surprisingly still not done as much as it should be) is to compost. It’s such a small thing, but it’s so easy to do.

For most people who are interested in composting, their starting point pretty simple: buy a compost bin, store their food scraps, then throw it out with their organic waste when it gets collected weekly.

But if you’ve seen the statistics and are interested in going a step further and doing your own composting, the logical next step is to look at compost tumblers. (And if you are really into gardening or want to create or “cook” your own compost more efficiently, this post is will be especially helpful for you.)

In this post, we’ll look at:


What is a compost tumbler?

You’ve probably heard of and seen compost bins (maybe you even have one under your kitchen sink), but what exactly is a compost tumbler?

Basically, a compost tumbler is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a sealed container that’s used to compost your food scraps and other waste—that tumbles or rotates. The big difference between a compost tumbler and a regular ol’ compost bin is that you can rotate it to mix up the stuff inside better and get it the oxygen it needs. 

(Some tumblers also just rotate on an axle, while others are set on a base that they can rotate on. They are even apartment-sized tumblers that are a perfectly good option for condo dwellers—but more on that later.)

If that sounds like a more effective or faster way to compost, you’re right. It is!

The other advantage of using a compost tumbler instead of a regular bin is that because the tumbler can be actually sealed shut—not the same as just putting a lid on your compost bin—it also seals in the heat that’s created by the composting process! 

Now, heat helps stuff compost faster (imagine organic material decomposing in an icy climate vs stuff decomposing in a hot and humid place—blegh), which means it’ll take less time for your food waste and yard scraps to compost when you’re using a compost tumbler.

Basically… it’s next-level composting that helps you get to a zero waste lifestyle faster. (Learn more about other zero waste products.)


What are the main types of compost tumblers?

1. Basic sealed drum compost tumblers: Simple, gets the job done 

single chamber composting tumbler

Pros

  • Straightforward, easy to get started with

Cons

  • You have to wait until your batch is fully done cooking before adding more

Let’s start with the simplest type of compost tumbler: the sealed drum tumbler.

As its name implies, this kind of compost tumbler is essentially just a drum (or barrel) that’s attached to an axle or set on a base that you can spin or rotate.

And of course, the drum is sealed.

If you want to be able to roll your drum off the base to wherever you want to empty all that amazing compost, look for a compost tumbler that allows you to do that (because not all of them do)!

Otherwise, you might have to just make sure that you have a wheelbarrow or large enough bucket that you can stick under the drum to collect the completed, or “cooked,” compost.

🍃 Pro-tip: The drum usually includes a feature which will ‘flip’ the composting materials as the drum turns. Without this, the materials would simply slosh from side to side without actually turning and mixing, even as the drum rotates. Homemade composters using steel drums or similar containers can be great for composting.

2. Dual-bin compost tumblers: Compost more, faster

Dual bin composting tumbler

Pros

  • Lets you compost two batches at once and speeds up composting process
  • Smaller / more manageable amount of compost to empty

Cons

  • Usually costs more than single bin models

Twice the space, twice as effective, right?

Well, let’s break it down.

When you’re rotating a basic compost tumbler, what you’re doing is mixing the “fresher” material with the more cooked or composted material. While a good mix is beneficial, it does slow down your cooking process a bit. 

For you super diligent composters, you might be interested in a dual bin composting tumbler. This way, while one chamber is cooking, you can add fresh waste to the other one (perfect if your family generates quite a bit of organic waste).

The two chambers are still in the same drum technically, and most models should have some kind of venting so that both chambers get some much-needed aeration.

🍃 Pro-tip: Look for models that have two doors (one for each chamber) instead of one big door covering both. If you care about durability, look for compost tumblers made of steel.

On “aerated” composting tumblers…

You may also come across some composting tumblers that market themselves as being “aerated”—nowadays, most dual bin compost tumblers have some kind of aeration between the two chambers, and even some single-chambered tumblers have a bar inside the drum that helps aerate the chamber. They may not necessarily categorize themselves explicitly like this, but that’s basically what it means.


How to choose the right compost tumbler for you: 3 key considerations

Ready to go shopping for a compost tumbler? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Ease of use — How heavy will the tumbler be? (And don’t forget to count the rough weight of your compost that’s going in there too!) Is it easy to turn and made of high quality materials? (Don’t want that crank breaking on you in a few months.)

  2. Size — Of course, a big tumbler will help you crank out more compost than a smaller one, but do you need something that big? How much organic waste or scraps does your household realistically produce? (If you’re living in a condo, it’s safe to say, you won’t have quite the same amount of yard trimmings as someone who lives in a house.)

  3. Your climate — Again, heat is a main ingredient here. If you live in a super cold place, that’s not an ideal environment for a compost tumbler to work well. It’s not impossible though… you’d just need a compost tumbler with really good insulation.


6 of the best compost tumblers out there (in order of size)

1. Envirocycle Mini Composting Tumbler Bin

Envirocycle Mini Composting Tumbler Bin

Size: 35 gallons

Dimensions: 19 x 18.75 x 21.5 inches

Best for: If you don’t want to have to assemble a complicated tumbler

Features:

  • BPA- and rust-free material 
  • Food-safe and UV and antioxidant-protected
  • Unique look—although it’s not for everyone (oh, and it comes in hot pink too)

2. FCMP Outdoor IM4000 Tumbling Composter

FCMP Outdoor IM4000 Tumbling Composter

Size: 37 gallons

Dimensions: 28 x 30 x 36 inches

Best for: If you want to dip your toes into compost tumblers and/or don’t plan to compost a ton

Features

  • Corrosion-resistant steel frame
  • Two chambers
  • Sliding doors
  • Pretty affordable!

3. EJWOX Dual Rotating Compost Tumbler

EJWOX Dual Rotating Compost Tumbler

Size: 43 gallons

Dimensions: 28.5 x 26 x 37 inches

Best for: If you want a dual bin compost tumbler

Features:

  • Built-in aeration system: an internal bar helps mix up your compost and encourage airflow
  • Double-panelled walls that absorb and retain heat better
  • Rust-resistant powder-coated steel frame and galvanized steel feet

4. Miracle-Gro Large Dual Chamber Compost Tumbler

Miracle-Gro Large Dual Chamber Compost Tumbler

Size: 27.7 gallons per chamber for a total of 55 gallons

Dimensions: 25.6 x 23.6 x 32.3  inches

Best for: Miracle Gro fans and people looking for an easy-to-assemble tumbler

Features

  • Tumbler itself is made of BPA and toxin-free plastic
  • Rust-proof, powder-coated steel frame
  • Easy to put together
  • Rolls off the base to wherever you need to drop off the cooked goods

5. Lifetime 60058 Compost Tumbler

Lifetime 60058 Compost Tumbler

Size: 80 gallons

Dimensions: 40 x 35.5 x 43 inches

Best for: If you have a huge garden or yard

Features:

  • Made of high-density polyethylene plastic
  • Has UV protection and seals in heat
  • Harder to assemble compared to some of the others on this list
  • No hand crank so you’ll have to work a little harder to rotate it

6. Mantis CT02001 Compact ComposTumbler

Mantis CT02001 Compact ComposTumbler

Size: 88 gallons

Dimensions: 42 x 33 x 43 inches

Best for: If you have a huge garden or yard

Features

  • Powder-coated and galvanized rust and corrosion-resistant steel frame 
  • Side crank


Why use a compost tumbler? (Are compost tumblers actually any good?)

First, let’s look at the benefits of using a compost tumbler

1. It lets you compost more—faster.

If the temperature and the conditions of your compost are right, you can generally cook a batch of compost in a tumbler to completion in three weeks. Again, if you live in a warmer climate, that helps.

2. No pitchforks or getting your hands dirty.

Unlike with large compost bins that require you to dig in there with a pitchfork or something to mix up the goods, the rotations themselves will do the trick with a compost tumbler. 

3. It keeps rodents and other animals out of your compost.

Because most compost tumblers are set on an axle or elevated, they’re not touching the ground—which makes them much harder for animals to get at.

4. It doesn’t smell (as much)!

The biggest perk of having a sealed compost tumbler? It seals in the odor too.

5. They look nicer than just having a compost heap.

Like some of the options we’re showing you in this guide, the designs of some new compost bins are actually pretty slick.

Now, the disadvantages of using compost tumblers.

1. They’re more expensive than regular compost bins.

There aren’t a lot of downsides to using a compost tumbler, but price is probably one of them. Generally, a simple compost bin will be less expensive to buy. (But it might be worth it if you have a lot of composting to do and a big garden to keep fed and happy.)

2. They don’t drain as well as compost bins.

Too much moisture is not good for the composting process, but because tumblers are sealed, they don’t drain well! This is easy enough to combat though—you just have to make sure that you don’t have too much overly moist material cooking in there. Either drain them a bit first before throwing them into your tumbler, or add more dry material (like dry leaves) to balance it out.

3. They’re not great for folks with mobility issues.

At almost 60 gallons, the largest compost tumblers out there aren’t exactly easy to rotate. (This is also a big reason why you should only fill your tumbler up to around two-thirds full.) 

That being said, you can always get a smaller composting tumbler. Cute and functional.


What do you put in a compost tumbler?

Contrary to what many people think, it’s not just a simple matter of dumping all your kitchen scraps and grass trimmings into the tumbler. (Sorry.)

Depending on whose advice you’re taking, you’ll want a larger proportion of yard trimmings and a smaller proportion of food waste. (When in doubt, try a 60-to-40 or 70-to-30 ratio and experiment!) 

Regardless of the ratio you use, make sure that whatever you put in your compost tumbler isn’t too wet. You want damp, not soggy. If there’s too much moisture in there, your cooked product might end up looking muddy and gross. (If that’s the case, add dry bits like old coffee filters, newspaper scraps, saw dust, and dried out leaves—aka “brown material.”)

If you’re wondering whether you need to add compost starter (like manure or garden soil) to the tumbler… you don’t! They can help give the composting process a little nudge, but helpful to kick-start the process, but time and regular rotating is really all you need.

🍃 Pro-tip: General advice for the kind of texture you want in your cooked compost—a wrung-out sponge. Oh, and the more crumbled up or cut up your material is, the easier and faster they’ll compost.

What should you not put in a compost tumbler?

Basically, anything that might contain toxic materials like contaminants or—yes, even certain types of food and your pet’s poop.

No protein- or fat-rich foods, nothing that might contain pesticide or herbicide. Remember, you want to feed your garden the most nutritious food possible and make sure it’s healthy and happy.

Another thing that many people wonder about: worms!

Now, as you probably already know, worms are very useful for the breakdown process, but one of the biggest differences between using a compost bin and a tumbler is that with a tumbler, worms / worm castings aren’t really part of the compost equation here.

(And if you’re thinking that you can just manually add them to the heap… nope! The heat generated in there will probably kill them off since they won’t be able to scurry out of the sealed tumbler like they would if this compost were just in the earth.)

If you think this will affect the quality of your compost enough to bother you, then maybe a tumbler isn’t the best option for you.

What you do get is material worked on by bacteria and fungi. It has reached a high temperature, several times hopefully, which should kill off weed seeds and disease spores and will have a looser, rougher character which can be dug into beds or used as mulch. My experience is that it won’t be that ‘rich uniform crumble’ that comes from a well-rotted heap.


Compost tumbler FAQs

Why use a compost tumbler over a composting bin?

Yes, a plain composting bin is usually cheaper than a composting tumbler, but it takes longer to compost. If you compost a decent amount, then a compost bin isn’t going to be as efficient as having a tumbler. Not only that, most compost bins are set on the ground whereas tumblers are suspended in the air (so you can turn the crank and rotate it). 

What’s the significance of that, you ask? Well, if you don’t want little rodents and other scavengers getting into your compost, a compost tumbler is the way to go.

How long does it take to compost using a tumbler?

Honestly, it depends. We mentioned temperature being one factor. The amount of moisture in your composting tumbler is another. Make sure to have a good balance between the wet stuff and the dry stuff.

If you’re in a good climate, and rotating the tumbler regularly (but not over-rotating it!), and you have a good mix of green and brown material, you could finish cooking a batch in as little as three or four weeks.

(If not, it can take months or even up to a year. Patience and experimentation is key!)

How big of a composter should I buy?

Whatever fits your family’s composting needs and output, and also your ability to rotate the drum!

There’s a whole range of sizes, from small and portable condo-sized compost tumblers to huge ones fit for a big family living in a big house.

Typically a 40 to 50-gallon compost tumbler is good for a family of four. If in doubt, check with the store you’re buying from.

Should I add water to my compost?

Usually, nah. You don’t want your composting material to be too wet, and most food scraps contain even moisture already to get the process going. If you notice that it’s way too dry in your tumbler or it’s a particularly hot summer, you can add a bit of water, but err on the side of lesser than more.

Where should I put my compost tumbler?

Not in direct sunlight! Seems counterintuitive, but too much heat will cook your batch literally to death. Partial sunlight is best. You still want some heat, and you want the bin to be well protected when it rains too. (It should be sealed already, but this is if you want to be extra careful.)

What if I want to add more material before my current batch is done cooking?

If you don’t have a dual bin compost tumbler, then you’ll need another bin or some kind of storage to keep this fresh material as your current batch finishes cooking. If you keep adding new material before it’s done, it’ll cool down the stuff already in the chamber—and slow down the composting process.

Should I set my composter in the direct sunlight?

It seems logical that by locating your composter in direct sunlight, the materials inside will be warmer and this will speed the composting process. However, this is not necessarily the best advice. If your composter is made of plastic, even thick-walled heavy duty composters, we recommend locating it in shade or partial sunlight. This is because the hot sun can distort the plastic and the lid may not screw on easily, if at all. Also, some people have noted that the color of the plastic may become faded or blotchy after prolonged exposure to direct sunlight. If you are using your composter properly, with a fairly balanced mix of carbon and nitrogen, the sealed unit will generate enough heat for effective composting.

How often should I rotate my compost tumbler?

There’s no “right” answer, to be honest. Some people recommend rotating it once or twice a week, others say you should spin it every three or four days. (And do a few rotations at a time.)

If you notice the material getting too wet or soggy though, go ahead and spin it a few more times.

Compost Tumblers: What They Are and How They Work
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