A compost pile that won't heat up is the most common disappointment to the new composter.
The leaves are raked. The food waste is collected. The pitchfork is ready.
After mixing them together, our intrepid composter impatiently waits a few days before opening the tumbler or heading out to the leaf pile. Expecting temps of 130°F, she instead gets….nothing.
No rise in temperature. No activity. And a greatly reduced expectation of finished compost by spring.
This article will cover the basics of composting and will explore the most common reasons why compost will not heat up.
Compost Troubleshooting Table of Contents
The 4 Requirements for a Hot Compost Pile
I am not a gear head, but someone once explained to me that a motor won't start because it's lacking fuel, air, or a spark.
A fire needs fuel because it needs an energy source with locked up energy to release in a heat form.
It needs air because the fuel source needs to interact with oxygen in order to burn. It also needs a spark or an ignition source to get the combustion party started.
Troubleshooting the lawnmower became a little less daunting after this lesson.
Composting is similar.
It needs air, heat, and a proper fuel source. It also needs water.
1) Air: Oxygen is Key to Composting
As composting guru – and my friend! – Peter Moon writes in this wonderful post at O2Compost.com, the secret of composting is oxygen.
Now Peter's wheelhouse is aerated static pile composting which I am using here at the Urban Worm Company. We compost spent brewer's grain and wood chips to prepare the material for our Michigan SoilWorks CFT vermicomposter.
With aerated static pile or “ASP” composting, air is forced into the pile by way of a perforated pipe to deliver the air. It's a pretty nifty, labor-saving setup.
But most composters turn their piles for the purpose of introducing – and reintroducing – oxygen to their material. Composting should be an aerobic process and the microbes responsible for heating up a pile consume it very quickly.
If your pile is not heating up, it may be that it is lacking oxygen.
Time to get out the pitchfork and give it a turn!
2) Heat: Somebody Has To Start the Party
Hot composting is a process that should build upon itself. The heat initially created by mesophilic microbes – which prefer moderate temperatures – attracts the proliferation of thermophilic – or heat-loving – microbes.
The boost in activity of thermophilic microbes creates more heat, which makes conditions even more ripe for heat-loving microbes. This thermophilic activity takes temperatures from a moderate but active 100°F to a too-hot-to-touch 160°F.
It's one thing to create this heat, but quite another to trap it.
A hot composting pile needs to be at least 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet in order to trap enough heat in its core to get the thermophilic party started. Otherwise, the heat simply escapes too easily.
And larger is even better as long as it's within your physical capacity to keep turning it.
A compost pile that won't heat up is often too shallow or otherwise lacking in volume to trap heat. This explains the frequent frustration with small compost tumblers.
It also explains why tiny countertop composters are not actually composters; they are just stylish ways for your food to rot in your kitchen before you run it out to the pile or tumbler.
3) Carbon-to-Nitrogen Ratio: The Fuel for Compost
If you've researched composting to any extent, you've surely come across the term carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, or “C:N.”
This is a measure of the mass of carbon to the mass of nitrogen in a given substrate.
Microbes, like most organisms, consume these two elements in a 30-to-1 ratio, so you'll want to create a pile with 30 parts of a carbon-rich brown material to one part nitrogen-rich green material.
Too much carbon or brown stuff, the pile will not heat up and decomposition will be prolonged.
But if you have too little carbon, your pile will may get hot for awhile but will release too much nitrogen in the form of ammonia which will not be a pleasant smell.
This next part is hugely important to understanding C:N.
Greens are Still Mostly Carbon!
Every organic substance is mostly carbon. Even something like chicken manure, which has about the lowest relative carbon content any material, has a C:N of 6:1. In other words, this nitrogen-rich green material has six times more carbon than nitrogen.
With this in mind, breezy guidance like “add one part brown, one part green” is not sufficient.
Such guidance typically refers to volume, not mass. And it totally disregards bulk density which is the amount of mass per unit of volume. So someone adding a 20 gallons of a “brown” like hardwood chips at 550:1 C:N is way different than someone adding the same volume of dry loose leaves with a measly 50:1 C:N.
The volume is the same, but the amount of carbon you're adding to the mix is wildly different because of the different C:N ratios and bulk density.
So I would use one of the many compost calculators on the web and I'd be thrilled if you started with mine!
It allows you to choose from a range of dozens of greens and browns and is super simple to use, giving you a running C:N as you add ingredients to the mix.
4) Moisture: Without It, There's No Composting
A compost pile needs to be moist without being wet.
At moisture levels above 65%, liquid begins to occupy the pore spaces where oxygen used to live. Once the oxygen is consumed in the liquid, there is no path for new oxygen to enter the mixture. The result is an anaerobic and likely odorous pile.
At moisture levels below 50%, composting begins to stop and you'll need to add water to the mix.
If your pile gets so dry that it becomes hydrophobic, it will actually not absorb moisture at all. Your pile will then need to be torn down, wetted down, and built back up again.
This article will help you understand how to measure the moisture content in your compost! It's meant more for worm composters but the principles are still the same!
If you've recently turned your pile and you know your carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is good, then first thing I would check is the moisture level.
If your fresh material falls apart in your hand and there's no way you could squeeze a drop of moisture out of it, you may need to add water.
Summary: Tips to Maintaining a Hot Compost Pile
Composting is cooking, not baking. It's not so demanding in terms of precision that it requires minute attention to detail.
So while the guidance above should help you keep a hot pile, here are a few more tips to keep your pile temps elevated.
Keep Exposed to Sunlight
If composting at home, do what you can to keep your pile or tumbler in maximum sunlight, namely by keeping it in a south-facing location for you Northern Hemisphere dwellers.
I realize you've got to be a good neighbor so if the front lawn in your gated community gets more sunlight than anywhere else on your property, I'd understand if you didn't choose to put it there!
Keep Exposed to Rain
A compost pile is thirsty, so let nature help you. Keeping your compost pile in an area where rain can get to it easily will provide a low-cost way to keep your pile moistened.
Placing your pile under a tree will protect it from both rain and sunlight. The is protection we want to avoid!
Keep Adding Fresh Material
You know the old adage. If at first you don't succeed, add a crap ton of coffee grounds! A normal household compost pile is unlikely to have enough green material to get a 1 cubic yard pile fired up.
You may benefit from outside help like manure from a local farmer. If you're in the ‘burbs and don't care to put a bin full of manure in the family truckster, you might find a copious supply of spent – but nitrogen-rich! – coffee grounds from Starbucks or your local coffee shop.
Higher end convenience stores (like WaWa) in the northeast that feature 19 different kinds of coffee are also excellent sources.
Only Change One Variable At a Time
When we get a temperature crash in our aerated static pile composter, we are careful to only change one variable.
In other words, if we think we need more water but maybe less air in the pile, we make only one change and then let it sit for a few days to see if we get a temperature rise. This helps us dial in on the true cause of our issues.