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What Is the Difference Between Hot and Cold Composting?

The art of composting is a fantastic way to put your food scraps and organic material to good use for the benefit of the planet. Essentially, composting is the practice of piling your scraps so that they begin the process of decomposing, which can be done in a number of ways. Eventually, your pile will turn into a nutrient-rich soil that can be used as extra-powerful fertilizer; although composting is a simple process, it’s necessary to first figure out how you want your compost to work – by either hot or cold composting.

Hot and cold composting are similar in the effects they produce. However, there are some minor differences between the two. Hot composting is the fastest way to produce the final compost soil, though it requires the most attention and upkeep. Cold composting is very easy to maintain as the pile needs hardly any attention, although the process of decomposing takes much longer than it does with hot composting.

Deciding on which method of composting you wish to use is an important decision to be made before you actually start your project. In this post, we will look at the main differences between hot and cold composting, the pros and cons of each, and how to choose which method to use.

Hot vs. Cold Composting

As the names suggest, hot and cold composting refer to the science behind how your compost pile breaks down your food scraps and organic materials.

Hot composting

In hot composting, the idea is to purposefully maintain a specific balance of the type of materials inside your pile – if the pile is balanced correctly, the environment will be conducive for active organisms to live in, which is what heats the pile and breaks down the organic material. 

This method requires you to regularly monitor the temperature, sometimes with a thermometer, to ensure it stays within a certain range. Around 140℉ is best, but you should go with more than 160℉. If the temperature gets too hot or cold, certain measures need to be taken to return your pile to an optimal level.

With cold composting, the decomposing process takes much longer than hot composting – up to a year or two, since this method does not require any balancing whatsoever. Using cold composting, you put all your food scraps and organic material in a pile, and then you wait – that’s it. This method is great since minimal thought or effort is needed to put into your compost, but if you need your fertilizer urgently, then hot composting should be used.

Deciding on whether to use hot or cold composting is mostly based on how much time you are willing to spend on your project. In addition to this, other factors should be considered before deciding on whether you build your hot or cold compost.

Now that you are familiar with the basics of hot and cold composting, let’s take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of each;. We will also go over how both a hot and cold compost are constructed in the first place.

Hot Composting Explained

Hot composting can be difficult to initially create and then equally difficult to sustain successfully. However, hot composting does have plenty of benefits that make it the most popular method of composting.

To build a hot compost pile, you must follow a carefully designed plan that uses different types of materials stacked upon one another.

Here are the steps to building a hot compost pile:

  1. Acquire or build a three to four-foot cube size bin where you can toss your food scraps and organic material.
  2. On the bottom of the compost, create a layer of high-carbon materials, such as wood stems and twigs. These materials will help to aerate your compost pile.
  3. On the next level of the compost, use a layer of soil.
  4. On the third level of the compost, place high-nitrogen materials such as plant matter, vegetables, food scraps, grass, and trimmings.
  5. Repeat this process of layering until your pile is about two to three feet in height.
  6. Liberally soak your compost pile with water immediately after you complete stacking – it should be slightly moist, not too dry or overly wet.
  7. Put holes in the side of the pile so that it may aerate – you can do so simply by poking sticks right through to the center.
  8. Regularly water your compost pile to maintain the needed temperature.
  9. About once a week, turn your compost pile so that the materials on the inside become the outside of the pile.

If you correctly follow these steps for creating a hot compost, you will have nutrient-rich soil in no time.

Since the hot compost method requires a certain temperature to be kept, you may need to perform some minor maintenance.

Here are some important notes relating to maintenance:

  • If your compost begins to emit particularly powerful odor, this may mean it needs more air. Add more holes to the pile so that it may aerate properly.
  • If the odor persists, feel free to spin or flip your pile so that all the dirt gets exposed to air.
  • Bad smells can also mean incorrect materials have been added to the pile, so refrain from doing so. If you accidentally included forbidden materials, do your best to remove them from the pile. When the pile is overridden by toxic materials not able to decompose, you may need to scrap the entire pile and start again.
  • If the compost pile is too cold, you can add more high-nitrogen materials.

Now let’s go over some of the benefits of hot composting.

Benefits of Hot Composting

Hot composting is preferred by many experienced composters but might be best avoided for those new to composting.

Some of the benefits of hot composting include:

  • The decomposition method is much faster than with cold composting, so you will have nutrient-rich soil in a very short amount of time, which many gardeners prefer.
  • The temperature inside a hot compost will kill weed seeds and plant pathogens.
  • Hot composting can work all year round.
  • Hot composting accepts a wider range of materials.
  • Most pesticides will be killed in a hot compost.
  • Hot composts are less likely to produce foul odors.
  • Hot composts will kill larvae and fly eggs.

Downsides of Hot Composting

Despite being preferred by many experienced composters, hot composting has some downsides, such as:

  • Hot composting needs to be built all at one time, and should not be added to after initial building. This is because any added material may affect the perfect design of this compost and may affect the temperature.
  • Hot composting must be meticulously constructed, with different layers of different types of material. An improper building or balance of materials can mean the compost will not work.
  • A specific temperature range must be maintained in order for a hot compost to work.
  • Other types of maintenance may be needed depending on how the compost is working.

Now that we’ve gone over hot composting, let’s take a closer look at what cold composting entails.

Cold Composting 

Cold Composting Explained

The process of building a cold compost is easier than that of a hot compost pile. However, certain steps still need to be followed if the compost is meant to be successful.

Here are the steps to follow to build a cold compost:

  1. Find an area that is large enough to contain the compost pile you plan to build – make sure to consider how big your pile may become over an extended period of time. This area can either be inside a bin or just a plot or hole in the ground.
  2. Continue to dump scraps and materials over time, waiting until it eventually breaks down into nutrient-rich soil.
  3. If possible, try to bury the kitchen scraps in the center of the pile to deter animals and insects.

As you can see, as long as you only include the right materials, cold composting is incredibly easy.

Now let’s go over some of the benefits and downsides of cold composting.

Benefits of Cold Composting

Cold composting has various benefits as compared to hot composting, such as:

  • Cold composting is much easier to build as compared to a hot compost – simply find an area for your pile and start dumping materials whenever.
  • Cold composting is very easy to maintain since no water is ever added. Also, there is no specific balance of material necessary with a cold compost.
  • With a cold compost pile, you can slowly add to it over time, dumping your food scraps and waste into your bin whenever you please.
  • Thanks to the colder temperatures, cold composts encourages the growth of certain fungi that prevent soil-borne diseases in the garden.

Downsides of Cold Composting

Cold composting, despite being the preferred method for beginners, also has its downsides, such as:

  • Cold composts can take up to a year to fully break down into the soil – this is because the temperature in a cold compost is not controlled, so it is left to stay at a natural range of around 90℉.
  • Cold composts cannot be used in the winter – any materials added in the winter will not breakdown until summer, exposing your pile to rats and other pests.
  • Since the cold compost method of composting isn’t as efficient, the materials accepted by cold composts are more limited than that of hot composts.
  • Dangerous weed seeds and pathogens may not be killed with a cold compost, as they likely will be in a hot compost. Avoid putting weeds in cold composts.
  • Most pesticides will survive in a cold compost.
  • Cold composts are more likely than hot composts to produce bad odors.
  • Cold composts will not kill larvae and fly eggs.
  • Since there is little aeration in a cold compost, wet foods and materials need to generally be avoided.

Now that you know a bit about the pros and cons of cold and hot composting, let’s go over exactly what type of foods and organic materials you can and cannot put in your composts.

What To Include and Not To Include in Your Compost

Whether you decide to use the hot or cold composting method for your pile, it’s entirely necessary to make sure you are only throwing in materials that will aid the decomposition process.

If you happen to include materials in your pile that cannot be broken down naturally, it can inhibit the decomposition process and completely destroy the composting process that needs to work in order to produce the nutrient-rich soil you desire.

Here are the materials that are acceptable to include in your compost pile:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Eggshells
  • Nutshells
  • Tea and teabags
  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Paper, cardboard, and newspaper
  • Manure
  • Lint
  • Yard trimmings
  • Plants and leaves
  • Small, thin wood
  • Hair, fur, hay, and straw
  • Cotton
  • Ashes

Remember, these are some of the most common materials that people use for their compost, but there are also plenty more that are perfectly acceptable.

It’s best to consult an expert if you are confused about whether a certain material is acceptable or not.

There are also plenty of food and materials that may negatively affect your compost pile, so they must be avoided at all costs.

Some of the foods and materials that may interfere with your compost are:

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  • Meat and meat products
  • Fairy products
  • Fats and oils
  • Pet feces
  • Coal
  • Plants or trimmings that might be infected with pesticides

These are just some of the foods and materials to avoid putting in your compost – there are many other ones, equally as harmful, that will impact your compost.

Make sure to take extra care in deciding whether food or material should be included in your compost pile.

Choosing the Best Composting Method For You

When choosing whether to use a hot or cold style of compost, you need to consider your reasons for starting a compost in the first place and how much involvement you’d like to have with maintaining your pile.

Before choosing the best composting method for you, try to answer the following questions:

  • How much space do you have to start your compost?
  • How much fertilizer are you hoping to have at the end of your compost?
  • How fast do you want your fertilizer?
  • How much time are you willing to put in to ensure the success of your compost?
  • How experienced are you in the art of composting? Are you capable enough to give hot composting a try?
  • How important is keeping your garden neat and tidy to you?
  • Are you hoping to compost year-round, or only in the summer?

Considering these questions will help you decide whether you want to build a hot or cold compost.

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It’s best to figure out answers to each of these questions well before you start your compost. Unfortunately, considering the nature of composting, it can be very difficult to change the style of compost you use after you start it. 

This is especially true when it comes to cold composting – if you start off a cold compost but then decide you want fertilizer faster, it will be near impossible to then change it to a hot compost. You will have to begin the composting process from the very start if you wish to change the style you use.

Composting is not meant to be difficult or stressful, so having a clear plan from the get-go and following the guidelines of each compost style will ensure your ultimate success that will eventually lead to the valuable, rich fertilizer soil that is so appreciated by gardeners everywhere.

Final Thoughts

People enjoy composting for a large number of reasons. Whether it’s the valuable fertilizer it produces or just the comfort in knowing you are reducing your carbon footprint on the earth, composting is a generous activity that is surprisingly easy to get involved in.

When deciding on how you plan to compost, choosing either a hot or cold compost is a necessary decision to answer. Depending on how much time and energy you hope to spend, among other things, either one of these composting methods might fit your needs better than the other.

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For beginner composters who prefer not too put much work in and only need a compost during the summer, you might like the cold compost. However, for those who are ready to put some more work and maintenance to get their fertilizer produced much faster, building a hot compost may be very well worth your time and energy.