Welcome back. I had a question from a fellow homesteader about outhouses. We used an outhouse for 20 years in Maine and I’ve used them in remote exploration camps too. To a degree, even in our current off-grid home, we use an indoor outhouse. Seriously, an indoor outhouse? Sure, and I’ll talk about our current toilet setup in my next post. But for now, let’s talk about a traditional homestead outhouse.
Be aware, in some localities outhouses may not be legal. Check the laws and ordinances in your locale. Assuming a privy is legal, placement of an outhouse is a critical component of any safe waste disposal system. In this case, human waste. We all seek safe, clean drinking water so unless you want “flavored” water, it is critical to locate the outhouse a suitable distance from any well or drinking water source. Please don’t take chances with water borne diseases. Locate the outhouse well away from your water source. Figure 100 feet as a starting point. You may wish to ask your state public health department about the recommended set back distances from wells and property lines.
As a start, assess your property’s topography and make sure the outhouse’s contents, given the worst possible conditions, won’t leach and flow down into a water source. Oh, and it’s probably best to locate the privy in a serene, private place on your property. I would discourage you from putting it next to the mailbox, for example, although I guess it would make a convenient place to park oneself out of the rain and wait for that special letter.
Pick a Good Spot For Your Outhouse
Our homestead in Maine was located in a fairly low lying spot with a water table that was 5-8 feet below the surface. If we were to dig a hole in the spring, 3 to 4 feet down, we’d strike water. The water table was much too high to dig a pit and build an outhouse over it. That was just asking for trouble since water flow would have leached through the pit contents and moved the leachate a considerable distance laterally around the property.
Years ago, when the small 4 acre potato field was reclaimed as a site to put my house, I had the bull dozer pile a small mound behind the house, perhaps 80 feet away. I wanted the outhouse a reasonable distance from the house without having a long hike. I knew there would be times I’d be slogging through deep snow as well as sprinting through downpours.
There’s not much to constructing an outhouse. I used cedar as my foundation laid on the hill top, then built four walls and roofed it all in. My roof was sloping to shed water. Inside, I created a bench that was a suitable height for my 6 foot frame, approximately 18” high, mounted a real toilet seat that could have the lid closed when not in use (helps keep the bugs and vermin out of the chamber) and I was ready to take care of business.
Many people have a mental image of a smelly, disgusting outhouse. That need not be the case. All urine has an ammonia component. In my experience, that is the smell that overwhelms a person in some outhouses. Any person, man or woman can learn not to pee in the outhouse. That’s the secret. Train the body to pee elsewhere. We’ve always lived in the woods so a handy tree always served the purpose. However, I’ll let my dear readers figure out the best way to accomplish this feat for themselves The goal is to eliminate the urine in an outhouse.
I ended up building a trap door at the back of the dirt mound that could be removed when I needed to clean out the outhouse. In 20 years, I don’t think I had to empty it more than a few times. Over time, the solids composted in the hole and compacted. The cleaned out contents were further composted and then when properly aged, were spread on the orchard and then lightly tilled in. There are books written on the subject of composted human manure. I personally would not be comfortable spreading the compost on anything other than an orchard. I would keep it away from the vegetable garden. The orchard is always in need of fertilizer and organic matter so I figure why take a chance by spreading the composted human waste in the vegetable garden.
I would have a good supply of toilet paper protected in a sealed can so mice and other rodents don’t chew on it. As far as flushing, there are a number of items people have used. Sawdust, lime and ash. Since we burn wood for our cooking and heating stoves, we always have a good supply of ashes. A metal pail filled with ash stored in the outhouse and a cup to sprinkle it is what we’ve used with good success. Sprinkle enough to cover your deposit lightly. No need to bury it in ash. Exploration camps I worked in used lime. Either way, a light dusting of either lime or ash is best.
A word of caution on the ashes. One might be tempted to clean out the ash tray of your wood stove, deposit all the ash in a metal bucket and cart it off to the outhouse. Depending on how recent your last fire was, you may have some live coals. It would be a sad day indeed to see your outhouse catch fire. We always placed the freshly filled ash can outside any buildings and well away from any flammables and let it sit for a few days before we placed it in any building.
A few other tips, build the outhouse so that it has some ventilation. Put fine screen across any openings. It’s hard not to have some fly or bug in summer but at least make them work for access. If you build it right, foul odors and insects emanating from the privy will be minimal. In summer, before parking my posterior, I always lifted the toilet seat and did a visual check around and under the seat to make sure there wasn’t a bee’s nest or other insect that might turn my day’s special event into a sad one.
The following excerpt is from my book:
“Utilizing a handy mound of dirt behind the house, I dug a deep hole from the top down and then built an outhouse over the hole.
From my high throne, with the door wide open to all my loyal subjects, I was able to gaze out over my empire–long, leisurely gazes in warmer months, quick glances at 0 degrees, and at minus 30, no gazing at all, in and out… no fooling around.
At cold temperatures, a visit to the outhouse really wasn’t too bad since I had a piece of foam rubber cut in the shape of the seat. That toasty foam was placed between me and the toilet seat, and it eliminated the shock and awe of parking my tender flesh on a frozen seat when the daily need arose in the winter to use the outhouse. A sheet of Styrofoam cut out in the shape of a toilet seat would have worked well too. Years later, I incorporated a commercial composting toilet situated next to the tub, inside the house, but it never worked satisfactorily. It was a non-electric model, and by rights, it needed a fan and heating element to function properly.”
In winter, the Styrofoam seat proved wonderful. Just cut one out of 1” Styrofoam in the shape of the toilet seat and use as needed on top of the existing seat.
One Last Trick
Have you ever tried to dig a hole for an outhouse in the dead of winter with the ground frozen like a brick? The outhouse pits in the remote exploration camps were dug under these conditions. The best way to dig any hole in frozen ground is to make a fire over the location you want to dig. Let it warm the soil, dig what you can, keep the fire going in the depression and then once you have a hole started, the soil will heat pretty quickly and you can make good progress.
And lastly, forget about building a two story outhouse. It’s just not fair to the bottom tenant! 🙂
Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!
Ron and Johanna
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