So you bought that remote plot of land in the country that you’ve always dreamed about. You have ideas for a rustic cabin getaway. If you’re off the grid, you’ve thought about ways to power the abode—maybe a solar panel or a diesel generator. You’ll drill a point to get well water.
But have you thought about what to do when nature calls? The best solution may be an outhouse, the same bathroom accommodations your forefathers built when they settled in every remote corner of this country more than a century ago. Also referred to as a pit toilet or privy, there is no simpler waste receptacle known to man. It’s a backwoods bathroom solution that’s still used and accepted in many areas.
A King’s Throne
The outhouse seemed the most practical and straightforward option to architect John Sylvestre too, when he bought a cabin in northern Wisconsin that was in disrepair. Faced with remodeling every room in the house, Sylvestre started renovations by building an outhouse for the ages: a regal throne away from home that remains the favorite place to potty for many male visitors (even though he now has functioning indoor plumbing).
Sylvestre set out to make a design statement with his outhouse. It has nine windows, a beautiful finished interior, a complex roofline, copper vent stacks and trim that, together, make it a jewel in the woods. And this small wonder got noticed, winning Sylvestre a regional Contractor of the Year Award from the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. “People have an idea about outhouses as nasty, snaky, bug-infested and stinky little holes with no light. But they don’t have to be that way,” Sylvestre said.
For Sylvestre, the traditional outhouse is a cost-effective, ingenious solution for taking care of business. It was easy to build, is simple to main- tain and handles a vital function of the home. Unlike the bathroom in your typical house, there’s no plumbing to maintain or winter freezing to worry about if you’re away—and the view from the seat is spectacular.
“A storm came through two years ago, and nothing else worked. There was no power and no water, but the outhouse worked magnificently,” he recalled. “The only moving parts are the windows, the door and the toilet seat, and as a guy who remodels things for a living, I like that simplicity. There’s not much to go wrong.”
Rules Of The Commode
The idea behind the outhouse is simple. Dig a hole, build a structure with a posterior-sized hole over the top of it, and bring along a roll of toilet paper and the Sears catalog for some reading. It’s not a complicated process, but it’s still not quite as easy, or as unregulated, as it was in your grandparents’ day. You should have a basic understanding of sanitation and local, county and state rules before you go about planning and constructing a privy, if indeed a privy is allowed where you want to build it.
No matter how remote your home- stead, it’s critical to learn the local rules governing outhouse construction and use, according to Jim Anderson, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota Water Resources Center and the education program coordinator for the National Association of Wastewater Technicians. If building codes allow for a privy, site selection is key to protecting your drinking water supply, avoiding odors and using the facilities practically.
In some locales, the building code may require you to utilize a watertight tank to contain the waste and then have it pumped occasionally. In other areas, you may be able to dig an unlined pit, allowing waste to leach into the ground. For a pit toilet with an earthen bottom, soil conditions and the depth of the water table are key. If you don’t understand what you’re looking for, Anderson recommends bringing in an expert—a septic system designer or installer—to help you with placement.
Soil identification can be complex, but there are things you can look for in a suitable site, according to Anderson. When digging in your preferred location, watch for changes in the soil’s appearance as you go down several feet. When you see a transition in color from, say, a mottled red to a gray soil, it indicates the seasonal high water table, and the bottom of the tank must be located above that level.
Some states clearly spell out their outhouse rules. Minnesota, for in- stance, allows for a pit dug to create at least a 25-cubic-foot capacity, and the bottom of the pit must be at least 3 feet above the water table. In most locations, that means looking for high ground. Well-drained soil effec-tively removes dangerous pathogens in waste, returning filtered effluent safely to the groundwater supply. Regulations will dictate the appropriate setback for the outhouse from the cabin, your well and any waterways on your property. Sylvestre located his outhouse 100 feet from an adjacent property, about 150 feet from his house and 200 feet from his well.
Placement & Upkeep
Anderson, who grew up using out- houses at his grandparents’ farms, said finding the best privy location can be an exercise in tradeoffs. “You want it to be accessible. You don’t want it so far away from the house that it’s hard to get to. You don’t want it to impact the groundwater, and you want it away from the well,” he said. “And common sense tells you to locate it so the predominant wind would not blow from the outhouse to the house.”
Where a watertight holding tank is required, Anderson recommends a minimum 500-gallon tank. A 1,000-gallon tank may be necessary, or it will at least provide the capacity to allow for less-frequent pump-outs. Depending on how much time you spend at your retreat and how many people use the outhouse, you may not have to pump the tank more than annually or every other year. Minnesota regulations require a tank to be pumped when it reaches half capacity.
Today’s holding tanks are made from concrete or plastic. Concrete tanks are heavy and can be difficult and costly to deliver in rugged terrain, but they are more stable in the ground and less likely to become buoyant when the water table rises if and when they are emptied. Plastic tanks are lightweight and easy to deliver, even in the back of a pickup truck. But they must be anchored properly, or you risk them coming to the surface when empty.
In the good old days, farmers had two options when the outhouse pit reached capacity: Shovel out the waste and spread it on the back 40, or dig another hole and move the outhouse over it. Today, the first option would be out for most people and might result in illegal spreading of waste—and the second option is unnecessary. It’s easier now to hire a contractor to vacuum out the waste and haul it away for proper disposal.
Tom Frank of Tim Frank Septic Tank Cleaning Company in Huntsburg, Ohio, stated that most outhouse owners will find a local pumping contractor willing to remove the waste as needed. His company typically charges about $200 for that service, and routinely services several outhouses at Amish schools that don’t have indoor plumbing and at parks and rest areas along the highway.
The Amish schools typically have a pair of outhouses, one for the boys and one for the girls, and with 20 to 30 kids using them, he pumps the 1,000-gallon tanks once a year. The tanks are one-half to two-thirds full at each pumping, and the fee he charges is comparable to what a homeowner with a septic system pays to pump the septic tank. Frank says he’s seen an even cheaper alternative to the out-house used in his area: renting or buying a portable restroom (those square plastic boxes you see on construction sites and at special events) and having them pumped on a routine basis. He’s even seen them installed in rustic homes or warehouses without indoor plumbing. The unit is vented to the outside via a rooftop stack and placed near a doorway so the pumping contractor can reach it easily with his hose. “You have to think about where you place it. You wouldn’t want to stretch the hose through a living room,” he said. “But if it was designed correctly, you could get used to it.” He further suggested running a fan in the vent pipe to help draw out odors and having the unit pumped frequently.
Most odors will rise through an outhouse vent and dissipate in the air, but additives knock down the odors even more. For pits and holding tanks, keep a bag of powdered lime handy and drop a cup through the hole as needed. The sniff test will tell you when the natural odor-suppressant is needed. If you go the portable restroom route, several companies manufacture tank additives that deodorize and break down wastes effectively.
Back at his northern Wisconsin retreat, Sylvestre couldn’t be happier with his outhouse. Even though he long ago completed the home remodeling proj- ect and has three new bathrooms in- doors, he still enjoys a brisk walk to the privy every morning to watch the sunrise from his woodland perch. “I go out in any temperature, even with down jacket and an ice-fishing hat. Besides the initial drop onto the toilet seat, honestly it doesn’t bother me,” he said. While he’s sitting, he’ll watch the chipmunks dance through the underbrush or crack open one of the books he keeps on a shelf, including the Cabela’s catalog or the humorous What’s Your Poo Telling You?
Sylvestre said most guys look forward to visiting the outhouse, but the women don’t share the same enthusiasm. “It sure is much more pleasant than sitting on a cold porcelain stool in a windowless room. When we’re up there, none of the boys go in the indoor bathrooms,” he said. “Women have a different take on this than men do. It’s not as fun for women for some reason.”