Before we decided to go crazy, drop our entire lives, and move to the Alaskan bush, I had rarely used and outhouse. I’d used park maintained porta potties mostly. And maybe a real, honest to goodness outhouse in an orchard or on a camping trip a few times. But I’d never needed to even think about maintaining an outhouse until now, and as we all know, maintenance matters! Outhouse care is especially important when the outhouse is in use 24/7/365.
Proper outhouse care starts with building an outhouse correctly.
Outhouses are receptacles for waste. This means that they should not be placed to close to buildings, gardens, or water supplies. In many areas there will be codes regarding the building and use of outhouses. Check with your local municipality to make sure everything will be placed to code. Fines for improper waste disposal can be huge! And there really is an outhouse sweet spot that is not to far from the home, but not to close either, so placement really matters. Next time we move it, I think the outhouse could stand to be a little further away, and actually in line with the house rather than going around the back side.
There are a lot of things to think about that go into caring for a year round outhouse, once you get it built.
One of the considerations of using an outhouse vs a septic system is animals. I’ve touched on our issues with the dogs briefly in this post, but there are other critters to consider. I’m still trying to figure out how to remove the sneaky wasp nest that showed up before it gets to big. And yes, before we fixed the back of our outhouse there was the occasional chicken party in there (blech!). There are also mice, voles and squirrels which all love to steal toilet paper, fresh or used! Switching from using a flushing toilet to an outhouse has had a definite ick factor that we needed to get over.
Part of that “ick” factor is what to do with toilet paper and wipes.
Unlike plumbed toilets, an outhouse will only hold so much before a new hole needs to be dug. It’s important to dig the hole deep enough, and fill it slow enough, that the contents have time to compost. A well cared for outhouse can last years in the same spot! To keep our outhouse from filling too quickly, we made the decision to bag butt paper, which tends compost slower than other things going down the hole. And wipes take even longer to break down than tissue paper, so we burn them along with the rest of our cardboard and paper garbage. It’s definitely gross, but better than an overflowing outhouse!
Another outhouse issue to consider would be insects.
Composting waste of any kind tends to attract flies, and outhouses are no different. Cutting down on the smell helps prevent this to some extent. We use wood ash from our wood stove for this purpose. Products such as lime and pine shavings also help cut down on smells, though lime will slow decomposition.
Outhouse buildings should be completely enclosed and have screens over any vents to prevent insects from making their way inside. This will help with flies and mosquitoes (because nobody likes itchy privates). Also, if you are lucky enough to collect a spider in an outhouse try to leave him be. Spiders make short work of many flying insects and are beneficial to have in outhouses.
Year round outhouse care means additional winter chores.
On top of the gross scale for outhouse care would be tipping the ‘poopcicle’ in winter. Decomposition slows to a near stop in freezing temperatures, which we definitely had this winter. Freezing temperatures also meant that things would, well, freeze. Combine the two and what’s left is a frozen tower of yuck in the outhouse that gets taller with every use. If the original hole is deep enough, or the outhouse isn’t always in use, there is no need to think about the ‘leaning tower of pee-za’. If one (or neither) of these is true, then it become necessary to take a big poking stick into the outhouse to occasionally knock that sucker over. When things start to thaw out, so will the toppled poo pile.
Freezing weather also means a cold toilet seat. I know some people who hang their outhouse seat near the fireplace when not in use and bring it with them when using the loo, but I didn’t want to carry a toilet seat back and forth all the time. What we did instead was use two inch foam insulation board as a toilet seat. The foam board reflects body heat back to you and nearly instantly warms up to body temperature. It feels warm to sit on even if there is snow on the seat (ask me how I know!).
The best thing about outhouse care though, is having the funniest ice breaker for meeting neighbors in the bush!
I’m grateful to every one who talked outhouses with me when we moved here so we could figure these things out. There’s nothing like a little potty humor to make instant friends 😉