When living off the grid, an outhouse may be your only viable option. Especially when starting out, having an outhouse can also help save you the upfront cost of installing a septic system or purchasing a composting toilet.
Sure, outhouses have been around a really long time, and there’s a reason for that. With the proper care and set-up, an outhouse can last a long time in one spot, with little or no smell. It also can be a comfortable place to use, even in the dead of winter.
Location and Depth
Choosing a location for your outhouse is one of the most important decisions you will make, and it needs to be made with care. For one thing, your outhouse will probably be in this spot for several years, so you want it to be convenient. But there are safety and aesthetic issues to keep in mind as well.
Let’s talk about the safety issues first, and then we can get to making your outhouse site as pleasing as possible. First, the depth of the hole you dig is very important. The hole needs to be at least six feet deep, and not just to ensure a long-lasting site.
Studies on tapeworms show that they can move about five feet through soil, in any direction. This means that if your hole is only five feet deep, then the tapeworms can work their way to the surface where they can be easily contracted by pets and people.
If you’d prefer to not risk getting tapeworms, keep this in mind when you’re sick of digging the hole and it’s only a few feet deep. Of course, if you have a backhoe or some other machinery, you’ll probably want to keep digging because it’s pretty fun to use that equipment.
Another safety issue that ties in to aesthetics is making sure you have a nice level area. You don’t want to do your business while reclining at an uncomfortable angle. A level area will also allow your outhouse to sit snuggly on the ground, limiting access points for rodents.
A final note about the placement: Pick a spot with a nice view. When the temperature allows, there is nothing quite like the experience of using your outhouse with the door wide open. But you don’t want to be caught enjoying this if your outhouse faces the driveway or your living room window.
Ventilation is another issue of high priority when it comes to outhouses. You are essentially filling a small basement with human excrement, and allowing everything that comes with that to enter the confined space of the outhouse.
By adding proper ventilation, you can eliminate not only the odors, but also unwanted moisture. Especially if you live in a cold area, eliminating the moisture will keep the inside of the outhouse from getting frosty.
Ventilation of the outhouse itself can be a simple screened-over window or small hole in the side wall. If you’re a sucker for the classics, cut the crescent moon into the door, and staple screening over it on the inside. You’ll want at least two points of ventilation, preferably on opposite walls so that there can be a cross breeze.
But you also will need to ventilate the pit. If you’re building a new outhouse, be sure to add in a vent pipe that extends from the seat shelf through the roof. The warm moisture created will vent straight out of this pipe and will aid the comfort and longevity of the outhouse greatly. A pipe like this can also easily be added to an existing outhouse.
With the pipe, do what you can to eliminate leaking from precipitation. Seal around the pipe exit in the roof with caulking, and if you want, add a cap to the pipe. An easy way to do this is to buy a PVC cap that is an inch larger in diameter than your pipe, and screw it to the pipe. Just be sure to leave room for the venting air to escape.
Toilet Paper Storage
Since the outhouse will likely not be attended all the time, storage of your toilet paper should be considered. Sure, you can keep it inside where mice won’t get to it, but when it’s the middle of February, do you really want to make that walk back to the house when you forget to bring the toilet paper with you?
Your best bet is to get an old metal can of some sort, and store the toilet paper in there. A large coffee can is perfect for this, and if it has one of those cheap plastic lids on it, replace that with some tin foil. The small rodents won’t even bother trying to get in if you wrap the foil tightly around the lip of the can.
If you live in the northern climate, then using the outhouse in the winter may be daunting. A small portable propane lantern can warm up an outhouse in relatively short order, as can a small gas heater. Just fire them up before you have your coffee, and the outhouse will be warm and ready for you.
You can and should only use a hard plastic seat in the outhouse. The soft seats and wooden seats will get chewed up by rodents, but that won’t happen with a hard plastic seat. Another benefit of a hard seat is that you can pull it from the outhouse when it’s cold, and keep it inside. The hard plastic will remain room temperature, unless your outhouse is a long walk from the house. By keeping it inside and only taking it out when needed, the seat will still be warm when you sit down, and will provide a much more pleasant experience than plopping down on a seat that’s 20 below zero.
With a little bit of forethought, maintenance and planning, having an outhouse can be a wonderful asset. An appropriately placed and cared-for outhouse shouldn’t have to be moved for years, and can be as odor-free as any proper bathroom, and may even have a warm seat for you in the winter.
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