Thursday, May 17, 2018

The House Out Back

If TSHTF in a major way and destroys the infrastructure that we depend on for water and sewage services, you're going to need to find a way to deal with the inevitable result of people eating: they urinate and defecate. I'll try to keep this family-friendly, but face it, everybody pees and poops and it has to go somewhere. If you have a Bug Out Location (BOL) that is remote or plan on spending lots of time at a location that lacks a sewer line or septic tank, you'll need a plan for dealing with those necessary bodily functions. I'll cover a few different options in the next couple of articles, but today I want to talk about outhouses.

While I may be old and have spent most of my life in rural areas, I did grow up with indoor plumbing. The rare occasions where a normal toilet wasn't available were during camping trips to some rather remote locations, a couple of field deployments in the Army, and a two-week period when we moved to a new house that wasn't finished before we moved in (the school year was starting and my parents wanted us to get into the new schools at the start). As an adult, I spent six years working 12 hour shifts at a location without a flush toilet; we used a porta-potty (the blue plastic boxes that are common at construction sites) until management spent the money to run a sewer line down to our office. In other words, I have some experience with outhouses of various types.

Planning and preparation are why we read and write blogs like this one, so let's take a look at some of the steps you'll need to cover.

If you're going to build an outhouse before a crisis, you'll need to check your local laws. Zoning ordinances will prevent you from using a functional outhouse inside most city limits, but a “decorative” outhouse can be quickly converted into a real one simply by dragging it over a hole dug in the ground. Use it as a “garden shed” to store your shovels and rakes until you need to activate it.

Do you know where the water table sits in your location? If you dig a hole and water seeps in, you're not going to want to place a standard outhouse there. Contaminating the groundwater is one of the things you're trying to prevent, so look for a better spot or use a sealed system (more on that when I get to types).

Know your soil types and plan accordingly. Well-drained soil will help keep an open-bottom hole from filling up as quickly; sand won't retain enough moisture for decomposition to occur; and clay won't let any liquid leech out. If you don't understand soil types, get a professional opinion from a local septic tank installer.

You want to keep the outhouse close enough that you can get to it quickly, but not so close that you have to smell it inside the house. Since it's likely that you'll be eating unfamiliar food, plan on placing your outhouse within sprinting distance. 50 to 100 feet from the back door was normal a century ago, so that's a good rule of thumb. Take the other members of your family or tribe into consideration as well; children and elders are more prone to urgent need of a toilet.

I've mentioned water tables already, but you also want to locate your outhouse downhill from any water source that you may use. Keep it at least 200 feet from any well or spring. This will prevent contaminants from percolating through the soil and ending up in your drinking water.

I'm not going to go into exterior design details. You can get as basic or creative as your time and budget allow as long as the basic functions aren't neglected.

The common outhouse was about 4' x 4', with the “bench” taking up the back half of the floor space. Look around the internet and you'll find designs for just about any shape and size you can imagine, but the simple 4' x 4' size is easy to build with common lumber. Plywood comes in 4' x 8' sheets, so you can build the walls, floor, and roof with 3 sheets and a couple of armloads of 2 x 4s.

The area under the seat and above the hole in the ground needs to be ventilated. Gasses produced by the decomposition of bodily wastes are unhealthy to breathe and basically unpleasant to every culture on Earth. Running a piece of 4” or bigger PVC pipe from a hole cut in the bench up through the roof is common, but I've also seen designs that use thin (less than 1” thick) wood to create a channel up one or both of the back corners. Cover the top of the vent pipe with netting or window screen to keep insects out.

Unless you're setting up on a tropical island, having a roof to keep weather off of you is not an option. The type of roof is going to vary according to your available materials and style, with traditional outhouses having a simple single-pitch (one piece, without a peak in the center) roof that angles down to the rear of the structure.

Privacy is nice, but the main reason for a door on an outhouse is to keep animals and insects out. A nice, dry shelter with a supply of nesting material (paper) is quite attractive to a lot of furry critters that you don't want to share your bathroom with. Equally disturbing is trying to use a bathroom that has become the location for a wasp nest.

I recommend putting a latch on the inside of the door if you have more than one person using the outhouse to ensure privacy. If you're handy enough and have the materials, a “dutch” door or “half door” that is split horizontally will allow you to close the bottom half for privacy and open the top half for ventilation while in use.

How you set up the interior is going to be purely personal preference. Other than a metal or plastic container to store your toilet paper (it keeps moisture, bugs, and mice out), you can go as basic or elegant as you want. 

A shelf for reading material is a good choice, as is somewhere to place a lamp or lantern if that's what you're going to use to find the outhouse in the dark.

When outhouses were common, people kept a container of wood ashes (from the fireplace) or slaked lime (ask at any hardware store or lumber yard) in them. A scoop of ash or lime was added to the pit after each use to keep odors down.

Keep the floor clear to prevent tripping and slipping, use the wall space for decorations and amenities.

You're going to need a place to park your butt while you take care of business, so make it comfortable. Standard toilets are about 15” from the floor to the top of the seat, but those of us with long legs prefer something closer to 20”. A regular toilet seat is a nice addition, but anything that will close the hole will work.

For winter use, cut a toilet seat shape out of styrofoam insulation and hang it in the house by the door so you can grab it on the way out. The extra insulation will make a huge difference, trust me. I've had to expose too much bare flesh to too much cold plastic over the years and hovering over a hole is more than my old legs can stand now.

Modern toilet paper is nice, but any paper will work to help clean your bottom and keep the wastes off of your hands (you'll still need to wash them, though). The old Sears and Roebucks catalog hanging from a nail provided reading material as well as a supply of paper for many years in many places. Newspaper will work after you've crumpled it up a few times to make it softer, and almost all newspapers use soy-based ink now so it's safer to use on delicate areas. Home-made paper from recycled magazines and newspapers would probably be softer and more pleasant to use than the “slick” paper found in advertising inserts, but more research is needed in that area.

Types of Outhouses 
(and how they work)

Open Pit or “Long Drop” Outhouse
This is your basic shack over a hole in the ground.

I've seen several examples that use a 55 gallon drum with both ends removed as a “liner” to keep the soil from collapsing into the hole. The height of a drum also ensures that the bottom of the hole is below the frost line in all but the most extreme environments. Metal drums will last for a several years and will eventually rust away, and plastic drums will stay in the ground for decades or centuries. Since the hole will eventually fill up and the house will be moved, I prefer metal drums. Plastic also tends to “float” out of the ground over the years if you live in an area where it freezes. The annual frost heave lifts the light plastic a few inches each spring, meaning you may end up seeing it pop up in the future.

Open pits work by holding the waste and letting naturally occurring bacteria decompose it. Having the bottom of the hole below the frost line ensures that you'll always have a live colony of bacteria available to work on the waste. This decomposition reduces the mass of the waste and destroys most pathogenic (harmful) organisms in the waste. The active bacteria tend to be anaerobic (they work in the absence of air) or facultative (they work with or without air), so you won't get good decomposition until you have enough waste to create an anaerobic pile. Anaerobes tend to create acids, so the old-time habit of throwing a handful of lime or wood ashes into the hole after each use will neutralize some of that acid and keep the odors down. I could bore you to tears with explanations of acid-formers and methanogens and the pH balance needed for each, but I won't.

Sealed or Watertight Systems
Where the soil conditions or local laws won't allow an open-bottom pit, you're going to have to use a hole with a liner that will trap all of the droppings. The biggest problem with this type is that they have to be pumped out or otherwise emptied when they start to fill up (the contents are then transported to a treatment plant for disposal) or they may be sealed (until services are restored) and the outhouse relocated to a new lined hole.

Vault toilets are a type of sealed system that you'll find in a lot of parks and campgrounds. The wastes are accumulated in a large underground tank that is pumped out by a contractor as needed, eliminating the need for an expensive septic system that will only get used for part of the year.

Bucket Toilet
While not common in the USA, “night soil” workers have been used in many countries through the ages to deal with a type of sealed system. Well into the mid-20th Century, outhouses built with a removable bucket were tended to in Australian towns, where they were known as “dunny cans”. The outhouses were built next to the fence on the alley behind the house and the buckets were removed and replaced through a hatch on the alley side.

Proper waste disposal is important at any time, but it becomes a priority when the normal infrastructure is unavailable or not working. Check the news for stories about E. coli outbreaks and the spread of “old” diseases like cholera and dysentery, they're happening more often than they used to due to improper sanitary practices and lack of education. With everything else you'll be dealing with after a crisis, you don't want to add disabling diseases that are preventable.

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