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Survival Sanitation – The Old Timey Outhouse

October 8, 2012

Improper disposal of garbage and human waste leads to disease.  In fact, the two greatest factors in increasing human longevity have been improved nutrition and improved sanitation.  Improvements in medical treatment come in third.

So let’s talk about sewage disposal.  What happens when the sewage and water plants shut down?  Well, you better be ready to do something about it yourself.  If you have a septic tank system you can continue to use an indoor toilet, but you will have to haul buckets of water to flush the toilet.  When we have a power outage my water well only works if I have my generator going.  I don’t like to run the generator all the time, so I fill up a five gallon plastic bucket with water and set it in the bathroom.  One bucket of water will serve to flush the toilet two or three times.  Another alternative is to buy a portable, chemical toilet; but I find the bucket of water to be easier.  In the city, if the water goes out you will have to use a chemical toilet.  You wouldn’t want to waste any of the water that you have to flush a toilet.  If the problem is long-term you’re going to need to leave the city anyway, so I wouldn’t bother trying to put together an elaborate waste disposal system

For us country folks the old timey outhouse is a long-time tradition.  You still see outhouses in the country, and I just happen to have a working model on my farm.  I’ll grant you that it doesn’t get used very often, but I have one, and it works!

An outhouse should be located a good distance away from your house.  It should be at least a hundred feet from your home and I would recommend that it be at least two hundred feet from your water well or garden.  An outhouse is basically just a hole in the ground with a seat over the top of it.  The fecal matter falls into the hole where it can decompose.  It is important to treat the waste after each use so that it will not attract flies.  You can do this by sprinkling powdered lime in the hole, or you can do it the old timey way and use hardwood ashes.  I keep a five gallon bucket of lime and a coffee can in my outhouse.  After use you just dip up a little lime and sprinkle away.

I keep toilet tissue in my out house, but back in the day they used pages torn from an old Sear’s catalogue or even corn cobs.  Trust me, corn cobs are not the route to go.

One caution about outhouses.  Beware of spiders.  It is a good idea to hang one of those plastic no-pest-strips down under the toilet seat to discourage spiders and other bugs from making a home in your outhouse.

One final word on human waste disposal. Please do not try and compost human waste to use on your garden.  The human digestive tract contains e. coli bacteria, and if any of these bacteria survive the composting process you could have serious problems.  Many of the e. coli outbreaks that you hear about on the news are the result of agricultural workers defecating in the fields as they work.  You can get deadly sick from this bacterium, so be safe and don’t fertilize with human waste.

From → Medical

33 Comments
  1. Juan permalink

    It´s a shame that most people have become disinterested in learning more about basic health and sanitation practices. I guess some of them truly belive that the current system and infrastructure cannot fail, or maybe they just take it for granted for having been born inside it. Have you heard of the Hesperian guides? They were written mostly for an audience from developing countries, but most of the information they provide can be applied anywhere with a bit of common sense. You can download them for free right here: http://hesperian.org/books-and-resources/ I would recomend looking at the one titled “sanitation and cleanliness” for instructions on building your own toilet and maybe “water for life” as an introduction to the improvement of drinking water. Other than that I found “where there is no doctor” really interesting, but it’s a massive 400 page book which is probably better understood with some sort of education on medical science.

    • Juan, You are right on. Hesperian Foundation has a couple of books that I highly recommend; “Where There is No Doctor”, and “Where There is No Dentist”. Both are available as free downloads or they can be ordered. Thanks for reading, Hank

  2. Thanks for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research on this. We got a grab a book from our local library but I think I learned more from this post. I’m very glad to see such excellent information being shared freely out there.

  3. I like your site. I found it while looking for information about primitive bow hunting. As for your mention of composting being bad for your garden, please read _The Humanure Handbook_ available for free all over the internet. This book will open your eyes to a whole new way. I promise.

    • Thanks for reading. I will look for the book. I try and keep an open mind about these things. Have you tried using human waste for compost? I’d be interested to talk to someone who has actually tried it and hear what their results were. Hank

  4. Mirrim Blackfox permalink

    look up the humanure handbook, it talks about how to safely compost human manure. (http://humanurehandbook.com/downloads/Humanure_Handbook_all.pdf)

    • Son of Liberty permalink

      Good point, there is a way of doing it that destroys the bacteria, and that is to (essentially) let it set for a year without making use of it. To compost it and then use it immediately after composting is to invite problems for sure.

  5. Pickles permalink

    I admit to knowing squat about the book on human manure. However, on the western side of Zoo Jersey, the city of Millville got the bright idea to use human waste as a fertilizer. The result was everyone living within blocks of this fertilizing not only complaining about the smell they lived with every day, but within weeks of being exposed to this crap ( couldn’t resist) they began visiting their doctors and hospitals. I know this for a fact because the spraying was done in a family members neighborhood.

  6. Janie permalink

    I have skimmed the article on my phone so not sure this WASN’T already mentioned…so please forgive…

    SAVE THOSE OLD PHONE BOOKS THEY FOIST INTO YOUR DRIVEWAY…GREAT TOILET TISSUE!

    And be sure, with the Internet, paper tissue type phone books are going out of style. Grab them while you can!

  7. I wonder how likely it is that you would get sick using your own “night soil?” Supposedly we’re more or less immune to our own particular bouquet of bacteria gut. They’ve found that families tend to all have very similar bacteria in similar amounts. They also found that when people with different bacteria profiles move in together, their profiles will merge within a few months. When they started to look for the source of the bacteria swap, they found it was most likely happening in the bathroom. When you flush with the lid up, bacteria (including e.coli) escape from the toilet bowl and land on things like toothbrushes and drinking cups. Those surfaces aren’t particularly good breeding grounds, so the bacteria don’t tend to multiply to the point that they’re dangerous, but you end up consuming them and populating your gut with them–hence the merging of bacteria profiles in families.

    And if you’ve ever watched Hoarders or the old British show How Clean is Your House, you’ll notice that there are perfectly healthy people living in filth that could classify as a biological weapon. The people who go in to help them clean have to wear hazmat suits in the kitchen where these people have been fixing food. They’ve just adapted to the bacteria that live in their house–even if it’s of a class and a quantity that would make a normal person sick.

    So I bet that if a family used only their own waste on their own plants, they would have little or no trouble with it because it’s the bacteria profile they already have in their guts and proper composting should destroy most of it anyway. The problem would come from using other people’s waste or sharing garden produce with people who do not share that bacteria profile, because if you ingest any, it’s going to be foreign to you and upset your profile..

    All the same, I think I would limit my toilet compost to the orchard. Fertilize in the fall, after you’ve gotten all the fruit off the tree and by the time you’re ready to pick fruit the following year, there should be no higher amounts of bacteria on the ground than you would normally find. If you were desperate for fertilizer, you might try the same thing in your garden–fertilize after harvest and let it sit dormant over the winter–but I wouldn’t chance using it just prior to planting or while the plants were growing.

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