Doing What’s Necessary: The Homestead “Facilities”

By , September 23, 2009

We’re often asked an indelicate question: “How do you . . . um . . .?” Which obviously translates to “Where do you go?” Here on the homestead we deal with human waste with pit and composting outhouses.

Both our outhouses, for the main house and the guest/boat house, were pit-style when we moved here. The main house’s hole was nearly filled, so we began a new plan immediately. We brought a composting toilet with us, originally purchased for a live aboard sailboat we planned to build. This may be an excellent toilet for our homestead . . . someday.

A composting toilet collects waste in a container of fine organic material, usually peat moss, where it is dried and mixed until it becomes odorless compost. This is not “garden-variety” compost, as it probably contains human pathogens that are dangerous. It’s fine for non-edible flowers, ornamental trees, and other plants that don’t produce food. We also understand that if it can sit for a specified period of years it will, eventually, become safe for garden compost.

For optimum operation (and, it’s a toilet! Optimum operation is essential!) this composter requires a warm room, and must be vented out the roof. Our outhouses are pretty much out of the running as candidates to house this machine. The boathouse outhouse’s walls are only about three feet high, after which it becomes an open booth (which allows great views, by the way—of the mountains, not the occupant!). Besides, it’s out of commission for now. The main outhouse is enclosed, but there are gaps between planks, and the door is half-Dutch: the bottom half opens, but there’s no top half. The door, incidentally, is a large, metal reflective sign that reads: “Danger: Explosives!” The original owners have a delightful sense of humor. This building will need insulation before it can effectively house the composting toilet.

Indeed! No one can say they weren't warned. The Zeiger family's seat of ease. (photo: Stan Harris)

Indeed! No one can say they weren’t warned. The Zeiger family’s seat of ease. (photo: Stan Harris)

The guest/boathouse's outhouse in happier days, before the fall. (Photo: Stan Harris)

The guest/boathouse’s outhouse in happier days, before the fall. (Photo: Stan Harris)

In the meantime, we’ve adopted an ingenious plumbing-free toilet, an inexpensive bucket-based composting method that works extremely well. In fact, we may never commission the commercially-manufactured composting unit!

At one of the first potlucks we attended in the neighborhood, I plucked up the courage to ask the hostess about their outhouse strategy. I admitted my question might be an inappropriate topic, but she assured me that outhouses dominate “polite” conversation here! In that spirit, I’m willing to “talk toilets,” sharing with you—in frank yet discrete language—details of the compost system, secrets for improving performance, “the rules of the little house,” and other observations on living with outhouses, including encounters with unexpected visitors.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

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