By Art Nash
There are worse words used for it, but an outhouse is an institution in Alaska. Outhouses are standards at our rest stops along the roads and hiking trails in the state. And for many in the Tanana Valley, they are the essential bathrooms for households.
Some people who choose to build an outhouse may have a well or water delivery but have difficulty putting in a septic system, which can run more than $10,000. Another option is a composting toilet.
Are you thinking of putting an outhouse in this summer? If so, a good site, the quality of construction and the subsequent maintenance will determine its longevity — and possibly your comfort!
You might have built your home on rocky ground or permafrost or into a hill where a septic is not reasonable. You may be able to build an outhouse in these compromised grounds, yet you’ll want to pick a site that won’t contaminate the watershed.
Be sure to review Department of Environmental Conservation regulations that call for certain minimum separation distances from drinking water sources, wetlands and surface water, property lines, structures, groundwater tables, etc. Take a look at its online publication, “Pit Privy Design, Operation and Closure,” at http://bit.ly/2slLjhI for more details. Also, if you are in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, be sure to check with the Community Planning Department at 459-1260 to see if outhouses are permitted on your lot.
Before building walls and a ceiling, prepare the ground foundation. You are going to have to dig a pit. The question is how will you keep the sides from collapsing once you put the building on top of it? You might want to use a drum with holes in the bottom for drainage or you might possibly line the pit with railroad ties or treated wood. Whatever you use, put something in place to keep the dirt edges from caving in as the dirt gets wet. Probably the best way to build the outhouse is to construct it laid out on the ground. Tip it up 90 degrees when it is ready, placing it over the hole.
Consider putting a vent in the roof, or run a 4-inch piece of plastic piping along the back wall to help with decomposition and ventilation. You can cut a door from plywood and line the edges with 1- by 4-inch boards. The seating bench should be 2 to 3 feet off the floor.
Art NashFill in the opening under the door so that people don’t trip while leaving the outhouse. You can also cut a 2-inch thick piece of foam board and glue it down with the donut hole in the middle so you can sit on what is basically around 10R insulation. For maintenance, many people like to throw in lye to promote decomposition and reduce the odor. If need be, you also can use wood ash from a wood stove.
You may want to look at U.S. Forest Service or BLM units to see how they build their outhouses for public use. In the end, you’ll need to find a size and design that you can afford, build, handle and maintain.
Art Nash is the energy specialist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at (907)474-6366 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org