Privies and outhouses:
This article discusses outhouse construction, maintenance, venting and lime or lime alternatives for odor control, outhouse sanitation, outhouse safety, and outhouse products or alternatives. A privy or outhouse is a toilet located outside of a house or other occupied building.
Historically a privy was a small wood structure that encompassed walls, roof, a door for privacy, a rudimentary ventilation system, and one or more seats placed over a pit dug to receive the usual toilet wastes. Modern outhouses follow those old design ideas but often use plastics or other newer materials and may add solar-powered ventilating fans. We list sources of outhouse supplies. Our page top photo shows a modern outhouse along the Appalachian trail in Sharon, Connecticut.
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An outhouse is a separate building constructed over a pit dug into the ground and used as a toilet. Inside the outhouse is one or more holes or toilet seats constructed over the pit.
Outhouse construction usually includes a separate vent that conducts gases and odors from the waste pit to above the outhouse roof.
Traditionally outhouses were constructed close to the principal building or residence in communities not served by sewers and at buildings not served by a septic system.
Commonly in many parts of the world modern outhouses are also placed at remote locations on hiking trails and in camping areas. Here we illustrate and describe outhouses or dunnies used in a variety of locations.
Our outhouse photo at left shows the interior of a modern outhouse along the Appalachian trail in Sharon, Connecticut.
Our outhouse photo at left shows a modern installation in Portland Maine. Notice the air intake venting around the base of the outhouse walls - a contributor to fresh air and low odors in this outhouse. Other than lime (or in some areas lye) we have found these suggestions for outhouse maintenance:
I use an outhouse and use lime. What else works. I am low income and live in Texas. Thanks. - Rob Hager, TX.
Lime has been traditionally used reduce the odors or smells in an outhouse or at an outdoor latrine. Lime does not speed waste decomposition and may actually slow it down by decreasing the acidity of the sewage. Lime also reduced the problem of flies in the outhouse or latrine.
See FLIES, REMOVE or REPEL. Some folks hang flypaper inside the outhouse pit to reduce the fly problem further.
Lime may also absorb some portion of liquids (urine) and may pick up moisture from the air, aiding in waste decomposition. More about the types of lime used in outhouses is below at Details About the Types of Lime Used in Outhouses.
Watch out: don't get lime on the toilet seat - it will cause skin burns.
Lime is calcium hydroxide (CaOH2), or more carelessly called S-lime or slaked lime.
Quicklime is calcium oxide (CaO). Quicklime, when "slaked" with water (providing more H2O) becomes hot and chemically changes (this is why mortar can be warm or even hot when being mixed).
Quicklime is made from limestone (calcium carbonate or CaCO3) by heating limestone in a kiln to drive off CO2 leaving CaO.
Calcium hypochlorite Ca(CLO)2, (lime chloride) produced by treating slaked lime (CaO) with chlorine gas, is also sold for treating manure or for sanitizing dairy barns, and is essentially powdered bleach - a disinfectant.
Cedar shavings work even better and may provide a more pleasant smell. In a remote area if sawdust or wood shavings are not available, even dry leaves may help reduce odors.
Wood ash: If your home includes a woodstove, wood ashes can also be sprinkled over waste in the outhouse.
Straw or peat moss for the outhouse: Other recommendations for an outhouse additive to keep down odors include chopped straw or even peat moss to encourage the formation of a crust atop the waste.
The crust also reduces outhouse odors and flies. Crust formation is encouraged by adding lye or hydrated lime at one pound per 1000 cubic feet. In other words, for a human-use outhouse (as opposed to manure storage) you don't need much lime for daily use - just a sprinkling. If the pH of waste is kept over 6.7 crust formation is encouraged.
Outhouse chemicals for odor control: In the enormous world of magic additives sold for septic systems (products that are generally not needed for septic systems, are sometimes harmful, and are illegal to use in some jurisdictions), some producers of bacteria or enzyme septic additives recommend their products for use in outhouses to promote decomposition and reduce odors.
We have not been able to find technical data supporting that use - contact us if you find such information as we'd be glad to add it here.
Our photo (left) illustrates solar-powered venting on an outhouse at the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge walkway that spans the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, NY.
Kitchen waste for the outhouse: Some people add vegetable waste (never meat waste) to the outhouse on occasion, especially cooked cabbage, to promote the composting action of the outhouse.
Watch out: Do not use thick wood chips in any volume in an outhouse as they won't decompose rapidly and the added volume will reduce the life of the outhouse pit.
Watch out: do not use bleach nor formaldehyde for outhouse odor control. These chemicals are irritants to the outhouse users and they also interfere with the biological break-down of sewage in the outhouse pit.
If your outhouse does not already have one, construct a vent pipe that conducts gases from inside the waste chamber up through the roof of the outhouse itself. (Photo below-left shows a home-made round wooden vent stack on a building in Cooperstown NY.)
If the outhouse includes a toilet seat with a lid, and if the lid is kept shut when the outhouse is not in use, the vent will reduce odors inside the outhouse by venting them outdoors.
Our photo (left) illustrates the outhouse vent system on an outhouse in the Acadia National Park in Maine. You can see that the builders constructed a large boxed-in vent that distributes gases and odors well above the roof of the outhouse.
Your privy vent can be constructed of a 4" or larger plastic pipe but you can also simply make a home made one out of 1x6 boards framed into a rectangle.
You can also use 4" aluminum or steel vent piping such as a clothes dryer vent or a steel chimney vent pipe.
Ventilation of the outhouse interior itself (see our photo, above right) can help avoid heat stroke in a too-hot outhouse interior during summer months.
Also see SEWER GAS ODORS
Watch out: do NOT try pouring bleach or any chlorine product into the outhouse or any other type of dry toilet. The chlorine will react with the urine to make dangerous, even possibly fatal ammonium chloride gas.
We also do NOT recommend using the deodorant chemicals intended for chemical toilets such as those used in RVs or porta pottys - those chemicals may interfere with the natural breakdown and decomposition of outhouse sewage.
Do not spray pesticides into an outhouse pit or latrine. Frequent spraying of outhouse pits for insects will breed pesticide-resistant insects that can become a serious health hazard. One-time insecticide spraying a latrine or outhouse pit that has become filled and is about to be filled in and closed, is permitted. This is to prevent fly pupae from hatching and gaining access to the open air.
Outhouse fire risks: In the summer of 1955 at Camp Virginia, in Goshen, Virginia, there were two large outhouses, each sporting about a dozen open seats. [That's the author, third from left]
The outhouses were named for two U.S. states. Campers would say "I'm going to Oklahoma" to mean I need to use the outhouse. That was fine. The second outhouse was named "Arizona". Also fine. Oklahoma was a bit more popular than Arizona as it was a shorter walk from the camp cabins.
We were divided into camper groups by bunks (cabins), each named after an american indian tribe. Arapahoes, Blackfeet, Mohicans, Utes. That's me (DF) 3rd from left in the photo above. But as Mrs. Ebbe Hoff later told my mother, boys will be boys, and someone had the theory that methane gas in the large outhouse pit would make a neat explosion if we dropped a match or two down the hole.
We had been studying camping and woodlore, including a class guaranteed to be popular with boys: how to build a small fire using as few matches as possible. Some of us were pretty good at fires, so we had a few wooden kitchen matches left over. Our outhouse photo at below left shows a very old wood-shingled outhouse in Cooperstown, NY. This outhouse was located more than 100 feet from any nearby pond or stream.
One afternoon, just after our incarceration in our cabin for rest period, four of us well-rested Blackfeet crept down to Oklahoma to see what we could do with some matches. I'm not sure but I think it was my buddy Granger Ancarrow (2nd from left) who first dropped a lit match down an outhouse hole in Oklahoma.
We thought this was wonderfully exciting. Quickly more lit matches followed the first one into the outhouse pit.
We had already exploded the immediately available methane gas, but there was quite a bit of dry toilet paper scattered in the large outhouse pit, and now it caught fire. That too, seemed exciting at first. But the fire grew, and very soon we got worried about burning down the whole outhouse structure - something that camp director Mac Pitt would not be very happy about.
Quoting from Camp Virginia's modern website about "Building Character"
Building character comes through teamwork, trying new things, patriotism, faith, sportsmanship, intergenerational friendships and great role models. All is easier in such a beautiful, inspiring and fun community.
Thinking fast, and exhibiting teamwork, we recruited more campers (the rest of the Blackfeet and some of the Mohicans) and we all took our turns peeing onto the fire in the outhouse pit below. The pee, combined with a few buckets of water tossed in by our role models, camp counselors DeWitt and Emerson, saved Oklahoma from destruction.
But that was not the end of it.
Watch out: don't throw matches into the outhouse pit, and never pee into a fire except in the most dire emergency. Methane explosions can be dangerous. And the stench of hot burned urine was unimaginable to anyone who had never peed onto a fire before. Which was all of us.
For the rest of the summer, acrid stinking Oklahoma was completely unusable. We all had to crowd into Arizona.
Considering recent Arizona stop-suspicious-looking-people legislation, it's lucky that none of us at the time looked like a genuine Blackfoot, or we'd surely have been arrested for improper peeing.
POETRY & SHORT FICTION by Daniel Friedman
With apologies to readers who don't care a hoot about Camp Virginia, we include photographs of Goshen Virginia and the Camp contributed by readers and the author. Or if you wish, skip over this stuff and continue at Outhouse Location - where to put the outhouse.
Our photo, below left, by the author [DF], shows Camp Virginia's Maury River in 1955.
Reader Lee Schiflett contributed the three Goshen Virginia photos and text just below:
John McDonald's store on Little River, near Goshen,Va. The photo was taken probably around 1950. McDonald's Store was a ' general ' store in every sense of the word, selling clothes, canned food, pots and pans (which hung from the cieling) and of course 'pop' (soft drinks) candy bars, and all sorts of things the camp boys would buy. I remember it sounded like a school yard when the boys would come.
I knew Mac Pitt, and I remember one counselor named Jimmy Cease. Jimmy had a summer romance with my cousin Martha Belle Lyle who lived in Goshen. Jimmy drove the camp truck , a yellow '49 or '50 Ford pickup and came the Goshen Post Office often. Grandpa operated his store untill he was 88 years old.
The Scouts had bought all the land on either side of his farm. Always the good businesman, he got the Scouts to find him another farm that suited him andtraded the Little River place for a much larger farm at Rockbridge Baths.
I took the photo at above right in October, 1957. I call it "The Little River Homeplace". McDonald's store isn't visible here, but it was about 50 feet from the right side of the house. Lake Merriwether covers the bottom land in front of the house. Nothing remains to show that a family once lived here, or that Camp Virginia boys once rode their ponies down the gravel road and stoped at the store for a bottle of ' pop ' and a candy bar.
This photo (above) was taken from the store porch and shows the bottom land of Grandpa's farm. The dam is on the right where the two mountain ridges come together. All of this is covered with water now. Photo taken probably fall of 1957
As we noted earlier, the traditional location for an outhouse was close to the building it serves.
In urban settings "outhouses" or dunnies or thunderboxes were constructed abutting an exterior building wall where the dunny collected waste in a container that was collected by night soil collectors for disposal out of the city. The public outhouse shown below, in Acadia National Park, Maine, is located uphill and well away from the nearby and rocky Maine coast and bay.
When locating a new outhouse, be sure that your outhouse is located where it won't contaminate a nearby well, stream, or lake. We give clearance distances between onsite waste treatment systems and other site features
at SEPTIC CLEARANCE DISTANCES.
In freezing climates, it's a good idea to make the outhouse pit extend below the frost line. Otherwise in winter the waste may simply freeze and decomposition won't occur. Digging the pit to an eight-foot depth is common practice.
Watch out: while it seems unlikely that a child would deliberately enter an outhouse pit, make sure that your outhouse and its seats or seat openings are secure against a child falling into the pit. Falling into a pit or septic tank can be quickly fatal.
See SEPTIC & CESSPOOL SAFETY for details.
It's useful to understand the difference between a traditional pit-outhouse and a more complex composting outhouse. A pit outhouse is simply a protective structure built over a hole or pit that receives the human waste.
Good design includes privacy doors, vents so that the outhouse does not become too hot in summer, and a vertical vent stack to conduct gases and odors out of the pit up through the outhouse roof. The pit-type outhouse was moved every few years or longer, depending on how rapidly the pit filled.
Shown above: a conventional dug-pit outhouse on the Appalachin Trail in Dutchess County, New York.
A composting outhouse is a more complex system that speeds the decomposition of the sewage waste and produces an end product that can be spread on plants.
The most popular text we have found on this topic is the Humanure Handbook [citation]
Also see COMPOSTING TOILETS [web article]
Our photo of a portable toilet or "porta-potty" - a temporary or portable chemical toilet being checked out by our granddaughter Sophie Gieseke illustrates an alternative to outhouses suitable for short term use.
RV-type chemical toilet additives are often used in portable toilets & restrooms (chemical toilets for hire) such as the unit shown, in order to keep odors down between emptying and washing of the unit.
Watch out: small children should never be left alone in an outhouse or portable toilet because of the risk of a child falling into the pit or reservoir.
Because waste is stored temporarily in chemical & portable toilets between emptying and cleaning of the units, chemicals are used to deodorize the holding tank. Typically the Anotec liquid deodorant is colored with a blue dye. Examples of chemical products used in portable loose or rental toilets & restrooms include
Currently bio-degradable chemical toilet deodorants are typically enzyme-activated nitrate based products formulated to work as biological agents rather than preservatives such as the previously but no longer used chemical toilet and portable john disinfectants formaldehyde or bleach.
Standard procedure is to order a porta-john such as the blue box shown in our photo just above on this page. But our friends in Guanajuato, whose home construction has extended over several years, found that the site crew had made this expedient toilet that took advantage of the early-installation of the septic tank.
The toilet is flushed by pouring a 5-gallon bucket of water into the bowl. As you can see, by the time we took these photos the concept of privacy had deteriorated a bit.
The military use improvised latrines for human waste disposal during field exercises or missions when chemical latrines are not available.
Details about each of the latrine types can be found along with sketches and conditions of use at LATRINE TYPES & CONSTRUCTION. [Live link is given just below]
Continue reading at LATRINE TYPES & CONSTRUCTION or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.
Or see ALTERNATIVE & WATERLESS TOILETS for a discussion of camping toilets, chemical toilets, emergency-use toilets, waterless toilets, graywater systems, composting toilets, home health care toilets, incinerating toilets, outhouses, and latrines
Or see FLIES, REMOVE or REPEL if you are having a problem with flies in or around the privy.
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In all my 68 years of living in the mountains of West Virginia and using countless "Johnny Houses" over decades I've never seen or heard of anyone blowing up a sh*thouse with matches. People set them afire by smoking cigarettes, but methane gas always rises and no outhouse I've ever seen was gas-tight to where a tossed cigarette or match would explode it.
As for kids being hurt a few got their legs down the hole but people are smart enough to make the hole under the seat too small for a kid to fall through. Its simply amazing to me that anyone would ever fear a Johnny House. They have been part of country life for centuries, and I actually rather have the sh*tter outside instead of a toilet in the house. The old people thought having a commode inside the house was dirty and unhealthy, and perhaps they were right. - Huck 4/19/2011
Quite so. We agree, Huck, that outhouses are not likely to explode from kids playing with matches and methane gas hazards, though there is no question about an outhouse being set on fire, as we recounted above. It was burning toilet paper, not methane gas that set the fire. And it was a big, long lasting, and stinky fire at that. Worse, if there is enough dry paper waste in the outhouse, kids setting it on fire can burn down the whole structure. That happened, but only once, among the outhouses we knew personally.
See METHANE GAS HAZARDS.
However there are very serious methane gas explosion hazards in homes and other buildings if sewer gases are not properly vented outside.
It's a fundamental mistake to think that because one of us has personally never seen something, that the something doesn't exist or never occurs. I'll bet you've never seen the inside of a jet engine, but it's there. - Editor
Hello, I have an outhouse at my hunting cabin. No one lives around the area and its all my property, I dont want to keep moving it. I want to know the best and quickest cemical product for breakdown. Thank you Don Fassbender 7/19/2011
Thanks for the outhouse moving/relocation question Don. Unfortunately when the outhouse pit becomes full close to ground surface you'll need to relocate the outhouse. Solid waste in the comparatively dry environment of an outhouse pit is not going to disappear by bacterial nor enzyme nor other "breakdown" process. Consider that even in a working septic tank where there is plenty of water, the solid waste remains in the tank and has to be pumped out and disposed of.
Your alternative to occasionally relocating the outhouse and closing the old outhouse pit would be to go to a gas-powered incinerating toilet.
interesting and helpful read.. but what i am looking for information on is an outdoor toilet(campground) that has a plastic septic tank under that gets pumped out when full.. the problem is the smell of urine is so bad, what can we add or do to eliminate the smell. thank you - Debbie 8/18/11
Debbie, you're talking about a port-a-john type toilet that uses a plastic reservoir to hold all waste; The same chemical disinfectants and deodorizers that work in chemical toilets should do the job you want; you may want to add just a little water when the disinfectant/deodorizer is placed into the holding tank; these chemical toilet chemicals are widely available from RV suppliers, even from Sears.
Just see CHEMICAL TOILETS
Also make sure that the Port-a-John is being properly cleaned, not just emptied.
BUT you might check that the people using the outhouse are aiming clearly - if users are peeing not into the tank but onto surfaces in the facility then the pee smell will continue to be horrible between cleanings.
I did not see corn starch as an odor killer, listed above. I know people who used it. Is there a reason why it is not recommended? I'm using a temporary bucket, toilet seat, plastic bag liners, while the septic is backed up to the house toilet. The smell needs attention, as the recommended bags are not cheap, must serve several uses before disposal. - Lurch 12/6/11
We have not been able to find any expert sources who could confirm that corn starch is an effective deodorant; in fact with sewage nutrients it may promote bacterial growth.
hello, My outhouse is producing a lot of flies inside this summer and i was wondering why and how to get rid of them. It has been a dry summer in ontario and i thought maybe the pit was producing more flies because of the dryness.what should i do? - Devon 9/2/12
I have an original log cabin in the hills with an outhouse, I would like to know a chemical to use for waste breakdown. Years ago my Dad used either lye or lime--I think. - Lanette 10/10/12
We discuss the use of lime in outhouse pits in the article above. Please take a look, and if questions remain, just ask.
I'm trying to find out how you maintain and use an old stone built domestic privy with a perminantly fitted wooden boxed seat and lid, can anyone please help? - Ann 10/24/12
Ann, the same maintenance suggestions given above pertain regardless of how the outhouse building itself was constructed. Make sure your structure is sound and that it is properly vented and you should be OK.
Also take a look to see if the pit has become so full that it needs attention. Because of the difficulty of moving a stone outhouse or privy, you might instead need to ask for help from a septic pumper. It's almost impossible to pump the near solid waste out of an outhouse pit, but by adding water and then pumping it may be possible to create space to permit continued use.
(Apr 17, 2015) tom said:
does a bigger vent pipe reduce more order, I use a 3in plactic pipe, would it reduce more order if I would be 6in. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
That's an interesting question. My guess is that larger diameter venting of a latrine or outhouse will certainly improve the venting flow and thus reduce odors since the chimney effect would be greater. There may be extreme cases where the air movement direction changes but normally a 6" vent will certainly vent better than a 3" vent over an outhouse. If you look at the public toilets put up by various park services you'll see (such as in our photos above) 10" and 12" diameter vents.
21 July 20914 Cat said:
I actually had a question. I have (bought) a camp with an outhouse. It did not seem to be decomposing fast enough. Unaware of the do's and don't of a privy, we unfortunately dumped some lake water in it to try and help. we were also unaware of the "no paper" rule. I then added some bio stuff to help. The outhouse was made with a culvert (open at the bottom). I am on a sand base. The problem I have is when I last checked, the bio stuff seems to be working and decomposing the solid waste, however, I noticed the liquid is not draining (pool of water on top of waste). The outhouse is on a cement base and therefore cannot be moved. Any advise on how to fix this would be really appreciated. Thanks
I would not add more water to the outhouse;
I have not seen a "no paper" rule for outhouses and have seen toilet paper dumped into them for more than 50 years. The paper volume at normal usage levels is not an issue.
25 Jul 2015 mike said:
i live in northern Minnesota i live here year round all i have is a outhouse ... the trouble i have in the summer is fly's hundred's and hundreds hatching down in the pit what can i put down the hole to kill them that's safe
and let me know if that helps or if it leaves you with more questions.
Some other suggestions about insect control at latrines, outhouses, privvies, re at FM 21-10 Appendix A [PDF] U.S. Army Field Manual: Latrine Construction
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