When you live off grid, you are also disconnecting yourself from the municipal sewage system. Sewage is something that people don’t think much about but definitely not something you can take for granted when living off grid!
The same goes for when the grid goes down, such as it would during an EMP event. No more plumbing services would lead to a true SHTF situation!
When you think about it, modern toilets are really insane. You poop and pee into a bowl which uses several gallons of perfectly good drinking water to flush the waste down a network of pipes. When it finally reaches treatment plants, mass amounts of chemicals are used to sanitize the waste so it can be resent through the plumbing system.
Using an off-grid toilet doesn’t just free you from reliance on utilities, but also frees you from this madness that is the municipal treatment system.
Whether you are interested in living off grid or want to prepare for emergencies, here is what you need to know about your 3 long-term off-grid toilet options.
Option 1: Pit Latrine
The easiest solution for dealing with sewage is to dig a pit latrine or “outhouse.” You basically just dig a deep hole and put a floor slab over it with a hole for a squat or seat toilet. Make a shelter around your latrine and you are good to go.
Of course, there are some additional factors that need to be considered to dig a latrine safely. Firstly, you need to determine where to put your latrine. It should always be downhill of your water source and never be built uphill of a well (including your neighbors’ wells). This is especially important in areas that have fissured rocks (think limestone) as the sewage can be readily carried through cracks in the rock into the water source.
While this is the easiest sewage disposal method, not everyone is thrilled about the idea of going outside to go to the bathroom. It might be okay for a few days of camping, but visiting the latrine during cold winter nights isn’t very fun! Latrines can also bring about problems with flies, and your property might be too small to safely dig a latrine.
- Never build latrines uphill from a water source
- Latrine pits should be at least 2 yards above the water table
- The latrine pit should be above flood level
- The latrine needs to be a safe distance away from water sources (about 30 yards but varies depending on the type of ground)
- The latrine should be closed off when not in use to prevent flies (listen to your wife when she tells you to put the toilet seat down!)
- The pit should be at least 5 feet deep and 4 feet wide
- When the latrine pit is filled to the top ½ meter, it should be covered with earth
Just a quick note on latrine safety…
When human waste is breaking down, methane gas can buildup. Never smoke in a latrine or drop matches down the latrine. It could cause an explosion! You also don’t want to pour any household chemicals like bleach into the latrine because the chemicals can react with the waste. To control odor and flies, you can instead put some lime, peat moss, or hay into the latrine.
Option 2: Compost Toilet
A more modern off-grid toilet option is a compost toilet. This is the option that I personally like the best because the waste actually gets turned into compost that you can use.
Yes, poop really does get turned into safe compost that you can use in your garden!
A simple compost toilet basically consists of a bucket which you do your business into. For comfort, you put a specially-fitted toilet seat on top of the bucket. After each use, you put a bit of sawdust into the bucket. When the bucket is full, you put the toilet seat on a new, clean bucket. The bucket full of sawdust and waste goes in a composting heap. Sprinkle some more sawdust over the waste so it stays covered while composting further.
Because pee is sterile (with the exception of some cases such as if you have a kidney infection), a lot of people prefer to use separate buckets for pee and poo. The pee can be safely dumped in your yard. Without pee in the poo bucket, the poo will dry out a lot faster. There are special urine-diverting toilet seats you can get for composting toilets.
While the cheap DIY composting toilets are great, they do have their problems. Some people have problems with flies. If your region is very cold, then the waste might not be able to decompose. And you’ll need a steady supply of sawdust or other carbon material to cover the waste after each use.
A more modern solution is to buy a composting toilet. While modern composting toilets are quite pricy, they convert waste into compost much faster. They usually have vent hoses so are also odorless. They will use a battery and/or hand crank to speed up composting. Most importantly, you don’t have to haul buckets of human waste out to your compost heat. So, while they are a lot pricier than the sawdust composting toilet option, it is no surprise that a lot of people living off grid choose to buy one. This is the compost toilet that I use.
Option 3: DIY septic tank
A finally solution to the sewage disposal issue is to make your own septic tank. I’m not going to get too in detail about this here because it requires much more effort and has a higher learning curve. You’ll not only need to learn how to install the septic tank, but how to lay out a leach field, and how to maintain the septic tank.
Since these systems require water, it doesn’t seem to make much sense when you can get a composting toilet instead. However, many people living off grid have built their own septic tanks and are quite happy with them. Explore the options to see what is right for your property.