October 06, 2010

Outhouse solution could solve Erin's waste woes

As published in The Erin Advocate

In the ongoing debate about what to do with Erin's wastewater, some have suggested we think outside the box. I suggest we take it a step further, and think outside the bathroom.

I propose that the Town go back to a technology that served us well for many years – the outhouse system. It did the job for some homes in Erin village until at least the late 1950s, and longer in other areas.

Did that lack of convenience do any harm to those residents? Did it not build character, resilience and a realization that nothing was going to be handed to you on a silver platter? Did kids not have good fun throwing pebbles at the neighbour's outhouse while there was someone inside?

The concept has several modern aspects. It builds on the popularity of recycling. It is also the ultimate low-flow toilet. We pay a lot already to get drinking water into our homes. When clean water becomes more scarce, and if water costs skyrocket, we may not be so keen to flush it down the toilet.

Water shortages are increasing as the globe heats up, so we need to plan for the future, and not take our water for granted. Many septic systems are not overloaded with waste, but overloaded by excessive water use.

So to save water and show a fine example to the rest of the world, I propose that indoor toilets be outlawed in the Town of Erin. Exemptions would only be allowed for apartments, restaurants and homes with very small back yards.

The mandatory aspect could ruffle a few feathers, but I urge people to consider the common good. The Town needs to hold its nose and do the right thing, without being sidetracked by whiners and wimps.

Certain concessions could make the transition easier. For example, fancy woodwork would be permitted on outhouse doors. (It is a free country after all.) Electric power would be allowed, for heated toilet seats, and chamber pots would be acceptable back in the house during the winter months.

Glossy brochures could be printed, with construction tips. Simplicity is the key. You build a little shack containing a bench, with a big hole for adults and a smaller one for kids (so they don't fall in). A vertical vent tube to transfer odors from the pit out through the roof could be a popular feature.

You dig a big hole in the ground at the far end of your back yard (away from any wells), place the shack on top and you are good to go. Of course, you still have to keep your outhouse clean and be sure to wash your hands. Done properly, outhouses are not a threat to public health and they do not cost millions of dollars. Let's leave newfangled inventions like the sanitary sewer to the city slickers, and to the wannabe folks in other small towns who think they deserve all the conveniences of urban living.

We could get all modern and have a truck come by to pump out our pits once in a while, but I say, let Mother Nature take care of business. Earthworms, bacteria, molds and insects will get right to work fermenting and decomposing, forming a nice compost pile at the base of the pit. After a few years, when the pile gets too high, simply dig a new pit, move the outhouse, and cover up the old pit.

People living on highly porous soil need to put some dense material at the bottom of the pit to avoid quick percolation down to into the ground water. As with septic tanks, paint, oil, chemicals and garbage must not be dumped into outhouse pits.

Do not dig a pit on the low point of your lawn. That could lead to a messy flood during the rainy season. It could also cause erosion at the edges, which could allow your building to sink into the pit.

The main problem is the name – "Outhouse" is kind of boring. Labels like Biffy and Kybo are a bit lame too. Australians refer to it as a Dunny or Thunderbox, while New Zealanders use the term Long-drop. Maybe we can come up with some creative alternatives.

Readers may want to urge election candidates to endorse the outhouse solution, since my own influence is quite limited. And whether you agree with the plan, or think it needs some work, may I suggest that the best way to respond to a tongue-in-cheek column is with a tongue-in-cheek Letter to the Editor. Be careful, though. Someone may take you seriously.