Q&A: A flush toilet in an outhouse?

A yellow-and-green outhouse beside a pine tree By Dolores M. Harvey/Shutterstock

Can I have a flush toilet in my outhouse? What is the proper set-up?—Dan Aubertin, via Facebook

This isn’t as bonkers a notion as we initially thought. We’ve come to realize that you must want to plumb a toilet in the outhouse to a regular septic system and not, say, drop a toilet overtop of the privy hole, MacGyver the situation with buckets of water, and pray. Because in no universe would that work. 

“An outhouse hole obviously does not have the capacity to deal with the water flow from a toilet,” says John Rowse, the executive director of the BC OnSite Sewage Association. “It would fill up and overflow very rapidly.” 

Now that we’ve cleared that up, then, yes: you can use an outhouse-sized building on the cottage property to house a flush toilet. It’s just not a common strategy; most people upgrade to an alternative toilet. (Psst: there are many good options available these days.)

“The point of an outhouse is to take the burden off the septic system,” says Sandy Bos, a sewage system inspector with the Township of Muskoka Lakes. “And adding a toilet is probably not as simple as you think.” 

For one thing, you can’t just have the toilet in there. “You’re required to also add a sink,” says Bos. Since washing your hands in ice-cold water is absolutely terrible, you’ll probably want to get hot water to the outhouse. In the end, you might need to rejig the septic system’s entire plumbing set-up to make the situation work. That’s a lot of effort unless you’re already tinkering around down there because you’re renovating the cottage. 

You’ll definitely need a permit; you’ll also need to have your septic system assessed. And you might need to upgrade it. You’re adding a bathroom. It doesn’t matter that it’s 50 feet away from the cottage.

If you don’t have a septic system already, or if connecting to it isn’t possible, you’ll need to install another one. “We have certainly seen separate systems installed for just a toilet and sink, if pumping to the existing system would be too difficult,” says Bos. “But these people usually have more money than they know what to do with.”

Heck, it’s your money, and you can spend it however you choose. Just call your building department before you start shopping for another throne.

This article was originally published in the Aug./Sept. 2020 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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