In spring, runoff seeps into our outhouse, through the walls of the pit. In the summer, it dries up. When it rains, it fills again. We don’t mind because this dilutes the waste and there is no odour. Is this okay?
—Jane Johnston, via e-mail
Well, we’re pleased to hear that your outhouse is stench-free. Sadly, this situation stinks: Something’s wrong with your privy. “It’s not normal,” says Melissa Ivey, a sewage system inspector and public health inspector with the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit. “The only liquid we want in there is the sewage.” The runoff may be getting in because of the outhouse’s location—at the bottom of a slope, perhaps—or because the soil surrounding it is clay or silt and not very good at soaking up moisture, says Rick Kraemer with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit. After heavy or sustained rain, “the ground simply may not be able to absorb all the water.”
He suggests you either relocate the outhouse, or put an impermeable barrier around the pit to intercept the water. Not to point any fingers, but according to Bill Goodale, a septic system inspector for the Township of Tiny and a consulting engineer with C.C. Tatham & Associates, your throne may violate the Ontario Building Code. In an earth-pit privy that is Code-compliant, the bottom of the pit is at least 90 cm above the high water table, and the ground surrounding the pit is raised or mounded at least 15 cm above ground level. These are two regulations meant to keep water from getting in. “If it’s a deficiency in the construction, they’re going to have to fix
it,” says Goodale. Actually, no matter what the cause of the problem, you should fix it. Contact your local outhouse regulator—the conservation authority, or the building or health department—for more advice. “If it’s really bad, that whole pit could overflow,” says Ivey. Not only would this look disgusting, it could contaminate a nearby well, or get into the water table. Triple gross whammy!