Living Off The Grid

Lessons from a plumbingfree home

My friends think I’m crazy, but I enjoy living without running water. Well OK, late at night in the dead of winter, I’ll admit that making the trek to the outhouse seems about as appealing as jumping through a hole in the ice. But overall, the lack of indoor plumbing hasn’t been nearly as difficult or disagreeable as I had expected when my husband and I bought the place two years ago. In fact, it has opened my eyes.

Of course, we’re not exactly roughing it in the bush. We have a shallow well with a hand pump that goes dry every July, but when we’re out of drinking water, we can just tootle off to the local supermarket and buy another case or refill our tanks at relatives’. Our kitchen is equipped with a fridge, coffee maker, toaster oven and microwave. We wash our clothes at my parents’ house, and take up every single invitation to “come over for a swim” that may be extended our way.

In the winter, we melt snow and ice in the water compartment of our woodburning cook stove, and have a quick sponge bath right there in the warmest room of the house. But in the summer we use a solar-powered outdoor shower rigged up behind the house—it’s a black plastic bladder with a shower nozzle attached to it, available at camping stores. If we fill it with rainwater and set it on a sun-drenched stone around noon, we can enjoy a hot shower at dusk. It contains enough water for two luxurious showers, as long as you turn off the spout while lathering up.

“If we fill it with rainwater and set it on a sun-drenched stone around noon, we can enjoy a hot shower at dusk. It contains enough water for two luxurious showers, as long as you turn off the spout while lathering up.”

We hoard rainwater like thirsty dragons. Last spring, we channelled the eavestrough runoff into three huge, interconnected Lee Valley rain barrels. Each day, we fill a twenty-litre jug and hoist it up onto a shelf we made by laying two short planks across the width of the dry sink. We use this water for washing hands, dishes and garden vegetables.

At home, we take a glass of water outside to brush. I’ve therefore started to pack my toothbrush with me to restaurants and dinner parties. But even where I can take advantage of the facilities, I can’t leave the tap running. In fact, I’ve become one of those annoying people who turn off the tap for other people. Yikes. If nothing else, it has been educational to view water as something you drain, litre by precious litre, from a finite container, rather than as an endless resource.

In the spring our barrels are overflowing. But during the midsummer drought we watch the levels recede day by day. So we ration our rainwater—no washing the car, sprinkling the lawn (which we probably wouldn’t do anyway), or watering the garden. Once the new peppers, phlox or blueberries become established, we let the plants go thirsty. And we use our own drinking water even more sparingly (we drink a lot more beer).

As for the outdoor toilet, it’s much nicer than I thought it would be. Surprisingly, it hardly smells (no, really!). Best of all, night walks to the outhouse are a pleasant break from the T.V., reminding me to look at the stars more often.

Sure, some day we would like to install a kitchen sink and indoor bathroom, but that will take money—I estimate about $10,000 for a deep well, septic system, leach field, plumbing and the bathroom itself. And though I long to soak in a hot algaemarine bubble bath until my fingers wrinkle like prunes, it’s a hefty enough investment to give us pause. After all, our little system works just fine. And if it ain’t broke…

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  1. Doug from Alberta says:

    A fine experiment! Though a wee bit of clarification would be wise: one gets the impression that the author brushes teeth and washes vegetables in untreated water from the roof that has been sitting in barrels all summer. I hope that is not the case. Rainwater is natural, but so are salmonella and legionella.

    The night closet for, ahem, “liquid propulsion” has a long, noble, oak-carved-and-lacquered history. Less ornate, but equally effective, is a five-gallon bucket partially filled with fresh charcoal from a firepit. The pH is so high that decomposing bacteria are effectively shut down; and the charcoal removes essentially all odour. Left to moulder a little, the fertilizing effect on fruit trees is nothing short of astonishing.

    I would dearly like to know where to get a deep well, septic system and field, and indoor plumbing for $10K. That number is commonly referred to as a “retainer.”

    (Good Lord, is the comments section using a U.S. spell checker? Last time I checked, the Queen was still on my money.)

    • The Harrowsmith Team says:

      Hi Dave. Thank you for your comments. I too would like a deep well (etc.) for $10,000. Maybe if one brings their own divining rod and team of aardvarks to dig? Interesting that a five-gallon bucket and charcoal will do in a pinch—now I know what to do with any coal I receive in my stocking this year!
      And, as for the author and unsafe brushing–it appears as though he is getting his money’s worth at restaurants now by taking the token complimentary toothpick and mint to the next level.

    • The Harrowsmith Team says:

      I was more surprised about the microwave, but, my desert island appliance choice would definitely be a toaster. It would be tricky to get the weekly delivery of Montreal-style bagels though!

  2. Living without outdoor plumbing is really no problem if one is willing to use a honey wagon and haul to a public dumping station. It’s easier in the summer as all the necessary water for cleaning is there.
    Let me back up a bit for clarification. I have a large 5th wheel and I’m on land with no amenities such as running, electricity etc. I do use the loo and such but weekly I empty into my honey wagon and head to the dumping station set up behind the shopping mall for all campers alike. As for water I bring with me the large water containers used for drinking stations at the office or such. One full one lasts two of us 4 days for wash dishes, body, hair, and not all in the same water I might add. The dish water is used to clean out the toiler daily and by using the poo pourri it helps immensely with the smell. RV solutions for breaking down what goes down is always used. As we have propane and plenty of wood we heat our water on the stove or the fire. As for toasting, i like using my fire toaster and not only does it work well but it all tastes good. For lighting as it gets too dark we use solar lanterns which produce a good deal of lighting as i make them into a chandelier. Lighting from above is much better than at eye level. We do however have a camping quiet generator for the times any batteries cell phone etc need recharging. I have yet installed solar panels for this form of power but it will happen soon.
    To clarify, there is some work required and a lot of organization, but it can be done. I don’t use rain water for showering but i do use water brought in weekly when the honey wagon work is being done. I will add that I have not done the winter yer but hope to figure something out for then.

    • The Harrowsmith Team says:

      Chantal, you are living the life! Resourcefully and thoughtfully–a eyewitness to the impact of human life, waste generation and disposal. Where are you boondocking? You’ll have to update us this winter and let us know how the off grid life is treating you! Thanks for adding your comment and sharing your experience with us.

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