Environment » Sustainability & Innovation

Water Tight

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…