What Is An Outhouse? 8 Things (2024) You Should Know

Ah, the outhouse.

An invention that was once so necessary to everyday life has now been phased out in favor of modern plumbing.

However, even if they’re not preferred, outhouses still exist today in rural areas where plumbing isn’t available.

If you’re looking at a property that requires an outhouse or you want to live off-grid, there are some things you’ll need to know ahead of time.

Here are the top things you should know about outhouses.

1. What is an outhouse?

An outhouse is a small structure that covers a toilet.

It is typically separate from the main building.

The toilet inside the outhouse is most commonly a pit latrine, bucket toilet, or dry (non-flushing) toilet.

Often, the term “outhouse” refers to the toilet itself and not just the structure that covers the toilet, but the toilets used inside do commonly vary.

2. What types of toilets are used in an outhouse?

Here are the types of toilets you may encounter…

bulletPit latrines:

A type of toilet that collects human feces in a hole in the ground.

bulletBucket toilet:

A bucket toilet consists of a seat and portable receptacle like a bucket or pail which may be emptied by the owner into composting piles in the garden or collected by contractors for large-scale disposal.

bulletDrums and barrels:

This is a popular method in national parks.

Human waste will be collected in drums that need to be helicoptered in and out at a considerable expense.

This is often to abide by the “pack it in, pack it out” rule.

bulletComposting toilets:

Read about this type of toilet in #7

3. The symbols on the outhouses have meaning

Have you ever noticed that American outhouses have moons and stars cutouts on the outhouse doors?

These are for two purposes.

One is for lighting.

Even when it’s dark, the cutout allows moonlight to shine through the cutout into the outhouse.

They also distinguish between male and female outhouses.

Female outhouses are represented by the crescent moon and male outhouses are presented by the star.

That said, not all families had two different outhouses.

If that was the case, it most likely had a moon cut out.

4. Two and three-story outhouses do exist

Yes, indeed, there are two-story outhouses.

Some people affectionately refer to these as “skys-crappers,” and there’s even one in Gays, Illinois that you can go and visit.

If you’re a bit confused about how this would work, we’ll do our best to explain it to you.

The floor above would be situated back further than the outhouse below.

Waste would fall down a shaft behind the first floor’s wall.

This allowed for a seamless flow of sewage.

Having larger outhouses of this kind allowed more families to use them, and they were thus more efficient.

5. You may come across two-seater outhouses

There are two-seater outhouses that exist for a couple of different reasons as well.

The two different seats are often for two different-sized behinds (adults and children).

For children, this is especially important because the last thing you’d want to do is risk picking a hole that’s too larger for you and accidentally falling in.

Occasionally, two-seater outhouses are also useful for waste distribution.

6. Different states have different laws

An outhouse is often an appealing option for people who purchase property or live on land in a rural area.

If you don’t have a municipal sewer hookup, you’ll have to come up with another solution for a toilet.

Outhouses often seem like an easy solution because it’s been the solution for centuries.

Unfortunately, states no longer make it that easy.

If you’re looking to install an outhouse, the first place to start is with your county’s zoning restrictions.

Many counties have zoning restrictions for outhouses because diseases like cholera can leach into groundwater.

Some counties or states may allow you to install the outhouse, but they’ll also require you to install a septic or similarly-lined tank for waste containment to prevent contamination.

Often, this can be too much money and too much work for those who are looking to live life off the grid.

So, if you want to avoid digging that septic tank, you should switch your attention to a composting toilet.

In the next point, we’ll talk more about the differences between composting toilets and outhouses.

7. Understand the differences between composting toilets and outhouses

Composting toilets rely on the principle that human waste is compostable, which means that a product can break down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass in small pieces in about 90 days.

A composting toilet uses nature’s decomposition process to reduce waste by 90 percent and convert it into nutrient-rich compost.

Composting toilets are convenient for rural land and off-the-grid living because they do not require water hook-ups.

They use oxygen-loving bacteria that are naturally present in nature to do all of the work.

Any material you remove post-decomposition is a nutrient-rich compost (not waste!).

Thus, composting toilets are a way for waste to safely decompose outdoors without odors. 

8. Check the regulations in your area

While the below only gives a glimpse into the regulations of each state, it will give you a good idea of what may be possible.

Be sure to do other research on your own time before you move forward with your plans.


Not all types of toilets are specifically addressed in Alabama off-grid laws.

For example, pit toilets and portable toilets may be allowed in certain rural areas.

Permits must be obtained, and specific rules must be followed.

Be sure to read the particular laws in your area if you’re interested in using an outhouse.


Outhouses are allowed in many areas, but you’ll need to abide by the strict rules in place.


Composting toilets are legal in Arizona, but outhouses are not mentioned specifically.

Do detailed research to see how the Arizona laws impact your plans to have an outhouse.


Arkansas permits composting toilets only if they are NSF-approved.

Pit privy latrines, similar to outhouses, are also allowed in many areas.


The use of composting toilets is not restricted, but pit privies need to be approved.


Composting toilets are regulated but legal (NSF-approved is recommended).

Many homes in Colorado are required to be connected to the municipal sewage system, so if you’re buying rural land, you’ll want to see if this is something your area mandates.


Composting toilets are legal in Connecticut if the owners submit an application and have their toilets approved by the local health director.

Any waste from the toilet must be buried or disposed of in an approved method.


There are no regulations in the state of Delaware about the use of composting toilets.

Do more research about the specific area before you pursue an outhouse in the area.


Composting toilets are legal in Florida if they are approved by the NSF.

Pit privies (more similar to outhouses) have stricter regulations.


Composting toilets must be NFS approved and are highly regulated.


Hawaii requires that composting toilets are both NSF approved AND approved on a case-by-case design basis.


Composting toilets are allowed in Idaho under certain conditions.

They must be in homes that have water under pressure and that are connected to the public sewage system (or another approved method of on-site waste disposal).

Permits are required for composting toilets, septic tanks, and pit privies.

This is a fairly expensive alternative to traditional plumbing.


NSF-approved composting toilets are legal in Illinois.

The contents of these toilets must be disposed of in the municipal sewage system, sludge lagoons, sludge drying beds, incinerator devices, or sanitary landfills.


Indiana is not friendly to those looking to live off-grid.

Zoning restrictions, building codes, and permit requirements make it difficult to take on this lifestyle if you’re interested.

However, if you’re insistent, then there is a loophole under the Indiana Log Cabin rule, so take a look at that if you’re looking for information about sewage systems.

In general, the laws are not favorable to composting toilets or other off-grid waste disposal methods.


There are no laws regulating composting toilets, but you may require a permit for “alternative toilets.”

Pit privies are also generally allowed at homes that are not connected to a running water source.


Composting toilets are not prohibited by law, but pit privies are.

Other laws regulate the types of onsite sewage treatment that you use.

Make sure you check your local restrictions before you move forward with anything.


Off-grid sewage is legal in Kentucky, but you need permits and inspections for pit privies.

You may also use composting toilets.


Composting toilets are legal in Louisiana.


Composting toilets are legal, but regulated in Maine.

You’ll need a plan and permit for any type of on-site sewage disposal (including an outhouse).


NSF-approved composting toilets are legal, but you will need a permit.


Composting toilets are legal in the state of Massachusetts, but you will have to abide by the regulations.

Be sure to check these before moving forward with the process.


There is no state-wide policy in Michigan on disposing of waste.

Outhouses are generally allowed, but each county will issue its own permits and inspections, so be sure to do more research depending on where you are located.


Composting toilets and outhouses are legal in Minnesota.

While there are regulations, they are not as strict as in some other states.


Composting toilets, pit privies, and other off-grid toilet alternatives are legal in Mississippi.

Although, there are state laws that dictate where they will be approved.

Be sure to check the specifics of the state law to ensure you understand the requirements before you install one.


While the state’s Department of Health laws mentions composting toilets, there are no other specific regulations regarding their use.

That said, pit privies are more heavily regulated.

The laws state that “A privy will be allowed only under limited conditions and will not be recognized as a method of sewage disposal for a continuously occupied dwelling, business, or other structure.”

Be sure to consider this as you’re looking for an off-grid option.


Composting toilets and pit privies are legal in Montana but highly regulated.


While both composting toilets and pit privies are legal in Nebraska, you may need to have them permitted and inspected.


Composting toilets, pit privies, and other alternative waste disposal systems are legal in Nevada, but the state regulates how and when they can be used.

Be sure to obtain a permit before installing one.

bulletNew Hampshire

Composting toilets and pit privies are legal, but regulated if they are near a public sewer.

bulletNew Jersey

Composting toilets, outhouses, and other off-grid toilets are legal but highly regulated.

bulletNew Mexico

Composing toilets, pit privies, and other off-grid toilets are legal and require permits.

Be sure to check the regulations in your area before installing any of the options on your property.

bulletNew York

Installing any of these off-grid toilets is generally legal in New York.

However, there are regulations about how the toilets can be used and whether you can disconnect from municipal sewage.

Be sure to read up on these regulations before installing one on your property.

bulletNorth Carolina

Off-grid toilet alternatives are legal in North Carolina, but building codes require residences to have an approved wastewater system.

Composting toilets do not qualify as a replacement or substitute.

Thus, if you have a composting toilet, you may also be required to have a toilet connected to municipal water and sewage.

bulletNorth Dakota

Off-grid toilet alternatives are legal in North Dakota.

The state generally has relaxed regulations in comparison to other areas.


Ohio allows off-grid toilet alternates, but regulates the disposal of certain types of gray water.


There are no laws regulating composting toilets in Oklahoma.


Composing toilets are legal in Oregon.

However, there are some areas that require a permit, so be sure to check out these specifics.


NSF-approved composting toilets are legal in Pennsylvania.

That said, you will likely need to be connected to a municipal sewage system or have a septic tank.

Pennsylvania is also strict about other off-grid alternatives like outhouses.

Be sure to check the specific laws before you pursue these options.

bulletRhode Island

Composing toilets are legal in Rhode Island, but you must bury or dispose of your waste in another approved method.

bulletSouth Carolina

Composting toilets are permitted in South Carolina, but you often need to use them with a septic system.

Read up on the laws to be sure you’re in the clear.

bulletSouth Dakota

You may only use composting and off-grid toilets in South Dakota when other options are not available.

Design approval is often required, and you may need to use it with a septic system or grid-tied toilet.


NSF-approved composting toilets and pit privies are legal in Tennessee.

That said, you may not be able to use one if running water is available.

You’ll want to check and make sure it is legal in your area before you move forward.


NSF-approved composting toilets are legal in Texas.

A permit is not required when used in single-family homes in counties of less than 40,000 population.

Pit privies have stricter regulations, so you’ll want to do more research if you’re interested in this option.


“Primitive” outhouses are illegal in Utah.

However, composting toilets are legal and a vaulted privy (with strict regulations) is also permitted.


Compost toilets are legal in Vermont.

In general, the state has friendly laws for off-grid toilet alternatives.


Off-grid toilet alternatives are generally illegal in Virginia.


Composting toilets and pit privies are legal in Washington but only in remote locations where they are not near the municipal sewer system.

bulletWest Virginia

NSF-approved composting toilets are legal in West Virginia, but only when they are used with a gray water treatment like a septic tank.


Off-grid toilet alternatives are legal in Wisconsin and the state laws are relaxed compared to other areas.


Portable composting and incinerating toilets do not require a permit in Wyoming.

However, if the unit is permanent or self-contained, then the permit is required.

Final thoughts

What does your area have to say about outhouses?

Are you ready to install an outhouse and go off-grid?

It’s not always easy, but some people find a way and love living without a connection to the outside world!

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Erika Gokce Capital

Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.


3 thoughts on “What Is An Outhouse? 8 Things (2024) You Should Know”

  1. I have a cottage that has a septic system. However, I would still like to have an outhouse simply because when kids are at the beach, it should be possible for them to go to the toilet without tracking sand into the cottage, it would minimize flies getting in etc. What I’d like to build is an outhouse with a regular toilet that then discharges directly into the septic tank. I’m not talking about having it directly over the septic tank access lid. It can be some distance away and just piped to the septic tank… the discharge line just needs to have adequate slope of course (and this is doable for my lot). As for water to run the toilet, this could just be supplied in the summer by a connected garden hose and then when cottage season is over, that part is put away, the toilet tank is drained, and a biologically non-toxic antifreeze is put in the toilet bowl to make sure it doesn’t freeze (and this also keeps fumes from coming up from the septic tank). Outhouses are permissible in this county and the size would be less than where a building permit is required. I suppose what I’m thinking isn’t so much an ‘outhouse’ but an ‘outdoor washroom’. Do you see a problem with this idea? I’m thinking that this has to be a far more acceptable option than building an outhouse with a pit latrine.

    • Hello VM, I would think a county would be more amendable to what you are proposing if it is connected to a septic, but the rules are going to depend on your jurisdiction. I would recommend speaking to the local building and environmental health departments (if you haven’t done so already).

  2. Hi Erika, Thanks for getting back to me. Your response is certainly reasonable.
    However, as indicated in my initial comment, “Outhouses are permissible in this county and the size would be less than where a building permit is required.”
    This being the case and after giving the idea further thought, I think I’m going to just go ahead and do it. It is after all a cottage and not a fulltime residence. It’s the kind of thing that I hate to ask about since it seems like a basic understanding is that what I’m suggesting is already legal… and just by asking, it seems like the objective is to give them an opportunity to come up with a reason to say no. It also seems that this is a classic case of “It is easier to beg forgiveness than to seek permission.” On what grounds might it be an issue? Are there some jurisdictions where it clearly stipulates that there can only be one incoming line to a septic tank? That all septic work hast be done by someone with a specific license? I suppose those are at least two possibilities to check but I doubt that either apply.
    If someone from the county does pop by the place and suggests there is a problem, I suppose that a hole can be dug and the structure pulled over on top of it like a more traditional outhouse (and the original hole into the septic tank would then be capped). At even a nanosecond of consideration, all that would seem silly, if nothing else. However, it’s certainly granted that we’ve seen sillier things.


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