Monday, October 1, 2012

Life with and without Plumbing

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

Have you ever thought about how much water you use in a shower, dishwasher load, or washing machine?  What is it like living in a place where you have to think and plan and ration and filter water?  Below is our experience far from electrical and plumbing grids to get water and get ourselves hydrated and clean during Alaska's summer and winter (which offer very different water experiences). 


We don't have a well, so from May through October, we rely on lake water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking.  This involves lowered expectations, high and low technology, patience, and effort. I am now much more respectful of every woman who ventured out on a covered wagon ... or who didn't and ran a home in a fifth floor walk up on Mulberry Street, NYC, as well as many contemporaries around the world who cleverly live without plumbing today.

The first summer the cabin was built, we had sitting and sleeping furniture but not much of a kitchen.  The propane and wood stoves were in place, but the rest of the kitchen was just a plywood counter on top of two saw horses.  Washing dishes (and clothes, and ourselves) was done outside, in  two deep utility sinks on the (uncovered) back porch.  By hefting 8 gallon jugs of cold water and occasional pots of stove heated water into the sink, we got by with rather greasy dishes and hair and laundry.  We drained the gray water down into a pit we filled with rocks and a perforated 55 gallon drum. This got very old, very fast, particularly on cold and rainy days, particularly since I hadn't brought any paper plates that year! 

Everything took so long.  Creating potable water either required boiling (or, I now know, the lower temperature of pasteurizing) or hand pumping through filters or drip filtering in a s-l-o-w ceramic filter.  After several months of seven hours a day of cooking, washing, filtering, and cleaning in this inefficient way, I pitched a fit and made my husband do dishes for three days straight - 9 meals (not even house cleaning or clothes washing). Voila!  On day four he cut a hole in the kitchen plywood counter and inserted a makeshift sink above and a drainage bucket below.  We still needed to haul washing water in and dirty water out, but just being inside was an improvement, and it got him thinking about enhancements for the following year before I made him do laundry, too!  My lesson from his response was to avoid future whining and just give the other person an opportunity to live the "whine worthy" experience.

Spit baths at the sink weren't great, but neither was the outdoor camping shower we had bought.  It had a plastic shower curtain that circled a rubber mat about 24 inches across.  We hauled a five gallon bucket of lake water to the location suited to drainage and stuck a hose in the bucket.  A little pump with allegedly on-demand propane heat slightly warmed the water and propelled it out a few drops at a time from a tiny shower head.  Between trying to shampoo with one hand while grabbing the wind whipped shower curtain with the other and keeping a soapy eye open for daddy long legs, bathing was not a relaxing endeavor.  Since I had discovered that my husband is most effectively motivated by those of my interests that actually impact him, I decided to stop shaving until I got a shower house.  Besides, the hairy legs kept me warmer the rest of the cold, rainy summer.  For one reason or another, my father-in-law loves this story!

Unfinished shower house,
lake sourced water (through the trees)
Whether from this motivation or others, that winter, my husband delighted in planning the aforementioned structure.  Our only neighbor on the lake hauled in by snow machine sled a fiberglass shower, a low water washing machine, and building supplies from a town 42 miles away.  Early the next summer, with the skillful help of three burly Alaskans whom I was delighted to feed with megameals over the five days they camped with us to do the job, Bryan cleared an alder thicket east of the house as the site of an elevated, insulated shower house of 8 x 12 ft.  (this is a common size because of the 4x12 size of the plywood panels) It is elevated for several reasons.  Certainly it is easier to enter when the snow piles up - we learned this from the fact that the outhouse door was often snowed shut.  Also, the elevation ensures a positive water drain and provides extra storage below.  Finally, the height made it easy to hang high large laundry on the drying line strung between the shower house and a birch tree to capture some of the lake breeze without being visible from the house. (Any electric appliances that produce heat, like dryers, require more power than we create from solar panels and wind turbine so we don't have those (See blog entries on our "power tower").  Inside, the building has the two utility sinks, (I've soaked moose paddles in there), the washing machine, the shower, and the water tank and filters.  Outside, are two 100 lb propane tanks (which will last several years), and soon we will attach a smoker to those same tanks.   

For those of you interested in the technology of lake water filtration, here is what we installed: At the lake shore, Bryan installed two metal, screen filters of about 30 and 40 microns to filter out debris in the water before it enters a 240 volt jet pump. From there, water courses uphill through a hose to reach the shower house, where the water fills a 40 gallon pressure tank (enough for two quick showers) and goes through two finer Pentek R 30-20 (20 inch) sedimentary water filters.  Our shower has good water pressure and is heated by an on demand propane heater.   The first day I enjoyed a hot shower in that building I felt the thrill of many an American 100 years before!  It was heavenly.  This same filtered water is delivered to the cabin's kitchen sink for non-potable water.  The fourth summer, he added under the kitchen sink a bank of three more filters from Aqua Sun called a US 200-3 system).  We now have a slim stream of potable water at the touch of a  different spigot.  This  seems like a luxury, after several summers of slowly hand pumping and dripping a gallon or so a day of drinkable water.   

 Winter sets us back a bit, since we obviously can't rely on pumped lake water then. If /when we stay in the cabin throughout the year, we could fill an interior cistern that wouldn't freeze, but currently, we leave for part of the winter and when we return, the 45 gallons of water we have saved from the summer are frozen solid. For faster thawing, we store some in 3 gallon jugs which melt within a day or so once the woodstove has warmed the cabin up, and more in five 8 gallon containers melt more slowly, but those 45 gallons don't last as long as a city person might think. After that, we need to shovel snow into pots to melt and boil it for cooking and drinking and washing. Snow melts to water in a 10:1 ratio, so that's a lot of shoveling and fortunately my husband likes doing so several times a day.  It takes about two hours for a 6 gallon pot of snow to melt to about half a gallon of water (the size of a milk jug) and then heat up. Because of this time lag, we became acutely aware of how much water we use and how much we could save or reuse.  This has changed some habits.  For example, I don't throw out old coffee anymore.  I have discovered that it is great for flavoring home baked beans, barbeque sauce, and mixing with beer for a marinade.

Washing clothes is particularly problematic in the winter.  Imagine how many hours are required to melt and heat enough snow water to wash anything sizeable?  Since my biggest pots are 6 gallons (and anything larger would hang precariously off our little wood stove), all winter we maintain one pot on top of the wood stove and the other standing on the floor next to it, warming up.  Once we have a good sized volume of hot water, we use it for several purposes.  For example, my husband and I will first wash our hair, and then do laundry or dishes and then may use the residue to melt some ice on the steps.  You probably don't want to see us, our clothes, or our gray looking laundry in the winter.  Aren't we all relieved!
See pots of snow on and by the woodstove

Naturally, with conditions like these, we can't do a lot of laundry, which lowers one's standards quite a bit.  Large items, like sheets, and heavy ones, like towels, are particularly difficult.   After washing, my husband and I take the laundry outside and as quickly as possible, given the freezing temperatures, twist it dry and hang it on a line on the porch. Pretty soon, we hear the "bang, thwack, bang" of solidly frozen planks of laundry, after which we bend them off the line and bring them inside for a second "drip dry" on a rope strung upstairs (since heat rises and we generally are downstairs during the day).  Because of this experience, I am a big fan of  UnderArmour and similar quick dry clothing. Cotton and wool are are being fazed out of our lives.  Besides, those materials are not recommended for close-to-the-body winter exertions anyway, since they don't wick away sweat, which can do a body harm in cold temperatures.


You will notice that I did not mention anything about a toilet.  That is because we have an outhouse (and an indoor "chamber pot" at night). We are too far from a road to have a septic system enjoyed by other less rural people.  Although this primitive structure appalls many of my friends, I found that I adapted to it faster than I expected.  Primarily this is because ours is new and large (both above and below ground) and clean so it doesn't have any of the awful qualities I associate with tiny portapotties or well frequented park facilities.   It is not difficult to dig an outhouse.  Most outhouse pits will last a family ten years (before they move the building to another spot).  The pit our neighbor's son dug us is particularly large and so will last much longer.  Our 8 x 12 metal roofed building is divided into a 4x4 outhouse in front and a 8x8 storeroom in back.  It took less than 3 days to complete.  When I heard one BBC commentator bewailing the lack of hygiene stations in Haiti, I thought about our experience and didn't understand the issue.  This particular element of group hygiene is not hard to accomplish by any motivated people with shovels and planks for wood over a trench or pit.  Soldiers and scouts know this.  This isn't an odd or offensive suggestion.  This is how we live!  And lots of others around the world!   

Having lived in Hurricane Alley for many years, I was used to filling a bathtub with water and having a few extra containers on hand almost every season (in case the city supply was interrupted).  And certainly I had experienced short periods without running water before, while camping or traveling in third world countries, but then I took my clothes home and washed them in a machine, didn't I?  But perhaps more than any other experience, the trials, tribulations, and infrastructure costs and effort associated with getting clean, potable, heated running water at our cabin have helped me appreciate the things I took for granted in a first world city.  So please enjoy a shower and a glass of water today!


  1. Wow, thanks for sharing this story. I can't believe how tough you are to do all this! I don't think I could ever handle some of this stuff myself. I always have to call a plumber to help me with anything that requires more than a plunger haha.

    Jane Fairfax |

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  3. Really good article. I do, however, disagree that wool is a poor textile to wear next to one's skin as IT IS excellent at wicking moisture away from the body, and it a great choice for winter wear and more. That's why most prefer wool socks when hiking and hunting.

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  5. شركتنا من المتميزون في اعمال الاصلاح بدون هدم او تكسير من خلال شركة ركن البيت التي تقدم الكثير والكثير في عمل اللازم وتصحيح الاخطاء التي تسببها تسريبات المياه فنحن مثلا

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  6. Because of this experience, I am a big fan of UnderArmour and similar quick dry clothing.