Archive for the ‘dry cabin living’ Tag

Black Soil   1 comment

I started this series with outhouses and now I’m ending it with an in-house outhouse.

Okay, technically they’re called composting toilets.

No, they don’t stink — at least they don’t when properly maintained.

Obviously this one is a manufactured model, but you can build your own and Alaskans often do.

Multrum toiletAre you shuddering yet? Most Lower 48ers gag at the idea of a compost pile in their house. But let’s face it, if the alternative is going to the outhouse at three am in 40 below zero weather, a composting toilet doesn’t sound half-bad.

The access for the compost is usually outside of the home.

And, yes, if it’s done correctly, you can actually use it on the vegetable garden.

Not that I would, not until it’s had a season or two of traditional composting just to satisfy my own shudder factor.

For the record, I live in a house with running water connected to a traditional municipal water and sewer system. I am a modern Alaskan who prefers flush toilets. My last post on the subject will be my memories of visiting a friend who lived one of these alternative lifestyles.

It’s all about how you deal with the poo.

Yes, I wrote that!

Going Grey   1 comment

There are people who cannot drill a well who can install a traditional septic system and leach field, but there are many people for whom that is not an option. The Goldstream Valley is notorious for lacking “perk” which means that a septic system will not work. And what do you do instead?

Well, you take a page from the motor home industry, of course, and install a grey water tank.

Grey water is that water which is used for showers, doing dishes and laundry. Because of the soap involved, bacteria isn’t an issue and after the solids have settled out, as you can see from the illustration, it can be retained for gardening. You wouldn’t want to drink it because it still contains particulates of phosphate, but it can be reused for other household tasks.

Of course, we all know that there’s more involved in effluent than grey water. My last post on this subject will be all about poo.

Yes, I wrote that!

Posted August 23, 2014 by aurorawatcherak in Alaska

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Running Water Without A Well   Leave a comment

Alaskans lead the nation in people living without running water, but that’s a tough way to live even in a community that is extremely accommodating. There’s the gym membership, the shower bags, the laundromat, the paper plates, the gerry cans … it’s a lot of work to live without running water.

Still, not everybody lives near the city water grid and wells can be expensive and fruitless to drill. There are alternatives. You can install a water storage tank.

It’s not as simple as plunking a 500-gallon container next to your house. This is Interior Alaska where (in January) you can get a contact frostbite from opening a door without gloves on. A tank of water will quickly become a block of ice in the winter here. Forget about trying to heat it to keep it from freezing. Electricity here is 27 cents a kilowatt hour. Burying doesn’t work either because our ground actually freezes.

You have to have a basement or heated garage to put this large item in. They come in a lot of different shapes and sizes, mostly made of plastic and they quickly reduce a two-car garage to a one-car garage with a small maintenance bay.

Water in your home is a wonderful thing, but if you haven’t got an on-site well — and why would you obligate half your garage to a water tank if you did? — how does the water get to the tank?


Dry Cabin Cleanliness   Leave a comment

One of the things I love about my dry-cabin friends –some of whom have upgraded to running water in some form or another (more on that in future posts) — is their saunas.

Most people think of saunas as a place to destress and warm up, but for dry-cabin livers, it’s often how they bathe.

And, truth be told, it is the best way to bathe, whether you have running water or not. My cousin who is a research doctor has sent me plenty of research on how to keep clean. Long hot baths and saunas top the list. You need about 20 minutes to really break a sweat that gets the daily dirt out of your pores. You can do this less than daily for the same results as showering five times a week for 20 minutes will get you.

Many of our Native friends from the villages who have moved into Fairbanks have a small shed outback where they have a sauna. It’s usually wood heated and it’s close enough to run to the house in a towel and (shudder) bare feet (truth be told, I bring rubber hiking sandals because I’m a wimp).

When you go to their houses, you always make sure the swim suits and towels are in the back seat … just in case. It’s not an everyday occurrence that they invite you to stay for “a sweat”, but when they do … calling in sick the next morning because you stayed up way past your bedtime is not an uncommon occurrence.

In addition to the woodstove that is too large for the space, there’s usually a bucket of water and sponges and loofas and its a great social time. The wise among us don’t drink alcohol while doing this because it’s hard on your heart and head, but oh, so great for your skin.

Someday, we’re converting part of our tool shed at the town house to a sauna and you can be sure that our cabin site will have one.

And, by the way, that electric one the guy at the mall tried to sell you does not compare. It’s better than nothing, I suppose, but really, it’s a waste of money and home space. It gets you warm, but it doesn’t get you clean and there is something about the pop and crackle of firewood ….

Just my opinion.

Posted August 19, 2014 by aurorawatcherak in Alaska

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How To Live Without Running Water   2 comments

I’ve done it. It wasn’t fun. I wouldn’t do it again if I had any alternative. Our remote cabin that we’re planning to build will have plumbing in the summer, but will essentially be a dry cabin.

The smart way to go is to at least have some semblance of “running” water.

Let’s face it — you can do your laundry at a coin-op and you can take yourself to the athletic club to shower, but if you plan to actually live somewhere, you need to do dishes and wipe down surfaces occasionally

Okay, so you haul the water in a gerry can and then let it flow through the sink to a bucket below, which you then haul away to … somewhere. It’s better than nothing and makes it possible to live in what would quickly become an unhealthy situation. Of course, washing dishes in cold water is no easy task.

And where does the water come from?

Most of us go to the magic faucet turn the handle, but dry-cabin dwellers don’t have that option. Sometimes they fill up at friends’ homes or they’ll have a generous boss, but most people end up at The Water Wagon or one of the other filling stations around Fairbanks, including the State-maintained Fox “Spring”, which used to be a naturally occuring spring of great-tasting water, but is now a well that frequently has issues requiring the Department of Transportation to take care of it.

Whatever they tell you, “free” water ain’t free. It costs about $70,000 a year to maintain the “free” water at Fox. And, then there’s the option of buying it yourself. That’s about 10 cents a gallon, plus the gas to haul it.

Of course, if you get tired of that and you own your own home, you can always install a few amenities.

More on that in the next post.

Posted August 18, 2014 by aurorawatcherak in Alaska

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Checking Out the Comments   Leave a comment

I checked out the comments on the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner story on the local dry-cabin community and found a lot of Alaska culture.

Dry cabins abound here in Fairbanks for a lot of reasons.

  • An average house in Fairbanks rents for over $1200 a month.
  • Well drilling is expensive. If you live down in the valley, you don’t have to go very deep, but the water is awful — stinky, full of iron and calcium and organic material, makes your skin dry and your hair brittle and (for blonds) an unlovely shade of orange, and you have to worry if your neighbor dumps any toxic chemicals on his property that might get into the ground water.
  • Also, if you live in some parts of the Tanana Valley or Goldstream Valley (they’re adjacent) permafrost soil means no perk (water will not flow), so you can’t use a traditional septic system and the alternatives are essentially the same as dry cabin living.
  • If you live in the hills, you most likely have rock under your property, which means a drill core has to hit a water fissure. If they don’t, you could be out thousands of dollars and still have no water. I have a friend who drilled three wells at over $10,000 a piece before he gave up and bought a water tank.
  • If you heat with wood, you don’t have to worry about freezing water pipes if you can’t get home in time.
  • Homes in the old gold mining districts sit over water tables contaminated with arsenic. You can flush a toilet with it, but you can’t bathe in it safely and forget about drinking it, so ….

Gerald Newton, who has an impressive history of academic achievement and community service, feels that using an outhouse and cutting wood as a kid made him “humble and tough”. He claims “No indoor plumbing is good for people.”

It’s definitely survivable. My husband Brad, who has never lived without indoor plumbing, thinks it’s a great idea and will be building his dream cabin on our Steese Highway land in the near future. He plans to spend most of his time out there.

I will visit, spend a few days, probably take my turn dumping the honey buckets, etc., and then return to town where water comes out of the wall magically. I have lived without running water. I know it’s not romantic and I find it debatable if it makes you a better person to grow up without it. I suspect it makes you a tougher person with a more practical mind set than city living does and that’s a good thing, but everyone I know who grew up without running water has it now and many say they would not live without it. EVER.

Modern Alaska Culture   Leave a comment

The headlines read:

More Alaskans live without indoor plumbing than elsewhere

That makes us a pretty unique place in the United States, where only about a million people out of 330 million live san toilet.

Actually, it’s about 6% of the rental homes in the Fairbanks North Star Borough (like a county) that lack complete plumbing and about 5% that lack a complete kitchen. Statewide, those figures are 4.7% and 3.7%, which makes you-all in the Lower 48 look like easy livers with your 0.5% and 0.9%.

Fairbanks is the second largest community in Alaska by population (although Mat-Su/Wasilla may have passed us this summer). We are a modern city with movie theaters and a hospital and a world-class university. We also have a large community of dry cabin dwellers in the borough. It’s sort of an Alaskan experience. I have several friends who tried it out when they were younger, just to say they’d done it. These days many dry cabin dwellers are doing it because it’s the only way to escape the Interior’s high utility costs without leaving the community altogether. Other Americanized communities in Alaska do not have as high energy costs, so “dry” living is less of a need and less of an option. You won’t find many dry cabins for rent in Anchorage or Juneau, because they don’t need it.

For the record — I lived without running water for a period as a child and would not choose to do it again. I can fairly happily camp for about a week without washing my hair, but after that, I really want a bath … not just a shower, but a good soak in hot water, which you can’t get in a rent-a-shower.

Yes, we have those too — at least four laundromats and one gas station offer showers to those who don’t have them. And, it’s estimated that 10% of the memberships at the local athletic club are mainly for the showers.

Home heating diesel is around $4 a gallon, which is only about 2 cents higher than the national average, but we have a long and extremely cold winter, so that the average home in Fairbanks burns 1,135 gallons of heating oil every year. That’s about $6000 a year. Brad and I offset that with burning wood (saving between $1,000 and $5,000 a year depending on how motivated we are), but most rental units with plumbing do not come with a wood stove (because of the obvious risk to the structure), so many people opt for no plumbing — which sometimes brings the perk of a woodstove — in order to save about $1200 a year for water and sewer.

BUT ….

I know lots of people who own their own homes and do not have indoor plumbing — in fact, I’d guess the percentage to be higher than that reported in the rental market. Hence the second picture.

More on that tomorrow.

Posted August 14, 2014 by aurorawatcherak in Alaska

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