What To Do About an Old Privy

LaurieJune 20, 2011

We just had a lot of landscaping work started this morning on our 95 year old Craftsman/Victorian home (it's a mishmash of both).

Upon digging up all the old ivy, crap trees, bees nests and hidden slate in the area where my new paver patio was to go the landscaper discovered an old privy pit which has water in it (or a well, but we all believe it to be a privy pit).

Needless to say, the paver patio can not go there now, and I have to move it elsewhere, and there is little space to be had as is.

But that's the least of it. The pit, was not shown on my home's block and lot plan. So, the town has no idea about this. I do not know if I should report it to them, and have it filled legally or if we should fill it on our own, and if so - how do we go about doing this?

The pit will now be incorporated into a garden area, so there isn't any chance of anyone ever stepping into it. The cover that was on it is going back on it for now (cement), and it will be covered up with dirt and mulch for the time being and the location marked so we know where it is.

Any help appreciated. We really don't know how to handle this.

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Why not turn it into a water feature with a fountain?

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 12:54PM
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mama goose_gw zn6OH

Is the pit close to your house? If so, it's probably the remnant of a cistern--if it's as far as possible from the house, it's probably a privy pit--in between, could be an old septic tank. No difference, as far as back filling, but makes a difference in the 'ick factor.' In my location, I'd fill it in and forget about it, but you need to protect yourself legally, as well as for possible resale.

Oh, BTW, lots of interesting/valuable artifacts are found in old privy pits. ;)

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 2:02PM
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Privies were moved around on the property because, of course, they tended to be filled up with solid waste over time. I've never seen one lined with anything like cement or brick........just dug into the ground. If somebody were to suddenly get inside plumbing, I can't see them leave an untended hole with liquid and solid waste in it, it would have been treated with lime and covered eventually.

Cisterns were usually located close enough to the house for rain water run-off to be piped to them. Dug wells were as close to a house as possible, but that wasn't always possible. The old farmhouse on my son's farm has a dug well just feet off the back porch. A house I lived in when we lived in France had the dug well a good walk from the front entrance in the gardens.

If it's a dug well, it's potentially dangerous because it will be steep and may be deep and shall always fill with water until the sides collapse eventually. If it's a cistern it could be any size. I have two we use to collect spring run-off and one is fifty gallons and the other 1500 gallons. They are concrete or brick lined, depending on their ages.

If it's an old septic................well I suppose it could be, especially if the property has been swallowed up by development and sewer lines eventually run.

Has anyone 'sounded' it to determine how deep it is?

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 4:21PM
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I have an old privy on my property and the pit is cement lined but presently filled 3/4 full of dirt and rubble (not waste material)even some metal trash. I can see it because the floor boards have become so bad you dare not walk on them anymore. It was one of two original outhouses for the school (which I live in) and probably the pit was not cement until the 1940's when my uncle bought the property. He used the outhouse until the late 1950's.

Yours sounds like it could have been a cistern like calliope suggested or a well,esp. if it has a cap on it. The old well in front of my house (the school) has a round metal cap over it though, not cement.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 9:18PM
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mama goose mentioned the idea of a cistern,too. sorry mama.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 9:19PM
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schoolhouse, I can see a privy being lined under certain circumstances. I am sure the ones built to accomodate a lot of people like at the primitive campgrounds at a state park would be since they wouldn't be moving a building around. They would have to be 'cleaned out', much like a septic tank however. Wow, does that sound like a nasty job or what?

    Bookmark   June 21, 2011 at 7:37AM
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I'm not sure when laws were made that outhouses had to be "contained", quite a few people still used them in the little town I grew up in (including us until 1959 when Dad put a bathroom in the house - the neighbors all wanted to take showers!). Now I don't think they are allowed at all on private property are they?

The idea suggested that all manner of treasures can be found in the pit got me to thinking maybe I should do some excavating in mine, but I'll have to look to see if that's fill dirt and rubble I see or perhaps it IS cement filled and not just the walls. Of course the idea isn't really that entertaining when you think about it. eww.

    Bookmark   June 21, 2011 at 8:20AM
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mama goose_gw zn6OH

schoolhouse, no problem. :)

I googled 'excavating privy pits' and found some info, including the site linked below, which recommends keeping a privy pit journal. That's dedication!

Here is a link that might be useful: Dear (privy pit) Diary...

    Bookmark   June 21, 2011 at 10:45AM
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A cistern, that's a possibility we didn't think of either. The interior is brick lined, the shape, is rectangular. Around the outside, there was brick on the ground, spread around a foot in all directions - circular. It was capped with a cement top but we don't know if this was original or not to whatever this is.

But, we do not think it's a cistern, it's pretty small and we live in an area where fresh water is always available.

A well, might be more likely. However, our home is so old, this pit may even predate our home for all we know. It's possible that there was another structure here prior to this house being built. The Sanborne map from 1915 doesn't have our home on it, but that is when our town has the house dated - so I'm not sure if our town was even being mapped at all at that time (in fact, very few homes are on the map and I do know that this town was settled in the 1700's).

Whatever the case, I suspect I am going to have to bite the bullet and contact town hall sooner than later about having it sealed up properly.

Great. MORE money. Gah!

    Bookmark   June 21, 2011 at 5:57PM
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Whether you can install a pit privy or not, and the regulations governing their construction, just depends on where you live. It's still quite legal in our area, but I did look up the regulations on it and there are some specifics about where it's placed and how it's built. The laws have been revised not so long ago that they must be contained now, or at least the sides built to contain and an open bottom so that the effluent only discharges through the bottom to prevent contaminating surface soil and water. I've lived at two places and stayed for lengths of time at two others where only a pit privy was available, not to mention the campsites where they were in use. Until the regulations came in force, I could prolly explain in fine detail how to build and maintain one. LOL.

"But, we do not think it's a cistern, it's pretty small and we live in an area where fresh water is always available." Like I said, our original cistern only held fifty gallons. That's no bigger than an industrial drum. The key to determining whether it's a cistern or not is pipes going from it. There has to be a way for it to discharge and also to pull water out for use....... and I have never seen a well as small as you describe. They have to go beneath the water table to fill and they are usually rather deep to keep water in reserve.

If it's rectangular and brick lined, it likely not a septic system unless it predates any I have ever seen. I think you may be worrying more than you need be. I suspect if it isn't anything too esoteric, you'll be advised to fill it with soil and be done with it. That would not be an expensive project. Does it have water in it?

    Bookmark   June 21, 2011 at 6:45PM
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Yes, there is water in it - approximately about 10' down or so, give or take.

Could be ground water for all we know. There is no telling at the moment.

I just left a message with the lawyer who handled my closing. I want to consult with him about the right way to go about notifying my town about this and whether or not the previous owner is potential liable at all for not disclosing this to us. He lived there for over 30 years. I just can not believe he would have no knowledge of this considering it's only about 15' off the back of the house, and had a concrete top on it. The area was a jungle of weeds when we purchased the home, but the area is only about 18' by 10', abuts the garage - he would have had to walk by it daily. The neighbors told us it was NOT like that the entire time he lived there. He let it go as he got older I guess, not being able to keep up with the home.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2011 at 12:48PM
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mama goose_gw zn6OH

Whoa! 10' deep! Sounding more like a well, than any of the other possibilities. We have a well in our front yard, about 25 feet from the front door. It was capped in 1947, with a concrete slab, and I've never investigated. Ap. 10 years ago we had to fill in an old septic tank, but we live out in the country--no city council. Our new septic systems have to be inspected and certified (by the county health dept, I think), especially for resale.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2011 at 1:00PM
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Whoa is right! Neither my septic, nor my cisterns were that deep, even the 1500 gallon one. Pit privies for home use seldom went down more than five feet and were hand dug. Yowsa!

You are very prudent in contacting your attorney first, I certainly would. The information he/she would give you is far more reliable than any we could, just guessing.

If it's that deep, and has water, I could see where there might be some danger involved and I don't think I'd be monkeying around with it until I knew what I was dealing with. Good luck and I hope you can get it resolved easily and without a lot of expense.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2011 at 3:21PM
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Well (no pun intended).

I spoke to my lawyer today. He got a bit worried that it maybe an underground oil tank but I reminded him that my property had one in the basement many years ago and had long been removed by the prior owner (let alone, the hole is lined with brick and stonework after the first few courses of the brick, no metal at all there).

He gave me the names of 2 environmental companies locally to call and have them take a look. Both, he said, would most likely fill it without needing to report it to my town. He felt it wouldn't be necessary since it hasn't been notated by the town all these years and that as long as it was taken care of in a safe manner there would be no reason to report it. So, basically once filled it would just become "one with the land" and part of my garden and if anyone else ever purchased my home they wouldn't ever know it existed.

I don't have the money right now to take care of it - waiting for another influx of cash to take care of more things to satisfy my TCO, so once that happens I'll be calling for an appointment. Should be within the next few weeks. I'll keep you all posted as to what happens.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2011 at 9:51PM
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This sure sounds like a well...why not use it as the source for a water feature? Free water? Who would pass that up?

The mid-century ranch I grew up in had it's own well--hardest water I'd ever tasted...and yet, across the street less than a 1/4 mile away, the water we sometimes drank from an old hand pump was as sweet as could be! My aunt who lived about 60 miles north, had water which reeked of sulphur, and yet she drank it for many years--I don't think she even noticed the smell anymore. :)

This could make a nice pond/waterfall combo with just a pump to recirculate the water.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2011 at 11:25PM
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We live in an old house in East Germany, built in 1840, about 14ft from the rear of the house is this hole, lined with stone, it is fairly deep, over 3 metres... is it an old well?

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   November 6, 2011 at 7:51PM
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Sure looks like it. For comparison, see here.

    Bookmark   November 6, 2011 at 8:49PM
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