Our washing machine was not appreciated. It faithfully sat in the corner of our laundry room and dutifully agitated and spun the dirt away… until it broke last summer. It had served us well by cleaning 60 loads a month, but it was not worth repairing.
This was our unplanned introduction to off the grid washing and putting into practice the skills needed to clean clothes without electricity. No one, except me, was enthusiastic about this new adventure. For two weeks we did our laundry by hand and lived to tell about it.
We knew enough of the basics and we did have clean clothes, but as those 2 weeks wore on, we learned a lot more. If you’re ever without power or if there’s ever a grid-down scenario, these tips will come in handy.
• Do your best to keep up on laundry. When an emergency happens, you will feel some sense of assurance that most of your family has clean underwear. In fact, hurricane-hardened moms know to go on a laundry-cleaning marathon once a hurricane is just 3 or 4 days out. If the power goes down, at the very least you’ll have clean sheets, towels, clothes, and plenty of clean underwear!
• Assign a laundry day to each person in the home. If they are old enough to, have them be responsible for their own laundry, this includes their linens. Teach and help younger children how to do laundry, including sorting, which detergent to use, how to remove stains, how to fold each type of item, and finally, where everything goes once folded. When they are 12 years old they should have this mastered. It’s a life skill. Am I right?
• Stock up on laundry soap, dryer sheets, fabric softener and stain remover. A 3 month supply would be awesome! If you want to make your own products, download Switch From Store-Bought to Homemade.
• We have stored bars of Fels-Naptha and Zote soap. These bars can serve as a pre-treatment stain remover and as detergent. They are inexpensive, small, easy to store and last a long time.
• As a bonus, Fels-Naptha can be used for poison ivy treatment, cleaning very greasy/dirty hands and household cleaning. Do not wash dishes with it or use it as a regular hand soap.
• Zote is a great soap for those with sensitive skin or for baby clothes. It has a strong scent, however.
• Clotheslines and clothes pins are a must. Clotheslines come in a variety of styles. Buy what works best for your home and size of your family. Be prepared to have a drying method for inside your house on rainy and/or wintery days. Wet clothes have been known to freeze solid on a clothesline!
• Have a backup location to wash and dry. In Southern California we found the weather to be wonderfully cooperative! Consider the bathroom a great place to wash. You will need to drain the water somewhere. Maybe a garage or basement would provide the room needed for a clothes line.
• Once in a while, wash clothes by hand or just bypass the dryer. There is much to learn about the art of hanging clothes on a line. More people than you might think continue to use a washboard for scrubbing clothes by hand.
• In a true grid-down scenario or a severe drought, be prepared to recycle your grey water. Grey water is the water that you used to do laundry and can be used to water plants, wash a vehicle, or other uses that don’t involve contact with food. If you’re planning to do this, use water that has not been used to wash underwear, since any water that comes in contact with feces will be too contaminated to re-use. The solution for that is simple: schedule one or more loads of “underwear laundry” per week and wash everything else separately.
• Consider buying a non-electric washing machine as a backup for power outages. These units run around $50 and the WonderWash was reviewed here a few years ago. Some of these units have a foot pedal or a hand held crank and hold about 6 lbs. of clothes. They require less physical strength and it only takes a few minutes of turning to have clean clothes. Rinsing goes fast and the clothes can be spun to expel much of the water.
There are a variety of laundry soaps and stain treatments that you can make at home. I have made both the powder and the liquid. The powder is faster to make. I recruited one of my children to grate the soap to see how it would work. It went well and I got a clean smelling kid out of it. A food processor was used to grate another batch. It got the job done but it did required electricity. You could easily make a 6 month to a year supply of laundry detergent in an afternoon. Personally, I store bars of soap and have additional store bought detergent as well.
Methods of off grid washing vary. If you are strong, want to get strong, or have kids that need to burn energy, I recommend the 5 gallon bucket and plunger method. It is cheap to make and simple to store. This is what you need:
• 2 5-gallon buckets (home improvement store, some restaurants give them away for free)
• Lids for buckets. Washing can be done without a lid, as we have learned, but a lid is better!
• A new plunger, average quality is the minimum.This one was designed specifically for off-grid laundry use.
Take one of the 5 gallon buckets and drill holes all around the side of it. Drill holes in the rubber part of the plunger, if you’re using a traditional plunger and not the one pictured here.
If you choose to use a lid, drill a hole in the lid that is large enough to place over the stick of the plunger. Put the bucket with holes inside the other bucket. Add water, soap and clothes. Allow enough room for agitation!
Grab a chair, put the bucket in front of you, and pretend you are plunging the toilet for about 10 minutes. Dump dirty water out, fill with clean water and continue plunging. When you are finished rinsing, place the outer bucket inside the bucket with holes and press or sit on it. Most of the water will drain from your clothes.
If you are determined to permanently wash without electricity, there are other options to be explored. A bicycle powered washing machine or a large hand cranked machine can be purchased. Antique stores and auctions often have non-electric washing machines from many years ago that are still functional. These vary in price and quality. What matters most is that you have a plan and the proper equipment ready to clean clothes without electricity. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely doable!
Did you ever stop to put some thought into the flushing power of your toilet?
It’s one of those things we in modern society take for granted. We use the restroom, then we flush, wash our hands, and forget it.
But during extreme scenarios, this isn’t always so easy. When researching my book, The Prepper’s Water Survival Guide, I spent a lot of time reading about water, sanitation, and waterborne illness. These issues are all closely linked, and it’s vital to find solutions.
If you’re on a septic system, you have a safe place for your waste to go during most types of disasters, assuming you have additional water on hand for flushing.
But, in the city, on a public sewer system, there exists the possibility that a situation could arise during which flushing is not an option. Do you remember during the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy when residents of high-rise apartment buildings couldn’t flush because the city water system was down? There were numerous reports that people were so desperate that they were defecating in the hallways. They quoted a resident of a senior apartment complex, Anna Hay, who said, “They can’t go upstairs to go to the bathrooms. Where are they going to go? They’re walking all around for a place to go. There’s nowhere to go in this area.” (source)
With some very small and inexpensive preparations, it doesn’t have to come down to that. Just having a portable toilet is not enough for good hygiene and safety. If you live in an urban area, going outside to do your business may not an option. You have to figure out a way to take care of this, indoors, while maintaining the health of your environment.
As a former city prepper, I’ve been through a few situations during which our toilets were inoperable due to a local disaster. Luckily, I had the supplies on hand to create a kitty litter box for people, so my children and I were able to stay in the safety of our home without risking illness due to poor sanitation.
Here’s all you need to make a litter box for people:
Hopefully, you realized you weren’t going to be able to flush before using your toilet. If there is waste sitting in your toilet, you’re going to need to get rid of it. Not fun, I know, but if it sits there for several days, it’s going to smell terrible, even with the lid down. To get rid of it, you’ll need to have a bag set up with a bit of kitty litter in it. Then, use a cheap dollar store utensil like a slotted spoon to fish out the poop. Try not to hurl, because that’s just something else you’ll have to dispose of. Get rid of the slotted spoon because you will NEVER want to stir beans with that one again. You’d have flashbacks.
Now that this is out of the way, you have two options. You can line your toilet and continue to use it following the directions below, or you can switch to the luggable loo, which is basically just a 5-gallon bucket equipped with a toilet seat and a lid. The process is the same for either one.
If you’re using your toilet, turn the water off to the tank. (The knob for this should be on the wall at the back of it.)
Line the toilet with a garbage bag. Let me repeat: DO NOT GO CHEAP ON THE GARBAGE BAGS! You want to use the best ones you can get your hands on. The ones for contractors are designed to carry very heavy loads. (There’s a horrible pun that I’m resisting making right now.) The last thing you want is for a bag full of human waste to break as you are carrying it out of your house. Put the bag in the bowl, then pull the top of the bag down over the edges of the toilet. Put the seat down to hold the bag into place.
If you’re using the Loo, line it with a garbage bag. Same as above, put the bag into the bucket, then pull the top edges down the side of the bucket. Put the seat down to hold the bag into place.
From here, the steps are the same.
Put a handful of kitty litter into the bottom of the bag to start off. Although I don’t usually like scented products, this is an extreme scenario. Trust me, you want scent. Put the bucket of kitty litter beside the toilet and put a scoop in it (about a 1 cup scoop)
Now you can use the bathroom. When someone has to go, they should do their business then toss a little bit of kitty litter on top of it. Don’t go crazy – just a cup of litter should do the trick. Remember, it’s designed to cover the smell of poop. Put the lid down on the toilet or loo after you use it.
Don’t let it get too heavy before taking it outside. For the love of all things cute and fluffy, watch the weight of your human litter. It will soak up urine and become heavy clumps of clay. (Anyone who has ever changed a litter box knows how heavy it can get.) Remove the bag and discard it outside before it becomes a) too heavy to handle or b) heavy enough to cause the bag to break. If you’re using good quality garbage bags, “a” is more likely than “b”. Most likely, you’ll need to take the bag out once per day. It could be more if you have a large family or if someone is ill and making abundant use of the potty.
This is obviously not a solution for a very long-term situation, because you would have to dispose of the bags of poop. However, in a shorter term scenario, you should be able to load the bags into a garbage can outside and deal with them when services are restored.
Be certain to wash your hands well after dealing with human waste. Although I’m not usually a fan of hand sanitizer, in these kinds of situations, I strongly suggest the use of it. Your family could become extremely ill if good hand hygiene and waste management techniques are not practiced.
The Prepper’s Water Survival Guide: Harvest, Treat, and Store Your Most Vital Resource
That magic moment when you go to wash your hands….and nothing comes out of the tap.
Late on Friday evening – you know, too late to reach the local repair guy – that was the scenario at our rented farm. Nary a drop was coming from our faucets.
For the past couple of months, I had believed there was an impending issue with our well. However, it was one of those intermittent problems that was impossible to diagnose before it actually fell apart completely. So, there we were after dinner on a Friday night, with laundry half way through a wash cycle, a sink mounded with dirty dishes, and the debris of a canning session all over the counters. And no running water.
Of course, having lived up North through a well going dry, numerous power outages, and frozen lines, this wasn’t our first rodeo. The nice thing about prepping is that we always plan for the worst-case scenario.
We immediately shifted to Plan B mode and tapped into our stored water.
While cleaning is certainly less than fun in these conditions, it can be done. Here are 8 tips for cleaning without running water. (These and many more can be found in my book, The Prepper’s Water Survival Guide.)
1.) Break into the supply of disposable products.
Obviously in a long-term scenario, disposable products won’t be what you turn to for cleaning. However, during a short-term power outage, they can be very helpful in getting your food prep areas cleaned.
Before washing extra dirty dishes in soapy water, wipe them to get most of the crud off. You can use a cleaning wipe for this, since it will hold up better than paper towels.
2.) Use a container of rinse water instead of pouring water over dishes.
You can go through quite a lot of water running it over soapy dishes. Use a basin of water and rinse your dishes by dipping them into it. The bonus is, you can reuse the rinse water when you’re done.
3.) Use dishpans, not a plugged sink, for washing and rinsing dishes.
Dishpans have the benefit of not letting that precious water run down the drain. When you don’t know how long your shortage of water is going to last, it’s important to make every drop stretch as far as possible. All of this water can be safely reused for specific purposes.
4.) Reuse your cleaning water.
The water that you’ve collected in your basins can be used yet again if you choose safely where to reuse it. For example, dishwater or cleaning water can be used for flushing the toilet. Rinse water can be used for mopping the floor, then used one more time for flushing.
5.) Clean counters with disposable wipes.
If you have no water and you’re pretty sure this is not going to be a long-term situation, don’t dirty up kitchen linens by scrubbing the counters with them. They’ll just have to be washed, using up even more of your stored water supply. (And depending on what you are scrubbing off the counters, they may need to be washed right away to keep from being smelly.) Instead, use disposable cleaning wipes. When our brief disaster struck, I’d been canning tomatoes, always a messy endeavor that requires a great deal of clean-up afterward.
First, scrape off anything stuck to the counters. If your mess is dry, use a dry paper towel to get the crumbs off, then follow up with the wet cleaning wipes. If your mess is a wet mess (like a spill) absorb as much of it as possible with paper towels. If you absorb with regular towels, hang them outside to dry so that you don’t end up with smelly, souring towels in your laundry room while you’re waiting for a chance to wash them. Once the major part of the mess on the counters is cleaned up, scrub with disposable wipes. If it is a food prep area, I usually then give it a quick spray with a vinegar cleaner and a wipe with a paper towel, because I don’t want chemical cleaner where I prepare the things we eat.
6.) Alternatively, use a basin and rag for cleaning counters.
If you don’t want to use disposable wipes, you can use a rag for cleaning the counters. Use a basin for rinsing out the rag while you clean. Before dipping it in the basin, squeeze out the rag over the drain to get rid of some of the detritus from your counter. (Not that your counter will always be as messy as mine was after making marinara sauce.)
7.) Cleaning up after you clean up.
If you haven’t used disposable cleaning products, you will need to clean up after you clean up. Rinse all rags well in soapy water to get the chunks off. Then, wash the rag carefully, rinsing and wringing it out several times. Dip it in some of your dish rinse water to get the soap out. Hang it to dry so that it doesn’t begin to smell sour. If you did use disposable products and you had a big mess on your hands, take the garbage out so your home smells fresh and clean.
8.) Have a bathroom basin.
You can keep a dishpan full of water in the bathroom for handwashing too. Dip your hands into the water, then soap them up well. Scrub like you’re a doctor getting ready for surgery, getting into the nooks and crannies. Then dip your hands in the basin to rinse them well. Be sure to get all of the soap off or your hands will be itchy. After using this, you can dump the water into the toilet tank for flushing.
If you’re reading over this and clicking your tongue over my use of commercial cleaning products, you’re absolutely right. These store-bought products are loaded with chemicals that I don’t want to make part of our every day lifestyle. But emergencies often call for measures you wouldn’t take on a daily basis. If you are running your household on stored water, you’re going to have to make some choices in order to make it last through the crisis.
For this reason, we turn to harsher products than we’d normally use. Most of our homemade products are very gentle on our skin, our lungs, and the environment. I would never revert to using these things regularly but I can make exceptions when I need to extend my water supply.
When you are cleaning up in a power outage situation, the key to success is not to end up with a bigger mess that requires even more water. I rarely use disposable products, but I do keep them on hand for those times during which we must rely on our water storage.
Here are the items I recommend that you keep on hand for water emergencies:
Luckily, our emergency was short-lived. Our well pump had burned out and the repair person made it to our place fairly quickly. (We also learned that there isn’t a whole lot of water left in the well, so we’re being very thrifty with the water until the rainy season arrives.)
You can survive:
Three minutes without air.
Three days without water.
Three weeks without food.
If a disaster has hit and you’re still breathing, then your next concern has got to be water.
Have you ever watched any of those survival shows on the Discovery Channel where people are dropped off in the middle of nowhere and left to survive with limited tools and supplies? In nearly every single episode, the biggest issue is finding and purifying water. Often, they wait so long that they become desperate and engage in risky behavior, like drinking water from a stagnant pool. In one particularly notable episode, the contestants had to be rescued because they became too weak from dehydration to seek water.
As you can see, those random occurrences that happen out of the blue can strike anyone at any time.
It’s easy to say, “Oh, I’ll just go to the store and grab a few bottles,” but when everyone else in your area has the same idea, it doesn’t take long for the shelves to clear, potentially leaving you and your family without water.
Even if you are able to jostle your way to the front of the line and victoriously snag the last 24-pack of individual water bottles, if the situation lasts longer than expected, that paltry amount is not going to see you through it.
Why not? Because on average, the expected rate of consumption is one gallon per person per day. That doesn’t include consumption for pets or what you’ll use for sanitation. If the situation persists for more than a couple of days, you’re going to need to bathe, clean, and wash dishes. Not only that, but you’ll have to figure out a safe way to dispose of human waste.
The water that you store for your family should be enough to see all members of the household through a two-week period without running water. This is the bare minimum supply you should have on hand.
Sometimes, even an abundant stored water supply isn’t enough. In more dire situations, water supplies can be interrupted indefinitely.
Do you remember the earthquake that devastated Haiti? That unexpected natural disaster took place in 2010, and some areas still do not have running water five years later. Five years. There’s no way a person could store enough water to last for that long, so the people affected have had to completely change their way of life. They’ve had to learn how to acquire water for their needs, how to purify it so it doesn’t make them sick, and how to conserve the limited amount they have available.
Did you know that oftentimes, more people die in the aftermath of a disaster than in the disaster itself? And the number one cause of death? Contaminated water.
If you are thirsty—truly, desperately thirsty—it’s human nature to drink whatever is available because your imminent demise from dehydration is more concerning to you than the pathogens in that dirty water you are gulping down.
But drinking contaminated water can lead to a host of dreaded diseases like dysentery, hepatitis A, viral gastroenteritis, cholera, shigellosis, typhoid, diphtheria, and polio. Just one person handling personal waste improperly can contaminate the water supply for hundreds, even thousands, of other people downstream from them.
Whether you are just getting started in the preparedness lifestyle or you’ve been at it for a long time, there’s always something new to learn about water. There’s just so much information about water that it deserves its own book, instead of just one chapter in a general preparedness guide. Aside from air, it is the most vital element of human survival. In this essential guide, you’ll learn that:
What’s more, a water supply and source aren’t only important during disasters. It’s vital to know about the things that could be lurking in your water even if it assumedly flows safely from your taps. Municipal water supplies and wells can contain things you’d rather not consume. Sometimes these contaminants are mild and only cause issues when consumed over a long period. Other times, the contaminants can make a susceptible person ill almost immediately.
There is nothing you can store that is more valuable than water or the means to purify water. There is no greater preparedness measure that you can take than that of securing a safe, abundant source of water. Without this one vital element that makes up 50 to 70 percent of your body, you’re as good as dead.
While we would love to be able to trust the liquid flowing from our faucets, anyone who pays even half-hearted attention to the news knows that we can no longer expect safety in our drinking water unless we confirm it ourselves.
The EPA and Michigan’s Gov. Snyder have now added to the list of reasons that I have trust issues. Water is one of the most important survival topics around – it’s so important to me that I wrote an entire book about it.
Every day, new horrors are being uncovered in relation to the drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Residents of the city have been drinking water that was presumably safe for the past year without knowing that it was actually contaminated with chemical byproducts, E. coli, Legionnaires’ disease and lead. It appears that both the EPA and the governor of Michigan knew the water was unsafe for quite some time, but no one said a word to warn the people of Flint. To heap insult onto injury, the water company has had the audacity to bill people for the poisoned water and has even sent out shut-off notices.
So, do you really think you can trust the water flowing from your own taps? If Flint was the last straw for you, it’s time to take matters into your own hands and test your drinking water for contaminants. Whether your water source is private or municipal, the onus for your family’s safety is on you.
Water testing kits are readily available on Amazon.
From a preparedness perspective, it makes sense to keep a few of these DIY kits on hand in the event you need to test water during a disaster situation. (Obviously, not the one you have to send off to a lab.)
Be sure to also test the pH of your water. Your water’s pH level is very important because if it is too low or too high, it can cause corrosion of lead and copper from household plumbing. To be safe, drinking water should not have a pH lower than 6.5 or greater than 8.5.
Following, please find an excerpt from my book, The Prepper’s Water Survival Guide. Chapter 9 of the book discusses the importance of testing your own water, how to do it, and what to test for.
…We’ve already discussed the infinite possibilities for contaminants in water sources. Bacteria, viruses, parasites, nitrate, PPCPs, and toxic chemicals could be lurking beneath the surface of virtually any water source you can think of. It is safest to assume at least some of those pollutants and impurities are present and plan accordingly.
Even if you are getting presumably safe “city water” from a municipal supply, you should be provided with an annual report that explains what kind of testing was done on your water and what was found, if anything. Of course, if you aren’t the trusting type, you can still test that water yourself as an added precaution.
If you have a well or are collecting water from a source that is not monitored and regulated, you will need to take responsibility for testing and purifying your water yourself.
Studies have shown that around 50 percent of private water systems fail at least one drinking water standard.
Many common pollutants do not cause water to smell, taste, or look funny, so you can’t rely on your senses to determine safety.
Water is a “universal solvent,” meaning that it has the ability to dissolve almost anything it comes into contact with. This characteristic means that it is very easily contaminated.
Most testing isn’t expensive, and the time and financial investment will provide you with priceless peace of mind. Not only is your family’s health at stake, there are possible legal consequences involved. Think about how litigious our society is: If someone consumes your water and becomes ill, you’ll want to be able to prove that you conducted the proper testing on a regular basis. And, should you suspect your water supply has become contaminated by an outside source, you’ll want to have documentation to support your case.
You can test your water yourself or have a professional lab or service do it for you. Drinking water quality test kits are available for purchase online and at most superstores and home improvement stores. Basic kits usually test for bacteria, lead, nitrates/nitrites, pesticides, chlorine, hardness, and pH. They are fast, simple to use, and inexpensive. Your test kit will have instructions specific to that kit. Kits that test for less-common contaminants are also available. Some test for 15 or more contaminants, including the ones in the basic testing kits, plus iron, sulfate, copper, and sulfide.
Even more in-depth testing kits are available, but most of them require you to send your samples to a professional lab. Most of them check your water for around 100 different contaminants, including volatile organic compounds, toxic metals, heavy metals, and bacteria. The pricing for these comprehensive kits is typically in the $100 range, and results can take about a week to receive.
At a bare minimum, you should test your water once a year for coliform bacteria and nitrates because of the serious health risks associated with those contaminants.
It is best to test for nitrate during the spring or summer following a rainy period, if possible.
If someone in your household becomes pregnant, test your water supply for nitrate in early months of the pregnancy. Test it again before bringing a newborn home, and again during the first six months of the baby’s life. Remember, in the body, nitrate is converted into nitrite, which can cause brain damage and death in infants because it reduces the amount of oxygen in the baby’s blood. .
Test for total dissolved solids and pH every one to three years. These tests will provide you with an overall picture of the health of your water. The total dissolved solids content of drinking water should be below 500 milligrams per liter (mg/L). This value should not change much from test to test. If it does, further testing is necessary because it is likely that pollution has occurred.
Lead is a naturally-occurring element that can be found in air, soil, and water. Lead from natural sources is present in tap water to some extent, but analysis of both surface and groundwater suggests that lead concentration is generally fairly low. The main source of lead in drinking water is (old) lead piping and lead-combining solders. Homes that were built before 1986 are more likely to have pipes made of lead, but even “lead-free” piping can contain up to 8 percent lead. If you don’t have lead pipes in your house, your water probably doesn’t contain any; it is rarely found in source water.
Even though it is unlikely that your water supply contains lead (unless you have lead pipes), testing for it is a good idea.
Lead can damage various systems of the body, including the nervous and reproductive systems, the kidneys, and the bones. It also can cause high blood pressure and anemia and can interfere with the body’s use of calcium and vitamin D. High amounts of lead in the blood of children can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and mental retardation, all of which may be irreversible. At very high levels, lead can cause convulsions, coma, and death.
If your water source tests positive for lead, you’ll need to use a filtration system that is certified for lead removal or find a safer drinking water source.
Something else you don’t want in your water supply is arsenic. This naturally-occurring element is found in rocks, soil, water, air, plants, and animals. Natural events like volcanic activity, forest fires, and erosion of rocks can cause it to be actively released into the environment. Arsenic is also used in agricultural and industrial practices and is used in some fertilizers, paints, dyes, metals, drugs, and soaps. It is also used as a wood preservative and can be released by mining and coal burning.
Arsenic is highly toxic and can affect nearly every organ system in the body.
There are short- and long-term health effects associated with arsenic exposure. Some effects appear within hours or days of exposure, and others develop over many years.
Long-term exposure to arsenic through drinking contaminated water can cause chronic arsenic poisoning, leading to life-long problems. This most commonly affects the skin in the form of lesions, discolorations, thickening, and cancer. Cancer of the bladder, lungs, prostate, kidneys, nasal passages, and liver are other possible devastating diseases arsenic can cause.
Arsenic can also affect the cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunological, neurological (with symptoms including numbness and partial paralysis), reproductive, and endocrine systems.
Severe arsenic poisoning can cause vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. These symptoms are followed by numbness and tingling of the extremities, muscle cramping, and, in extreme cases, death.
Water that contains high amounts of arsenic should not be used for drinking, cooking, or watering crops. Plants can take up arsenic through their roots, causing the product of the plant to contain high levels of arsenic, which is then passed on to the person or animal who consumes it. Rice has been found to have particularly high levels of arsenic, so much so that many holistic nutrition experts recommend eating rice infrequently or not at all.
Groundwater sources tend to have higher levels of arsenic than surface water sources. That’s because the demand on groundwater is usually higher. It is more commonly used in municipal systems and private wells. This heavy use can cause water levels to drop, allowing arsenic to be released from rock formations.
Certain regions of the United States tend to have higher levels of arsenic in their water supplies. The EPA’s standard is 10 parts per billion (ppb), and some western states have levels that are higher than that. Some parts of the Midwest and New England have levels that high, or close to it.
Because of this toxic element’s prevalence in the environment, testing your water source for arsenic contamination is a good idea. Most home-testing kits cost less than $15, and you’ll see your results within minutes.
Radon is a gas that comes from the natural radioactive breakdown of uranium in the ground. It has no color, odor, or taste. Radon can dissolve and accumulate in groundwater, which means it can be found in water from wells. Not all groundwater contains radon, but drinking water that contains it can cause internal organ cancers like stomach cancer.
You can buy a simple kit to test your water source for radon, or you can contact your state radon office for assistance.
Fluoride is an ionic compound that contains a reactive element called fluorine. It is naturally found in many rocks
Because it is believed to protect teeth from decay, it has been added to public water supplies since the 1940s. By 1960, water fluoridation had become widely used in the US, reaching about 50 million people. This is also the main reason my family never, ever consumes municipal water if we are in an area that deliberately adds the compound to the public supply.
The incidence of tooth decay has declined in the United States since fluoridation began; however, it has also declined in other countries that do not fluoridate. Many argue the reduction in tooth decay is because of more accessible dental care and better dental hygiene, not water fluoridation.
Backing them up is research conducted within the last 15 years that has shown that fluoride primarily works topically, such as when it is applied to the teeth in toothpaste that contains fluoride.
Water fluoridation has been the subject of much controversy, and for good reason. Studies have shown that fluoride intake may cause a startling array of serious health problems, including increased risk of bone fractures, thyroid disorders, impaired immune system functioning, and cardiovascular disease. There is also some evidence that fluoride can cause osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. Researchers suspect a connection to cancer because half of ingested fluoride is deposited in bones, and fluoride stimulates growth in the end of bones, where osteosarcoma occurs.
A study published in the fall of 2012 in Environmental Health Perspectives found a link between high fluoride levels found naturally in drinking water in China and elsewhere in the world, and lower IQs in children. The paper looked at the results of 27 different studies, 26 of which found a link between high-fluoride drinking water and lower IQ. The average IQ difference between high and low fluoride areas was 7 points, the study found.
Children aged eight years and younger have an increased chance of developing dental fluorosis. In mild cases, this shows in white streaks on the teeth. In severe cases, it can include brown stains, pitting, and broken enamel. As of 2010, 41 percent of children from ages 12 to 15 had some level of dental fluorosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fluoride consumption over a lifetime may increase the likelihood of bone fractures, and may result in skeletal fluorosis, a painful and potentially crippling disease. The EPA has determined that safe exposure of fluoride is below 4 mg/L in drinking water to avoid those effects.
Naturally occurring fluoride concentrations in surface waters are generally low, but that depends on location. However, groundwater can contain much higher levels than the 4 mg/L recommended maximum.
Community water systems in areas with levels higher than that are required to lower the fluoride level below the acceptable standard. But the levels in private water sources, such as wells, may still be higher.
This means you will need to test your well water for fluoride, and will need to remove the fluoride if your levels are above 4 mg/L.
Even if your water is crystal-clear, odorless, and tastes great, you still should test it for contaminants and pollutants on a regular basis. But sometimes there are signs that your water supply may need to be tested even more frequently. Here are some of those signs, and what they might mean.
Your drinking water should be clear. Here is a list of possible coloration issues you way encounter, and what they may indicate.
In the past few years, several water emergencies have happened right here in the US. These emergencies provided reasons to store water that even non-preppers would have to find pertinent.
It’s easy to say, “Oh, I’ll just go to the store and grab a few bottles,” but when everyone else in your area has the same idea, it doesn’t take long for the shelves to clear, potentially leaving you and your family without water.
Back in 2010, a water main broke in Boston, Massachusetts. The resulting leak flooded into the Charles River, and officials were forced to use the untreated backup reservoirs. A state of emergency was declared, a boil order was announced, and absolute chaos erupted as more than two million people suddenly found themselves without running water. A local news outlet reported:
The run on bottled water caused near panic at some stores throughout the Boston area Saturday night.
At the BJ’s in Revere, the crowd got so big and the rush for water so intense that police were called in. In order to maintain control of an unruly crowd, the store was shut down for the night.
Shortly after residents in Boston received an emergency call warning them of the water crisis, supermarket aisles stocked with water were quickly wiped out.
“They are fighting over it, literally fighting over water,” said a customer at the Roche Bros. in West Roxbury. “I just had to fight my way through the aisles ’cause it’s crazy in there.”
“Not since Blizzard of ’78 have I seen something like this,” said the store manager. “New shipments that arrived were gone within seconds.”
In Coolidge Corner in Brookline, long lines formed at Trader Joe’s, CVS, and Walgreens for any kind of bottled water, including sparkling and pricey designer bottles.
The Governor of Massachusetts was able to lift the boil order a mere three days later, but during that short span, the National Guard was dispatched to deliver water, businesses were called upon to increase the water inventory brought to the local stores, and many restaurants were forced to close their doors due to the lack of safe drinking water.
In 2014, a crisis struck in West Virginia.
Up to 300,000 people in West Virginia have been banned from using tap water after a chemical spill in a river, which has also forced schools, bars and restaurants to close.
The state’s governor has declared a state of emergency in nine counties following the industrial leak. The ban has lead to long lines for bottled water and locals are reporting that stores are running dry, and people are fighting over the bottles that are available.
Residents in a growing number of affected areas have been told not to drink, wash or cook with the tap water and only use it for flushing toilets.
Laura Jordan, external affairs manager for West Virginia American Water, said: “It could be potentially harmful if swallowed and could potentially cause skin and eye irritation.”
The spill of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, a chemical used in the coal industry, into the Elk River happened above a water treatment plant in Charleston – the largest in West Virginia – and affects 100,000 homes and businesses. (source)
And just this past month, disaster struck in Alabama.
More than 100,000 residents have been told that they can’t drink or cook with the contaminated tap water in Alabama by the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority…but this isn’t just a week-long clean-up. The restriction is expected to last until September.
The issue is synthetic chemicals that have the potential to cause cancer, birth defects, and developmental delays in children. Traces of PFOS (Perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) were found in the blood of nearly every single person tested, according to the EPA…
…The thing with chemical contamination is that the water simply can’t be purified. Boiling it, in many cases, simply intensifies the strength of the toxins. Filtering it does nothing to remove the chemicals. (source)
And these are just a few of the water issues the United States has seen over the past few years. There were also crises in Ohio, Utah, and Michigan.
If you don’t have at least a one-month supply of fresh pure drinking water properly stored, along with plans for long-term water sources, let these emergencies and industrial accidents be your wake-up calls. An epic disaster doesn’t have to be a dramatic, end-of-the-world scenario. They should serve as cautionary tales to those who are blithely unprepared.
Water is second only to oxygen in the hierarchy of survival. Without it, in 3 days, you’ll die. But it goes much further than that. Water is vital for basic sanitation, for growing more food, for raising livestock, for cooking, and for treating injuries. So even if you have enough to drink, without enough for those other needs, your chances aren’t good.
The solutions you choose for water should be based on whether your plans for long term survival are bugging out to a secondary or unknown location, or sheltering in place. This week we’ll talk about solutions for bugging in.
There are several aspects to water that you should consider if your long term plans are to bug in at your current location. Many of these solutions can also be put into place if you have a secondary location to which you will travel in the event of a crisis.
First things first, you must store water. This is absolutely the initial step that people should be taking in their preparedness journey. The good news is, it is also one of the least expensive preparations. There are many different ways to put back a month’s supply of water. We store drinking water and water for pets and sanitation. Keep in mind that in the event of a disaster, even if water is flowing from the taps, it may not be safe to drink. Waterborne diseases like typhoid kill many people in the aftermath of natural disasters, sometimes causing more deaths than the disaster itself.
When I moved to one particular home, I bought spring water in one-gallon jugs. We used this for drinking and cooking water (we are on municipal utilities and we don’t trust the supply for consumption.) Once we emptied a one-gallon jug, we then refilled it with tap water and stored it in the basement. This was our back-up supply for sanitation and for our pets. We used this method to store over 300 gallons of tap water.
For drinking water storage, I purchased some of the large BPA-free 5 gallon jugs. We also have a top loading water dispenser that can be used whether or not we have electrical power. I have gradually acquired a one month supply for 4 people of this water. In my basement, I have stored 30 of these jugs.
The standard advice for drinking water is one gallon per person per day. I like to add a little bit to that in order to have extra for cooking. Also, keep in mind if you are working outside, particularly in hot weather, you’ll drink more than a gallon per day. Sick people and pregnant women also tend to hydrate more.
Water is heavy. Be sure when you choose a place to store it that you won’t impair the integrity of your structure. For this reason, storing it all on one end of the attic might not be the best idea, depending on your situation. Also, keep in mind that extreme temperatures can cause plastic containers to break down. Depending on the type of plastic, this can leach harmful toxins into your water. If your water is subjected to freezing temperatures, it expands and can cause the containers to burst.
This step is even more important than storage, particularly if a situation turns long-term. What are you going to do after that water storage runs out? You can’t store a 30 year supply of water, in most cases. You have to be able to replenish your supply.
The best solutions are either a deep well or a natural spring on your property. Those will keep you in fresh, pure water indefinitely in most cases. Some exceptions are if the groundwater is contaminated due to a natural disaster like an earthquake or a manmade disaster like fracking.
Some naturally occurring sources to look for if you have yet to acquire your property are rivers, creeks, lakes, or ponds.
Keep in mind that you may be transporting the water from its source to your home. Look into back-up solar pumps for your well, and be sure that a manual pump is also available. If water is going to have to be carried for any distance, consider what type of conveyance will make the job easier. As people age or become injured, the job of carrying two buckets full several times a day will become a lot more physically strenuous. A sturdy wheelbarrow, pushcart, or wagon would make the task easier.
If your property doesn’t have these natural resources you must plan a catchment system for rainwater. Depending on your area, you may want a cistern or other enormous amount of storage for the water you harvest. If you get frequent precipitation throughout the year numerous water butts at the corners of your structures may supply enough water for your needs, including supplementing your garden. (Be warned that the eco-police in some places believe that the government owns the water falling from the sky – rainwater catchment is illegal in some states. Many may wish to disregard this flagrant insult to natural law.)
Bear in mind that the water from most natural sources MUST be filtered, so an investment in a high-quality water filtration system is vital. When you purchase your filtration system, go the extra step and also purchase extra elements. I have enough elements to keep us in safe water for many years to come as well as the spare parts to replace the wear-and tear items like spigots and gaskets. My personal favorite water filters are the AquaPail and the ProPur. ProPur also has a powerful component that you can hook up to your sink to purify the water straight from the tap. I used to recommend Berkey products, but during the crises mentioned above, they couldn’t filter out the contaminants, while AquaPail and ProPur could.
It’s important not to just purchase a filtration system and leave it in your closet until it’s needed. Particularly if water is in short supply, you don’t want to waste it as you try to figure out how to use your system or as you run a gallon through before using it for drinking water. Practice now while water is readily available.
Finally, if the availability of water is limited, you must make every effort to make it stretch as far as possible. I recently wrote about the drought situation on the West Coast and the toxic water due to a chemical spill in West Virginia. Our resources are finite and it doesn’t pay to waste them. This would be even more true in a world without water as near as the closest kitchen sink. If you have to go to the well or the creek and haul every drop of water your family uses back to the house, you will have added impetus to make the most of it.
Installing systems in your home to make use of gray water and black water can help you make the most of every drop of that precious liquid.
Gray water can be used for watering plants, for example, and sometimes for cleaning depending on the origin of the gray water. Gray water is the water that comes from bathtubs, showers, and clothes washing. Systems can be devised that separate the disposal fo gray water and black water, and the gray water can be diverted for use in irrigating your garden.
Black water is the water from human waste, like toilet water or dish water, and contains bacteria and pathogens. There are some recycling systems that make black water acceptable for use in watering outdoor plants.
Declare your independence by getting prepared for a water emergency. If you never buy a single canned good or bag of pasta for long term food storage, please store water. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see the good sense in being prepared for an event that could happen any place, at any time.
Having water on hand is just one part of being prepared. Knowing how to safely store, treat, filter and purify water can keep you alive. This article reviews how to make sure water is safe to drink. You can get very, very sick from drinking contaminated water and in a survival situation, sickness can quickly become life or death scenario. You need water, but more importantly, you need safe drinking water.
If you have water stored, you may be certain it is safe to drink, but if you’re using other supplies of water from inside or outside of your home (or you want to make extra sure your water storage is safe), you’ll need to filter and purify it. Should you drink the water? It’s important to know for sure.
Water bottles and water stored from a safe drinking supply (tap water from a municipal plant) should be fine to drink. Other stored water, such as from a well, needs to have bleach added to it to treat it. The Survival Mom recommends using 1/8 teaspoon of bleach with no additives per gallon if the water is clear.
You should keep some unscented bleach on hand for emergencies, but be aware that bleach does have a fairly short shelf life. It starts to break down after six months and needs to be replaced every 12-16 months. Rotate your bleach bottles frequently to ensure you have effective bleach on hand.
Making water potable requires two steps, filtering and purifying. Filtering removes bits of things, like sand and bugs. It removes big particles, not microscopic ones like bacteria. Purifying removes or kills germs and bacteria, although some methods are more effective than others.
Filtering first and then purifying is the best practice for drinking water, in part because it extends the life of your purifier and in part because some purification methods (such as boiling) do absolutely nothing to filter out debris.
Tap water can become contaminated even in non-emergency situations but more commonly in an emergency. In a non-emergency, you will almost certainly find out either from news stories or when you receive a phone call notifying you to boil your water to make it potable. (Potable water can be safely consumed.) In a true emergency, it is safest to treat your water source as likely contaminated until proven otherwise.
You may have to seek water sources inside your home, like the water heater, or outside the home, like a pond or stream. Water from sources that aren’t guaranteed to be safe should be filtered first and then purified. Filtering removes big impurities like leaves, dirt, insects, and sticks. Towels, screens and coffee filters can be used to filter water. Another way to do it if you don’t have those items on hand is to improvise a water filter that lets the water flow through layers of rocks, sand, and charcoal to filter out debris. This only removes visible debris but does virtually nothing to actually purify the water.
Sometimes commercial “filters” are actually purifiers. It is important to do both steps, so make sure you look closely at what the product actually does because you need both. If it is a purifier, then you need to add a filter – unless you enjoy spider legs and leaves in your drinks.
Once water is filtered, there are several ways to purify it. You can boil it, add bleach, use calcium hypochlorite, use UV light, add water purification tablets, or use a commercial device.
Boiling water can be a great way to purify water, but it does have a couple of downsides. First, it can concentrate any chemical contaminants in the water. As water evaporates as steam, it will leave behind liquid water that may contain a more concentrated level of certain contaminants.
Another downside is that it requires fuel and time for the water to come to a full boil. If either is in short supply, boiling won’t be your best bet.
Otherwise, you want to heat the water to 149 degrees for 1 minute to pasteurize it. Pasteurization actually occurs at a lower temperature than boiling, but you’ll need either a thermometer to verify the water temperature or a WAPI, Water Pasteurization Indicator. This inexpensive device is a handy addition to any emergency kit.
Adding bleach to water can also treat it for some pathogens. The American Red Cross actually recommends boiling and using bleach. If you want to add bleach to water that has been boiled, make sure it has been cooled down first. The water should have a slight chlorine smell once bleach has been added and allowed to sit for at least 30 minutes or so. If you do not smell a bit of chlorine, add another drop or two.
Use this chart for reference when using bleach:
Water amount Cloudy Water Clear Water
1 quart 4 drops bleach 2 drops bleach
1 gallon 16 drops 8 drops
5 gallons 1 teaspoon ½ teaspoon
55 gallons 4 tablespoons 2 tablespoons
Calcium hypochlorite has a longer shelf life than bleach but is also trickier to use for purifying water. You can often find it labeled as pool shock, but make certain it doesn’t have any extra additives. (It needs to be safe to purify water for drinking, not just for swimming in.) The Survival Mom recommends Cal-Shock 65. You can read in-depth about pool shock here. When using pool shock, you make a solution of homemade bleach with a teaspoon of pool shock and 2 gallons of water. (A pool test-kit comes in handy to make sure the right amount is added.) To purify water with the homemade bleach solution, add 1 ¼ teaspoon to 1 gallon of water.
UV light can purify water. The battery powered SteriPen uses UV light to purify small amounts of water. There is also a hand-crank version of the Steripen.
Another option for purifying water is the use of water purification tablets. These are a good short-term method since they contain iodine. They are a good addition to a vehicle or bug-out bag since they are small and light-weight. However, iodine should not be used for more than six weeks and not by pregnant women. As with boiling, it is effective against many pathogens, but not with chemical pollutants.
There are also many commercial water purification devices that you can have on hand. There is the LifeStraw, Katadyn, Berkey, Survival Still, and many others. They can easily be added to any bug-out bag or vehicle as well. Some can be used for large quantities of water while others are designed to be used by one person.
If you have a well for water, you should test it regularly, especially if you haven’t used it for several weeks, if new equipment has been installed, there has been flooding or an earthquake, or it smells, looks or tastes funny. If you have a new well pump installed, the hoses that actually go into the well – in your water – will be laying on the ground before being put down into the well. This means they will potentially be covered in who knows what from the ground. It is extremely important to have a professional (the ones installing your well) treat the water with high doses of chlorine to kill any germs and bacteria.
Your water will not be potable until the chlorine level goes down, so be prepared to use bottled water for drinking. Keep enough bottled water on hand, both in small and large containers, for any time that your well water might become contaminated or your well pump stops functioning.
When you have a new pump installed, well water should be tested again after two weeks to insure it is bacteria-free and safe to drink. Depending on the filters in your home, you may be able to drink it sooner. In our home, we have a sediment filter, a whole-house UV filter, and a reverse osmosis filter for our primary drinking water. We were able to drink the water after the chlorine smell went down (two or three days) but still needed to be certain the water was safe just in case our UV filter failed.
Very few people have whole-house UV filters, but they do add peace of mind for a few hundred dollars. There is no denying it’s an expense, but it kills micro-organisms that filters don’t affect. Three filters may sound like overkill, but once when an earthquake caused our neighbors’ well water to become brown and undrinkable, our multiple filters left us unaware of the problem until we heard them talking about it. It is worth being certain.
Wells can be a great source of water in an emergency, but you need to have a way to get the water up when the power is out. Consider getting a backup system that uses a generator, solar power, or a hand pump. Well pumps actually use quite a bit of power, so check your requirements and the generator capacity carefully.
If you have a swimming pool, you may think you have a great source of emergency water, and you do – for anything other than drinking or cooking. Pool water may contain chemicals that act as a laxative and can be toxic over a long period of time. Chlorine-resistant bacteria can be in the water from the bodies of people who have swum in the pool.
Pool water is also a type of water that shouldn’t be purified by boiling, as it will increase the concentration of the chemicals and minerals it contains. If there is no power for the pool’s pump and filter system, it could start to become a breeding ground for insects and algae. Having pool test kits on hand can help you know if the chlorine levels are set right to prevent mosquitoes. The water can be used for laundry, flushing toilets and washing animals.
Be safe when drinking water in emergencies. You need water – clean water – to survive any emergency situation!
We all need water. In as little as three days without it, a person can perish. Water is a vital part of being prepared. How much do you really need? How should you store it? How often should you rotate water storage? What can you do at the last minute? Let’s explore what experts say on those topics.
The American Red Cross recommends that you store 1 gallon of water per person per day. However, The Survival Mom recommends 2 gallons per person per day. Why? Think over a typical day and what you use water for – drinking, preparing food, washing clothes, washing dishes, taking a shower, brushing teeth, watering plants, filling pets’ water dishes, flushing toilets, making coffee. You could even take a gallon of water around with you for a day and see if that is really enough.
In a survival situation, you will also need water to sanitize and clean if you can’t use a dishwasher or washing machine. There can be a difference between the amount of water you absolutely need to have and the amount of water you need to make life comfortable. Consider, too, that babies and pregnant and nursing mothers often need more water than others. If you live in a hot or dry climate, take that into considerations as well.
After you figure out how much water you want to have on hand per person per day, then you need to decide how many days of water supply you want to have on hand. The basic recommendation is for three days (72 hours), but there are disaster scenarios that will have you wanting to have water on hand for more than three days.
One of the easiest options is buying bottled water. It will require doing a little bit of math to figure out how many bottles you need, but generally about 8 bottles of water equals one gallon. If there are four people in your family, you’ll need at least 32 bottles of water per day. Cases usually have 24 bottles for a few dollars. For a basic week’s worth of water, you’d need just under 10 cases. Double that if you want 2 gallons a day per person.
If you want to store water in containers, make sure they are food grade containers. They should be thoroughly cleaned before being filled. Two-liter soda bottles are another option after they’ve been cleaned. Milk and juice jugs are not recommended for use because the sugars and milk proteins cannot be completely washed off the containers and can lead to bacterial growth. Glass containers can be used, but are heavy and can break. You can sanitize containers by soaking them for at least 30 seconds in a mixture that is 1 teaspoon bleach in 1 quart of water.
Water stored in containers may need to be treated by adding some bleach before storage.
For water bottles, you can rotate them by the expiration or use-by date. For water you store yourself, rotate the water every six months.
Keep scent-free, dye-free bleach on hand for treating, sanitizing and purifying water. (Basically, you don’t want any additives in the bleach that could end up in your drinking water.) Bleach has a shelf life and starts to break down after six months. It needs replaced every 16 months. Rotate your bleach bottles frequently to ensure you have effective bleach on hand.
If you haven’t stored up any water and the emergency is happening now, there are still some steps you can take. Start filling containers and bathtubs with water. If you don’t have a Water BOB to hold the water, clean the bathtub first, if at all possible. You can find more water in the hot water heater. Ice cubes can be melted and liquid can be found in canned goods. Do not consume any water or liquid that has a very unusual odor or color.
Potential outside sources of water include rain water, ponds, streams, lakes and springs. Outside sources of water need to be purified before drinking. Depending on your resources, timing, and the contamination of the water, boiling and/or iodine will treat many pathogens.
If the emergency involves contaminated water, you may need to shut off the main water valve to your home (Do you know where it is?). Be sure not to drink any possible contaminated water unless it has been purified, assuming that is possible. In the case of a chemical spill, it may simply be too dangerous to drink the water until the situation has been contained. And children are more susceptible to contaminated water than adults.
You don’t spend all your time at home so be sure to store water at work and in your vehicles as well. I always have a case of water in our minivan, and, with little children, it has come in handy for every day life, not just traffic jams and emergencies.
If you end up facing a long-term power outage, you may not have water flowing in your home. The generators that run city water could run out of fuel and well pumps that run on electricity won’t work. Every drop of water will be precious. Consider storing containers to hold water that can be re-used for sanitation, washing dishes and washing clothes. Look into having a rain barrel or storing water in 55-gallon drums so you have a long-term water solution. Water purifiers intended for multiple people to use repeatedly, rather than something like tablets or bleach that will run out far more quickly, are also a good investment.
For more information and details on water storage, visit:
Pooping…there’s nothing we like better as a society than sharing our defecation experiences.
OK, you got me. This is not a subject for “proper” conversation. While we all have to do the “Number 2” to survive, it remains a very private experience. Couples that don’t think twice about urinating in front of each other draw the line here.
Under normal circumstances, the details of elimination are pretty straightforward. Wipe, flush, and you’re done. But in a significant disaster, our options for “sanitation” are few and ignorance of proper disposal of waste can lead to discomfort, discord, and health hazards.
Having this survival sanitation discussion in advance with the whole family is an important step in normalizing this uncomfortable adjustment to our hygiene habits.
I have a story to illustrate how even highly trained emergency responders have trouble with this issue. I was the Team Leader of a 150-member federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team, trained and equipped to set up a medical clinic with physicians, nurses, and paramedics in the midst of the worst disaster areas. Our team had a field exercise where we set up our field toilets, basically a 5-gallon bucket with a plastic seat and a “Wag-Bag,” a plastic liner with a gelling agent inside to capture waste and allow disposal in regular garbage.
All personnel were trained in how to use it, and yet at the end of the first day it was clear that some refused to follow the directions. Some Wag-Bags were left on the ground, some of the buckets were filled with waste, it was a mess. As a result, our new procedure was to assign a monitor to inspect each toilet after use so our health could be maintained.
Let’s examine the problem. Potable water and working sewers are necessary for modern sewage systems to operate. In many areas, electrical power drives the pumps for potable water and sewage systems. Private well pumps also rely on electricity. So any disaster that affects the power grid will impact your sanitation strategy. Still, if you have the water available and an intact sewer or septic tank, pouring water into the toilet will allow normal flushing.
More complicated disasters such as floods can directly affect potable water and sewage systems by causing backflows and interfering with gravity-flow systems. In this case, sewer lines can become a direct threat to you unless you have a valve or plug to prevent backflow into your house.
Similar issues can develop with your septic system. Earthquakes can create a whole new level of havoc, breaking both potable and sewage water lines and causing cross-contamination. Depending upon what hazards are common to your area, you should plan for the worst case.
There are several options for waste disposal if the traditional toilet is not available. The closest thing to the normal toilet experience is the camping (chemical) toilet, available in the $40-$100 range. These units have a several-gallon waste tank, a small water tank and some kind of pump for flushing. The operation is similar to a regular toilet, and a chemical is used to deodorize the waste. For short-term use, this is a good solution; however in situations where water is at a premium, the water used for flushing is better used for drinking or washing.
For many families, the simplest plan will be using a 5-gallon bucket and sawdust or dirt. This is the “composting” method, where waste is allowed to naturally decompose into compost material. When someone does their business, they cover the waste with sawdust or dirt which helps control odors and introduces helpful bacteria into the pile. This method isn’t ideal, but in long-term situations it manages the solid waste in a hygienic manner. The “compost” needs to be mixed every few days to assure oxygen is getting to all parts of the mixture…and a lid must be kept on to keep pests out.
One problem with this method is that the compost should be moist but not damp to facilitate breakdown, so only limited urination can be accommodated. A separate bucket for urinating should be kept, this liquid can be disposed remote from living areas and can be used to water plants outside. The Wag Bag system I previously mentioned allows you to avoid the composting details, but they are an expensive alternative especially for large groups or long time periods.
The most basic sanitation method is the slit latrine, a narrow but deep and long hole in the ground over which you squat and do your thing. The idea is to start at one end and as each person poops, they stir their contribution into the dirt with a stick and cover it. Some provision of privacy is provided with hanging sheets or other barriers. As long as this trench is located away from ground water sources, this is fairly hygienic.
For an in-depth view of outdoor elimination, check out Kathleen Meyer’s How to Shit in the Woods.
But just having the equipment available doesn’t solve the problem, as my example above shows. You need to have the Talk. The Talk should include:
Our discomfort with the subject of sanitation doesn’t relieve us from planning for our needs in an emergency. Addressing the subject in advance, with a healthy dose of humor, with make this aspect of weathering a disaster a little less uncomfortable.