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There are so many ways that this can happen. The pipes, insulated or not, can freeze in the winter. (It happens to us!) The septic system can back up, pushing sewage into your bathroom. A clog in the plumbing could cause the same, backing up sewage into the toilet or bathtub or sinks.
But what about simpler, more common problems? What do you do when the city shuts down the water to your street or building, for example? Or the power goes out in a storm and the toilet won’t flush. It happens to everyone at some point.
When we bought our little cabin in the woods, we were assured that there was indeed a septic system. Of course, it was our own fault for not checking into that more aggressively, but let’s just say that someone was fibbing a lottle. (What’s a lottle? It’s like a little, except a lot.)
We were also told that we had our own well, that the water was drinkable and that we’d be able to use it year-round.
We started noticing problems quickly, and eventually realized that our septic system was a 45 gallon drum buried in the ground thirty years ago, and ignored ever since. About a week after Christmas 2014, it failed completely. Backed up, clogged, completely immovable. Nothing will go down. There are two adults and four children in our house, although luckily two of the children are not yet using the toilet.
With a lot of help from Environment Nova Scotia, we have a new system designed and ready to install in the spring. Yes, they tested our land and designed the system, so we know it will work well and be safe! It will consist of a composting toilet and a graywater system. But spring sometimes seems a long way off!
As we settled into our new home, we noticed other things – like the fact that our pipes freeze as soon as the weather hits –10C, no matter how well we insulated them. That would have been nice to know before we moved in. This year we took preventative measures and shut off the water before the temperature dropped.
So what this means is that we are without running water in the winter (this is our second year), at least whenever it’s cold out, and we have been unable to put anything into the “septic tank” since early January.
So what can you do to prepare for emergencies like this?
If your toilet needs either water or electricity to operate (and most municipal sewage systems require both), you need to set up an emergency toilet system.
There is nothing fancy about an emergency toilet. It is for fairly short-term emergencies. When our septic system failed, this is what we set up while we wait to rebuild the septic system.
In a corner somewhere, stick two 5 gallon buckets and a toilet seat that fits them well. Buckets can stack, so they won’t take up a lot of space. It is also wise to include heavy garbage bags that will fit inside the bucket, if you do not have a place to dispose of the waste and must store it. The problem with regular toilet seats is that they don’t always fit. You could pick up a Luggable Loo toilet seat which does fit. It seems expensive for a toilet seat but it is cheaper than any of the other options. You won’t need two if you’re willing to move the seat from bucket to bucket. There are OTHER options if you find the Luggable Loo expensive.
Take young children into account. Anyone too small to use the bucket will need to have a smaller potty.
Bucket one is for urine. Urine might smell of ammonia but it is not generally a health hazard.
Bucket two is for feces, which can pose a health hazard. Each time the toilet is used, add a small amount of “bulking agent”, usually coarse sawdust, which will help decomposition later and cover up the smell immediately. Sprinkling a bit of Borax on top will also decrease odour.
Just like an ordinary toilet needs frequent flushing, an emergency toilet, at least the one for feces, needs to be emptied often.
Emergency Toilet Waste Disposal
The most difficult problem with an emergency toilet (that is, one that collects the feces instead of composting it) is the matter of disposal. We are so used to our waste being whisked away by the sewage system, but what can we do when that has failed? If you have your own land, the best things to do is to dig a trench and bury it.
You can NOT dump this in your building’s dumpster or in your garbage can. Okay, I suppose you literally CAN, but please do not. It is illegal and dangerous. You also cannot just dump it out on the lawn or in the ditch by the road. (Again, just … don’t.)
The basic advice in most areas is to dig a hole deep enough so that animals do not dig it up, and bury feces there. Dispose of urine in your garden (only if they are for your family’s consumption, and not being sold) or on outdoor plants. They’ll appreciate the nitrogen. Important – the nitrogen in urine is very concentrated and will burn your plants. Mix it with water, with one part urine to between five and ten parts water. Yes, it‘s that strong.
The safest way is to have a special compost area for human wastes. The best book (perhaps the only one?) written on disposing of human waste in a sustainable, safe and self-sufficient way is The Humanure Handbook. Click here to download it as a PDF.
Secondary Toilet System
If you’re going to buy one, take a look at them at Amazon. The Camco 41541 Portable Toilet appears to be a popular one. (As always, if you buy through my Amazon link, I get a small commission. It costs nothing extra for you, but it means a lot to me!) This is the CHEAPEST way to do it, and many people use these quite successfully.
A much more expensive choice, and the one we’ll be using once it arrives, is a complete Composting Toilet. Our choice for this was the BTS 33 – which has been discontinued (NOT an affiliate link). It uses no electricity and no water, which we thought made it perfect for our off-grid home. However, it’s pricey, between $1000 and $1500, depending on sales, plus delivery charges.
And it was horrible. You can read more about that here.
In very rural areas, an actual outhouse (also called a latrine) could be a permanent secondary toilet. Be sure to locate it far enough from the house or any water – 100’ is a fairly standard distance. Check your local bylaws to be sure. The hole needs to be at LEAST three feet deep, and preferably more. After each use, toss a handful of quicklime on top to minimize flies and smell. When it’s fairly close to the top, cover it up with dirt and move the outhouse.
Manually Flush Toilet
If the sewage system is still working but the toilet won’t automatically flush, it is usually possible to manually flush. Contact your municipality and find out if when it is safe to flush toilets. If the power is out, they may not be able to move the waste along the sewage system, which will cause backups.
Use about 4 cups of water to flush urine and about 8 cups to flush feces. Pour the water directly and fairly quickly into the hole. If you pour it slowly around the bowl, it will not flush and you’ll have to do it again. For feces, follow this up with another 4 cups to rinse the bowl. This will not flush, but it will leave water in the bowl for the next time.
Most of us are already familiar with this if we have been taught how to clean a toilet (and I really hope all of us know how to clean a toilet!). If you pour the first amount of water in quickly, directly down the hole, it will flush but not fill back up. That’s when you can easily clean the toilet.
The first time I heard about this was while studying the ancient Romans. They were the first to use flush toilets – and they situated their toilets near the kitchen because the waste water from the kitchen was used to flush the toilets. The neat thing is that, if for some reason your toilet isn’t flushing, this works just as well today as it did for the Romans.
Okay, so what about things OTHER than the toilet? If the plumbing fails, you’re still going to need water, right?
The absolute minimum to store is a gallon of water per person per day. This is enough water for drinking and very minimal cooking, and is only suitable for short-term emergencies.
After living with stored and carried-in water for months, I can tell you that the reality is closer to 10-20 gallons of water per person per day, if you plan to bathe and wash laundry. If there is any warning that the water will be turned off, fill every container in the house with water, including the bathtub.
That amount of water is a lot, so keep in mind – if you can not store it or figure out a way to get water somewhere other than the faucet, you will be on severely limited water rations. You will not be able to wash very many dishes, clothing or bodies (other than your hands), nor can you wash potatoes or other vegetables. A gallon per day is NOT a lot of water, especially since 1/4 of that is just for drinking.
It is wise to calculate bathing into your emergency water needs. When things are rough because the water is off or the power is out, being clean is a huge morale boost. Without a fully functioning water in/waste out system, you will not be able to have long showers or deep soaking baths, but you can still stay clean, as long as you have water.
Here are the bare bones:
Wash your feet, genital area, underarms (and under breasts for a woman) and face (including ears and such).
Unless you are extremely dirty, this can be done with a facecloth, a bar of soap, and a small basin of water. And if you are extremely dirty (from outdoors work or similar), wash first, empty the water and then wash again.
Wash from your face down, as far as possible. Then wash from your feet up, as far as possible. Then wash Possible.
She says that, when working as a nurse, that is what they were taught to do with patients.
Hair is different for everyone.
With long hair that I wash with the no ‘poo method (that would be “no shampoo”), I can go two weeks or longer.
The mister, with short, greasy hair that he always washes with shampoo, needs to do it at least weekly, but preferably twice a week.
In addition, No ‘Poo uses much, much less water. Even though I have thick, waist-length hair, I can wash it with about 2 litres of water.
Now here is something I never see anyone talk about. If your plumbing doesn’t work, how do you get rid of water? Dishes and washing both generate water. Add in any leftover water from cooking vegetables or pasta (or the water from washing potatoes or carrots!), and you can have a lot of water that needs disposal.
This will depend on your location, but try not to dispose of large amounts of water beside buildings. The best place to dump excess water, if available to you, is around trees. They are thirsty and even a small fruit tree can take in many gallons of water daily.
Keep Your Sense Of Humour
Chances are, the situation is not long-term. Even if it does last several weeks or longer, everything will run more smoothly if all adults remain cheerful. No one wants to lug smelly buckets to the compost, or bring them out for burial, and no one enjoys dealing with accidents like overturned buckets.
But life happens. We prepare, and do our best to make the emergencies less traumatic, but sometimes we just need to haul some poo.