Emergency Water; Emergency Toilet

A lot of what I’m saying here is too late to help those of you who motivated this post — my Texan friends and colleagues who are dealing with electricity outages and water shutoffs precipitated by an extended period of record-breaking cold temperatures and snow. I am very sorry I did not have the foresight to write this up before, when the weather forecasts first came out and it might have helped more people. Sometimes I tend to think that if I know something, it must be obvious to everyone.

(Lesson for each and every one of you, as well as a reminder to myself: Don’t sell your knowledge short! You too have valuable skills and info you may be taking for granted. Share it. If it might help even one person, it’s worth sharing.)

Unfortunately much of this may be too late to do my friends in Texas any good right now, but I’m sharing this for future reference. It’s good disaster-preparedness information and can help you anytime you’re hit with an extended electricity outage, and/or extended water shutoff. Many experts predict, and I agree, that we’re only going to be seeing more extreme weather as time goes by.

The following tips can be useful in hurricanes, floods, droughts, and other extreme weather, as well as the current deadly cold spell in Texas. Being always prepared for disaster can make the difference between mere inconvenience and brutal hardship.

Emergency Water:

The following tips on water are a combination of my own experience, research, and tips from friends including a home-renovation contractor.

Although I am not a fan of bottled water (for many reasons), I am hoping most people have some stockpiled, because otherwise I don’t know how people are supposed to get water right now when the water is shut off, or how you are supposed to boil water when the power is out (and you don’t have a gas stove). My best advice regarding this is, if you do have stockpiled bottled water, share with your neighbors to the extent that you are able. I mean go around knocking on neighbors’ doors giving out water if you can. And if you have no drinking water, knock on a neighbor’s door and ask if they can spare some. Really I apologize that this is the best advice I can offer right now; I should have thought to make this post a week ago when it might have helped more people prepare. Fortunately, by now at least some people have been able to clear the ice and snow off their cars (those who have cars) and venture out to stores (those stores that are open, and have water in stock), so that should help to a degree.

Now, looking beyond the immediate crisis: It’s pretty easy to keep enough drinking water on hand for emergency purposes. Allow a minimum 64 ounces (the oft-cited “eight 8-ounce glasses”) per adult per day just for drinking. That’s a half-gallon. A gallon per person per day should be enough to cover tooth-brushing and even wetting a corner of a face-cloth to freshen yourself up (helpful for morale).

So if you are a household of one, 7 gallons will get you through a week; 14 gallons will get you through two weeks. For a household of four, that’s 28 gallons and 56 gallons. In the future, once the water is back on: To store energency drinking water, you could fill one-gallon jugs from your tap, or fill yourself a few of those rugged plastic containers of the type that water-delivery services use; those are about 6 gallons. This can take up a lot of space in a small apartment or trailer but beats the alternative of not having safe drinking water on hand.

My own water storage is mostly outdoors: rainbarrels. I have instant access to about 400 gallons of fresh water, which I can filter as needed but I know at least that it is not affected if the city water pipes burst, city water system gets contaminated, etc. A few years back, in the aftermath of a hurricane, our water was out for a couple of days, and even with the one 40-gallon barrel that was all I had back then, I was able to provide neighbors with emergency cooking water along with having enough for myself.

Right now, my friends in Austin are being advised to boil their drinking water because of potential contamination from burst pipes. And such boil-water notices are not uncommon during hurricanes and other weather disasters also. And during an extreme drought, someday there might not even be water coming through that tap at all. Anyone who knew to keep emergency drinking-water supplies on hand is having one less hardship to deal with. This boil-water notice is especially grave right now because many households are without electric power, and have electric stoves rather than gas, and therefore have no easy way to boil water.

During times of extreme cold, when pipes can freeze and burst, I suggest preemptively shutting your water off at the street (or consult with your apartment landlord and fellow residents, if you live in an apartment building), and opening up your taps to drain the pipes and get some air in there to help keep them from bursting. I don’t know if this is 100% protection against pipes bursting but from everything I have heard and read, it’s a pretty safe bet. Be sure to open your outdoor tap(s) too. (If there’s a hose attached, I would detach and drain the hose; use the water to give plants in your yard an extra drink).

What about showers? If it’s bitter cold, you probably won’t want a shower anyway. But if you’re reading this and your disaster doesn’t involve cold weather, you might well crave a shower. But, you can get by for a few days without it. You might be uncomfortable but you will be OK. Your daily 1-gallon water allowance should be enough for a very minimalist washcloth-dampening sponge-bath, which helps a lot. Even just wetting and wiping your face can be remarkably refreshing. A drop of essential oil on the cloth, in your favorite refreshing fragrance, helps a lot.

But what about the toilet? In Austin, with the power outage some people’s houses are so cold I’ve heard reports of water freezing in toilet bowls. In a situation of extreme cold coupled with electricity outage, along with opening the taps as above, I would flush the toilet so there’s no water in the bowl or tank.

But then how do you pee and poop? Read on.

Emergency Bucket Toilet:

The following is based on my experience at permaculture gatherings, eco farms, festivals, and elsewhere where compost toilets were used. Here, I’m assuming most of you teading this have no experience with compost toilets, and I am adapting my tips for just “emergency waste management & disposal” purposes, not composting humanure per se. If you want to learn about compost toilets, I highly recommend The Humanure Handbook by Joe Jenkins. (I am a strong advocate of compost toilets; they are easy to use and I give info about them in my book and elsewhere on this blog. But for the moment, I’m just trying to help you get through the current emergency.)

Some of my friends in Texas are bringing snow indoors to melt as toilet-flush water. This is a viable strategy as long as your pipes aren’t frozen and burst, and as long as the temperature inside your house is warm enough to melt snow — both of which are not the case in many households I know right now. The emergency bucket toilet removes the need for flush-water.

In a nutshell: Poop in a bucket. Five-gallon lidded buckets are ideal; they’re a good size and a comfortable height. But a smaller bucket like a kitty-litter bucket will do. If you have a portable camp toilet, which has a removable mini-tank that’s designed to easily empty into your regular flush toilet (once your regular flush toilet is working again), even better. But I’m assuming most folks reading this right now don’t have one of those.

If you can pee outside rather than in the bucket, do so (on top of a pile of leaves or wood chips is good, or on the mulched area by a tree). As much as possible, save the emergency bucket for just pooping. If you have to pee in the bucket that’s OK, but the less you pee in the bucket, the more days of use you get, and the less smell.

If you have sawdust or partially decayed leaves on hand, put some in the bottom of the bucket as a starter layer. Newspaper or cardboard will work too. After each poop, cover your poop with a layer of sawdust, decaying leaves, dried grass clippings, or if you don’t have any of those, then newspaper or cardboard. Tear the paper or cardboard into small pieces. Newspaper can be crumpled into balls. One bucket should be enough to last one person one week or even longer. The purpose of the cover material is to absorb as much moisture as possible, and minimize odor. (Dead leaf matter, newspaper, and other aforementioned materials are high in carbon, which balances out the high nitrogen content of poop and urine. This cuts the odor and also breaks down the waste.)

After a bucket gets filled, start another bucket.

Disposal: Basically this is a giant version of a pet poop bag, with leaves or sawdust or whatever mixed in. Note, I am only advocating this as a last-resort emergency measure. If your toilet is frozen or your pipes are burst, you have a bona fide emergency. If you have those thick plastic garbage bags, those should suffice for disposal. You can even make your disposal task easier in advance by using plastic garbage bag as bucket liner. (Or line the bucket with a paper bag if that’s what you have.)

I know all this might sound foreign and yucky to the uninitiated, but the alternative is a lot yuckier, as people who have had sewage back up into their house when the municipal infrastructure malfunctions (such as during a long heavy rain) are all too aware. Anyway, most of us have dealt with our pets’ or kids’ poop, so the emergency bucket toilet shouldn’t be too onerous.

For the Long Term:

Water: Collect rainwater. Even one 50-gallon barrel can give your household an emergency drinking-water supply for a week or two. Gutters and downspouts make rainwater collection faster and more efficient. But if you don’t have them, no problem; just put a barrel underneath an edge of your roof where the rain drips off. (If your roof has valleys, position the barrel underneath a valley; it’ll fill up even faster.)

Rainbarrels can freeze solid; I recommend using up the water before you think a long hard freeze is coming. Or if the barrel is just partially full just leave the lid off or loose so the freezing water can expand without cracking the barrel. I have had some plastic rainbarrels warp, or the bottoms poof out and become rounded rather than flat, during a long hard freeze, but they snapped back to normal after thecweather thawed.

To filter the water, a Brita filter or Berkey filter is a good investment. Personally, I have oftentimes used unfiltered rainwater for both drinking and cooking, but I would encourage folks to invest in a filter. For the DIY-minded, you can even make your own water filter using sand and pebbles. (YouTube videos and written tutorials abound; I will look for a good one and post it here.)

Toilet: Invest in a camp toilet (or several, maybe one for each household member). The kind that you empty into a regular toilet (once things are back to normal) is handy. Portable toilets are handy to have in general; they’re great, for example, when you have houseguests and you don’t want a lot of people to have to share one bathroom. You can give the “real” bathroom to the guests, and use the portable toilet yourself, and empty it after your guests are gone.

Read up on compost toilets and, if regulations in your area allow, start turning your “waste” into black gold. If regulations in your area don’t allow, get with likeminded people and look into getting the regulations changed. These days with all the hurricanes, floods, and other disasters hitting our conventional water and sewer systems, you might find more likeminded people, even within the ranks of your own local government.

A New Normal

Unfortunately, extreme weather events are only likely to intensify in the coming years. And in many places, government and infrastructure are simply not equipped to cope with these historically unprecedented events. Our best hope is to fortify ourselves with simple, low-tech measures for maximizing household and community resilience. A rainbarrel and a poop bucket could make life a lot easier for you.

These tips I’ve offered for getting yourself and your community through severe weather are also tips that’ll help you save money and resources, and have more peace of mind.

If I’ve left anything out, or if anything is unclear, please get in touch. 512-619-5363 voice or text. You can contact me at any hour of the day; if I’m asleep or in a meeting or something I will get back to you as soon as possible. Also please feel free to contact me after the immediate crisis is over, and I will be happy to help you get your long-range plans and systems in place. I offer this as a free service, paying-forward the permaculture knowledge and other skills I have been privileged to be able to afford the time and money to learn and practice.

Further Exploration:

• “Experts: Deadly Storms To Endure; Cracks in preparedness exposed by winter’s fury” (Associated Press article by Matthew Daly and Ellen Knickmeyer; published in Daytona Beach News-Journal Feb 19, 2021). “Deadly weather will be hitting the U.S. more often, and America needs to get better at dealing with it, experts said as Texas and other states battled winter storms that blew past the worst-case planning of utilities, governments and millions of shivering people. This week’s storms, with more still heading east, fit a pattern of worsening extremes under climate change and demonstrate anew that local, state and federal officials have failed to do nearly enough to prepare for greater and more dangerous weather, experts say.”

Candles as emergency fuel for cooking, lighting, heating (The Provident Prepper). I forgot to mention candles! My house is full of candles for emergency light, heating, and cooking. This article by the Provident Prepper offers some good detailed info on which types of candles have the longest burn times etc. (The improvised tea-light stove and oven she talks about seem like they’d be good in a pinch, though they need a lot of candles. I have heard about people being able to boil water and even cook food using just a single candle underneath an upside-down institutional-size tomato can that has an air opening cut into it; will post link if I can find one.)

• Oh! Speaking of candles, here’s another good thing I forgot about: “Buddy Burners.” It’s an old trick from Boy Scouts. Fill an empty tuna can with a roll of cardboard and pour melted wax in there. One of these can supposedly provide an hour to an hour and a half of cooking time. I’m going to make some of these and add them to my preparedness kit. (Great use for old candles that have lost their effectiveness and become just huge chunks of wax because the wicks got buried or weren’t made properly. I have several of these old candles.)