A major challenge to sanitation during a disaster is what to do with human waste. It’s not something people like to talk about too much, but poorly handled sanitation around this will lead to cholera, dysentery and sever dehydration. Quite frankly, in modern society we owe a lot to public health because we have sewage treatment and clean water to drink (and their both closely related).
A robust sewage system is a key element to public health and when disasters strike and these systems are compromised, we start to see people getting sick en mass. So, what can you do to prepare when the toilet won’t flush?
Back Flow Preventers
First off, if you’re on a city sewage line, make sure your home has a “back flow preventer” which is a flapped valve that ensures that solid waste only leaves your home and doesn’t back up into your home. When disasters strike and the system fail, sewage lines have been known to start to back up into homes. It’s a mess that no one wants and the potential for illness is serious.
If your home doesn’t have a backflow preventer, it’s probably something you want to consider for even normal day occurrences. Some cities have free subsidies to offset the costs and some insurance companies will give you a price break on your premiums. The value itself can run anywhere from $25 to $500 depending on which one you choose and local codes. Installation is usually a bit more complex, but it can be done by a more experienced DIYer. Otherwise you’re looking at around $300 to $1000 for the install.
Flushing A Toilet During A Disaster
So now that you’ve prevented one disaster, you need to figure out how to deal with using the bathroom during a disaster. First off know that even if the water goes out, you can sometimes still flush by pouring water directly into the tank or into the bowl. Keep in mind if you pour into the bowl, you need a decent amount of water, but more importantly you need to pour it quickly so it has enough force to trigger the flush.
This method will work for the first few days, but if a major disaster hits, it’s best to shift to option B because you don’t want to risk having sewage not being able to leave your house if the sewer lines aren’t moving.
Longer Term Toilet Setups
If you live on a lot of land you can set about digging an out-house or latrine pit, but this is often not feasible for most people in cities or suburban lots because their lot isn’t large enough to gain the minimum distances. You’ll need to be at least 100 feet from your house and from any water sources. This is the minimum and requires that your area isn’t prone to flooding and doesn’t have a high water table. If you don’t know, don’t chance it.
For the majority of us or in short term disasters, I suggest a dry composting system. This is the most flexible, easiest to maintain, has the least “ick” factor in my opinion and requires very little equipment.
To get setup with a dry composting system, you’ll need a few things:
- A few 5-gallon buckets – you can never have enough
- A luggable loo toilet seat – $15 online or at Walmart
- Toilet paper – do I need to say anything more?
- Hand sanitizer – need to keep our hands clean
- Saw dust or hamster bedding – cover material
- A big box of trash bags – 13-gallon size
- Funnel and tubing – Urine diversion
- A few camo tarps – or other privacy screen
- A dedicated pitch fork
- A shovel
- A Corner of the yard far away from the house and water sources
Having lived off the grid for several years I’ve learned a lot about how to manage this part of life and I’ve learned that the best piece of advice I can give you is keep your solids and your liquids separate.
If you start to mix the two, you start to get very foul smells and it’s much more difficult to deal with. The main way we do this is diverting urine, either by peeing separately or using a urine diverter. Men will have an easier time with this than women for obvious reasons, but the fashioning of a funnel with some tubing mounted inside your 5-gallon bucket draining into a container below will make simple work of it.
If you don’t use diesel in any of your cars or equipment, consider using a yellow diesel can so people know exactly what it is. It will have the added benefit if someone loots it to provide a good chuckle when they try to pour the stolen contents into their car.
As a side note, once you’ve captured the urine in your container, after letting it “mellow” it makes a really good fertilizer for your garden. The primary element being urea, which is the main ingredient in most modern fertilizers. While it isn’t true that urine is totally sterile, it’s pretty darn close and any concerns should be set aside as the dirt and plants filter it well.
Building Your Emergency Toilet
To setup your temporary commode, take the 5-gallon bucket and set it up in your garage or somewhere outside. You want a place that is well ventilated, has some privacy, and is close to the house. The tarps can be used to create a privacy screen around the bucket if needed.
Take the bucket and line it with the 13-gallon trash bag, pushing all the air out so it hugs the sides and bottom, having the top edge of the bag drape over the top of the bucket. Put on the luggable loo seat on to the bucket, so that it clamps to the lip of the bucket, holding the bag in place all the way around. Add a 1” layer of your wood chips, position your toilet paper near by and also set up your hand washing station right outside the stall.
When using, your solids will fall down into the wood chips, your urine will go into your container and after you’re done your business, use just enough wood chips on top to cover just barley. You don’t want or need to dump a lot on top because it means more wood chips, it isn’t necessary and you’ll be emptying it regularly.
Other Toilet Considerations
Some other considerations you want to make is do you need multiple setups? If you have a large family, a survival group or other reasons consider having additional setups just in case. In the summer you’ll want to empty each at least once a week or once it is full, whichever comes first. With the summer heat comes flies which can lay eggs into the pile and that can lead to disease being spread. In the winter months, if you have a lower use, emptying every few weeks or when it is full because there are no flies and the smell tends to be much less.
In addition to your own setup, I’d strongly consider stocking extra kits for your neighbors and anyone that might be upstream from you if you have any surface water. One of the biggest threats we face even if we are prepared is that our groundwater can be locally contaminated by others not having proper sanitation practices.
At the beginning of the disaster make a trip to all your neighbors with the kits, offering an excuse that you got the seats by accident one day in the mail. The gesture will build some good will, give you an excuse to do some recon on the neighbors and protect your water supply.
I Have A Full Bucket, Now What?!
The last step in the whole process is disposal of the “accumulated mass”. There are three main ways to handle this. If the disaster had a end in sight, say a few days, it may be as simple as depositing in your trash double bagged for good measure when trash service resumes.
If the disaster looks to be more a longer term event, you’ll need to either bury, compost or burn. Each have their pros and cons, so consider what’s right for you.
Burning is one possibility and while its one of the more simple methods, because it doesn’t require as much hands on work with the stuff and removes the mass from the site. This method should be kept for only true disaster situations. This of course will produce some less than pleasant smells and the burning plastic of the bag is not ideal because it doesn’t burn cleanly, but it will work.
Your ideal burn setup is a metal barrel that has a grate that holds the wood off the ground a few inches. Along the bottom of the barrel you put a series of holes so that as the fire grows, the heat created on top of the mesh, draws air in from the bottom. This creates a very hot fire and will burn the waste more completely than a standard fire.
Your next option is to bury, which requires a hole. Your hole needs to be 100 feet from any water source, structure or garden and at least 4 feet deep, ideally 6 feet. You might consider digging a deeper hole and after depositing your waste and trash, covering it a bit. The one thing to consider is that animals will try to dig up the buried items, so make sure it’s deep enough to prevent that and consider a cover to the hole for safety.
The final method is the most labor intensive, but is the only real option for a long term disaster and that is the humanure method. Human waste can actually be composted effectively to the point that no pathogens persist in the materials. This is a slightly more complex process, so I’d point you to the singular resource on the topic: The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins.
While it isn’t the most pleasant thing to deal with, it is one of the more important things you can do when it comes to keeping the health of you and your family in check. To learn more about how easy it is to get equipped for your sanitation preps, check out our other articles on sanitation.