Sanitation and Waste
When it comes to emergency prep, everyone thinks of 72-hour kits and food storage, which is certainly an important part of emergency prep. But there is another aspect of emergency prep that is “grossly” overlooked. And that is Waste and Sanitation. In the event there is any kind of emergency, it is very likely that the power grid will be the first to go (remember the module on Power, Light, and Electricity?). Many like to think that water and waste are independent of electricity because whenever the power goes out, the water still flows and the toilets still flush. But allow this to go on for any significant amount of time and pretty soon the water plants (that require electricity to run) and the sewage plants (that also require electricity) will eventually shut down, and that will affect all of us down stream. The water either becomes contaminated and/or stops flowing all together, and the sewage begins to back up. This is a terrible thought, but it’s something that deserves some special considerations and planning. What is your plan for when the water stops running and the toilets will no longer flush? A little bit of advanced preparation will make a huge difference. So, let’s get into it.
Initial considerations if the water stops flowing to your house include turning off all the water outlets. These include taps and faucets, valves on pipes supplying float-controlled equipment such as flush toilets, air cooling equipment, and heating equipment. Then, when the water comes on again, your home will not be flooded as these flotation devices sometimes stick after they have been allowed to dry out. Also, be sure to turn off the gas or electricity that supplies your hot-water heater. Otherwise, if the limited supply of water remaining in your hot-water tank continues to be heated, an explosion may occur. Also, if no more water can reach the tank, continued heat will soon muddy its contents through oxidation and make the water useless for washing or drinking purposes. Once water service is restored, it is not uncommon for this new water to have a strong chlorine taste. This is a sign that the water facility plant is taking extra precautions with your water by adding chlorine. For additional information on water, reference our two food storage modules below.
Link: Week 1: Water
Link: Week 11: Water
Once the sanitation facilities shut down, it is possible that the sewers will become overwhelmed and eventually backup; possibly into your house (from the basement). The floor drains will be the first to overflow. If this happens, you might likely find your otherwise safe home, completely uninhabitable. And insurance companies typically won’t cover sewage backups. So, let’s take a look at some things that you can do to prevent this.
A “backwater valve” is a backflow prevention device used to prevent outbound water from a dwelling’s drain pipes from re-entering or “back flowing” back into a home. The valve contains a flap that allows water to exit the home, but closes to prevent the back flow into the home. While the most effective option, backwater valves require a licensed plumber and construction permit, and therefore is a higher priced solution. However, they can easily save you thousands of dollars in the event of a sewer backup.
Floor drain plugs are one-way drain plugs can be installed below floor drain grates that prevent water from backing up due to overloaded sewers. Once the sewer condition returns to normal, the special float is deactivated and water can return through the opening. One-way plugs are relatively inexpensive, and often are the simplest preventative solution. When using a one-way drain plug, be sure that the float mechanism is always free from any debris that could prevent its proper function.
Another great option is a “Standpipe.” This is basically an ordinary pipe stuck in the floor drain surrounded by a watertight rubber seal. Any water that rises out of the drain goes into the pipe, not out on the floor, unless the backup is so deep that it goes over the top of the pipe, typically 3 feet or so. Maybe keep some extensions on hand. When flood conditions are no longer a threat, the standpipe can be removed, allowing any water spillage to drain again.
In extreme dire situations, some people keep a bag of dry cement on hand and will actually use it to seal their drains. But understand that while preventing the sewage backup, this plug method is irreversible, and you will have to dig up all of your drains with a jackhammer and replace all of your now solid concrete lines, which is still probably a better option than a sewage backup in your basement. This one is up to you, but is certainly a viable option.
We must also realize that if the water stops flowing, our ability to clean and sanitize will be greatly hindered, and in no time at all, germs and diseases will become the greater threat to our survival. Fact: In long-term emergencies, more people die from diseases caused by lack of sanitation than die from the impact of the initial emergency. Typhoid fever, amoebic dysentery, diarrhea, infectious hepatitis, salmonellas, and giardiasis are diseases that spread rapidly in times of emergency and threaten everyone. Yet all are diseases that can be controlled by simply following the rules of good sanitation.
One of the biggest sanitation threats we will face is our ability to dispose of garbage and sewage (human waste). You must have a way to safely dispose of garbage and sewage. If you don’t, you will spend most of your time and energy treating sick people, including yourself.
Our trusty garbage man shows up every Thursday morning to take our garbage, and sometimes our garbage is almost overflowing by the time he shows up. So what would happen if he didn’t show up for a couple of weeks, or even a couple of months? We cannot allow our garbage to accumulate out of control as it will attract insects, rats, other animals, and with that, diseases. If the garbage service is expected to resume in a few days, then dry garbage should be tightly sealed in bags or kept in tightly covered garbage cans. Liquid wastes that don’t have a lot of fat in them can be poured out outside, but must be kept more than 100 feet away from open bodies of water and water wells. Liquids that have a lot of fat should be buried at least 18-24” deep to prevent attracting flies and rodents. A prolonged crisis, where the garbage service is not expected to resume anytime soon, may require our garbage to be buried and/or burned. Burying and burning are not preferable due to safety and environmental concerns, but may become necessary. Dry garbage should be burned using a metal barrel with holes in the bottom and a grate or screen over the top to act as a spark arrester to prevent spreading fires. Wet garbage should be buried at least 4 feet deep and covered by at least 18-24” of dirt and no closer than 100 feet from open water or water wells. And keep this as far away from your house, as well as your neighbor’s houses as possible. Consider digging the hole and covering it with a large piece of plywood to allow additional garbage to be added as needed. You may need to secure it with large rocks or heavy objects to prevent animals from accessing it. Layering with soil, ashes, lime, or borax may help in controlling odors.
Sewage (Human Waste):
Mother Nature’s call cannot be put off for long regardless of the nature of the emergency or crisis. In fact, these circumstances may actually make the call more frequent and intense. This is something that most overlook as we tend to take our current sanitation comforts for granted. Human waste, if not managed properly, becomes a source of odor, illness, and can actually cause death. Never throw waste on the open ground. If no other alternative is available, burry it in deep trenches and cover it with at least 2-3 feet of soil. Avoid burying it in high water tables as it may contaminate the water supply. For this reason, make sure you have a latrine shovel with your emergency prep tools.
Tip: Feces is a dangerous substance that can spread deadly diseases. Urine, however, is generally safe. When possible, separate urine from feces to reduce the amount of hazardous material. Removing the more harmless liquid will also reduce the weight of waste that must otherwise be disposed of. Consider using two toilets; one for urine which can be dumped out, and one for feces, which will need to be more properly disposed of.
Emergency Toilet Options:
If you are not displaced outside of your home- Continue using your home toilet. Unless you have an ample supply of water, filling the toilet reservoir each time with water will not be an option. However, with the use of trash bags, you should be able to enjoy the comfort of your home toilet and remove the waste at a later time. First, turn off the water supply to the toilet tank. Empty the toilet bowl and lift the lid and seat. Place a garbage bag in the bowl and duct tape the edges around the back and sides of the bowl. Then use the toilet as usual. Pour a small amount of disinfectant into the bag after each use to help prevent the spread of germs and disease. Do not use strong disinfectants which might compromise the plastic bag. You may want to add sawdust, kitty litter, soil, or Poo Powder to solidify liquids, or you may choose to isolate liquids from solids by designating separate facilities for each function. The bag may be used several times before changing. An empty plastic bucket with an air-tight lid next to the toilet is not a bad idea for transporting the used bag. Cover the entire toilet with a 30-gallon trash bag to control odor. Air fresheners or room deodorizers will also be helpful.
If you are displaced outside of your home- Consider using the Bucket Method. This consist of a 5 or so gallon bucket with a toilet seat that sits on top of it. These buckets are light-weight and therefore a great portable toilet option. I highly recommend including a resealable air-tight lid as this will greatly help with odor control. Keep some basic sanitation supplies inside the bucket. This might include toilet paper, baby wipes, small garbage bags, disinfecting wipes, feminine products, spray deodorizer, and a sanitizing chemical such as liquid bleach. I actually keep two of these buckets stocked with these sanitation items as well as some of our 72-hour kit items. This way, these buckets double as 72-hour storage containers until they will be needed as toilet buckets. Two buckets will allow you to use one for urine which can be dumped out, and one for feces which will need to be more properly disposed of. Line the bucket with a plastic bag. Mix one cup of liquid bleach (or sanitizing chemical) with two quarts of water and pour into the lined bucket. Add a little more disinfectant after each use. Seal with an air-tight lid between uses to help with odor. Change the bag when it is 1/3 to 1/2 full. To do this, carefully tie the top and place it in a larger lined can. Instead of using a non-biodegradable plastic liner, consider using paper grocery bags instead. They work very well as they are biodegradable and therefore, can be buried with minimal environmental impact. But they will have to be changed out after every use, so make sure you have plenty on hand. And you definitely want to ensure you separate liquid waste from solid waste as the paper bags will not hold up to liquids.
Chemical Toilets- These are a great option and are regularly used by boaters and campers. They use very little water and the chemicals help to keep the smell and spread of disease to a minimum. Chemical toilets have a removable tray at the bottom for easy disposal of waste. They are light-weight and portable when empty. The nice thing about chemical toilets is that they flush so you do not have to smell or view anyone else’s business. Keep a stock of appropriate chemicals for the toilet, but be aware that the chemicals have a limited shelf life. Check with the manufacturer for specifics. If the chemicals are unavailable in an emergency, use an alternative disinfectant.
Trench Latrine- This may be a good choice if an outdoor toilet becomes necessary. It can be quickly constructed and is fairly efficient. Be sure to locate it away from the home and all water sources. Create some type of shelter to provide protection from the weather and for privacy. Dig a trench 1-foot wide x 4 feet long and 2 1⁄2 feet deep. Add a little bit of soil, ash, or lime after each use to help control odor and flies. When the trench is filled within one foot of the surface, sprinkle with lime, fill with soil, and mound with an additional foot of soil. This toilet is used by squatting or straddling the trench.
Deep Pit Latrine- This is closely related to the trench latrine, but is more of a long-term solution for an extended crisis. A single-seat latrine may be built over a hole that is 2 feet wide x 2-6 feet long x 6 feet deep using available materials to create a shelter and seating area. Make sure the seating area is large enough to prevent it from collapsing into the pit. It is important to consider potential groundwater contamination when locating a site or the depth of the latrine. Be sure to sprinkle with soil, ash, or lime after each use and before closing the pit.
Basic Sanitation Supplies:
I recommend storing a one-year supply of basic sanitation items. You can make it through almost any disaster situation with this amount, as well as saving money by stocking up when items are on sale. Track your actual usage of supplies by marking each container with the date it is opened. When the container is empty, record how long it lasted. Individual usage varies greatly. This will give you a fairly accurate rate of consumption and allow you to correctly calculate how much you need for a one-year supply. Be sure to rotate your supplies to ensure they are kept fresh and nothing is wasted.
Toilet paper should be a high priority on your sanitation supply list. I had a neighbor who grew up in Germany during the war and when asked, she would tell us that the one item they wished they had more of was toilet paper. When times get tough, it may be worth its weight in gold. The average American uses about 50 two-ply rolls of toilet paper each year. Toilet paper stores indefinitely, so stock up now so you’ll have it when you need it.
Edit: This was initially written before the great toilet paper crisis of 2020. We all saw first hand what happens to supplies, such as toilet paper, when people fail to initially stock up. Don't fall victim to this supply shortage again. Just buy a little extra of what you are already buying, especially if the items you are buying don't ever expire.
Baby wipes are a staple in our home even now that our children are getting older. They make cleaning up without running water much easier. We purchase baby wipes by the case and they store well. If they happen to dry out, just add a little water to the package and you’re good to go.
Soap helps prevent the spread of disease. Bar soap is relatively inexpensive and has an indefinite shelf life. One bar of soap per person, per month, is a safe estimate.
Liquid hand soap may reduce the spread of disease better than bar soap. When several people share a bar of soap, it is possible for it to harbor bacteria and dirt. Liquid soap dispenses a clean squirt of soap each time, but liquid soap tends to be used up a little more quickly, so plan to store one 13-ounce bottle per person per month.
Hand sanitizer is an effective way to kill germs without water. Hand sanitizer is not completely effective if your hands are visibly dirty, so use soap and water to clean your hand and then the sanitizer will kill the germs. Most hand sanitizers have a high alcohol content and therefore tend to dry out your hands.
Disinfectants are used to destroy microorganisms before they can make you sick. They do not have to cost a lot of money. Store whichever kinds of disinfectants you prefer. Disinfecting wipes are quite handy and are a staple at our house. Alcohol, vinegar, chlorine bleach, and calcium hypochlorite are also excellent options. Alcohol and vinegar have an indefinite shelf life and are good disinfectants. They are not quite as effective as chlorine bleach, but they are safer to use and will not discolor items. Plus, chlorine bleach has a shelf life of about six months, at which time it begins to lose its disinfecting power.
Dishwashing liquid has a long shelf life and many valuable uses. You may be washing dishes by hand, so be sure to plan for much more than normal if you use a dishwasher. Original Dawn dishwashing liquid is mild enough to use as a shampoo substitute, but a powerful cleaning agent when mixed with some other common household products. For example, mix undiluted Dawn half and half with vinegar and you have an amazing bathroom and shower cleaner. Three drops in a gallon of water with a little vinegar make the perfect window cleaner. Mix a tablespoon of dawn in two quarts of water and spray in the garden to kill some varieties of garden pests, including squash bugs and aphids.
Disposable gloves are invaluable when it comes to protecting yourself against disease. They are relatively inexpensive and will store for several years. Stock one-size-fits-all latex-free vinyl gloves for household cleaning and dirty work. Also keep a supply of medical exam gloves in various sizes. These are used for first aid and jobs that require gloves that fit well. Additionally, consider keeping several pairs of thick rubber gloves for the messier tasks.
Garbage bags are another critical basic sanitation item. Keep a supply of large contractor grade black garbage bags, standard black garbage bags, 13-gallon kitchen garbage bags, 5-gallon trash bags and plastic grocery bags. Each bag has a different use and I have found all to be important. Stock a few rolls of duct tape as well to help hold bags in place when needed.
If you still have children in diapers, it doesn’t hurt to have a supply of cloth diapers, cloth wipes, diaper pins, and plastic pants just in case. They may prove quite valuable. These items would be great barter items if you no longer need them as it is likely the next family didn’t plan as well as you did.
Spend a few minutes and make notes on what your family would like to have if you are unable to go to the store. And then, over time, purchase a few extra items each time you go to the store and really stock up when these items go on sale. You will be amazed how quickly you will be able to get a year supply of basic sanitation items. I had people that had been following this program in 2020 tell me afterwards how grateful they were that they were so well stocked up on supplies such as toilet paper, clorox wipes, gloves, masks, hand soap, and hand sanitizer...all the items you were unable to get during the initial panic of COVID-19. Let's learn from this and not get caught unprepared again.