Okay, I’ve been looking into sewers. Not literally you understand but researching them. The current way of thinking is that if the power goes down the water treatment plants follow soon after and the taps stop delivering water and flushing becomes impossible, sewers back up and a big stink ensues with all the health hazards that go with it. Well, yes, but I think it will take a hell of a lot longer than we have all been imagining, and here’s why.
Most people will not be flushing, they have no water to do so. Their main concern will be drinking water, disposing of waste will be a major issue and some will fill the tank occasionally so they can flush but there may well be too much waste at that point for their system to cope with.
The savvy will be saving any waste water they can to put into the tank so they can flush the toilet at least once a day and they will be able to continue that for a considerable time as long as they can procure enough water to do so. The very savvy will already have flush water laid aside so in the first instance they can continue relatively normally.
There’s a good distance between your home and the sewer deep underground that takes the waste from your toilet, it’s the action of flushing, emptying the bath, taking a shower etc that keeps the system working. The treatment plant that receives all the waste is usually out of town, so even more distance lies between you and it. Even if everyone saved waste water to flush it’s the treatment plant end that will become overwhelmed long before any private homes. Then all the pipe work leading into the plant will fill and so it will work backwards from the plant.
Now sewers are big, at their smallest they are plenty big enough for an average height person to move through with only a slight stoop. All of these have to fill up before the back up gets into the large bore pipes that connect your home to the sewerage system.
The key however is not blocking your domestic pipes, and that means flushing at least once every 12 hours to keep things moving. Again water is the issue. Unless you’ve saved enough before hand.
Milk containers (UK style) with handles are great for storing non-drinking water but any sturdy container will do. If the panel comes off the side of your bath you can store several gallons in the space under there, mine have a few drops of bleach in to keep it a little fresher for longer. By putting a brick in the cistern you roughly halve the amount of water required to flush and therefore the space behind the bath panel gives me 60 flushes, 30 days at two flushes every 24 hours. This gives me time to save other waste water, and to deal with other more pressing issues without worrying about the toilet and the problems associated with waste disposal in the initial stages of a grid down situation. Behind the bath panel is my solution, but as you are not going to be drinking the water where you store it is not that important, storing it ahead of time is the important thing.
Just as a side comment I also have dozens of these containers, disinfectant already added stacked in a gap at the side of the shed ready for cleaning down the yard after the dog. This is a hygiene issue especially in summer where animal waste will attract flies and all the spreadable diseases that go with them.
Okay, back to sewers. Using the highest toilet in the house for solid waste will allow gravity to help with its disposal. Flush only waste. TP can be burned or bagged as it is in many countries where the plumbing is less effective than it is in the first world.
By removing the u bend under the sink and putting a bucket under there sink water can be collected. To filter the water duct tape a piece of fabric over the open end to catch any food debris etc which you can then dispose of. This is important as any fats put into the system with solidify and block everything up very quickly. Waste water collected this way should be used before your container water as it will ‘go off’ and start to smell if left around for too long.
It’s wise to buy a couple of gallons of the cheapest bleach and the same of laundry detergent (powdered) to give the system a clean and a helping hand every couple of days. When bleach is added to laundry detergent it foams up and expands to many times its original volume. In a pipe this foam will expand forwards dislodging would be blockages before they build up to any great size. In addition, it cleans the system preventing the build up of smells and bacteria. Of course drain cleaner will work, but the fumes are toxic and its corrosive to skin, not the best if you are keeping the doors and windows closed.
After flushing put the laundry detergent into the bottom of the bowl, add the bleach and flush immediately. As the moving water mixes the powder and the bleach together it will foam up, cleaning the pipes as it goes. This keeps your end of the system sanitized and hopefully blockage free.
It’s impossible to calculate how long you would have before you are unable to flush because the system has backed up so much that it can take no more, and this is something all those without their own septic tank will face eventually should the grid fail.
At that point preventing a back flow of sewage into your home will be the primary concern. I am looking into this to try and find preventative measures. Until I do my own preparations are very simple. I will put two heavy gauge trash bags, one inside the other over my hand and arm and shove them as far as I can into the s bend at the bottom of the toilet bowl. The bags will be pressed to the sides of the toilet bowl and starting as low down as I can I will fill them with expanding foam like that used to fill gaps around pipes. I will work backwards, stopping four inches down from the top of the bowl. When it has settled and set anything above the bowl will be trimmed off, the remainder of the bags folded over the top and it will be duct taped into place. The seat and lid will be closed and that will also be sealed with duct tape.
Whilst far from perfect it does form a barrier to the back flow of sewage. Other than disconnecting the toilet and capping off the pipe it is all I have come up with so far. I am not physically capable of disconnecting the toilet so at this point this is my chosen method. It also gives me a removable plug so should the water system come back on line I will be up and running as soon as the foam is taken out of the bowl.
As usual, thinking ahead is key to not only surviving a major event but doing so in the best way we can. Dealing with waste will be a major issue for most of us in any grid down situation along with dozens of other things that require our attention. This is just one idea of how to cross one item off the list, allowing more time for those issues that really do have to be dealt with immediately.
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Contributed by Lizzie Bennett of Underground Medic.
Lizzie Bennett retired from her job as a senior operating department practitioner in the UK earlier this year. Her field was trauma and accident and emergency and she has served on major catastrophe teams around the UK. Lizzie publishes Underground Medic on the topic of preparedness.