Prepping for water and sewer shortages

Prepping for water shortages

Prepping is a lot like putting together a puzzle: leave out a piece, and there’s bound to be trouble on down the line. If your preparedness plan hasn’t taken into consideration a grid-down scenario, you’d better reconsider.

Most of what Mother Nature throws our way involves electrical outages. Typically it’s only a short-term issue; a few days, or maybe a week or two. But what happens if a severe coronal mass ejection from a solar flare fries the grid, or a nuclear EMP is deployed?

At that point, grid-down will take on a whole new meaning because of its potential for wide-spread outages and the years it would take for the grid to be pieced back together…and that’s when a plan B will see you through.

So, What Can Go Wrong?

An affective prepping plan should NOT assume the grid will be up and running for the every-day tasks we take for granted during normal times. Grid-down preparedness must provide a survivable plan for water and plumbing (or lack thereof), alternative cooking, lighting, appliances, tools, and in some cases, transportation. Since water and sanitation is near and dear to our everyday life, we’ll start there. 

Not long ago I interviewed the general manager of a huge electrical company that provides power to millions of metropolitan homes. The facts were chilling. Their back-up emergency plan consists of 72 hours worth of diesel to fuel their diesel generators.

That’s it. After the 72-hour mark, should truckers be unable to deliver because of gridlock, payment issues, an inability to pump fuel, or closed roads, officials at the electric company will be left scrambling for fuel just like the rest of us. At that juncture our ability to get to the other side of a long-term emergency unscathed will depend upon the preparations that were made beforehand.

Back-Up is a Stinky Subject

Should the electrical grid crash, so goes municipal water. And if municipal water goes down, plan on more than just water outages—which is bad enough—but that fact is, unless you are on a septic system, it’s possible you will experience sewage back-up to bathtubs and possibly sinks and toilets due to pump outages whose sole purpose is to redirect sewage to treatment plants.

At the very least, expect for drainage from sinks, bathtubs and toilets to be a problem. The best-case scenario is one where your home sits high enough for gravity to work it’s magic, avoiding backup into your home. The only way to know for sure is to check with your municipal water supplier to see if your piece of real estate has the uphill advantage, or not.

Even those with a septic system can experience problems during grid-down when depending upon a  pump for below-grade levels to the home. A generator can handle the problem–as long as there is plentiful fuel to run them, or in the case of solar panels, enough daylight.

When in doubt, add a camp toilet on your list. They cost around $15 for a no-frills model (basically a bucket with a seat and a folding lid). Their contents must be transferred outdoors, ideally into a hole dug into the ground for obvious sanitary reasons.  David goes into more detail on both backflow valves for your sewer and long term backyard human waste disposal in his course.

Water Wells

If you’re lucky enough to have a well, don’t forget a manual hand pump! Those in warmer climate zones won’t have the expense of a frost-free model which can run as high as $1,500 (before installation).

If you live where temperatures plummet below freezing, start pricing out frost-free manual hand pumps. If you have an unforgiving budget like most of us, check into Lehman’s water cylinder. It costs around $50 and will pull a little under 2 gallons of water at a time. It’s slow-going, but it will work in a pinch.

If you depend upon a water purification system for your well to solve the problem of high concentrations of iron, sulfates or any number of minerals that effect drinking water, a good quality water filter like a Berkey or a Katadyn is a must-have.

You will need replacement filters. The number of replacement filters to put aside can be calculated by multiplying the number of people in your family or group multiplied by monthly usage (an absolute minimum of water usage per person is 28 gallons per month), then multiply that number by the number of months you are preparing for.

Once you have  an estimated gallon usage, check with your water filter manufacturer recommendations to see how many gallons of water can be filtered through their filter(s) before needing replacement filters. And unless you’re a hopeless optimist, toss in a few more replacement filters for Murphy’s Law.

Laundry, Dishes & Hygiene

You will have to hand wash laundry and dishes during grid-down. If you’re on municipal water, you should keep a large tub on hand in case your bathtub and sinks back up or stop draining. Laundry can be done with a hand-agitator which can be found at Lehman’s or a similar site that caters to off-grid living. A wringer mop bucket works well to squeeze excess water from clothing before hanging them on a clothesline. Larger tuff-stuff tubs are an inexpensive solution that serve triple duty for laundry, dishes and bathing.


Hopefully, your preparedness plan includes gardening in case of a long-term crisis where your food storage begins to dwindle. Water needs for gardening must be considered. Here’s where catching rainwater from your roof and routing it to containment barrels will help solve gardening needs in all but the driest climates.

For those living in an extremely dry climate zone, a water bladder might be necessary. Water bladders come in all sizes and are relatively inexpensive, but if you plan to bury your water storage, the cost will go up. 

One final tip: When using biodegradable laundry and dish detergent, body soap and shampoo, the water can be recycled for use in the garden.