A Sensitive Survival Topic: hygiene

Any number of short to long-term disasters could leave you without power and/or running water. The result is a serious but difficult topic in prepping: hygiene. Without running water, using your toilet becomes problematic. And showering or bathing is no longer a daily routine that is taken for granted. Without power, you won’t have hot water from the water heater for washing pots, pans, dishes, glasses, or for washing hands.

The ideal solution is to have a home with its own well, its own septic system, and a solar and/or wind source of off-grid power. Then you will be all set. The next best solution is to move in with someone who has that type of home and resources. If these two solutions don’t work for you, read on.

Suppose that you no longer have a source of running water or power. What are your options?

Fortunately, the typical toilet plumbing does not require electricity. It works by the force of water and gravity. What you do need, to flush the toilet without running water, is plenty of water (a few gallons at least) for each flush. The water need not be drinkable (i.e. potable), but you need about 5 gallons per person per day for flushing (about 1 flush per person per day). Some more efficient toilets might flush with less water, but you are always better off with more water.

What this means is that, in addition to your stored drinking water and some water purification equipment, you also need a source of non-drinkable (non-potable) water. You might collect some rainwater, using the rain spouts on your house. Be advised that collecting rain water is actually illegal in some localities. There are some commercial products that capture water from rain gutters and store it in a large barrel (about 50 gallons). One of these on each side of the house is 100 gallons, but only about 20 flushes.

You could use water from a swimming pool. Or you might want to have a couple of very large water storage container, very large, kept outdoors for just such an eventuality. But the amount of water needed, say for a month or two without running water, gives you an idea of the scope of the problem.

If this type of situation continues long term, you are going to need another approach, but I’m not sure what will work. You could set up an outhouse, or any type of outdoor latrine. There are few other options. Running water is difficult to replace as a part of modern comfortable living. If you are without food, you can grow your own food. If you are without drinking water, you can purify the gallon or so of water you need each day. But without running water, long-term, your options are all not very good.

Bathing is another problem when you lack running water. The amount of water needed to shower or fill a bathtub to a shallow extent is at least 5 to 10 gallons. Washing with less water than that is undesirable. You also need water for washing your hands. You can use alcohol-based hand cleanser to a limited extent, to kill bacteria. Eventually, you need to actually wash off dirt and grime. So again the situation requires a substantial amount of water on a monthly basis, if some disaster deprives you of running water. An AquaPod Kit holds about 65 gallons of water in your bathtub (in a plastic bag, essentially). But then you tub is unavailable for use in bathing/showering.

Camping supply stores often have outdoor showering devices that use a limited amount of water, and which could conceivably be used indoors, when you lack running water. I’ll mention a couple of these devices, but I have not tested or evaluated any of them.

Zodi Battery-Powered Shower — battery power means that you are not relying only on gravity to deliver a stream of water.

Stearns Outdoor SunShower 6.0 — this type of shower is ‘heated’ by the sun striking the black bag of water, meaning that the water is at best warm, but not really hot. It takes 3 hours in the sun, at least, to warm the water.

I’m omitting the more expensive devices, such as propane-powered showers with point-of-use water heating built-in. I’m skeptical that this type of device is worth the expense.

Another issue raised by a lack of running water is cleaning dishes and cooking utensils. This type of hygiene problem can endanger your health. If food containers and utensils are not cleaned thoroughly, they can grow bacteria. Your next meal could give you food poisoning, not due to the food, but due to the bacteria on improperly-cleaned containers and utensils. And if you don’t have power to provide cooking heat, then your food will not be sterilized by cooking, worsening the problem.

The conclusion that I would draw from the above considerations, is that you cannot survive, with good health and a decent minimum standard of living, without either running water, or a reliable source of large quantities of water.

My estimate of per person per day water needs, at a bare minimum:
1 gallon for drinking and cooking
5 gallons for flushing
10 gallons for bathing
5 gallons for cleaning cooking containers and utensils

Over the course of one month, this adds up to over 600 gallons of water per person. There is just no good way to store enough water for a family of four in order to cope with a medium or long-term disaster. If you are without town/city water for an indefinite period of time, you are in dire straits.

And this is another reason why rural living is ultimately the best preparation for long-term disaster scenarios. If you have a well, a septic system, and enough off-grid power to run the well pump and a few appliances/lights, you have a resource that is essentially unavailable to most suburbs and all cities. If you live in an apartment in a city, and you have no running water, you cannot stay in that location long-term. So if there is a long-term disaster that affects a large region, people will soon be forced to move away from the cities. There is not enough land to grow enough food in a city. There is not enough water for drinking or hygiene. Maybe you could survive in a suburb, a somewhat rural suburb. But I think you are better off in a more rural area.

– Thoreau

7 Responses to A Sensitive Survival Topic: hygiene

  1. Your gallons of water per day estimate is more realistic than the vast majority of others I’ve read. We live off-grid, and while our Grundfos well pump is efficient it still pulls alot of amps when running so I fill 5-gallon buckets when the backup generator runs, for flushing, to save the battery power. Even with 1.5 gallon low-flo toilets, it still takes about 2.5 gallons to get a “good flush” sometimes. We live by the “If it’s yellow..” rule for flushing generally, but for 2 adults we’ll still go through about 10 gallons of flush water daily – spot on with your estimate. That includes me urinating outdoors at least a couple times a day too.

    Much like the preppers that use 50kWh of electricity a day now and have a dream about getting by with .5 or less long-term, going from 150 or more gallons of water a day (EPA average) to the “1 gallon per person per day” rule so many blogs spout just isn’t realistic. We don’t track every gallon used, but I know the size of my pressure tank and how many times a day the pump runs to refill it. With a front-loading clothes washer, low-flo toilets and showerheads, and running the dishwasher just once a week, we average about 40-50 gallons a day total for 2 adults and two medium sized dogs, NOT including the 10 gallons of flush water in buckets or the garden. We could get down to your 21 gallons per person number, but I agree that’s about the bare minimum to have any quality of life. Good article.

  2. Baby Wipes are a troops best friend while “out there”

  3. I actually saw an interesting episode of Best Defense on The Outdoor Channel where they suggested using a common one or two gallon garden sprayer (which you keep for just this purpose and Never fill with chemicals) as an alternative to a shower. I haven’t tried it but could see where it would use water pretty efficiently. Painting the sprayer black and leaving it out in the sun for a few hours would help warm the water.
    ~Butch

  4. You can forget the daily bath/shower. The one gallon estimates do not include things like flushing toilets, which probably will not work long term because many sewer systems incorporate lift stations, which require electricity. In USA, our standard of living and population would seriously decline. 315MM people using outhouses is not very hygenic. Nature would solve a lot of the problem for us, although the solution would not be pleasant.

  5. Good article. I’d like to add some additional practical techniques we learned during power outages. For flushing (if sewage system failure is not an issue)…recycle any water you are using for hand washing, dish washing, etc. for flushing. If you are using a make shift shower, stand in a wash tub or a storage container to catch that water for flushing too. Don’t send any water down the drain if you can help it…use it for flushing. Keep a few buckets around for collecting waste water. You can add a bit of bleach to waste/flushing water to control odors or kill germs – plus it will help keep the toilet cleaner when you do flush.

    Experiment with your toilet to see if you can get a good flush with less water by pouring a steady “whoosh” of water aimed directly at the drain hole in the bowl rather than putting water in the tank. (We can get a good clearing flush with a ½ gallon of water). After using the “pour n’ flush” method, the water in the bowl will likely be very low. You can add a bit more water to the bowl to get the holding level back up if you wish. Tip: if you pour directly into the drain hole, the water will go down like a flush so if you are trying to refill the bowl, pour the water slowly down the side of bowl instead)

    Experiment with this technique and the amount of water you need to flush for various “situations”. Do it NOW while you have water so you can see what works best for you and your model toilet. Just remember you don’t always need to put the water in the tank to get a flush and you can recycle the dirty water you are using for other purposes. This should help stretch your water supply.

    For hand washing, set out a dish pan filled with soapy water and another with rinse water. . (if you wish you can have a third pan with a mild bleach solution rinse as the last step – 1 Tablespoon 5.25% bleach per 1 Gallon of water.) This set-up will work for multiple hand washings. When the soapy water pan gets funky, it goes in the flush bucket, add some soap to the former rinse water pan to make it the wash pan and put fresh water in a clean pan for rinsing. Refill and rotate as needed.

    Here’s a frank and interesting website I ran across – it’s geared toward large gatherings of people under primitive conditions (think Woodstock) but it has some sound advice on safe kitchens, personal hygiene, and sanitation in no running water situations. http://www.welcomehome.org/rainbow/tech/kitchen/kitchen.html
    Note: When you need it…you REALLY need it so always keep some extra bleach on hand. Rotate the bottles regularly. Store in a child proof place and handle with care. Follow the cautions on the bottle and remember to NEVER mix ammonia containing cleaners or detergents with bleach! Nasty fumes result!