Hygiene – a Sensitive Survival Topic

This is one of my previous posts that I have updated and reposted.

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 could keep a couple of large water storage containers, 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 — hundreds of gallons per month (see below for the specifics).

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 not many 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. It is a serious and under-appreciated issue for prepping and survival.

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). But then your 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 — 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
9 gallons for bathing
5 gallons for cleaning cooking containers and utensils
Total: at least 20 gallons per day per person

Over the course of one month, this adds up to 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

8 Responses to Hygiene – a Sensitive Survival Topic

  1. If you do not have access to abundant running water, continuing to toilet flush with water just becomes ridiculous. This is where you need to embrace some version of dry toilet. This can be as simple as a bucket with some dry material (sawdust, shredded leaves, etc..) to layer with or more complex/efficient options like the Nature’s Head.

    As for bathing, again attempting to shower daily is ridiculous. What you can do to maintain good hygiene is a daily or even twice daily sponge-bathing routine, with emphasis on armpits and nether-regions, can cut down that 9 gallons to only 1 gallon. Haircare can be maintained with a dry-powder option to keep excess oil from building up.

    Also, when it comes to cooking/dish washing, if you put soapy water in a spray bottle for the washing stage, you cut down the water usage significantly as you only need a rinsing tub.

    You also left out any consideration of water usage for laundry purposes, which will be significant. A bucket with an aerating laundry plunger is probably the best way to go instead of trying to maintain a modern machine, but that’s still probably around 5 gallons a day per household. Also, under-layering is helpful here as well, as outer layers only get washed once they’re thoroughly soiled and the under layers in contact with your body are much smaller in volume when washed and can be changed daily.

  2. Another really good reason not to be flushing the toilet if you don’t have water: if you don’t have your own septic system, then the sewage treatment plant you are connected to probably also isn’t working. Continuing to flush just encourages the system to back up, which makes an anti-backflow device one of the most important preps you can have if you are on a public sewage system.

  3. Thoreau, water usage should not remain the same if there is a shortage. Your estimates of water needed is double (or more) that which is actually necessary in all but the drinking and cooking estimate. Many people mistakenly estimate water usage needed to flush a toilet by how much water their toilet tank holds. It is not necessary to fill the toilet’s tank, and not even necessary to use the tank at all. Pouring a gallon of water for solids, and a half gallon for liquids, directly into the bowl will flush out the bowl. Once the waste goes beyond the u-bend (p-trap) that blocks sewer gas from rising up from the bowl, it is no longer an issue. A quick and efficient shower uses roughly 3 gallons, not 9 gallons as you state here. If you are speaking of filling a bath tub, then either there must not be a shortage of water, or the bather is an idiot. A clean cotton wash cloth can be sprinkled with 2 ounces of water and 1/2 ounce of rubbing alcohol and used to “sponge bathe” with. Simply rotate the folded cloth to a clean surface as you progress. Dishes can be scrubbed well with a dampened sponge/scrubby pad using only an ounce or two of water, then rinsed individually with a few ounces of water. We carry one 5-gallon container of water that has a spigot for ease of use on our camping trips where no potable water supply is available. That one 5-gallon container is more than sufficient to wash our dishes, cook pots , and even our hands on a 3-day trip. Brum

  4. Remember that chlorine bleach can help purify water and to decomtaminate the objects/people the water is used to clean. Doesn’t take much.

  5. One thing that I have been doing for years is to save the slivers of soap from the soapdish, let them dry completely and use them in my various bugout/GOOD bags. If the grid goes down, leisurely showers with lots of soap and hot water will be a distant memory. With the small slivers it will be possible to clean the necessary areas of the body (known as a PTA shower) by those of us who have spent time in the field with the military! Each piece lasts a good while

  6. I agree with Braum. In a water shortage situation (esp long term) water usage should not remain the same as if water flowed freely from the taps.

    Baby wipes can be and are a good substitute for personal cleanliness. I get them for 99 cents a package with 60 wipes each. I figure that is at least one week’s worth of clean ups for one person. (Probably longer, but I plan one package a week ) That would save you 9 gallons of water per day per person, according to your list. One real water “bath” a week, with hair washing, is enough to keep you from getting ill, if your keep your hands clean.

    And using your toilet when water is scarce? I don’t think that is an overly good idea for two reasons….if you are hooked to municipal sewage it can (and will after a while) back up into your house when the treatment plants stop working….if you have a septic tank it will fill up eventually and if the problem is long term there will be no one coming to pump it out for you.

    If you don’t want to make a “survival toilet” from a 5 gallon bucket, line your current toilet with a large black plastic bag to ensure nothing goes down and line it again with a plastic store bag to be removed when there are solids in it. Take the store bag outside and bury it or compost the contents. You can store a LOT of plastic bags inside a 3 pound coffee can and stack the cans to save space. (If you have money to burn you could buy plastic bags for this purpose, but the large black bag is the only one you really have to spend money on)

    Paper plates, aluminum foil and other paper products will eliminate the need to wash dishes and the worry about food contamination from unclean plates and cookware. Added benefit, the paper plates can be used to start your fire once they are dry. Buy the cheapest plates you can find and lay them on top of your regular plates for strength.

    Foil can be crumpled up, dirty side in, and used to scrub the food off cookware, minimizing the amount of water needed to clean them.

    Fill a cup with water, a drop of dish soap and a couple drops of bleach, put your eating utensils in them with fork/spoon side down. Wipe with cloth/scrubby and stand them in another cup of clear water. Dishes done.

  7. Great article. I want to share a couple of items that contribute to keeping clean and are very restrained in water use. One is the Deluxe Camp Sink. This is self-contained, foot-operated sink that provides running water. It allows you to get your hands clean with about one cup of water.

    I did a test between washing my hands in my bathroom basin and with the Deluxe Camp Sink. I put a bowl in the basin to catch the water and then measured the water. I washed my hands in the normal fashion with the water running constantly while I got my hands wet, soaped up, washed and rinsed off. I went through the same process with the Deluxe Camp Sink. I got my hands wet with one squirt from the spigot. I then soaped up and washed. Then I rinsed off, which took ten squirts. The results: regular method, 10 cups. Deluxe Camp Sink 1 cup. The reason is that the water isn’t running constantly.

    The same applies with the Deluxe Tent Shower. The pump sprayer provides water only when the button is pushed. Push the button and water comes out. So the process of taking a shower is to get wet (using water), soap up and wash (not using water), rinse off (using water). Because water is only used for getting wet and rinsing off, it makes a huge difference in the amount of water used. The average person uses about 17 gallons of water in an 8 minute shower. With the spray pump used with the Deluxe Tent Shower, one uses only about 1-1½ gallons of water.

    One other thing to consider is the advantage of the Deluxe Filtration Camp Sink. This allows one to use stream or lake water or even contaminated city water in the event of a “boil water” situation. It filters out 99.99999% of all bacteria, such as salmonella, cholera and E.coli; removes 99.9999% of all protozoa, such as giardia and cryptosporidium

    Information on all these products can be found at DeluxeCamping.com.