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Jun 062012
 

The reliable functioning of our toilets is something we shouldn't take for granted.

So something has gone wrong in part or all of your city or region, but you’re reasonably confident it will be resolved some time in the next few days; a week or two at the most.

In other words, you don’t need to bug-out and move to your retreat location, so this is by definition a Level 1 situation.

However, while you’re not forced to bug-out, you do want to enjoy as comfortable an experience as possible while waiting out the Level 1 event.  You’ve planned and prepped for many of the things that might go wrong.  You’ve stocked up with some food, some water, maybe a generator and gas to power it, perhaps a few propane tanks for emergency cooking on the barbecue, and who knows what else.

But we’ll wager there is still one massive thing you’ve completely forgotten.  We’ll give you a hint.  So you’re anticipating a possible situation where you’ll not be able to get fresh water from your taps – where the city water supply will fail, right?  Okay, good for you.

Now, if the city water supply has failed, what else might fail, too?  And every time you eat something or drink something, what will inevitably need to be done some time subsequently?

Did you guess?  We’re talking about the sewer system.  If something occurs to cause a failure of the city water supply, it is very likely there’ll be a failure of the city sewer system, too.

How are you prepared to handle a failure of your sewer system?  Remember that all the water you use that goes into a sink or drain ends up going out the sewer line.  We automatically think of toilets, but it isn’t just toilets.  With a blocked sewer line, you’ll not be able to shower or bathe, you’ll not be able to empty the sink, or to conveniently do anything that involves waste water.

The biggest issue of course is the toilet.  Other things can have relatively easy workarounds, but the toilet is hard to recreate to a similar level of comfort and convenience.  What will you do?  Porta-potties?  Dig an outhouse and erect a privacy/weather shelter around it?  Or?

Call us spoiled if you like, but we do believe the modern flush toilet to be one of the finest elements of our modern life, and we’d be very reluctant to lose it.  Happily, we don’t need to risk sacrificing the wonders of the porcelain pedestal.  More about that in a minute (or two, depending on how fast you’re reading this!).

First, let’s consider some more about this failure.  The first part is comparatively benign.  If the pipes break and become blocked, and/or if the pumping stations stop pumping, then clearly there will come a point, when you flush your toilet, nothing will go away.  That’s actually the relatively good news, believe it or not.  There’s some bad news too.

Toilet Backflows and Outflows from Higher Elevation Toilets

The bad news depends on where you’re located and the style of house you have.  If you have a one level rambler and your house is at the highest point for miles around, you can stop reading this part and skip down to the next part.

But if you have a multi-level house, and/or if there are other houses around you at the same or higher levels, guess what could happen.  Your upstairs toilets will appear to work, inasmuch as when you flush them, the bowl empties and the contents go away.  The liquid (and, ahem, solids) will be released into your sewer feed pipe, and then will go downhill as far as it can before stopping.  That downhill path would normally take it out of your house, and if the sewer system has now filled all the way up to your house, the results of your flushing won’t just stop and wait patiently for the blockage to clear or the pumps to restart.  Instead, it will ‘find its own level’ and so will start to come out of the bowl of your lowest level toilet (we’ve seen this happen – it isn’t pretty).

But that’s only a small part of the problem.  What happens when your neighbor, on a grade 10 ft above your house, flushes his toilet?  As far as he can tell, it will still work for him.  None of his toilets will turn into fountains.  What came from your neighbor’s toilet will also end up coming out of the lowest toilet in your house (or possibly out of the toilet in someone else’s house lower down).

How can you protect against this?

It is possible to get one-way valves to put into your sewer lines so that waste will flow in one direction only – ie, away from your house.  This doesn’t solve the problem of the higher toilets in your house, but that’s something you can control yourself, hopefully.  It should, however, isolate you from what your neighbors are doing.

We’re not sure we fully trust these one-way valves.  They could get clogged up with ‘stuff’, and because, for 99.9% of their life, they’ll be open and allowing waste to flow in the proper direction, the one time they’re called upon to actually do their thing and stop a backflow, they might not work, or, at best, they might stop some of the backflow but still let a small flow through.

There’s also a low tech solution.  When your toilets start turning into fountains, you can stuff clothing and other things down them to block them.  And you’ll also want to block your baths.  And your sinks.  And everything else.  Not very nice.

There’s a much better solution.

Living Off the (Sewer) Grid

Many people aspire to live off the electricity grid, and some people even manage to do this, to a greater or lesser extent, and with a greater or lesser amount of privation and inconvenience.

But how many people think about living off the ‘sewer grid’ – especially at their primary residence?  Almost next to no-one.

While, in truth, there is not much likelihood of your city sewer system failing, it can happen and has happened, particularly as a result of an earthquake (think not just primitive third world cities, but also places as modern and western as, eg, Christchurch NZ in 2010 and 2011.

As well as natural causes, a total failure of the electricity grid (perhaps caused by solar storm or EMP or cyber-hack-attack) would also kill the pumps and control systems and result in a non-functional sewer system.

You need to consider what you’d do if your sewer line failed – if you have a retreat and if it would be convenient to simply move to your retreat until the sewer system was repaired, that would probably be all the planning you need to do for this eventuality (apart from also having some way to block the sewer line from your house to the street so you don’t end up with any backflows in your absence.  But if you don’t have a retreat, or if moving to your retreat would not be convenient in all but the most extreme of Level 2/3 situations, then you need to consider how you’d handle a loss of sewer service.

Why not add a septic system to your current home?  This is something you could do in one of two forms, and with perhaps some bonus everyday benefits too.

A Standby Simple Septic System

You could simply put a large holding tank in the ground, and have a valve to divert the flow of effluent out of your house, causing it to redirect to the holding tank rather than flowing into the city sewer line.  This valve would also protect you from backflows from other houses around you.

If you cut back on water use in your home, you could readily get down to 50 or fewer gallons of water used per person per day (and of course the same amount flowing into the holding tank).  If there are four of you, maybe this would be 150 gallons a day, and so with a 1,000 gallon tank you’d have close on 7 days at nearly normal rates of water use, and if you really cut back on water use, you could probably get more like two weeks from a 1,000 gallon tank (ie more than 50 ‘person/days’).

If you still have no sewer service after two weeks, and it is a Level 1 situation, there would be septic tank pump out service providers still operating, and you’d simply schedule a pump-out once every ten days or so during the period of the outage.  They’ll probably be busier than normal, so we’d recommend scheduling a service a week in advance after only a few days of using the holding tank, and booking scheduled future servicings well in advance too.

This would be a relatively low-cost enhancement to your primary residence – we’ll guess between $1000 and $2000 depending on how easy it is to get a tank into your back yard and the plumbing lines run to it.

A Full Septic System

The other approach is to put in a full working septic system complete with drainfield.  This would give you a system that would work for years at a time between pumpouts, and would mean you could cut your connection to the city sewer service entirely.  In some jurisdictions, you might even be able to save money by no longer paying a monthly/bi-monthly/quarterly sewer fee to the city.

We provide a quick overview of septic tank systems here, and depending on the type of system you had installed, you could be spending as little as $5,000 for a complete system that totally takes you off the septic grid.

If you can get a rebate on city sewer fees, you might be surprised at the ability of your off-grid septic system to pay for itself.  City sewer systems, while very convenient, are also very expensive to operate, so depending on how fairly the costs are being passed back to the users, you might find your own private septic system to not only be more reliable but also less expensive.

Summary

While everyone we know keeps a reserve supply of water in their normal residence, very few people have thought further as to how to maintain some type of sewer service for their household’s grey water (ie from washing up and such activities) and black water (ie from toilets).

We’d prefer to suffer a power outage than a sewer outage.  Fortunately, it doesn’t take too ridiculous an amount of prepping to prepare for a sewer system failure and to have a standby system every bit as good as the main system.

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David Spero[suffusion-the-author display='description']

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