Aug 222014
A backup hand operated water pump is a great reassurance, but note that hand pumps can also fail.

A backup hand-operated water pump is a great reassurance, but note that hand pumps can also fail.

Many of us rely on wells for our water supply, and in such cases, we have an electric pump that lifts the water up and into a supply tank.

These pumps are usually long-lived and reliable, and draw little power (at least by present day standards where we have access to virtually unlimited electrical power at comparatively low cost).

But what happens in a future adverse scenario where first our power fails and then secondly our pump fails?  The obvious answers are backups and spares, but there are also some design issues that should be considered well before any such problems occur.

Operating Electric Pumps When Electricity is Scarce

The first problem – power failing – will hopefully be addressed by your on-site power generation needs.  One of the ‘good’ things about needing power for a water pump is that – assuming you have a reasonably sized holding tank above the well, the power your water pump needs can be time-shifted to those times of day when you have a surplus of (eg solar) power – use the power at those times to pump up water and to fill your above ground storage tank, and use the water from the storage tank at those times of day (eg night-time) when you have no free power.

Water pumps vary in terms of how much power they require, depending on the lifting height they need to bring the water, and the number of gallons per minute of water desired.  Obviously, greater heights and greater gpm rates require more power.  Fortunately, assuming moderate lifting heights and gpm requirements, you can get a lot of water from a pump that uses only 1000 or 2000 watts of power.  From an energy management point of view, you would probably prefer to have a less powerful pump running for longer, than a more powerful pump running for a shorter time.

This also allows you to get good use from a well with a low replenishment rate.  When specifying your well and water needs in the first place, you should give more importance to assured continuity of water supply at a low instantaneous flow rate but with sufficient total flow each day to meet your needs, rather than limiting yourself only to wells that can support rapid draws down of water via a high-capacity pump.

Chances are you can get the better part of a gallon of water lifted up your well and into your holding tank for every watt-hour of power – 1000 gallons per kWh if you prefer to think in those terms.

We discuss the energy costs of pumping water in this article.

So the first problem – loss of utility sourced electricity – is hopefully not a huge problem (and see below for a discussion on hand pumps).

Planning for Pump Problems

However, the second problem – pump failure – quite likely may be a big problem, and so we offer several solutions to consider.

The first solution is a very simple one.  If your water pump fails, simply replace it with a spare one that you’ve kept in storage, in anticipation of just such an event occurring, as it undoubtedly will, sooner or later.

Water pumps aren’t very expensive (probably under $500) and are fairly long-lived.  You’re unlikely to need to be replacing pumps every year, indeed, assuming that the duty cycle for the pump is moderate and appropriate, it is realistic to at least 10 – 15 years of trouble-free life.  With clean water and a light cycling rate, some pumps give up to 40 years of service.

When you do have a water pump problem, it is probably something you could – at least in theory – repair rather than fix by a complete replacement, and many of the problems actually relate to the fixtures and fittings and tanks outside the well, not the pump inside the well.  But, if it is a pump problem, and to keep things really simple, obviously a total replacement should work (assuming the problem isn’t somewhere above ground, outside of the well, in particular the electrical and control wiring that goes to the pump to turn it on and off as needed).

Depending on your level of skill, your supply of spare parts, and how long you can manage with the pump system down, repair would always be preferable to replacement, of course.  It would be a good strategy to talk to whoever installed and/or maintains your pump currently to find out what the likely failure points may be and to keep those appropriate spare parts, as well as a complete second pump assembly too.

For many of us, having a complete spare water pump would be all the protection and preparing we feel we need.

Here’s a useful but slightly muddled website with a lot of information about troubleshooting and repairing well based water systems.

A Large Temporary Holding Tank

These considerations point to a related point.  You should have a larger than normal above ground temporary tank, and keep it full to half full all the time.  Your choice of above ground holding tank should be such that you can live off the remaining half of its capacity for a reasonable number of days, if the pump does fail.  That gives you the luxury of some time in which to respond to the failed pump and get it fixed, before the toilets stop flushing and the taps stop running.

There’s a related benefit to a large temporary tank.  It means your pump doesn’t cycle as frequently.  It is the starting part of the pump’s operation that is most stressful; you’ll get much more life out of the pump by reducing its frequency of cycling on and off.

It is common for the well water to be pumped to a small pressure reservoir, and then to travel from there to the taps as needed, primarily by the force of the pressure in the reservoir.  In such cases, we suggest adding a temporary holding tank between the well and the pressure reservoir (rather than creating an enormous pressure reservoir).  We also suggest locating the holding tank as high above ground as possible, so as to reduce your dependence on the pressure reservoir.  A gravity fed system from the reservoir to your taps would be much more reliable.

Typical domestic water supplies have pressures in the order of 40 – 60 psi, sometimes a little less, and sometimes going up as high as 80 psi.

Yes, there is such a thing as too much water pressure.  We’d recommend keeping the water pressure to around the 40 – 50 psi point so as to minimize stress on taps and pipes.  Each foot of water height creates 0.43 lbs/sq in of water pressure.  So even a 40 psi service would require the water level at the top of the holding tank to be 93 ft above the tap level – this is almost certainly impractical.

There are two workarounds.  The first is to have large diameter piping and high flow rate taps.  This will compensate for the lower pressure in all situations except showers.  If you want to have good showers, you’ll need to have a pressure booster of some type, either just for the shower, or perhaps for the entire house.

The problem with holding tanks appreciably above ground level is that they are insecure.  A vandal or attacker will see the tank, and almost certainly, rifle rounds will penetrate through the tank wall and while the holes might be readily repairable, the water you lose may or may not be so easily replaceable.  Without wishing to over-engineer a solution, our preference sometimes is for two holding tanks.  A large one that is mainly underground, and then a smaller ‘day tank’ type tank that is above ground at a high up point.  That way your main holding tank is relatively secure, and your vulnerability reduced; indeed, you could even have your day tank built into the attic/inside the roof of your retreat.

Adding a Hand Pump to the Well

So far, we’ve recommended adding a large temporary holding tank, set into the ground, and a smaller ‘day tank’ located in the ceiling/attic of your retreat.  We’ve also suggested keeping a complete spare pump and some replacement spares for those parts most likely to wear out.

But wait.  There’s still more!  We’d feel more comfortable if we also had some type of hand pump, so that pretty much no matter what else happens, we can always get water.  It goes without saying that if we can’t get water to our retreat, everything else becomes irrelevant and our entire retreat becomes unlivable.  Water is an essential part of any retreat, and abundant water allows our lifestyle to move massively up the scale.

Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind our water needs probably extend way beyond what we directly personally use in our retreat.  We have agricultural needs too, for our crops and livestock.  We might even have ‘industrial’ type needs if we have any sort of manufacturing processes.  You’ll probably find a hand pump, while able to provide the essential water for living, would be inadequate to provide all the other water you might need over and above your domestic and personal needs.  Perhaps better to say – the pump may be adequate, but your supply of pumping manpower may be inadequate!

Hand pumps come in many different shapes and sizes, and come with various types of claims and promises about being easy to operate and providing so many gallons per minute of water from your pumping actions.

There are, however, two main types of hand pump (and many other types of less relevant ways of raising water too, starting with a traditional well and bucket that is lowered down to the water level and then lifted up again).

Pumps that are designed to lift water only a short height are probably suction pumps (also called pitcher pumps) – their piston is above ground, directly connected to the pump’s operating handle, and simply sucks the water up the pipe and eject it out the other end of the piston.

But suction pumps quickly become less effective when the distance the water needs to be lifted increases.  A sometimes cited rule of thumb is that suction pumps are good for about 25 ft of lifting.  At that point, a totally different type of pump comes into its own, the lift or piston pump.

pumpoperationdiagThese pumps have their operating mechanism at the far end of the pipe, down where the water is.  Each stroke of the pump handle causes the cylinder to lift another measure of water up into the pipe.  Eventually, the water has been lifted all the way to the top and comes out the spout.

These pumps can lift water hundreds of feet, but the greater the lift height, the more effort is required to lift the water, and the more stress on the cylinder’s seals and the tubing in general.

Treat all the claims of gallon per minute (gpm) outputs and ease of use of hand pumps with a grain of salt.  There are unavoidable physical laws of nature which dictate how much energy is required to lift water from your well to your holding tank, and while a hand pump can operate with a greater or lesser degree of efficiency, thereby influencing how easy/hard it is to pump the water, it can never be more than 100% efficient (and more likely, never more than perhaps 70% efficient) so you’re always going to have to put some effort into the pumping.

Adding a hand pump to your current well system is probably much easier than you’d think.  Well, it is easy now while society is still functioning; it would be much harder subsequently!

The good news is that your current well comprises a pipe that is probably 6″ in diameter, and the pipe for the electrically powered pump water that comes up is probably only 1″ – 1 1/4″ in diameter.  This leaves lots of room for more pipes, so you simply lower down an extra pipe, and mount a hand pump on the well head.

Now for a clever extra idea.  You can have the output of the hand pump go to a valve, which can direct the water either to an outlet/tap or to feed into the water line from the electric pump (through a check-valve of course).  That way, if your electric pump fails for any reason, you can still feed water into your holding tank, your pressure tank, and your household water system.  This is a bit like having a distribution panel for your electricity, allowing your house wiring to be fed from utility power, a generator, batteries, or whatever other power source you wished to use.

What sort of hand pump do you need?  Our first point is one of warning.  Hand pumps are not necessarily long-lasting just because they operate by hand rather than by electricity.  We’ve heard of people having their hand pumps fail on them after less than a year of moderately light use.  In alphabetical order, we’re aware of Baker Monitor, Bison, Flojak, Simple Pump and Waterbuck Pump brands.  You might also find used Hitzer pumps out there, but after some years of struggling, the company finally liquidated a short while ago this year (2014).

There are other brands as well, but we’ve not uncovered as much information on them so hesitate to mention them.  We’ve not experimented with all the different makes and models of hand pumps, and hesitate to make a recommendation.  We suggest you speak to a couple of different well digging and maintaining companies and see what they recommend, and roam around online user forums and see what type of feedback the different makes and models of pumps are getting from bona fide users.

The Waterbuck product seems impressive, but we don’t fully understand exactly what it is or how it has the apparent advantage and extra efficiency it claims.  It seems to still be a fairly new to market product – maybe by the time you read this there is more feedback from people who have been using it for a while and who can comment accordingly.

aermotorbWindmill Powered Pumps

If you are fortunate enough to be somewhere with a reasonable amount of wind, maybe you can supplement your water supply with a windmill.

The classic American windmill can provide a reliable regular supply of water, ideally into a reasonably sized holding tank so as to buffer the differences in supply and demand as between the vagaries of wind powered pumping and the water draws for your various requirements.

Windmill powered pumps can lift water up to almost 1000 ft, and the more powerful pumps can lift up to 1000 gallons per hour (albeit more moderate heights).

Windmills can therefore work well, even as primary water supply pumps, just as long as there is a reasonable amount of wind to drive them.

Well Depth Issues

There’s no avoiding gravity.  The deeper you have to drill for water, the more hassle it becomes to then lift the water up to the surface and on into your retreat, the more energy it requires, and the more stressed every part of the pumping process becomes.

It would be time and money very well spent to explore widely around your retreat property to find the best location for the shallowest well.  A well digger can probably tell you fairly quickly, based on logs from past drilling projects in your area, what the typical well depths might be and if there’s likely to be much variation in the distance down to the water table around your property.

It is massively less costly, from an energy point of view, to run a water line horizontally across your property than it is to dig down in the first place.  Our point here is that if you had to choose between a 50 ft well, half a mile away, and a 200 ft well, right next to your retreat, we’d probably choose the 50 ft well (assuming there were no other risks or negative factors associated with then running half a mile of pipe from the well head to your retreat).

Best of all, of course, would be to do both wells, giving you another element of redundancy and assuredness of water supply.


Typical well water supplies have water feeding from a well to a relatively small and pressurized reservoir and then from there to the household plumbing.

We suggest a better design for a prepper has the well feeding to a holding tank, of sufficient size to store several days of water.  The well pump should be configured to deliver water infrequently with fewer starts and stops, making it less stressed and therefore more reliable and longer lived.  A second system then feeds from the holding tank to a pressurized reservoir and into the house.  This makes it easier to troubleshoot your water supply system and, in the event of the well pump failure, gives you some time to fix the pump before running low on pumped water on hand.

In addition to the electric well pump, you should have a second pump line going down your well tube, with a hand-operated pump at the top.  The pump should also feed into your main holding tank supply, plus have the ability to have water drawn direct from the pump itself.

Lastly, a backup system to feed water from the holding tank to your retreat would make sense also.

Jul 172013
Small towns can be a viable alternative location for your retreat if you have the relevant skills to survive in a town.

Small towns can be a viable alternative location for your retreat if you have the relevant skills to survive in a town.

Maybe you’ve decided that town living is a better choice for you.  There’s nothing wrong with that decision.

Many of us have little ability or interest in a farming lifestyle, and particularly if we have some other type of non-farming/rural talent or ability we can use to survive on in the future, it not only becomes sensible for us to consider living in a town, it becomes essential, because the town contains the concentration of people needed to be your future customers.

There’s no need to feel like you’re becoming a second-class prepper by not buying a dozen acres in the middle of nowhere and becoming totally self-sufficient, because in reality, the concept of living by yourself, and being fully self-sufficient, is an impossibility to start with.  The solitary farming family will need help in many different aspects of their life, plus they’ll need people to trade with – to sell the surplus food they’ve grown themselves, and to buy other food items to supplement the diet of their own food.

That has been the historical role of towns since mankind stopped being nomadic hunter gatherers and started to settle on land.  The towns provide a focus for the farmers around them, and the supplemental services and support the farmers need.

As towns grew larger, they started to then add extra people and extra services for the existing townsfolk as well as for the farmers nearby, and then of course, with the industrial revolution, towns started to be centers for factories, and so it went from there to the mega-millions of people in some of our massive sprawling cities of today.

But, in a Level 2 or 3 situation, towns will revert back to essentially being support resources for the surrounding farmers, and you’ll want to either have something that farmers will want/need, or something that the other people in the town will want/need.  There will only be a reduced level of trade between nearby towns, and almost no trade with more distant locations, because transport will become expensive, slow, difficult and probably dangerous.

House or Apartment?  Big or Small Lot?

So, do you want to have an apartment above a store on the main street of the town?  A condo in a block of condos?  A house on a 1/8th acre lot a street back from the main street?  A house on a 1/4 acre lot several streets back from the main street?  Or a house on a one acre lot more or less at the town limits?

As a rule of thumb, the closer to the town center, the smaller your lot will be.  Of course, lot size is probably not your prime consideration, but we’d suggest you should consider this somewhat, and in particular, we’d urge you to consider having a freestanding dwelling rather than a condo/apartment/townhouse.

We’re not saying you need a large house – a smaller house would be fine, but you should probably allow for being able to accept some ‘guests’ who will want to join you WTSHTF.  A spare bedroom or two might be much appreciated by all.  Generally you want to choose an average sort of house consistent with its surrounding houses – ‘security by obscurity’ in a sense.

Having your own freestanding dwelling on your own lot gives you much more security, independence and privacy than sharing a structure and common areas and land with others, and in an uncertain future, you’ve no idea who might be living next to you.  The ability to have a buffer zone between your residence and the next residence/street gives you a very slight warning and a ‘no-man’s land’ where you can choose how to respond to unwanted visitors with less than lethal force.  When they’re breaking down your door – or, even worse, coming at you through the shared common wall with the adjoining apartment – your options are much more limited!

You can also use the land around your residence to erect a ‘garden shed’ or two in which you can store additional supplies and materials, in addition to whatever is in your home itself.  If you have your own land, you can have your own septic tank, or at the very least, dig a privy.

Talking about such things, some distance also gives you a sanitary/quarantine gap from your neighbors as well.  High density housing combined with a failure of services such as water and sewer is a huge invitation for dysentery and all sorts of other nasty diseases to spread like wildfire; and in a situation with diminished healthcare resource and fewer modern medications, what is currently inconvenient can quickly become lethal.

It also gives you a firebreak.  With the loss of public water services, fires can be harder to fight, and spread quickly between nearby buildings.  Ideally, of course, you’ll be able to modify the house you buy to ‘harden’ it against fire, or, even better, you will get an empty lot so you can build a house the way you want it, right from the start.

When you’re very close to your neighbors, and especially if you’re sharing a common structure, you’re beholden to them and you will be vulnerable to the consequences of their mistakes.

Your own extra space does a lot more than insulate you from the mistakes of your neighbors.  You have some space to set out some solar cells (in addition to whatever might be on your roof, or perhaps instead of being on your roof, so as not to draw attention to yourself).  You also have space for a generator and can park several vehicles securely.

Talking about being insulated from your neighbors, we’d urge you to avoid any type of property that is subject to a Home Owners’ Association, and be very wary of any attached covenants, codes and restrictions.  Home Owners’ Associations can run amok and cause no end of problems to people like ourselves – people who may not be willing to conform to the most excessively politically correct mandates of the HOA.

Not only do you want to avoid the constraints of an HOA, you want to have a moderate amount of privacy on your lot – you don’t want to be looking out your living room windows and straight into your neighbor’s living room, and so on.

If you have your own freestanding dwelling structure, you also have your own roof, and so you can collect rainwater from it without any complicating factors.  You can fireproof the structure too, and – while you’re at it – also make it ballistically stronger.

Even Non-Gardeners Should Have a (Small) Garden

One more thing about having some land.  Yes, you’ve already decided you’re not going to live a life as a rural farmer, spending all days doing back-breaking work in the fields.

But we’d urge you to have a few rows of veggies in your back yard, or perhaps erect a small greenhouse (then you can even raise plants up off the ground and not have to bend over so much).  Even a small bit of food independence (or, more accurately, less food dependence) might make a lot of difference when things get really tight and really tough.  Grow some easy, resilient, fun things.

You’re growing such things to supplement your other food and income, rather than to survive from, and if you grow some non-standard food items, you might find them much appreciated by other people, too.

So, one of the framing factors in your location choice within the town will be the varying costs of having some land together with a freestanding dwelling – how much you feel you need and how much you can afford.

Having acknowledged that, you should choose a place as centrally located as possible.  Sure, convenience is a good thing, and the ability to only walk for three or four minutes to get to your nearby Starbucks store in the morning is definitely a plus – well, okay then, maybe you’ve found the one town in the US that doesn’t yet have a Starbucks or analogous coffee shop.  🙂

For sure, you need to plan your future based on walking or riding a bicycle wherever you go in town, rather than driving a car.

Security Issues

There’s another reason for choosing to be close in to the center of the town as well.  If your town gets attacked by marauding bandits, two things will happen.

First, unlike the wild west movies we see, the bad guys won’t ride into the middle of the main street, a yelling and a hollering as they come, then shoot up everything they see, then ride out of town again.  Whereas, in the movies, the center of town seems to always be the most dangerous spot, in real life, we think it will be the safest.

Just like German U-boats against convoys in WW2 that would pick off the stragglers – the bad guys will attack, by stealth, the furthest out properties – the ones in the sort of grey zone where lot sizes have got larger, houses are further apart, and if you didn’t know the official city boundary line, you’d not be sure if they were in the town or not.

The second thing that will happen is a response to the first.  Outlying residents will come in to the center of the town for protection, and at the same time, the people who live closer in will band together to protect themselves – and themselves only.

The city limits sign will have no meaning.  The townsfolk in the center of the town will band together and protect only the inner enclave of their town.  This will be the area where an attack on one building is ‘dangerously close’ to other nearby buildings, such that the neighbors feel they have to help defend.  When the population density thins out some, if one building is attacked, neighbors will either cower under the kitchen table or run away, but when the population density rises, neighbors will feel that it is safer to help repulse the attackers, because they’ll perceive the direct danger to themselves much more starkly.

We’ve also seen analogous examples of this in history too – towns where the inner part was defended by a city wall, and the outer part – outside the city wall, was on their own.

Okay, we know our advice seems contradictory.  On the one hand, you want to have a reasonable lot size, and a bit of privacy and buffer zone between you and the neighbors.  On the other hand, you want to be close in to the town center for security and safety.  Where do you compromise?  That really depends on the layout of the town (and your budget).

When we talk about town layout we don’t just mean the streets and houses and plat maps, although that is of course relevant.  We also mean the ways in and out of the town, and any geographic buffers/barriers that might provide protection – rivers and hills, for example.

Clearly, attackers will be very likely to approach from some directions and less likely to approach from others.  This isn’t a military campaign, they are looking for ‘low-lying fruit’ and will leave difficult situations well alone (because there will be plenty of low lying fruit).  So consider degrees of risk when choosing your location in a town, although the most important thing to appreciate is that if/when threatened, the town will ‘shrink in’ on itself, and only the dense central area will end up with the residents effectively uniting against external problems.


If you have a skill that can be used in a rural town after WTSHTF, then by all means plan your prepping on the basis of setting up your retreat in a town.

We discuss how to choose a suitable town separately.  Once you have chosen a suitable town, in this article we explain where in the town is best to locate yourself.

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.


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.

May 202012

A septic system is simple, reliable and an effective solution to your human waste disposal needs

Some people have made elaborate preparations for a Level 2/3 event.  They have bought their retreat.  They have their food, their fuel, their guns, their water supply, and their generator.

They’ve planned the typical one gallon of water per person per day, and hopefully allowed more than that for all the other uses one needs water for too.  And their food stores are more than sufficient.

But ask them about what happens to the food and water after it is used, and they’ll look at you blankly.  Explain some more, and they’ll get into an elaborate discussion about toilet seats on 5 gallon plastic pails, about ‘Humanure’, maybe about cutting trenches and tossing handfuls of soil or lime on top of one’s outputs.

None of it sounds very pleasant, for sure.

Why aren’t more people simply having a septic system installed at their retreat?  Costs to install a system are low (in the overall scheme of setting up a retreat costs) and the impact on allowing for a much more comfortable life when living at the retreat is enormous.

Maybe some people look upon septic systems with underserved scorn.  They are an excellent, reliable, and low-tech way of handling human waste, and are good as a solution for people living away from a reliable city sewer system in normal times as well as in adverse times.  We’ve lived in septic served houses ourselves and have never had any problems – indeed, the most unreliable sewage system we ever had was where the line to the city sewer would get blocked, regular as clockwork, every two or so years, by roots from the neighbor’s nearby large tree.

Here’s a quick introduction to the subject of septics.

Septic systems vary in size depending on the ‘load’ that is expected to be placed on them (perhaps better to say the load that will be placed in them!).  The rule of thumb is to guess at the load based on the number of bedrooms in the house the system is servicing, and to assume two people per bedroom, and each person representing 60 – 75 gallons of liquid (and solid) a day.

If you are careful, and perhaps if you use 1.6 gallon per flush toilets rather than the earlier 3.5 – 5 gallon per flush toilets, and if you have modern water conserving washing machines and dishwashers, you’ll be able to get down below the 60 gallon per person guesstimate, but for designing your system to county code standards, you’ll need to use whatever their formula is.

Once you know the gallons per day that need to be managed, you double it and that tells you the size of the tank itself.  A three bedroom house would represent a load of about 360 gallons/day (at 60 gallons per person) which doubled represents 720 gallons of tank capacity.

A sweet spot in tank prices seems to be 1000 gallon capacity (which will probably cost you $500 – $800 or so).  This is also the usual capacity of a septic tank pumping truck, and it makes good sense to match your tank capacity with a pump truck’s capacity (prior to WTSHTF).  There is never any harm in ‘too large’ a tank capacity – this is a good thing as it extends the time between pump-outs.

The other thing you need to work out is more complicated.  This is the size of the drainfield, and it is determined not just by the gallonage per day, but also by the type of soil you’ll be draining the tank into.  That same three bedroom house might need as small as a 300 sq ft drainfield (best case scenario) or as large as an 1800 sq ft drainfield (a bad scenario).  You need to call in the experts to do soil analysis, perc tests, and drainfield design.

The all up cost of a septic system for a three bedroom house may be in the range of $2500 – $4500 to install, plus permit fees and initial consultation costs, assuming a reasonably positive situation and a gravity fed system.  If you need to have a pressure system, then the cost is more likely to be around $4000 – $6500 plus permits and consulting.  Worst case scenario, with a ‘mound’ type system, you could be spending $9,000 – $20,000.

A well designed septic system running at the level it was designed for (or less) will need to be pumped out or in some other way emptied every couple of years or so.  Larger tanks require emptying less frequently.  Other than that, they should reliably work for a couple of decades without needing much attention.

Gravity systems are, as their name implies, gravity fed.  Pressure and mound systems need pumps with infrequent duty cycles and low powered motors.  They should not overload your power resources at all.

If you are careful about what you put into your septic system – especially if you don’t use a sink garbage disposal unit to increase the amount of bio-mass going into the system (you shouldn’t waste food scraps that way, anyway – either use them for feeding animals or for composting), and limit the inputs to only the, ahem, human outputs, your system will largely take care of itself.

You should also try not to have sudden peaks of inputs.  If you have a system that anticipates 420 gallons a day, it is better to give it 400 gallons a day for three days in a row than to give it 100 gallons today, 1000 gallons the next day, and 100 gallons the third day, because you want everything to have at least two days in the tank before moving on to the drainfield.  This gives time for solids to settle to the bottom (and fats to the top) leaving just a relatively free of other stuff liquid to go into the drainfield.

Recommendations for Preppers

Clearly we are recommending you should build a septic system at your retreat.

There are two extra considerations to keep in mind.

The first is that, if at all possible, try to avoid the need to have a system that requires pumps.  This will reduce the number of things that might go wrong and/or need maintenance, and also reduce the energy cost of operating your septic system.  If the entire system is fully gravity powered, then you have a very resilient system – much better to spend more up front to get a robust system than to go a cheaper route only to find yourself with a system that becomes inoperative subsequently at a time when you can no longer easily access cheap energy and ready support.

The second consideration is to over-specify everything, and to massively increase the holding tank capacities too.  We’re not quite sure what you’d do at the point where the tank needs to be pumped, so best put that day off as long as possible.

Pumping is inevitable.  The septic system works by settling the solids to the bottom of the holding tank and having the liquid overflow feed out through the drainfield.  Sooner or later, the level of solids will reach the point where they need to be pumped out.  Better to make that time as far into the future as possible, by which time there will hopefully be some infrastructure available to respond to the need.

Here’s an excellent site with much more information on the topic.