Preparing for No Running Water
Sometimes one gets notice that there is a planned water outage or a disaster that makes it look like water will be shut off. People are advised to fill their bathtubs with water which they can use to flush toilets and clean up. The finish on our tub is peeling and the drain does not hold water well, so that would not work for us.
However, we have lots of buckets available … although my sweetie uses many of them for the garden. My buckets come (free) from the bakery departments of grocery stores, a local sandwich shop, and from friends who buy their kitty litter in plastic buckets. Because we knew we’d be going without running water for several days, we filled a number of these with the hose to use for flushing toilets.
We used to have a couple of barrels set up to collect rain water. Unfortunately, when we headed off to Missouri, sure that we’d soon be moving there, I took it upon myself to start getting rid of bulky things we wouldn’t want to move. That included the rain barrels. They are still in use, just not at my house. Thankfully, I kept one spare barrel that didn’t get hooked up to the rain water system.
The barrels were purchased from the local bottling plant where they originally held the syrup for energy or soft drinks. The plant sells these for ten dollars, or at least they did several years ago. Plastic retains odors, though, so there is still a distinct syrupy smell from our barrel even though it has been washed out multiple times and left to air for several weeks. For emergency non-potable water, we decided a little smell wouldn’t be that bad, and filled the barrel with the hose. (For storing water, note that it is better to have opaque barrels rather than clear or white since light promotes algae growth.)
Because the water in the barrel had the syrupy smell, I wanted clean, fresh water in the kitchen and bathrooms. I put several 2 liter bottles of water in each bathroom and a 1 gallon jug in the kitchen. Actually, that jug has been there since summer when we finally figured out how to get cold tap water for washing vegetables. You may recall that I mentioned in the last power down report that our tap water comes out hot during the summer, even from the cold tap. This was a problem for rinsing salad greens since it made them wilt so I’d have to add ice to the water. One summer day, after going to scrub some clothes that had been soaking in the sink for an hour, it dawned on me that the water was now cold. By filling a jug with the warm tap water and letting it sit for a while, we could easily have plenty of cool water for rinsing vegetables!
From our camping days, we had two 5 gallon plastic water containers with convenient spouts. We filled both of these on New Year’s Eve so we’d have plenty for washing dishes since we really didn’t want to use syrupy-smelling stored water for that either. Unfortunately, the next morning, we found that one container had an irreparable leak and was half empty. I transferred the remaining water into additional bottles.
Another way I regularly store water is in the freezer, and sometimes the refrigerator. Since this major appliance operates more efficiently when full, bottles of water are a cheap and easy way to fill in open space. For a while, I tried using empty soymilk cartons but found that they were not very durable. It’s easy to scrounge up plastic bottles and they can freeze, thaw, and refreeze many times as long as sufficient space is left in the bottle for the water to expand while freezing. They are great for the ice chest instead of loose ice during the summer and, in an emergency, can come in handy either to keep foods cold or be thawed for the water they contain.
Due to water quality issues and the unpleasant taste of tap water here, we got filtered water at a nearby station in a refillable 5 gallon bottle. Any water we ingested – through direct drinking or in cooked food (rice, soups, etc.) – would come from this bottle. Things like pasta could be cooked in tap water, though, since they don’t absorb all the water like rice does.
What is our normal use of water?
As native desert-dwellers, we know we have to respect the limits on water availability. We don't have a rainwater cistern in our rental house, although half of the rain that falls on the roof is diverted to two citrus trees. Landscaping is heavily mulched to reduce evaporation and some of it is desert-adapted. Unfortunately, some of the landscaping needs more water and, as renters, we are required to maintain the yard. If we owned the place, we’d rip out all of the ornamental plants and replace them with edible landscaping! My sweetie's container garden now uses less water than when we tried gardening in the awful soil in this yard and we finally get to enjoy fresh homegrown vegetables occasionally.
In the house, we are conscious of our water use all the time. Some of the actions we take to save water include saving all tap water while waiting for the hot water to come out, using cloth wipes part of the time, taking sponge baths instead of daily showers, keeping showers short, washing laundry only when it really needs to be washed, and so on. (You can browse through posts labeled with the water tag to read more.)
Last year, our water use averaged 129 gallons per day for two adults and two dogs on a one-fifth acre lot. The daily water use ranges from 70 gallons per month in the dead of winter to more than twice that in the middle of summer when we are need the evaporative cooler to keep the house from sweltering and we have to water more to keep the plants alive until the summer monsoons begin in July. This past year, our annual rainfall was less than half the normal amount. Not surprisingly, my records show that we had to use 12 gallons more per day and the landscaping still looks stressed. Even the desert cactus species are looking worse for wear all over the region.
Luckily, we did this experiment during the winter season when the plants need less water and we aren’t using water just to keep cool. By watering the yard and garden well before we shut off the tap, everything was fine for several days.
What did we do without running water?
As soon as we started this experiment, the first thing that became very apparent was that cleaning without running water is more difficult. We are accustomed to the ease of having running water to rinse soapy hands, dirty vegetables, and food-speckled dishes. We had to adjust to doing these tasks without running water and also without wasting a lot of water.
In the kitchen
Since our produce mostly comes from the CSA or our garden, it comes with dirt. Store-bought vegetables are clean compared to carrots pulled out of the ground and bundled together immediately. With no running water and a limited quantity of stored water, I had to be stingy when cleaning veggies. I put about an inch of water in a large bowl in the kitchen sink and used that to scrub root vegetables. For a final clean rinse, I used a small water bottle with a sport top. I’d planned to save this water to use in the toilets but it ended up so brown and dirty that it went to the garden instead. For washing lettuce, I could not fill a bowl with water to wash a whole head at once, as usual. Instead, I put far less water in a bowl, tilted it to make a deeper section, and washed a few leaves at a time.
I was somewhat stunned at how little water I could use to get the vegetables clean. However, it also took about twice as long to clean them this way. Using dried, preserved, or canned food would have taken far less time during this experiment!
Since we knew that washing the dishes would have to be done with minimal water, it was imperative to not leave food sitting on dishes to harden for hours. We wouldn’t have the luxury of soaking them in a sink of hot water, and we didn’t want to heat and use water to do dishes after every meal. The solution was pretty easy: simply clean the food off the dishes after each meal. Putting just a little bit of water in a pot or dish and loosening all the food bits with the fingers left dishes fairly clean. One could even collect these flavored bits of water to make soup, if desired.
We were able to wash the day’s dishes in a much smaller amount of hot water than normally used. We also drastically reduced the amount of water used for rinsing off the soap. Instead of having a bowl full of rinse water, the water bottle with a sport top came to the rescue. It was an easy way to create a stream of water like that from the faucet, with the added advantage that you can make it go wherever you want.
In the bathroom
I soon discovered that trying to rinse soapy hands in the bathroom with a 2 liter bottle of water was impractical. It was heavy, soap was slippery on the neck, and it was just unwieldy. I complained to my sweetie who mentioned that Cody Lundin, in his book on disaster preparedness, When All Hell Breaks Loose, recommends filling a bowl with water and just a splash of bleach for rinsing and disinfecting hands in an emergency. In the comments of my preparation post, Knutty Knitter also recommended putting tea tree oil in water.
With no tea tree oil on hand and concerns that an antiseptic might not be adequate in the bathroom, we opted for the dilute bleach solution. The bathroom sinks were set up with a bowl half-filled with water plus a splash of bleach. This was replaced each morning with a new dilute bleach solution and the old water used for flushing toilets. It must have done an adequate job of disinfection because neither of us got sick. One drawback was it had a drying effect on our hands and we needed to use more lotion.
Cleaning ourselves up in the morning happened with washcloths damped in cold water. I used the 2 liter bottle to run water over the washcloth to rinse it while scrubbing up, making sure to do this over a bucket to collect all the water….which, of course, was used to flush the toilets. With the short period of time without amenities, we had no need to shower or wash our hair. For a longer shutdown period, we’d have to wash hair either with very little water outside or try the dry shampoo methods (which I’ve tried before with poor results). It's too bad we don't have a private area where we could set up a solar shower outside.
I never leave the water running while brushing my teeth, but I had to change my routine a little with no running water available at all. Again, the 2 liter bottle was too big and unwieldy for wetting and rinsing the toothbrush, and I also had to deal with rinsing out my mouth. A small cup did the trick. I could pour the tiniest bit of water over the brush to wet it initially and then sip and swish to rinse my mouth. I vaguely remember reading somewhere about dribbling this rinse water over the toothbrush to rinse it, too. Seemed a little weird but it got the bulk of the toothpaste foam off the brush so a quick final rinse with fresh water from the cup left it clean.
Flushing solids in the toilet turned out to be the biggest use of water of anything we did over the several days without running water. We didn’t have to flush for urination since I use cloth wipes for that. For solids, though, there was no getting around the need to flush. This made us really yearn for a composting toilet!
As a female, I should mention that I am grateful the timing of this experiment did not coincide with that time of month. While using cloth pads and the Diva cup is great for reducing waste, they do increase the amount of water needed for clean-up. Dealing with this without running water would be quite a nuisance and would definitely use more water.
In the garden
The garden outside required no water, thankfully. The seedlings inside used a nominal amount. During the summer, more than a couple of days without water would be devastating for the garden and landscaping. A rainwater cistern would help tremendously and is in our plans for setting up our own property for desert living. There are, however, months of dry weather without rain in late spring and early summer. I’m not sure it would be possible to store enough water in a cistern or other containers to make it through an extended period of water outages in, say, June when temperatures can be over 100 degrees and the humidity is in single digits.
How low did we go?
I was surprised when I calculated how much water we had used during our 2 ½ days of no running water. For drinking and cooking, we used 5 gallons of bottled water. For everything else, we used 46 gallons of water. This is a total of 51 gallons - just over 10 gallons per person per day - slightly less if you include the water consumed by the dogs.
What could we do differently to use even less water in an emergency?
In the kitchen:
Don’t use fresh produce. Rinsing the veggies used a lot of water. Using preserved and canned food would use less, although dehydrated vegetables need water to rehydrate. Leaving fresh produce in the refrigerator would be okay for a short water outage, especially if the power was still on so it would stay fresh in the refrigerator.
Make simpler meals. Fewer dirty pots and pans means less washing up. If power was still on, making one big dish and then eating leftovers would be ideal.
In the bathroom:
No toothpaste. Not using toothpaste would slightly reduce the amount of rinsing needed for mouth and brush. Brushing your teeth for 5 minutes without toothpaste or baking soda is supposed to get the teeth plenty clean. This would be a pretty minor water savings, though.
Use our camping toilet. When full, dump it in the regular toilet and flush, using a bucket of water to fill the tank. This would tremendously reduce the amount of water used for flushing. To do this, though, we’d need to use the special camping toilet paper that breaks down quickly in camping toilets to avoid clogging the regular toilet. Or, we could use wipes for everything, a transition we have not made yet, although I have done it for up to a week at a time during challenges.
Get a composting toilet. This is in the long range plans and will lead to ongoing water savings. Cost is the limiting factor at this time, as well as not having our own place in which to install one.
There are a couple of low tech options, too. As pointed out in the Liquid Gold book on using urine as a fertilizer, urine is sterile when it leaves the body. Provided there is sufficient carbon, such as mulch, peeing directly into a tree bed would save water. This would be easy for males, but a little trickier for females managing a cloth wipe outside. I also recently heard about someone who uses a bucket when camping in their RV. The gal puts kitty litter in the bucket and uses more to cover after each use. When she gets home, she just dumps it in her compost pile. (There are several organic kitty litter options evidently, made of such things as newspaper, wheat byproducts, or pine sawdust pellets.) While this is a neat idea, I would not be comfortable with including feces in compost unless the compost pile was managed properly, as recommended in the book, Humanure.
What changes will stick now that the water's running again?
I was impressed with how little water the squirt bottle method of rinsing dishes used. To continue this change, I’m keeping the one gallon jug in the kitchen to fill while waiting for the tap water to heat up for washing dishes. I use this to refill the smaller squirt bottle as needed. So far, I have more clean water than I need and the jug is still full when I need to wash the next batch of dishes. The surplus clean water can be used to wash vegetables, laundry, or water the garden.
I'm also continuing to pre-rinse the dishes with a tiny bit of water more often after each meal to make dish-washing easier at the end of the day.
After using buckets of fresh water to fill the toilet tank for several days, I started pondering where to get more used, but not really dirty, water that I could use to flush toilets. Since we only shower a couple times each week, that does not provide enough water from saving the water as the tap heats up.
How about laundry water? During the summer, I often haul the rinse water out to the landscape trees when they need more water. I generally let the initial wash water go down the drain since I don’t currently buy the low-sodium brand recommended for graywater use with our soils. The washer has three rinse cycles. For the past week, I’ve taken the first and second rinse water out to the trees and saved the third for flushing toilets. To keep from introducing lint into the toilet tank, I use a rubberband to secure some of my fine cheesecloth to the end of the hose. The cheesecloth can be rinsed and re-used.
So far, this seems to work fine. By the third rinse, I doubt there is much left in the water that could be considered a hazard. Although the water is sometimes darkened from the dyes used in clothing, it hasn’t seemed to affect the toilet. I don’t think it could stain the porcelain and it doesn’t sit in there all that long anyway. The only downside is we don’t do enough laundry to provide water for all the flushes needed with a high fiber diet.
That's it for the reports on our power down experiment. I hope you have enjoyed reading about it and are thinking about your own preparations for emergencies, as well as a future in which all of us may need to use less electricity, gas, and water in our daily lives.