When the power goes out you’re likely to worry about keeping warm in the winter, staying cool in the summer and keeping your food safe in the refrigerator. The kids might even throw in a complaint or two about WiFi and the Xbox. Shocker! Then the call for help from the bathroom — “the toilet won’t flush”. Ah, yes, that’s a fun call for help. But wait. If we’re talking about losing power — what does that have to do with plumbing you ask?
Can you flush the toilet when the power goes out? The quick answer is yes; however, you may be limited in how many times you can flush. The way your toilet fills back up after a flush is what we need to look at to understand why a toilet won’t work continuously during a power outage.
This article will explain why toilets stop working when the electricity is out. We found a number of reasons why, but more importantly we have some ideas on how you can do your business like nobody’s business — even when the lights go out
There Are Different Kinds of Toilets?
So, a toilet is a toilet right? Is there really more to it? To explain the process for a moment — the tank in the back of your toilet is filled with approximately 1.5 gallons of water provided your toilet is newer. If your throne is a throwback to the ’80’s you might be surprised to know it isn’t too efficient with up to 5 gallons of water. Ever wonder why the water bill is high? Yikes.
Anyway – when you flush your toilet all that water rushes to the bowl, which forces the contents of the bowl, via gravity, to flush. Then, your tank begins filling again.
Can a Toilet Refill Without Electricity?
- Town/city water. With water supplied by a local municipality, your home is pressurized from a large water tank that is much higher than your home. Once the water tank drops in volume, it will call for water from an electric pump. Without a generator to keep that pump running the system will drop in pressure and cease to work.
- Private water. With private water, which I have in my home, the water is supplied by a well. Homes with a private well rely on a pump powered by… you guessed it, electricity. Without battery backup or a generator, well pumps stop working and there isn’t enough pressure to keep toilets working beyond one flush.
Some toilets, in basements, rely on electric pumps to flush. These systems are lower than the sewage pipes so gravity doesn’t work. Electric pumps are used to flush the toilet against gravity until it can exit the home with the rest of the wastewater. Similarly, without a generator or battery backup, avoid using these types of toilets during an outage. You will not have one final flush with these systems.
Let’s say you’re in an outage and the toilet presumably has one flush left and you don’t know when the power is coming back. You might think about doing a bit of potty training everyone in the house — especially with teenagers.
Let me explain with a short story.
Not long ago we had a pretty significant snowstorm in New England. The snow was extremely wet, very heavy, and I could tell it was likely to cause some power issues. The weight of heavy snow puts
Well, I was right. After a couple of hours of intense snow — we lost power and you could tell we needed to prepare for an extended outage. I immediately told everyone in the house which bathroom to use for number one in which bathroom to use for number two. My only intent was to manage our flushes and be smart about how we used each toilet.
It seemed to make sense and everyone said they understood. In less than an hour, all three kids had their morning sit down in all three bathrooms.
They quickly learned how to flush a toilet with a bucket of water 🙂 How you ask?
Recommendations / Ideas:
If the tank on the back of your toilet is unable to fill, regardless of the reason, you can force the toilet to flush with a bucket of water. Try these two methods to flush your toilet during a power outage:
- Tank refill. Take the ceramic cover off the tank in the back of your toilet. Take some water and fill the tank with approximately 3/4 of a gallon. Now, there should be enough water in the tank for you to use the handle to flush the toilet.
- Gravity flush. I use this method all the time. Lift the lid and seat cover to expose the beauty of the bowl. Now take 3/4 of a gallon and pour it into the bowl quickly. I like using a 5-Gallon bucket, like this one on Amazon, which will allow you to pour quickly. The force of the water rushing into the bowl is like the force of the water rushing out of the tank when you flush. The force of
waterwill cause the toilet to flush without using the handle. There are a few things you need to be careful of with this method.
- The Crapper Kiss. This is gross but if you’re not careful and you dump water quickly you stand a good chance of getting a bit of splash back from the bowl right in the kisser. So, tilt your head back or over to the side to avoid the crapper kiss. Yes, I’m serious. I still have flashbacks 🙂
- The Slow Pour. If you pour too slowly, you will continue to fill the bowl which then becomes a challenge. Remember, you’re looking for force without creating a splash. Maybe try this method with a clean bowl before the power goes out. Wink wink.
Additionally, all toilets are different. Remember those 1980’s toilets I talked about earlier? In some
Where Do I Get Water to Flush?
Preparation my friend. This is where some ingenuity and planning comes in handy. When planning for an outage — fresh water is primarily for drinking, cooking and cleaning. To avoid using fresh water you can look to collect water in other places.
Grey water is not clean water, but slightly dirty from baths, washing hands, washing machines, etc. It isn’t likely to collect water from all sources but you can from:
- Washing hands. Use a large container, spare bucket, or anything that can catch the soap and water during any hand washing. This will accumulate and is valuable water that can be used to flush a toilet. Don’t have a bucket? My preference is to have a dedicated bucket or two for this purpose alone. I have a 5-Gallon bucket, like this one on Amazon.
- Rain barrels. These barrels are gaining popularity in the Northeast where I live. They hold roughly 60 gallons of water, which can be used for garden watering, flushing toilets, and even drinking with a little with a bit of treatment. Every year my town runs a sale for 40% off rain barrels. They partner with a supplier to get more people using the barrels. Check with your local public works office to see if they run a similar program. Otherwise, they’re less than $100 online and I like this oak barrel on Amazon because it looks like what you’d expect a rain barrel to look like.
- Snow. I’ve tried this. So, don’t make the mistake I made. Snow can be melted and I spent a great deal in one storm melting snow on the grill in a large pot. The first problem is the time it takes to melt a decent amount of snow, and more importantly, it wasn’t a good use of propane that would be better served for cooking. I did have spare propane tanks, but it would have been wise to consider melting it in other ways. It does work in a pinch though.
- Bathtub. If you have more than one bathtub in your home, consider filling spare bathtubs with water. During one outage we filled our hot tub in our master bathroom with water. That tub holds a lot of water and I was pretty pleased to get it full before the power went out. The next morning the tub was empty. The drain clearly didn’t have a good seal and we lost all of the water. The following storm I used duct tape to cover the drain, which did a much better job in holding the water.
- WaterBOB Emergency Water Storage. This device is a large heavy-duty water bladder that goes in your bathtub. It holds roughly 100 gallons of water and the manufacturer claims the water can be kept for 16-weeks! A handy pump on top makes it easy to pump out the water for daily use. I’m amazed that for $60 you can grab two of these on Amazon and have 200 gallons of water on hand. Double check prices to see if they’ve gone down.
Make Your Own Toilet
You might’ve already come to this conclusion but using your toilet during an outage isn’t your only option. I have a few alternatives here for you to consider before a long-term outage forces you to figure out how to go to the bathroom outside. We’ll post a YouTube on these make-shift solutions to better illustrate the implementation, but here are a couple ideas:
- 5-gallon buckets on Amazon are really inexpensive and can be turned into an emergency toilet with a bit of ingenuity with some household products like trash bags, kitty litter and some pipe insulation from a basement pipe will wrap nicely around the bucket rim to give your bum a nice place to sit.
- Take a large trash bag and line an empty toilet. Sprinkle any available kitty litter in the bag and use until it needs disposal.
As you can see the simple question of asking if you can flush the toilet when the power goes out easily turns into a larger concern on how you’ll actually use the restroom during power outages.
Like many things on this site — you’ll hear us consistently repeat that preparation is important. It’s one thing to know how to improvise, but keeping some inexpensive supplies on hand will make things much easier. Keeping a sanitary environment is critical during an outage. While some outages may be an inconvenience over the course of an hour, but long-term outages require you to think differently about keeping things clean and safe for everyone in the home.
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