Now that we have clean culinary water flowing again but before the memory fades into that area of the brain for storing things I’d rather forget, I wanted to write down a few thoughts on what worked and didn’t during our recent water outage.
What you need to have and do:
Sign up for Code Red and find out if your local community uses it. Our system worked beautifully for official notifications. We got reverse 911 calls on our phones and texts with timely and useful information. Get the app and sign up—we do it here or through our county’s webpage. It takes 1 minute. Do it now.
Ideally, you have some filled, clean water containers ahead of time, at least a gallon per person for several days. And you put the rotation on your calendar, so the water is drinkable. We had several hours notice before the water completely failed this time. You might not be so lucky. You can get them at Walmart, most sporting goods stores and Amazon. We like and use these 7 gallon jugs for emergency storage and for camping. Don’t buy a 7 gallon container if you can’t safely lift 56 pounds. Even the $1 gallon jugs from the grocery store will work fine.
You need more (covered) containers than you have: no matter how many containers you have, you need more: buckets for every toilet. Pots to boil water. Covered containers (all my canning pots) to store the water you’ve boiled or the last clean water drained out of the lines. We used more buckets to transport used dish water to the most valuable plants we were trying to save. Wash tubs for doing dishes. Once the boil order came down, we were segregating “clean” vs “non-potable” containers.
Keep fresh bleach on hand: bleach has a shelf life of only about six months. Being on a septic tank, we don’t use it in our laundry but we needed it. I used it in a three-sink set-up as the final rinse for dishes, not for treating our drinking water, but it can be used for that too.
Wet wipes and make-up removing wipes are nice to have: staying clean is a morale booster. While we could use the non-potable water that dripped down our lines to clean ourselves, call me squeamish, but that didn’t seem attractive.
Hand sanitizer: in every bathroom and the kitchen. Use it. When you can’t flush is not the time for gastric distress to sweep through your household. Enough said.
Paper goods: we are pretty well along the eco-warrior scale as far as avoiding disposable products, but I do have paper plates and such on hand for big parties. These helped cut back the amount of dishwashing required.
Ice: right away I turned off the ice-maker in the freezer. I didn’t want non-potable water getting pulled through the line. Ice was the only thing I had to buy during the emergency. As soon as I thought of it, I ran down to the convenience store and loaded up as much as I could fit into our big freezers. I like ice in my water and tea and adult beverages. At $3 for 8 pounds, that’s about the most expensive water I’m ever going to buy, but we could have melted it, I guess, if things got dire. Mostly it was a comfort item and I was glad I didn’t have to dig out the ice cube trays from who knows where.
Things I didn’t think about until it happened:
When I went to the town meeting, the county health inspector passed out a pamphlet about the boil order, and he also said it was considered safe to use the dishwasher so long as we ran it on the heated dry cycle. I wish I’d known that earlier.
The electric kettle was worth its weight in gold. Every time I thought about it, I fired it up and boiled more water to let cool for drinking, watering baby birds, washing vegetables. We actually never boiled water on the stove during the whole emergency.
We were blessedly caught up on laundry and the outage only lasted a week. Prepper/survivalist school should include the manifesto to stay ahead of your laundry! The nearest operating coin laundry is about ten miles away and I’m glad I didn’t have to go.
Without any water in the lines, the town fire suppression capacity was marginal if any. We found out later that someone had actually found a grass fire along the road, pulled over and put it out somehow before it got out of hand. With the number of houses on that particular road, it could have quickly turned into a tragedy. Be vigilant about fire, whether in your wood stove, BBQ and now is not the time to burn trash or toss a cigarette out the window. Don’t even think about fireworks.
At the homestead scale, it gets more complicated:
If you have livestock, think through how much water you need and how you can store and move it. We had 8 lambs, 2 dozen various birds and 3 goats on the ground at the time and were using about 25 gallons a day. There’s an irrigation ditch easement that crosses our property, and as long as that flowed, I could have cut that water back to less if I’d had to and made the waterfowl and goats drink from it. This situation might have been harder in winter when the ditch is empty, but then again, the water demands are so much lower, it’s hard to say. During the hottest month of the year, keeping the animals well watered was our number one priority.
But how are you going to move that amount of water even if you have access to it? We happen to have a small submersible pond pump for emptying kiddie swimming pools we’ve filled for the geese (it’s a good fertilizer that we sometimes pump onto our trees) that worked once we strung enough power cords to the water source. And we also happened to have a couple IBCs (international bulk containers for shipping liquids) and a trailer that we could use to transport it to where we needed it. And we had already changed out the tap so that we could hook up a garden hose to it. We used to keep the IBC full of clean water for an emergency, but then we needed to move it last summer to water the turkeys in the Bluebird orchard, the turkeys roosted on it, and we never got around to sanitizing it. Big mistake. But even if we had, it wouldn’t have been where we needed it, we would have had to transfer it to smaller containers to move to the animals. We probably would have used our garden cart and buckets if we’d had to, like one of our neighbors did. No matter what solution is going to work for you, planning and testing out the back-up plan is important. We’d moved enough water to the orchards with the IBC to know it would work.
Usually I just dump the animals’ dirty water on the ground, but here I was trying to re-use it to save some garden plants. Just never leave a big box store without another orange or blue bucket. Let them keep the crummy plastic bag and carry out the hardware and whatnot in the bucket. Every single time.
If the outage isn’t widespread, people will offer you water. It is a kind gesture and if you can take them up on it, it can be a big help. But how are you going to move it? Various folks on Facebook offered showers and tap water, even the loan of 55 gallon barrels. But you can’t lift a 55 gallon barrel full of water. If you had a truck (we don’t) you could leave it in the bed and gravity feed it to where you needed it.
What about your garden? In the west, if you don’t irrigate, it will die. Sadly, our irrigation water rights don’t work where we have the garden, and that’s not going to change. We kept it going with the IBC and hand-watering every other day. Other people used buckets, or didn’t water at all. After outside watering had been banned, a few we know cheated, if they had any pressure at all, even though the town was trying desperately to repressurize the lines.
It sucks time
I didn’t anticipate how much time not having water would suck up. When the pressure was low but we still had a flow, it took much longer to do the chores, waiting for troughs and buckets to fill. Doing dishes took extra time, even though I busted out the party paper goods and red Solo cups. Boiling water and letting it cool takes planning ahead—we have turkey poults in the brooder and they weren’t getting the non-potable water. Watering the garden took over an hour each time.
Suck it up and be a good sport
Make this your mantra: “this too shall pass.” And take it day by day; the first estimate we heard was two weeks without water, but good people busted their asses for everyone and it was less than a week in the end. There was no point in getting too far into the future because things changed rapidly.
There was always someone worse off than we were. Businesses had to close, the seasonal staff lost wages when they need to be banking them. We didn’t have a baby in the house needing to be kept clean. No one was sick or infirm. Complainers, cheaters and drama queens will be remembered long after the emergency passes.
The people who offer to help out will also be remembered. When our town brought in bottled water, volunteers self-organized to deliver it to the seniors who couldn’t easily come get it or carry it. We won’t forget the friend who offered us a chance to fill up from his well, or the restaurant owner who stayed open until the very last allowable minute, trying to feed people who couldn’t cook, or the postal clerk passing along information along with our packages.
Knowing who you can count on counts for a lot. We are lucky to have such good neighbors. And we are really grateful to have our water back.