Showering & Toileting When Your Faucets Don't Work

I got a phone call from a customer a couple of days ago. She wanted to buy a Luggable Loo Seat/Cover that you can use to make any 5 gallon bucket into a porta-potty. Her problem was that she lives in a townhouse so she has a postage stamp of a back yard and neighbors who can easily see into her back yard, and the rules say she can't do any major digging or changing of the landscaping, so while a person who lives on 5 acres in the boontoolies (or just out Vail or Bald Hills Rd) could, if they wanted, put in an outhouse, she can't do that.

She has several 55 gallon barrels of water, but with a family of 5, they will need that water for drinking, cooking and washing up dishes if the power is out for very long (oh yes, and the occasional washing up of the people).

So she can purchase the Luggable Loo Seat/Cover, but then what?? Well, I gave her all sorts of good ideas for safely dealing with the issues of what to do with the "stuff in the bucket" (and she doesn't have the luxury and privacy of someone on their own land) and on showering, which gave me the idea that others might benefit from some of my experience in living "without amenities".

I have been fortunate enough to have lived in Mexico for a couple of years,

where I lived in the Sonora desert in a tent for a while, hauled in any water we needed, cooked on a sheet of steel set on top of cement blocks and there were certainly no restroom facilities there other than the saguaro cactus. A family of 3 really CAN live on 5 gallons of water a day – after doing that for a while it gave me a whole new perspective on water use.

I also lived in an adobe house which had no plumbing, no kitchen or bathroom and no running water and no electricity 90% of the time. In that house, to get water, we'd go across the street to the neighbor's house who had a hand dug well about 30 feet deep and haul water up with a 5 gallon metal bucket (5 gallons each for 2 horses, a pig who counted as 2 because it would tip the first 5 gallons out so it had mud to lay in, a dog and cat, and 3 people. You haul that much water by hand every single day and you will come to appreciate water and water usage. We had what could be called "alternative restroom facilities".

Another time, I lived up on the side of a mountain, very remote, in a cabin with no power, no plumbing and no bathroom. The water there came from a small spring that bubbled out of the side of the mountain. Again, because it was a one room cabin with no plumbing or bathroom, we had "alternative restroom facilities".

So when we bought property here in the Yelm area, and decided to be off the grid and do most all the building, plumbing, etc ourselves I was already an old hand at no power, no plumbing, no bathroom. It wasn't really even an inconvenience, because it was the start of a new adventure. It was 3 years before I had running water at the kitchen sink. It was 7 years before I had an indoor flush toilet and shower (boy did I love that toilet and shower or what??? You go 7 years without an indoor flush toilet and you will write poems about that toilet :o) It was another year or 2 before I got hot and cold pressurized water to the kitchen sink.

That's why I tell people – you CAN be darn self-sufficient right where you are if you just prepare a little and then plan for how you can continue to live there if the power goes out for a very long time and if the water goes out. Water is what will probably finally drive you to have to move, unless you locate a source within walking distance and then figure out now how you'd get to the source and get the water back to your home (remember that water weighs 8.2 lbs a gallon so you're looking at 41 lbs for 5 gallons).

Toileting (or as Miss Manners says "using the necessary room")

If you live out in the country, you probably have a septic tank. You can flush your toilet by pouring in a half of a bucket of rain water (or save the dish water to use because you can put rainwater through your Katadyn Drip Filter and use it for drinking and cooking). Here is the thing you MUST find out now before you lose your power: is your septic a "gravity flow septic system" or a "pump septic system"?

Gravity Flow Septic System
If you have a gravity flow system, no problemo – you can use gray water to flush your toilet. If you have a "pump" system and there is no electricity, you can't keep flushing stuff down the toilet because the day will come (and not many days) that the pump isn't pumping and everything will back up right to the toilet, and tub, and who knows where else. You definitely don't want to find yourself knee deep in s**t without running water to clean things up. Eeeewwww.

If you live out in the country but have a pump type septic system, one of your options is to build an outhouse. They can be built to look rustic, match your house, artsy; you're only limited by your imagination. You will want to have it built before you need it - it will be easier procuring lumber while you still have a vehicle to go to the lumber yard and electricity to run the saw. Some are so cute that it would be nice to have one so that the kids didn't have to track into the house, they could use the outhouse. If I had an outhouse, I'd also have a shelf or table off the side of it with a spigoted water container and a towel on a hook so people could wash their hands when done.

Pit Latrine
Here is one of the easiest ways to manage waste, and there are a few versions of this that should fit the rural person, the suburban home and anyone with a bit of a backyard, be it condo, townhouse or apartment (OK, maybe not the apartment dweller). And these aren't untried ideas out of some book – I have used these different methods for months or years, so I am speaking from firsthand knowledge.

The simplest of pit latrines were made by the soldiers using their folding army shovels. While living up on the side of the mountain in Northern Idaho, I had EXTREME privacy (OK, I was a bit crazy to live somewhere that I had to snowshoe or snowmobile into in the winter, but I get extra points for being adventurous) and I had a folding army shovel. Just dig a pit the width of the shovel (which is 6" or 7"), about 2 ft front to back and as deep as you can with that shovel, which will be a good 18" or so. Leave the pile of dirt from the hole a couple of feet away with the trusty shovel.

If this is all you do, you now have a "squat 'n' go" pit latrine, which you would sprinkle just a bit of the dirt into after making "significant deposits" (not needed if making "liquid deposits" :o) While the "squat" thing might be OK for some, I don't consider myself a minimalist. I would like to sit down. It only took about 2 or 3 weeks before I realized this. So one sunny Sunday morning, I rounded up some pieces of 2x4 boards, and a couple of 1x4's or 1x6's, my hand saw (no power up there on the mountain), some nails and my hammer, and I built a dandy bench that was about 30" wide and 24" front to back. Then I traced the inside of a toilet seat on my bench and cut it out. Woo Hoo! Now I had a pit latrine with a view AND a seat!

I'd just sprinkle some dirt in there every so often, and there was never any smell or flies or anything. Then when the rectangular pit/hole was about 3 or 4 inches from the top, I'd move the bench out of the way, shovel the rest of the dirt in and tamp it down with my foot. I'd strew some fir needles and leaves on top and you would never know the ground had been disturbed. This was "leaving no footprint", leaving nature the way that I found it. Then I'd dig another pit a few feet to the left, and repeat the process. The pit would last me close to a month, maybe a bit more.

"Well", you may say, "I have neighbors that could SEE me" (or maybe you just aren't comfortable being that exposed. There are cool privacy shelters made for those that camp that are 4 ft by 4 ft by about 6 ½ ft tall that are constructed a lot like a tent. Once your indoor facility won't work, you go out into the backyard, dig your latrine pit and erect your privacy shelter tent over it (stake it down – if you have no electricity or toilet, chances are good you have wind and rain), remove the potted plant from the "table" with the oval hole in the center of it on the patio and position it over the hole in the cabana, and Poofa! instant mini-outhouse. Once that gets near to the top, fill it in, tamp it down, and move the operation 4 ft to the right.

Indoor Portable Potty and Outdoor Pit

Here is a variation on the Pit Latrine – we'll use a portable potty in the bathroom and empty in a pit outside (similar to using a Luggable Loo at an event then emptying it into a porta potty, just without the porta potty part).

Go out back and dig a hole in the far corner of the backyard, or if you have a bit more property, out of sight and not in the backyard area that you hang out in. This hole you would dig with a regular shovel – let's say something like 3x3 feet by as deep as you can - 3 ft, 4 ft, whatever is doable. The deeper it is, the less often you need to change locations. You can make it bigger than 3'x3' but you must have a way to make it safe so no children or animals can fall into it.

If you make it 3'x3', you can buy a 4' diameter plastic table like they sell at Rite Aid, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Fred Meyers, etc. Just set the plastic tabletop (without the legs) over the hole and set a potted plant or rock or some semi-heavy item on the plastic table so it can't blow away. You could put a statue of Buddha there and pretend it's your shrine where you meditate :o)

If you are doing the pit in this method, you should remove the dirt you dug out of the hole to some other location, ESPECIALLY if you have any neighbors who can see your backyard. If you have a big hole that you took the time to cover with a plastic table and a statue of a gnome, with the huge pile of dirt next to it, it will make your neighbors CRAZY with curiosity as to what in the world that hole is for. You don't need them sitting drinking their coffee morning after morning thinking up things you MIGHT use that hole for. Then they'll talk to their friends to see if they agree it is probably for you to bury your husband or mother-in-law in. Get rid of the pile of dirt.

Once you have your pit in place, you can use your Luggable Loo or other porta potty in the comfort and privacy of your bathroom, then empty it out in the pit, rinse it and bring it back in. The very young and some seniors or anyone with a physical disability (me when I had my broken ankle) would have trouble sitting on a bucket with a toilet seat snapped on – they are a little lower than a regular toilet and while a regular commode is bolted to the floor, a portable toilet is not. This is when you get a "Bedside Commode" from a place that sells everything needed for someone with a physical disability. They make them from regular models to extra big heavy duty models, but they all have the 2 side bar handles, the seat with lid that closes, and a removable bucket. Let the young and agile use the porta potty and the others use the bedside commode.

When using these alternative toilets, you can put all toilet paper in them, or only #2 TP or none. You may find it easier to put your TP in a wastebasket and dump it in "The Pit" or a burn barrel, or use one of those Worm Bin things ;o)

If there is only you, it could be days before you need to empty your Luggable Loo. If you get some of the Bio-Blue Toilet Deodorant and use it in your portable potty, you will never have any unpleasant odors coming from it (but it certainly isn't necessary).

What you will want to get if you have a pit out back (or an outhouse) is a bag of Hydrated Lime. This is not sweet lime that you use in your garden. This is the lime they put in outhouses so they don't smell or get flies. At Del's Farm Supply here in Yelm, they sell Hydrated Lime in a 35 pound bag for $7.99.

When I had my pit here (remember? no indoor plumbing for the first 7 years?) I kept a 50 gallon plastic barrel out by the pit (this is the open top barrel, where I could just set the lid on top to keep the rain out). I put the bag of lime in there and opened it up all the way, then I hung a soup ladle on the inside of the barrel from the lip, set the lid on and was good to go. Then when I emptied my portable potty into the pit, I just sprinkled a little of the lime into the pit with the ladle, replaced it and there I was. Even after all those years I never did use up that lime.

A Couple of More Comments before Moving On

There are some bags made to be used with portable toilets and some sized for your full size toilet. They are a double bag system and have "bio-gel" in them that will turn liquids into a solid. Once they are filled to the appropriate capacity, you zip up the inner bag with the 'stuff' in it, then zip up the outer bag so the 'stuff' is doubly contained (zip meaning like a Ziploc baggie). They work well and are approved to be put in your normal garbage can for collection, or in garbage receptacles in parks and such, but they are a bit pricey. And if you don't have garbage pickup, what are you going to do with all those bags of 'stuff'?

Which leads me to kitty litter. I often get asked "Well, what do you think about kitty litter?" I think it is great for cats. But if you line your porta potty with a garbage bag and dump some kitty litter in there to soak up liquids, you are now the proud owner of a bag of 'stuff'. That's fine if you are camping somewhere that has huge blue metal trash bins you can fling your bag of stuff into.

But if you are at home, and there is no more trash service, you will end up with a big pile of garbage bags filled with kitty litter and 'stuff'. Better you should dig a pit in your backyard, forget the kitty litter and garbage bag, and empty the waste into the pit and sprinkle in a bit of dirt. It is 100% biodegradable, it is all natural, and you won't end up with a mountain of garbage bags filled with used kitty litter. Oh, for those of you who would say "Well I can always bury the kitty litter, ya know..." I say, sure you can. But you will be digging 4 times more pits than those who are burying only waste and not waste plus a bucket of clay.


I would like to take the opportunity to say that while the previous section was reeeeely long, this section is really short.

There are some cool products out there that take fuel and fire and all, and I'll cover them another time. Here I am going to offer a super low tech, simple solution. I used this method for several years here before getting the dandy indoor plumbing. Here is the evolution of the original method.

I had no indoor plumbing but I did have my store, so I sold myself a 5 gallon Solar Shower. When full, it weighed over 40 lbs so it was hard to lift high up so the nozzle was high enough, so this is what I did.

I went to the hardware store and bought a good thick hook with a threaded end (kind of like the ones you'd screw into the ceiling to hang a plant, but more heavy duty), a pulley that was big enough that it would fit on the hook, a cleat (that's the metal thing that they tie the rope around in a figure 8 shape – they use them on boats a lot – no knotneeded) and some clothes line sized rope.

I put 2 nails in the front of the house so I could hang the solar shower where it would get sun all day. I screwed the hook into one of the rafters, hung the pulley off that, then threaded the rope through the pulley and passed it through the handle of the solar shower and made a knot. Once the water was hot, I could pull the rope and lift the 5 gallon solar shower all the way up to the eaves and tie it off on the cleat. HA! Now it was high enough to comfortably take a shower. 5 gallons of water in a solar shower is plenty of water to shower, wash your hair, even put conditioner in your hair and rinse it out. Life was good.

Then summer was over: good bye blue skies, good bye hot solar shower.

Never one to be stopped by such a trivial thing, I filled my solar shower part full of cold water then boiled some water in my tea kettle and out I went. The thing is, you have to hold the opening open with your fingers in order to pour the water in. And when your pouring hand wavers and you pour boiling water on your fingers IT HURTS. Well, I might have done it that way twice, but then I was on a mission for A Better Way.

What works like a charm is a plastic funnel that you get from the auto parts store. A regular kitchen funnel is no good at all – it is wide and very shallow with a short little bit under the bowl of the funnel. At the auto parts store I found a tall narrow funnel that was perfect. It is 18" tall, the bowl part is 5-6" across at the top and the part below the bowl is a good 9" ($3.99 at our local auto parts store). This let me fill the shower bag half full of cold water, insert the tall funnel so the bottom of it is actually IN the cold water, then safely pour boiling water into the funnel with no splashing at all because of the steep sides. Reminds me, I need to pick up of couple of extra funnels. (I can just imagine the auto parts store in Yelm wondering why there is a run on tall thin funnels all of a sudden hehehe.)


Since not everyone has enough privacy (or lunacy) to shower outdoors, it became obvious what to do (or rather, where to do it). You already have a bathroom (well, most of you), and a tub or shower. All you have to do is locate a ceiling joist above your tub/shower and screw in the big hook there (you will almost certainly need a pilot hole). Then install the cleat next to the shower/tub.

Then if the power goes out and you have no hot water (or water except your stored water), you just have to thread the rope through the pulley and put that up there, fill the shower bag half full of cold water, insert tall funnel, add boiling water and hike that shower up to the ceiling. Tie the rope off on your cleat with figure 8 loop-d-loo's and you are ready for a hot shower in your very own bathroom. And if it is summer or warm where you live, just lay or hang the solar shower out in the sun for a few hours for hot water.

If you have the ability for a floor drain in a shelter, this method also will work well there. You get a square shower floor with drain, the shower surround, shower curtain and rig your solar shower above that and you're good to go.

No floor drain? Use a big galvanized wash tub to catch the water. Use black poly pipe to make a circular "shower rod" which you suspend from the ceiling with wire. Get 2 shower curtains and curtain hooks so that you have some overlap of the shower curtains (so you don't have water going where it shouldn't). Make sure the bottoms of the shower curtains are at least 6" into the wash tub, again to make sure you don't have escaping water. With your solar shower rigged up above head, you are ready to have that monthly shower :-D

Teri Simpson
Optimum Preparedness



0 #5 tina 2011-09-26 09:56
I appreciate your articles and information, Thanks!
We have been using an indoor Humanure system for our toilet for 10 years. We are a family of 4. Got the book by Joseph Jenkins and followed the "how to". The library has a copy. I highly recommend it and you get amazing soil after it composts! as described in the book.
0 #4 Carolyn 2011-09-24 12:49
Hi Terry,
I LOVE your sense of humor!!! Your ideas are great! I have had an outhouse for 21 years - still no indoor toilet - and it works fine. I used the plans from Reader's Digest "Back to Basics"
-1 #3 Reni 2011-09-24 12:08
Here is an additional idea that came to me while showering ( to get used to the concept) of washing laundry- it is a suggestion NOW while we have the convenience of pressurized water/showers.
We are all used to the convenience of 'popping' our dirty laundry into a washer.
Well, while I still have power, I started putting small amounts of laundry into my tub as I shower. After I rinse off, I add (homemade detergent) and get my scrub board out. I rinse, squeeze a bit and put it into the squeeze mop bucket I purchased for that purpose.
I hang the finished laundry on a clothes rack in the tub to catch the drips.
Then I take the rack outside (if sunny) to let it dry further. If rainy and cold, I place it by the wood stove on a 6 ml plastic sheet to catch further moisture.
The clothes are not softened like the days of olde, but they are clean.
I am now 'at ease' with taking care of that chore. it is do-able.
0 #2 Reni 2011-09-24 11:56
An additional idea to the 5 gal shower bag- I used it this summer as an experiment (outside) no problem-
place the bag on the hood of your car and let the sun heat it up. The heat transmission from the metal speeds up the process. 8)
0 #1 Nancy 2011-09-24 09:38
You are awesome Teri! Thanks for your great advice. I am now geared up with my indoor solar shower and my indoor loo, thanks to you. Creature comforts! I appreciate you! -Nancy

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