When Civilization Collapses, Your Toilets Will Turn on You

Here's what you can do.

When Civilization Collapses, Your Toilets Will Turn on You
Photo by Martin Brechtl on Unsplash

Not too long ago, I woke up and went about my morning like any other day. After going into the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee, my nose twitched a bit. There was something in the air. At first it was just a slight odor. Then I opened the basement door and the stench made me recoil.

I turned on the light to find that my basement had raw sewage rolling across the floor. Some tree roots had broken through the sewage pipe and we had very heavy rains in the previous days, which resulted in a backup of my basement.

As Luck Would Have It

Luckily, this happened during normal times so we were able to get everything cleaned up and the pipe fixed. But in my stupidity I had stored many emergency supplies in cardboard boxes and left them on the floor. All of it was ruined and it had to be thrown out. Don’t be stupid like me and store your supplies in sealed totes above the floor.

I would also say that I was lucky because this was contained to the basement, which wasn’t a living area. Other houses I have lived in didn’t have basements and a sewer line backup in those situations could have meant raw sewage bubbling up out of floor drains, toilets, or tubs and right into the living space

But What If?

If this had happened during a SHTF moment, the pipe probably wouldn’t have been fixed and it is likely I would have had to abandon the property. And since a lot of my supplies had been ruined, I would have been leaving with much fewer resources.

SHTF can mean a lot of different things to different people. Regardless of what event causes SHTF, the focus will be on the cause, at least initially. But, there are a multitude of side effects that will pop up after the fact that many people probably haven’t given any thought to.

What happened to me in the above example will happen to you if the grid goes down or SHTF happens in a bad way. But there are some precautions you can take.

In this article, I’m going to dive into the topic of sewage issues and possible options for dealing with them post-SHTF.

How Do Sewage Systems Work?


For those of us hooked up to municipal utilities, here is a brief outline of how sewage is dealt with.

First, there are two different types of water in your home, grey water and black water. Grey water is any water that you use that doesn’t go down the toilet, i.e. shower, sinks, laundry. Black water is toilet water. Both types of water end up in your sewage pipe.

The wastewater goes into the sewage pipe that is on your property, which is then connected to the city’s main sewage pipe. The main is where the waste material is carried to the wastewater treatment plant.

Once the sewage has gone through the treatment plant and has been cleaned within acceptable levels, the treated water is usually discharged into another water source, such as a river.

The Key Thing

One of the key takeaways here is that your property’s sewage pipe and the main pipe are not full of water nor under constant pressure, like a pipe to a faucet is. So when you flush the toilet, that waste material isn’t zipped away to the treatment plant right away.

The waste is moved in one of two ways through the sewage pipes. The first is with the help of gravity. After you flush, the black water moves through the pipes with the help of gravity until it reaches the treatment plant. The problem is that a sewage plant isn’t always going to be at the lowest point of elevation in relation to the source of the sewage or the pipe may have to go up and over a higher point before reaching the plant.

This is where lift stations enter the picture. A lift station is basically a pump station that pumps the sewage up from a low point to a higher pipe where black water can continue its journey to the treatment plant.

The Problem

 Now that we have a better understanding of how sewage is dealt with, here’s the problem.

Depending on the severity and length of an SHTF event, there is a good chance that sewage will start to back up into your home if toilets are continued to be used. This is because water usage from grey and black water sources will decline dramatically, meaning there will be less water to push the solids through the pipe.

Additionally, lift stations and wastewater treatment plants will stop running, which is another reason solids will begin backing up.

Possible Solutions?

In the situation where you have sewage backing up into your home, it’s going to start to come in at the lowest point, which is usually a floor drain.

Over the years I have heard of a couple of options for dealing with this problem and here are my thoughts on them.


Some people have brought up the idea of filling in a floor drain with cement to seal it off. Sounds good at first, right? Not for me, and here is why.

  • First, it will probably take way more cement than you realize to try and fill a drain completely.
  • Second, the cement will have to be properly cured and set for it to be effective.
  • Third, this not only seals off the drain from stuff coming in but it seals off the drain from stuff going out. Meaning you can’t use any of the drains in your home.
  • Lastly, this is a permanent solution and could end up costing you big time later. Let’s say SHTF happens but it’s not as severe or long-lasting as you anticipated.

In a state of panic, you fill the drain with cement only to find out that the world didn’t end and things get back to normal in a relatively short time. Well, now your pipe will need to be dug up and replaced, not to mention any other pipes, such as the main, or property that was damaged by your actions. This could end up costing you a lot of money.

For the reasons listed above, this doesn’t seem to be a very good idea.

Clean Out Cap


A clean out cap is basically a port that can be opened in a pipe that provides access to the interior of the pipe. These are used when a pipe becomes clogged and needs to be cleaned out.

They can be installed inside or outside. If you have an accessible clean-out valve outside and you anticipate sewage backing up, the clean-out valve could be left open. This should help to prevent sewage from coming into the home but sewage in your yard and around your house isn’t good either.

The only way this option could work is if you have a plan for dealing with the sewage coming out of the clean-out valve, such as redirecting it elsewhere.

Shut Out Valve


Shut-out valves allow for the flow of material in a pipe to be shut on or off as you desire. Depending on the codes in your area, one of these valves may be able to be installed on your home’s sewage pipe.

It would be left open during normal times but when you anticipate sewage backing up you could shut the valve by simply turning a handle. This prevents anything from entering the pipe and going in the wrong direction but it also prevents you from using your drains.

The best place to install one of these may be towards the end of the run of your home’s sewage pipe and near the main. That way if the backup and pressure become too great it won’t bust your pipe.

To me, this seems like it would be one of the best options but the cost to install one could be steep. Similarly to this option would be a backwater valve.


Essentially, these are valves in the pipes that only allow for the flow of material in one direction. So, it allows your wastewater to flow out but not for water to flow back in. However, if you have sewage or water backing up to the point of the valve, water and waste won’t be able to flow out either.

Alternate Toilets

Probably the best approach to dealing with sewage in a SHTF situation is to not use your toilet; of course, everyone in your area has to be on board with this for it to make a difference.

So, if people are not using their toilets, how are they dealing with their waste?

One option includes composting toilets. These are actually quite easy to create as you really only need a container, like a five gallon bucket and some natural materials like sawdust and dry grasses. In a pinch, kitty litter could also be used. There are two great things about composting toilets.


First they do not require any water. You do your business in the container, cover it with some sawdust or other material and it’s ready to go again. Second, once the container is full you can easily transport the waste to a disposal site or use it to enrich your compost pile.

Click the link to find out a little more detail about creating your own composting toilet.


A second option is to get yourself what a lot of people call a camping toilet. These are basically small, portable porta potties. Generally, they have a toilet seat on them making it more comfortable to use, and they have a removable container and bag inside for collecting the waste. Once you have done your business, you simply pick up the bag or the container and take it to your disposal site.

A more involved option would be to create an outhouse, which ideally would be done before SHTF. This basically involves digging a large hole in the ground and covering it with a small structure where you can conduct your business.

Since an outhouse is an area of concentrated waste products, you need to make sure to locate an outhouse an appropriate distance and elevation away from food and water sources.

The End of the Line

No matter what steps you take to prevent sewage backup in your home realize that it’s going to eventually find a way out somewhere along the line. From the above options, I would choose to install a shut-off valve and have some alternative toilet options available. Also, as much as everyone doesn’t want to hear this, anyone dependent on city utilities will probably have to move if an SHTF event hits hard and lasts.

It's going to stink.

Read more of Alan Urban's work here and here.

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