Disaster Prep: Heat/Sanitation/Water

Water purifying over a make shift fire pit.

Zombies in the streets, virulent pathogens, asteroid impacts and huge monsters: although popular culture typically depicts the human race prepping for disasters of unimaginable proportions, most of the troubles you'll likely face are either naturally-occurring (as in weather or earthquakes) or civil disturbances that suddenly escalate.

The first urge of a human faced with either of these situations is to head for home and make sure that loved ones are safe and secure. As such, you have to prepare for the natural or man-made siege by planning ahead on just where in your home you'll ride it out. This is Part III of an occasional series on DIY Prepping for Disaster, in which we examine your needs in the event of the loss of heat, water, and sanitation services.

Nature Calls

If you're doing any kind of disaster prepping, your first considerations were undoubtedly food and shelter. Now that you have those needs handled, consider the possibility of a long siege that involves dealing with the often unmentionable subject of bodily waste disposal.

Yes, like our brother the bear, you have a need to “visit the woods” on occasion. And dealing with that requires your strict attention, as lingering bodily waste has more negative consequences to your health than a fast food menu. Tiny particles of waste can become airborne and ingested (by the way, it’s the same reason you should close the toilet before flushing), causing gastrointestinal discomfort, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

To combat this potential problem, you need large and strong plastic bags that can be tightly sealed. Ideally, you'll still have access to a toilet, so even if it is not flushable, you can still use it as a commode. Empty it of water, insert the plastic bag in the bowl, and change as needed. A disinfectant of one part bleach to several parts water is recommended, but keep in mind that water is a precious commodity, and you can't recycle water used for sanitation.

If the toilet isn't available, use a sturdy bucket or any other solid container, taking care to line them with a durable bag. This can lead to some hard choices about your Tupperware.

Two things not to do: don't flush the toilet if the water is off, which can cause clogs and potentially an overflow; and don't bury waste in the ground if you drink from a well, because it can pollute the groundwater.

Drinking Water

You need to drink two quarts of water every day to maintain your health. Some more fragile folks – the elderly, children, certain breeds of hipsters - need to ingest more. Three days of water is the recommendation for pre-disaster storage. After that, use disinfected containers to capture any rainwater, and remember that the water in your toilet tank is potable (that’s the tank, not the bowl, even if Fido loves it).

Make sure whatever you're drinking from non-bottled sources has been boiled, if possible. Water that boils for a minimum of one minute is safe to drink. If you can't boil it, there are chemicals you can add to kill what's bad in there. Camping stores sell potable water pills you drop in a container of water. Follow the instructions they come with. Also at camping stores are water filters that can make it safe to drink. The basic ones will remove bacteria but not viruses. They remove more bugs the more advanced they get, and the best will even remove the salt from sea water. Of course, more advanced means more expensive. And don't think you can rely on the filter on that pitcher in your fridge. That won't do anything but make it taste better.

For a low tech approach, you can purify water with household bleach. Add 8 drops (about 1⁄8-teaspoon) of regular, unscented, liquid household bleach for each gallon of water. Stir well and wait for 30 minutes before you use it. And don't use your empty bleach containers for drinking water. Store your purified water in covered, clean containers.


Hopefully, you have a fireplace where you are holed up. That's the first line of defense in case of power failure, which will knock out a lot of heat-producing tools including oil burners, hot air systems, and even coal furnaces, all of them typically reliant on electrical components. You may consider using a camping stove or barbeque grill if you're at home, but make sure the room is well-ventilated if you're using them. Every year, people die in their homes trying to use makeshift heaters and filling the room with carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is also the leading cause of death in emergency snow caves. The first victim of panic is ventilation.

And it goes without saying that you will need propane, briquettes, wood or paper to fuel these devices. The key to a good alternative heat source is portability and the ability to function in all considerations. Keep in mind that you're not going to heat the entire house, so make plans on which room will be used to keep the home fires burning. Some home heating systems can be rigged to run off a generator, although trying to fire up a heater with the typical generator isn't going to be very effective, owing to home sizes and generator limitations. You will also need fuel for the generator.

There are pre-fabricated chimneys made of sheet metal and faux fireplaces that can generate heat with a can of Sterno. The idea is to make sure that whatever you’re doing supplements the clothing and blankets you can wrap around yourself to maintain body heat.