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On this site, we talk a lot about SHTF situations. I’d like to take a moment to think a little bit about the “S” in our lives, in the most mundane way. How are you going to deal with your septic tank after disaster?

With all the upheaval of the past two years, many people have decided it’s time to move to more rural areas and start on the journey of developing a simpler lifestyle. And that’s great if you can make it work. I started on that journey eight years ago for a number of reasons. The one thing that consumed a huge amount of my time and mental energy that first year was one thing I was utterly unprepared for and had never thought about: an unruly septic system. 

What my septic tank taught me

There are plenty of modern homes on rural estates. But when I was house-shopping, I was not on a modern home budget. I was on an “old-homesteading-cabin-with-some-upgrades-slapped-on” budget. When I bought the place, I thought I would be able to afford to upgrade it more thoroughly but soon found out I couldn’t afford that either.

So, my kids and I were in a house with one bathroom, where the toilet would regularly clog badly enough I couldn’t plunge it. The toilet would just have to sit for several hours while everything softened up. In the meantime, my children, who were really young, would pee outside, and I would just use restrooms when I was out running errands.

I had gotten the septic tank pumped as soon as we bought the place but wasn’t prepared for how bad the pipes were. The people renting the home before I bought it had moved to a trailer park down the street, and I used to visit them once in a while. I asked them how they had dealt with all the clogs.

“You do what?”

They told me that they never flushed toilet paper. They just kept a bucket next to the toilet for paper and then tossed the used TP into a burn pit. I had never heard of that before, though since then, I’ve learned that that’s pretty common in a lot of other countries. At the time, though, I wasn’t ready to make that kind of change.

One day I happened to be exceptionally tired when the toilet backed up all over the floor. I really needed to use the bathroom and went over to my neighbor’s house, in tears, to ask if I could use theirs. They kindly obliged, and then we spent some time talking about pipe maintenance.

Septic tank maintenance you need to perform

They told me the first thing I needed to do was make sure I was buying cheap toilet paper. A lot of the really nice stuff says it’s septic safe, but it clogs easily. Then they also asked if I was treating my pipes with anything. I had no idea what they were talking about.

It turns out that there is a whole line of products out there that you can flush regularly to improve septic performance. Most hardware stores sell types of septic cleaners that consist of enzymes that eat away at all the gunk in the pipes. I use Roebic brand, but there are other great brands out there too. I started religiously treating my pipes once a month, writing down the dates of when I poured what down the pipes in my little home maintenance notebook. Slowly but surely, toilet performance improved.

I have needed to hire a plumber to roto-root the kitchen sink, bathroom sink, and bathtub one time each since living here. I’ve gotten my pipes thoroughly cleaned once, maintained them ever since, and now we really don’t have problems. Most of this has to do with the fact that my kids and I are very conscientious regarding what enters the pipes.

A clogged septic tank is a disaster that can make living through a time of disaster even worse.

This was a learning curve for my kids. One time, when my bathroom sink was clogged, I took apart the pipe underneath the sink and found it was full of peanut butter. No wonder it hadn’t been draining! I asked my children, who were elementary-school-aged at the time, why there was so much peanut butter in the bathroom sink. They told me that one of the jars was mostly empty, so they decided to eat the rest of it, but then their hands got dirty, and they didn’t want to wash their hands in the kitchen sink because they didn’t want me to see how much peanut butter they’d gotten everywhere. They tried to hide their crime by washing up in the bathroom.

I showed them the pipe full of peanut butter and told them that if they got messy eating peanut butter, they needed to wipe their hands off with paper towels or rags first so that the drains wouldn’t clog. I also told them to just ask me for a snack if they were hungry rather than make such a big mess. The pipe full of peanut butter really got to them. Since then, they’ve all been good about wiping off food garbage into the compost bucket rather than cramming it down the drain.

Every time we’ve had a plumber come over, they’ve commented on the general cleanliness of our pipes. The clogs they’ve had to blow out have been really old and far down. The plumbers have all said the same thing: most problems are caused by people trying to shove things down the drain that just shouldn’t enter the pipes. The plus side is that, for those of us paying attention, most issues can be prevented. My house may still be small, but it’s quite a bit more functional than it was eight years ago.

What do septic tanks have to do with prepping?

Well, it was my first incredibly rude awakening to life outside of the suburbs: Because my house was not in an incorporated area, it had gotten into a state of disrepair that just wouldn’t have happened in a nicer suburb. You can’t burn used TP in your backyard without neighbors noticing, and that’s the kind of thing an awful lot of people will report to an HOA. I had wanted to get away from restrictive HOAs, and I did, but the downside was that the house was barely functional.

Like it or not, all signs right now point to increased financial hardship for a great many people. Many of us, confronted by rising prices, will have to re-prioritize our financial plans and spending habits. This can get depressing and overwhelming.

First on the list, obviously, is food, and The Organic Prepper has a lot of great resources to help you plan and stock your pantry. Check out our free QUICKSTART Guide on building your 3-layer food pantry to get started. But not far behind, in terms of keeping yourself mentally and physically healthy, is cleanliness. Not having some sort of plan to keep sanitary in a SHTF situation can make you really miserable really fast, and it can make you sick, too.

If you’ve just moved out to the country for the first time, you need to learn about septic maintenance now. Many of my family members swear up and down that septic is horrible, but it really isn’t. You do have to learn about your system, treat it accordingly, and have the proper tank size for your household, however.

What happens to a septic tank during a power outage?

Those of us in the country also need to be aware of what will happen in case of an extended power outage. Are our wells electric? Will we lose water as soon as we lose power? That’s the case for a lot of us. Many people have generators that tie into the household grid, and that’s probably the best option if you can shell out a few thousand dollars for the generator and the installation. Many other people (like myself) simply keep a large amount of water on hand, as well as a Berkey, to get us through extended outages.

Most people, of course, do not live in rural settings, but everyone needs to think about their water system and how they can stay clean and comfortable. Many municipalities use water towers, which will keep water in the system pressurized and still running for quite a while during a power outage. But it doesn’t last indefinitely, and it’s still something people need to think about and plan for.

Daisy’s posted articles about kitty litter toilets, which are a great way for people living in urban settings to keep their homes functional and pleasant in the case of an extended power outage. Keeping a supply of drinking water and wipes on hand is a good idea for anyone in an urban setting. Your potential solutions will vary greatly, depending on your living situation.

I have friends that live in Florida who have had extended power outages during hurricanes. They stock up on drinking water beforehand but use their pool water to flush the toilet when the power is out. And while they’re normally very fastidious about flushing, if the power is out, they follow the adage, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” Waste not, want not!

Your septic tank keeps your home clean. Take care of it.

Many people wander through civilized life without thinking about what keeps us clean, warm, and fed. If something breaks or clogs, there’s always someone to call to fix things. And I’ve enjoyed that. I’ve needed to call people. But I’ve also found that the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies just as much to plumbing issues as it does to everything else.

I see no signs that anything will get easier for most people anytime soon. I hope I’m wrong about that. But, in the meantime, think about your priorities. Every one of us absolutely needs food, shelter, and companionship. We also need to stay clean, healthy, and functional. If we feel like we have some measure of control over these things, we can go through life with less fear and anxiety.

There are plenty of things to stress out about right now. It’s really hard to make any kind of long-term plan when inflation is going through the roof, and so many rules and regulations change so dramatically from one year to the next. In times of uncertainty, one of the best things to do is to simply focus on what you can control. Learning as much as you can about home maintenance to keep your family clean and comfortable is something we can all be proactive about.

Are you on a septic system?

What lessons have you learned? Do you have any tips to share? Let’s talk about it in the comments section.

About Joanna

Joanna has been homeschooling three children since 2012. In 2014, she moved to the High Plains of Colorado. She and her children began a little homestead, gardening and raising chickens for eggs and meat. One animal led to another, and these days they have livestock guardian dogs, chickens, geese, ducks, alpacas, goats, pigs, and one very spoiled cat.