- You can flush your toilet during a power outage
- You may need to help your toilet flush with a bucket of water
The power is out and suddenly you’re faced with a question you might not have had before. Do the toilets work the same without power? The answer depends on how your home is set up. Here’s what you need to know.
There are a lot of concerns that come with a power outage, especially an extended one. Most of them aren’t super pressing. A packed deep freezer will stay frozen for a long time, for instance. And unless it’s freezing cold out or a record-setting heatwave, life without the furnace or AC is bearable. But it’s not fun when the plumbing doesn’t work, and you can’t use your toilet.
Whether or not you can do so depends on two things: how water is delivered to your home and how waste is carried away.
Let’s break it down by water delivery method, as that’s the most common issue that will throw a wrench in your plans, and then by some of the less common scenarios. At the end, we’ll go over some tips to make sure your toilet stays operational during a power outage.
Whether you live in a big city or a small town, if you are hooked up to a municipal water distribution system, you are on city water. If you’re not sure if you’re on city or well water, certain things are a giveaway, like having a water bill, a water meter attached to the water line in your home, and so on.
In nearly all circumstances, the municipal water system is set up to maintain water pressure even during fairly extended power outages, thanks to the use of pump stations and water towers. If you open the tap in the bathroom and water comes out, you have water pressure, and the toilet will function as normal.
There is one major exception to the city water situation: how high above the ground your home is. The majority of people on city water live in single residential dwellings or smaller apartment buildings. In those cases, the natural water pressure supplied by the nearby water tower should be sufficient.
For folks in high-rise buildings, however, there’s a good chance the building they live in has its own pump system to help assist the city water system. The building may or may not have a small water reservoir at the top of the building that functions as a local water tower to supply pressure to the building.
If that’s the situation you find yourself in, you should treat the situation as if you’re on well water and read the next section (as well as the subsequent section with tips on dealing with the situation during power outages).
If you’re on a well instead of city water, things get a little trickier, but your toilet will still function—with your help.
Wells use an electric pump to draw water up into your home and provide water pressure. When the power is out, the water is out. You’ll be able to flush the toilet one time using the water in the tank. If there’s enough residual water pressure in the line, you might get one more partial or full tank fill, but it’s best not to count on that. After that, no water will be delivered to the tank until the power is back on and the pump is operational.
In this case, you will need to help your toilet out. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Use a gravity flush. If you have water on hand to pour into the toilet, you can use a trick called a “gravity flush,” where pouring roughly 1-1.5 gallons of water quickly from a bucket directly into the toilet bowl will flush the toilet without any water from the tank. No bucket on hand? A small bathroom trash can or a large mixing bowl will do the trick.
- If you do not have a bucket or suitable container to use but you do have water on hand (say, some gallon jugs of water), don’t pour the water from the jugs into the toilet bowl as it will not flush unless the addition of the water is sudden and forceful. Instead, pour the water into the tank of the toilet to refill it and flush it as you normally would.
- Collect water from outside. Set a bucket (or several) outside to collect the rain. Use this collected water to help flush your indoor toilets.
So far, one thing is clear: if you can pour water into the toilet, it will flush whether or not you have water pressure from the city (or from your well pump). The water delivery side of the equation is only part of how a toilet functions. The other side of the equation is how the wastewater gets from the toilet to the sewer or septic field.
For the majority of people, both living in the city and hooked up to the city sewer or living outside the city with a septic field, the drainage system flows on a downward incline with no interruption. When you pour water down the drain, plain old gravity will help it flow out into the main sewer or out into the septic field in your yard.
Where flushing the toilet during a power outage becomes a problem is when your toilet is below wherever the waste goes (be that the city sewer or the septic field).
If you have a basement apartment or a bathroom in the basement of your house, you might have what is known as an upflush or macerating toilet—a toilet with its own pump to force sewage up to the level where it can flow down into the sewer or septic field.
If you do, it’s pretty obvious for two reasons. One, the drain for the toilet doesn’t pass through the base of the toilet stool as one would expect but projects out the back horizontally. Additionally, the toilet has a large box attached to it and will be plugged into a nearby outlet (although the box and outlet may be placed behind a wall in a service closet).
This kind of toilet simply will not function if the power is out, regardless of whether you have water on hand or not. The small pump tank typically only has room for a single flush.
Sometimes, it’s not just a single toilet that’s below the elevation of the sewer or septic field. Sometimes, because of various constraints, it’s the waste system of the entire home.
While it’s not a typical setup—most homes have their septic system and city drain line set up to drain naturally with gravity—sometimes it’s unavoidable. For example, let’s say your home is built on a steep overlook to take advantage of some beautiful scenery.
That’s great for the view, but it might require what is known as an “effluent pump” to move the waste from your home uphill to the septic field or city sewer. No electricity? No waste removal. The holding tanks should be able to handle a few flushes, but if they overflow, the only place to go is back into your home.
That’s a pretty unusual situation, however, and most people with such a setup are well aware they have it.
The number of flushes you get out of your toilet when you lose power varies. It ultimately depends on how much water remains in your pipes.
You should be sure to get one flush out of a toilet without water, but you might be able to get several flushes. Keep in mind that, eventually, your tank won’t be able to fill up anymore since your water pumps don’t have power.
If you’ve run out of flushes in your toilet, you can manually flush your toilet by adding water to your toilet with a bucket.
In this case, you have as many flushes as your water supply will last.
Whether you’re on city water (and none of the odd exceptions outlined above apply to you) or you have a well, it never hurts to be prepared—though folks on well water definitely want to pay closer attention.
Remember, you can flush your toilet with any water. It doesn’t matter if it’s potable (safe to drink) or not. If you have an advanced warning of an incoming storm or event that will potentially take the power out, you can put aside some water to use. Here’s how to prepare for a storm:
- Fill Buckets: A single 5-gallon bucket filled up will get you around three flushes if you pour it carefully. Fill as many buckets as you have on hand.
- Fill Bathtubs: A typical residential bathtub holds around 42 gallons of water, more than enough to flush the toilet dozens of times.
- Use Outside Water: Whether it’s from a swimming pool, a water feature, a rain barrel, or a pond in the backyard, water is water when it comes to flushing.
- Drain Water from Your Water Heater: Tank-style water heaters hold anywhere from 20-60 gallons of water, depending on their size. If you’re in a real bind, you can drain water from the tank into a bucket. Be sure to let it cool before pouring it into the toilet bowl to avoid cracking the porcelain.
Forgot to fill up the tub, and now a storm has taken out the power? As long as it’s still raining, you can always collect rainwater off the downspout or put some buckets on the patio to fill up.
Power outages are no fun, but with an understanding of how your plumbing system works and a little planning, your toilet should remain functional.