Potty Time - Toileting, Bathing, Laundry in a low Power Situation

Sharon August 14th, 2008

Ok, time to discuss with perfect strangers stuff you normally do behind closed doors.  Because hygeine is so tremendously important to survival, this is another one of those “everyone needs to know their options and have a plan” thing.  While living with no or little fossil fuels won’t kill you, a whole lot of the potential health consequences of inadequate hand washing, unsafe human manure handling and other things will kill you.  It is easy to get caught up in other stuff, and forget about the importance of this.

Ok, toileting.  If you have some water, and the sewers/septic aren’t backed up, you can keep flushing with a bucket occasionally (and I do mean occasionally).  But eventually your septic will fill and you may want that water for something else, particularly if you have to laboriously hauled it by hand from somewhere.  And except for tightly packed urban environments, the best choice is composting anyway.

Now everyone with a garden can use their urine to fertilize their garden.  This is safe - to be paranoid, you shouldn’t harvest from the plants for a week (or until after a rainstorm), but this is actually almost certainly over-paranoia.  Don’t do it if you have tularemia - of course, if you do, you have much bigger problems than where to put your urine.  Dilute the urine 1 part pee to 10 parts water (you can use 1-7 if you drink a lot, but just in case, if your urine is very concentrated, more dilution is better), and pour it over a plant you love.  In fact, IMHO, it would be crazy not to do this - free nitrogen in a world where fertilizer is increasingly expensive.

Poop is a bigger deal, and needs to be properly composted at fairly high temperatures.  If you live in an urban place and have limited space, this will have to be a neighborhood affair, since you can’t do it too near water, and you must do it safely - since the whole neighborhood’s health will depend on it (do you really need me to make a list of the diseases you can get from not finding an appropriate and safe way to deal with human wastes in an extended emergency - let’s just say it would be a long, long list and have very unpleasant things on it).  The bible on this subject is John Jenkins’ wonderful _Humanure Handbook_ - this is a very important book - there’s a review here and a link to his site, and the book is also available as a free download.  If you can afford it, though I’d buy a copy directly from him, as thanks for a serious service to humanity.

The basis of humanure composting is pretty simple - you poop in a bucket, add some carbonaceous material, and compost it carefully.  You then have something that is not a health risk, but an asset.  This is important, and the world as a whole is going to have to deal with this concept if we are all to continue living.

For very short term problems, those in very urban places can use plastic bags over buckets and dispose of their poop that way, but this creates methane in landfills and warms the planet. You can also go out in the woods and bury (more than 4 inches deep) your wastes), or dig an outhouse.  But if you’ve got any decent space at all for composting, these options are less good - and less pleasant in bad weather - than a simple composting toilet.  The compost can then be used on ornamental plants, fruit trees, etc…

Make sure you have hand washing facilities in an emergency - hand sanitizer is ok if water is really restricted (alcohol based, not antibacterial), but what you want is water and soap.  Store soap, or learn to make it, and teach everyone in your house to wash their hands properly every single time, especially before they eat.  Those religions (among them Jews and Moslems) who wash before eating had much lower death rates in ancient times than those that don’t wash (of course, if we actually regress to ancient times, we’ll go back to people burning those who don’t get diseases for being witches, so it would be nicer all round if everyone would consider handwashing a sacrament).

The next problem is toilet paper - several people have told me that toilet paper was worth its weight in gold during a crisis.  You need an option there.  One option is to use waste paper, but don’t flush it (most systems can’t handle anything but tp), and dispose of it seperately.  But eventually you will run out of old phone books and Danielle Steel novels, and be confronted with a deep and urgent question - what can I do besides wiping my ass with the works of Dickens?

The answer to this is cloth toilet paper - the reusable tp.  This is especially accessible for pee - if you don’t want to wash poopy cloth (although those of us dealing with diapers might have a lower freak out level than others), use it for pee only (for them that use anything when peeing).  But if you need it for poop, segregate it from the rest of the laundry and wash it well, maybe a tiny bit of hydrogen peroxide or bleach, and dry in the sun. 

I’ve got more information on cloth toilet paper, cloth menstrual pads, cloth diapers, handkerchiefs, cloth napkins, diva cups/keepers, etc… right here: http://sharonastyk.com/2007/06/04/52-weeks-down-week-6-dispense-with-disposables/ and I did a whole meditation on cloth toilet paper (and the idea of it) here: http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2007/11/familiarity-of-idea.html.  Crunchy Chicken is the goddess of reusable menstrual supplies and has tons of info at her site www.crunchychicken.blogspot.com on this subject (and some on cloth tp and peeing in the garden - she’s a very diversified woman.)

If you are using all these things, you will need to wash them.  Thus, you need a way to do laundry.  Lehmans offers a wide selection of non-electric laundry washing, drying, etc… tools here: http://www.lehmans.com/jump.jsp?itemID=673&i1Cat=679&i2Cat=673&itemType=CATEGORY with stuff for everyone from those who have lots of dirt to those who don’t.

Soap is nice, but you can make your own laundry detergent with a recipe here - this is worth doing even if the world never ends ;-) , because it is very cheap.  I have tried this and it works well, but don’t know if it is safe for my newer, high efficiency front loader - anyone know?

You can also use the soak and scrub method - water, bucket, a tiny bit of detergent, and soak a long time, then rub the cloth together to get the stains.  If you can set a bar up over the tub or it is warm enough to be outside, you don’t need a wringer - just hang and drip. But if you want it faster, you can use a mop wringer to get most of the water out, or stomp it out in the tub.

Most things do not need hot water to wash even now - you can use cold.  But boiling things on the stove is one way to get them clean and not a bad strategy to get humidity into the air if you have a heating source going anyway.  Small amounts of bleach are not a bad thing to store for a host of reasons (dry bleach stores better than the liquid - store and use it carefully, and only when necessary, because it is not good for your waterways). You can segregate people’s laundry to keep from cross-contamination if you are sick, and don’t want to boil/use bleach or can’t hang things in the sun for natural disinfectant.

If you are going to be doing lots of laundry by hand, much of what will have to change is your attitude - you will not want to throw everything straight in the wash - reuse anything that can be reused (and remember, most workday clothes in the past were not that clean), air it out rather than wash it (ie, hang it outside), remove work or dress clothes immediately and change to play clothes, wear an apron or other covering, etc…. Towels and sheets can be washed less often than we do now.  But do make sure they get washed regularly - lice and fleas can carry disease if there are a lot of unwashed bodies, particularly if you have pets and no access to current controls.  Baking clothes in the oven, or hanging them out in the freezing cold will kill insects and their eggs.

I assume you all know how to dry laundry ;-) - and no, not with a dryer.  Clotheslines, clotheslines, clotheslines - and drying racks.  Outside works great all year round (although it is very slow in winter - but winter line-dried clothes smell terrific!), and drying racks near the heat source are great in cold weather.  You can iron with “sad irons” heated up on a stove (if you cut the cord off, I think most conventional irons will work on a stove also, but be careful of plastic parts, and I haven’t tested this), but my own preference is to pretend wrinkles don’t exist (Simon once took a developmental test where he had to identify pictures.  He did great, and the examiner mentioned that the only picture he’d missed, well past age level, was one of an ironing board - my rather embarassed observation was that I was pretty sure he’d never seen one ;-) ).

Finally, you’ll want to wash you.  You can certainly get by with helmet baths and sponge baths, but you’d probably like to bathe now and again.  There are a couple of good choices - if you have an existing cistern and you can put a pump in your bathroom, you could fill your tub and haul hot water from the stove.  If you have  a big washtub in the kitchen, you could bathe in that (a plastic sheet over the parts of you that are exposed will keep the warmth of the water and your body next to you).  Our low energy solution is the solar shower bag - we hang them outside during the summer and inside near the woodstove during the winter to heat up - instant shower. 

Other thoughts?  Suggestions?


27 Responses to “Potty Time - Toileting, Bathing, Laundry in a low Power Situation”

  1. MEA says:

    I have yet to learn if you can compost feces with Clostridium difficile. I assume so, since it’s present in the soil world-wide, but if anyone knows one way or the other, please let me know.

    This goes beyond me right now; it may go beyond Sharon; it may even go beyond Crunchy, but I was told by an Army Medic (and I don’t think he was bull-s. me as it came in part of a discussion about making chest tubes out of syringes and a glove) that since urine is sterile (or should be) in a survial situtation after you poo you can pee and wash your hands in it. Like I said, my water saying efforts have yet to go that far. Do I sense a Chrunchy throw down coming? And Greenpa? Want to try it and let know how it works in the outhouse.

    And you can set things up to suction the water out of a convention bath through the window and into the potatoes or a water butt or whatever, apres le bain. Or you can leave it in the bath and bucket it out bit by bit to flush. I suppose, in a spirit of mad abandon you could fling buckets out the window, either onto the roof to drain into the buckets, carefuly aimed onto dry bits of the garden, or onto the heads of passersby who look as if they’d benefit a bit from a wash.

    MEA, who is a bit loopy because she fell asleep very, very late last night on her daugher’s bed, several hours after a converstation that went something like this (I’ve edited for bad words and dd’s odd syntax)

    MEA: It’s getting late and you are still very active. Did you have candy at camp.

    DD: No. Just a special drink from the snack bar onthe field trip.

    MEA: What was it.

    DD proudly: I remebered no Coke or Mountain Dew so I got something called Monster, because it was an energy drink and good for you.

    MEA: _________

    DD: I was so good, I had two.

  2. Survivalist News » Casaubon’s Book: Potty Time - Toileting, Bathing, Laundry in a low Power Situation says:

    [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Potty Time - Toileting, Bathing, Laundry in a low Power Situati… Ok, time to discuss with perfect strangers stuff you normally do behind closed doors. Because hygeine is so tremendously important to survival, this is another one of those “everyone needs to know their options and have a plan” thing. While living with no or little fossil fuels won’t kill you, a whole lot of the potential health consequences of inadequate hand washing, unsafe human manure handling and other things will kill you. It is easy to get caught up in other stuff, and forget about the importance of this. Wretha’s Adventures Living 100% Off Grid: Tilapia Farming Info August 14th, 2008 [...]

  3. NM says:

    Oh, poor MEA! You made me laugh out loud. Feeling very, very grateful not to have been the one having that conversation. Two! For a child! Yikes. What were the adults present thinking? Do those things cause some sort of hangover the next day? Seems like you’d feel awful.
    Thank you, Sharon for all the great information. One note, though; drying clothes outdoors does not work at all well in places where it rains 6 to 9 months out of the year. And the rain drops spatter the low ends of the sheets with mud very impressively.
    So residents of such areas might want to think about hanging clotheslines in the garage. Where they dry very slowly, due to the high humidity (at least if the garage is uninsulated). My dream is to someday have an indoor laundry-hanging room, with a fan for air circulation.

  4. Fern says:

    Last fall we had sewer issues, and couldn’t use our toilets for part of one evening and then part a day about a week later as they did a permanent fix. Husband freaked. Couldn’t face using a toilet and not flushing for a few hours, let alone the idea that we might have to set up a camp toilet type thing until a real fix. He insisted that if we couldn’t flush we’d have to go to a hotel. Engineers don’t like the feeling of not being in control.

    He was also hard to convince about using aged horse manure as fertilizer, and will NOT listen to the ideas of humanure or even just using pee - which I suppose you COULD wash your hands with after pooping, since pee comes out sterile. If someone is having heat stroke, and you have no other water, the rule is to pee on them to help them cool off.

    For my son’s bar mitzvah party - which we held in a picnic pavilion - there was only a port-a-pot and no water available. Knowing that in advance, we set up a hand washing station by it for everyone. Not exactly the typical bar mitzvah party in our area, to say the least.

  5. Eva says:

    Your link to the Humanure site is broken- heres a working one:

    He has some great videos there.

    Did you mean to put a link to home made detergent here - can’t find it.

    PS my then 3 year old son flunked question on cupcakes!

  6. anonymous says:

    Mullein for tp in my neck of the woods. Makes a good anti-viral tea as well, just don’t mix the tp and tea leaves. :)

  7. wasteweardaily says:

    My library had the Humanure book so I checked it out last week. I was just reading it for the first time last night. There are some pictures of really nice looking toilets in there. I was trying to imagine how we could do it here. We have already been doing a urine catching toilet using a bedside commode I found while dumpster diving. I either water plants or pour it on my compost pile. Cloth TP has caught on at our house.
    Cindy in FL

  8. Karin says:

    I had a friend who would bathe her daughter in the tub and then use the tub and bath water right after her.
    Bathing together is a good way to save water and keep intimate during tough times:)
    We’ve recently celebrated the graduation of the wee one to big boy pants.I have saved all his cloth wipes for the time when we might have to go without tP.

  9. Hummingbird says:

    Am I right that composting toilets require electricity?

  10. Michael Hawkins says:

    Not necessairely electricity, but they need to stay warm enough for composting organisms to flourish (and by flourish, I mean thrive, you simply cannot allow human waste to exist for too long).

    It may be necessairy to keep your toilet in a warm/heated area.

  11. Julie Mason says:

    Did you mean to have a link to a soap recipe in the post? I’d be interested…

  12. Scott says:

    When I lived in Brazil everyone washed there clothes by hand, or they had a little plastic tank that churned water and made suds with the clothes in it. It’s a very low energy use machine that worked well. My white clothes were never as white as when I washed them by hand and hung them in the Equatorial sun. Although if your not used to line drying your clothes, try to wring out the water, because all the weight of the water with gravity will really stretch them out.

  13. MEA says:


    My whole household is (are?) serial bathers. I grew up that way (my mother, in some ways, never realized the war was over) and so did my housemate, who was one of 6, and bedtime just went faster if they went through one lot of water one after the other.

    Yeah on the big boy pants!

  14. MEA says:

    NM — I felt awful, dd was fine (but she metablize things very quickly — often has to have a much large does of medicine to get it to a therapudic level than you’t think. She has a counselor in training one on one with her, and while the young woman is great about the physical safety stuff, apparently didn’t give any thought to what dd was eating and drinking.

    Last night I had the oven on to cook a meal and then dried dd’s soaked jeans (which she need for camp the next day) in them). (Crappy mother that I am, I’m not getting her a second pair until the last possible second because she won’t stop outgrowing things in about 2 weeks, and the handmedown supplie of blue jeans stopped, replaced with lycra sequined sweat pants. And, as dd the young would say, “I can tell you this, I’m not wiping my bottom with those.”


  15. marta says:

    I keep reading how clotheslines are back in fashion now in the US, while here dryers are being bought by the upwardly mobile…hmpf. I had never seen a dryer until I went to the US when I was 25!

    Anyway, a friend who lives in Cambodia says people in Phnom Phen (and in rural areas as well) have a rainwater collecting bucket set on a high tripod in their back (or front) yards. As it rains a lot everyday, they just have to pull the chain whenever they want and have a quick, refreshing shower.
    I guess in colder climates you can just store a limited amount of rainwater (unless you use it during the colder months, heating it), but still use it for quick and cheap showers in the summer.

    Marta from Lisbon (Portugal)

  16. Fern says:

    In the summer, I take empty 2 liter soda bottles (too easily available), paint them black, fill them with water, and leave them in the sun. In short order the water is warm enough to use as a shower. Might work in winter in a sunlit window as a way to store heat, too, come to think of it.

  17. Pat Meadows says:

    I’m interested in the [soda bottles storing heat in a window] idea. What do you paint them with?



  18. Freddie Freeloader says:

    Im experimenting the growing of lambs ear (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stachys_byzantina) for TP.
    Its a perennial that is supposed to be very robust and it feels as soft as Charmin.

  19. Greenpa says:

    For those not familiar, I do recommend my composting outhouse design; humorously referred to as the THWASPCO. The first post on my blog is

    There a quite a few posts- best idea is to search for THWASPCO, and “potty house”.

    This is not a short term solution- it’s a long term, even permanent one. Substantial construction required. The outcome, though, is a fully sanitary facility which composts the poop- and you don’t ever even have to shovel it out. That was a surprise to me, but after 20 some years, it’s true; the 3 composting pits have so much extra capacity that by the time we need to rotate to the next pit- the material in it has had time to decompose entirely to water and carbon dioxide- which just disappear up the stack.

    The value of human poop for fertilizer is substantial, to be sure. Processing it to remove disease threats requires vigilance, though. The THWASPCO basically puts disease organisms into a dead-end world, where most will just disappear, die, and- compost. A few things might survive- bacterial spores can be nearly indestructible- that aspect is untested. Since we never shovel it out, though- it’s a moot question.

  20. robj98168 says:

    How about a composting toilet system- you can have these in two bathrooms, the waste goes into the composster, is heated and in a short time made into beautiful compost for your flower garden. The heating system can be solar. I know this is another product to buy, but could be retrofitted into most houses. As far as flushing, well as a plumber, I can say the poop in your sanitary lines doesn’t exactly go away with one flush anyway, so gravity has to take over!

  21. Fern says:

    Pat - I just bought the cheapest can of all purpose spray enamel interior/exterior for spraying the soda bottles. Of course, I’ve been using them outdoors. If you are spraying them for interior use, I’d let them air outside from now till fall, the stuff has plenty of toxic chemicals in it.

  22. Steve in Colorado says:

    There are solar powered composting toilets. The one I am most familiar with is the “Sunny John” by John Cruickshank. You can see his design and order plans at http://www.sunnyjohn.com/toiletpapers2.htm.

    This design works in Colorado (more sun than some places). But the idea is sound. Basically use solar radiation to heat the place where you sit as well as the compost. Solves a key humanure problem in cold climates, keeping th epile working over the winter.

    For those that can use it, something along these lines seems like a very sustainable solution…

  23. mezzaluna says:

    wanted to put in a plug for elimination communication with your babies. babies are aware of their elimination needs from birth, but we condition that awareness out of them when we put them in diapers. by becoming aware of your baby’s potty cues and helping them stay in touch with their sensations you’ll save on diaper laundry both in terms of fewer diapers used per day and likely earlier time to complete potty training.

    people all around the world have done this forever… cloth diapers may seem like a “natural” option, but there weren’t fuzzibunz 1000 years ago, lol! and not everyone in the world today has the money and time to acquire and wash lots of cloth for diapering.

    of course you still need to figure out what to do with their pee and poop anyway, but reducing your waste stream of sposies or washing resources for cloth (and resources to make the cloth diapers!) can only be a good thing.

  24. Mary Campbell says:

    When I was a kid every washing machine had a sudsaver. A big tub that held the soapy water while a load finished and then used it on the succeeding loads. Sort of like serial bathing for your laundry. I’ve tried stopping the washer as the wash cycle finishes, pulling one load out of the washer, replacing it with the second load, and repeating the wash cycle. A sudsaver would be less labor intensive.
    I hang laundry outside in the summer. I could do it in the winter, too, but we appreciate the extra humidity in the house. In Ireland they refer to laundry day afternoon rains as “the final rinse.”

  25. David says:

    Well, this may get some commotion going. I love Joe Jenkins and his work and consider him a national hero and I think of The Humanure Handbook as divinely inspired. I don’t do all of what Joe does/ recommends, however. It just always seemed to me that with turning the pile and so on to make sure everything on the edges reached thermophilic temperatures, it was possible to not get a complete compost, so I came up with something entirely different which I’ve been using for several years, and that is processing the material with red worms -Eisenia Foetida-and I’ve found the results to be very complete, the material produced to actually have a very sweet, earthy scent and as lots of you know, there’s nothing comparable to worm castings for plant nutrition, soil conditioning and so on.

    During the winter here (central Ill.) when its too cold to keep the bins outside because the worms would freeze, they get stacked off to the side in my one room “home” next to the barn. And the bins are simply the 30 qt. totes they sell at Wally’s for $5 or $6. Drill a few vent holes above the level of the material and your done. Not to mention that over time you wind up with a lot of worms which can be used for feeding poultry or other composting jobs. It is so simple, so easy to manage and the end product is to die for. What’s not to love?

    I am, of course, bracing for an eruption of “it absolutely must reach thermophilic temperatures to be safe” and so on. I don’t have scientific data to prove the point, but I’ve found it to be completely safe and not in any way offensive anywhere along the line. I handle the end product with my bare hands all the time and its just not an issue. It is, after all, just poop (before its processed), not nuclear waste or something. Its not any more biologically threatening than a dog’s waste or that of a pig or any other non-ruminant and none of those products is treated in any way. In fact lots of folks use the pigs to till the garden for them.

    So I’m hoping this can be discussed as another option, but I’m also kind of expecting that there may be some strong disagreement.


  26. Alison Cummins says:

    I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned the traditional corn cob for wiping. (It doesn’t work with flush toilets, obviously.)

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