Friday, June 13, 2014

Guest Post: The Week Ike Came to Town, part 3

Part 3:  Water, Water Everywhere...

by John "TXGunGeek" Kochan

John has been a volunteer firefighter/EMT since 1980. This is his story of being off-grid for an entire week in the wake of a hurricane, as well as being Acting Chief of his Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) during that time.

We've already discussed electricity and being part of a community. Next up is water.

Imagine, if you will, you come home from a hard day at work and step in to the shower and turn the knob and nothing happens. What do you do?

As far as Ike was concerned, part of the goofiness of the electrical outage was that some people had no electricity but still had water service, while some people had neither water nor electricity. One VERY important consideration when dealing with water is "What are you doing with it and where does it go?" 

Where does it go?

If you live in town, chances are you are on a municipal waste-water treatment service. All of these rely on electrical lift pumps and various electrical systems at the waste treatment facility in order to operate. If you are in a low-lying area, this could pose a health and general flooding risk as the sewer system backs up and can no longer lift and pump the sewage - definitely something you need to think about ahead of time! Plan to deal with this loss of service. 

If you are in a rural area, you may well still be on a municipal service, or you may have an “On Site Treatment Facility”. That is what the Texas Department of Health calls them... we call 'em Septic Systems. There are two main variations of these septic systems, Drain Field and Aerobic. 
Drain field systems are the oldest type of waste treatment around. There is a septic tank that then flows liquid effluent out to a series of pipes with holes in them that drain into a sandy and rocky strata under the ground and evaporate the liquid away. Aerobic systems have a pump with a chopper in the septic tank that then pumps the liquid effluent up through sprinklers onto a lawn surface to soak in and evaporate.
If you have a classic drain field system, you are golden, as gravity does the work for you. If you have one of the newer aerobic systems and lose power, you have a problem: the system will no longer drain and fills up with sewage.

This is an issue many residents ran into during the power outage. Many of them still had water service but  no electricity, and they kept right on using the bathroom like nothing was wrong... right up until raw sewage started pouring out across their yards. One resident even came by the fire station and asked if we could bring a fire truck over and pump their septic tank! We got in touch with a local septic service company and got them to send a couple pump trucks out our way to help out. 

Something you should check into when either buying or building in a rural area is to investigate what type of septic system is in place or what the local health department / zoning department requires. 

What are you doing with it?

During Ike, those who did not have water service at all had to deal with that problem first before they could deal with septic system issues. In a few cases, people had prepared short term water storage to deal with temporary issues. 

In the scenario listed above - which happened to us - you need to have water on hand to use if nothing happens when the tap doesn't work. In our case, I have more than once come home to a flood in the pasture between my home and the county road from a cracked water pipe. Well, that means shutting down the water at the meter and digging out where the leak is so I can repair the PVC line to the house. After digging the pipe out, in the dark, through all the mud, and getting the pipe repaired (you do have all the fixings to repair your water main, right?) you are nasty, dirty, and sweating, but the water needs to remain turned off while the PVC glue/solvent dries/hardens. What to do? 

Fortunately for us,  we also have a well and windmill, but it supplies water mainly for irrigation and stock water. We can get that water to the house, but the volume and pressure is so low that we couldn't run the house directly off of it. Instead, we use a series of 2.5 gallon bottles from the city Reverse Osmosis water place that have handles on them for easy carry. We purposely stay away from a barrel system, and even the 5 gallon bottles are too heavy for ease of carry and use. (Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon and gets heavy in quantity.) With these containers, we can wash up, flush the toilet, and even bathe if we have to. 

These bottles are also treated so that we can use them for drinking water if needed. In addition, we have crates of bottled drinking water just because they are convenient for use. It is real easy for us to refill both the small drink bottles, as well as the larger bottles from the well, when needed to keep the water somewhat flowing in the house. Not near as convenient as running water, but far ahead of the alternative.

In the case of Ike, emergency rations of water didn't flow into the area for a few days. Once they did, the water then had to make it out the people who needed it. It was stocked at the Volunteer Fire Departments and people from the community could come in and get what they needed. These were only cases of drinking water, not water in larger quantities like for flushing or bathing. 

The county jail ran into an issue when their water died. What to do with all the inmates there? The solution was really quite funny. The VFD that serves the center of the county sent one of their tanker trucks to the jail, where they managed to rig up a T and valve into the incoming water main. They connected the output of the tanker pump to the water supply system and pumped that water to the sheriff's office and county jail. Then they put a drop tank alongside the truck, and various departments in the area would send a tanker truck over to dump into the tank so the truck could pump out of it. It worked quite well, but took lots of fuel and manpower to keep it going. 

Now, not everyone has their own tanker truck, so that is not often an option. But the ingenuity of coming up with a solution is what gets people through emergencies with style.

What you can do

We were lucky - since the surrounding areas still had power, there were services available. In a total or widespread grid-down situation that would not have been possible. 

Should you be looking to buy property to set up your home or bug out location, you will want to check out county and state regulations on septic systems and wells. In many cases now, even in rural areas, the county health department must approve your request to install an On Site Treatment Facility and the county, a water conservation district, or even the state must approve your plans to drill a new well on your property. This is something you need to consider in your SHTF plans!

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