Can You Flush the Toilet During a Power Outage?

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You may not have lights during a power outage and your refrigerator and microwave won't work, but you should still be able to use your toilet.

As natural disasters such as storms, floods and fires become more frequent and severe, power outages are increasingly a fact of life. Power outages can result in the extended loss of many essential amenities. Let’s explore their effect on the mission-critical toilet flush.

You Can You Flush Your Toilet During a Power Outage If…

  • You have standard gravity-flush toilets. They aren’t directly affected when the power goes out, provided water is still flowing and your waste system doesn’t rely on electricity. As long as the water disappears down the drain and the tank refills, there’s no reason not to flush.
  • You live in a large community. You should be able to flush without power because municipal water generally comes from large holding tanks. Water pressure, as well as the flow of sewage to treatment plants, is generally unaffected when the power goes out.
  • You get your water from a well, because you also have holding tanks. While water pressure may be reduced when the well pump and pressure pump lose power, there should still be enough water in an average tank for several days of flushing, depending on how much water you use for other purposes. If your water goes out, flush manually with water brought in from elsewhere.

You Can’t Flush Your Toilet During a Power Outage If…

  • You have a septic system that uses an effluent pump to transfer waste from the tank to a drainfield, or secondary treatment system located at a higher elevation. The pump won’t work when the power goes out. There may still be room in the septic tank for a few flushes, but you risk overfilling it and a nasty sewage backup if you flush too often. In an extended power outage, you’ll probably need to consider alternate waste disposal methods.
  • You have upflush toilets that plug into a wall outlet and need electricity to operate macerating blades, and a pump that transfers the waste to the sewer. They won’t flush if there’s no power. This type of toilet is often found in basement bathrooms or other parts of a house far from the main sewer.
  • You live in an apartment building. You may lose water during a power outage because the pump that circulates water throughout the building stops working. The sewage system is usually unaffected, however. Although you may not have water, you can bring in water from outdoors.

Ways To Flush When You Don’t Have Water Flowing To the Toilet

Depending on the length and severity of the outage, you may experience a water shortage. Then the tank may not refill. In that case, you can manually add water to the tank to flush the toilet. Simply pour the water into the tank and flush as you would normally. This creates a cleaner flush and wastes less water than pouring the water directly into the toilet bowl.

Where will you get this water? You have a few options:

  • Outside. Scoop water from a nearby body of water into a bucket. If it’s raining, leave the bucket out to catch rain water from the roof, or take off the bottom section of a downspout and direct the remaining section into the bucket. Any water will do — even muddy water, as long as it’s free of rocks and sediment.
  • If you have a water heater, you may be able to draw water from the drain valve at the bottom of the tank, provided the water has had enough time to cool down. Hot water directly from the tank can scald you and crack the toilet, so wait until the water is cool enough to handle.
  • Bottled water will work in an emergency. You need about a gallon for a single flush, but be sure to pour it into the tank. A bottle spout restricts water flow, so pouring directly into the bowl won’t fill the bowl fast enough to initiate the suction needed for flushing.
  • Preemptive power outages, like those in fire-prone areas of California, are often preceded by warnings. As soon as you receive a warning, fill the bathtub with water and you’ll have plenty for flushing and other needs.

Note that a pressure-assist toilet won’t function if there isn’t enough water pressure to fill the pressure tank. You can’t recharge the pressure tank manually, nor can you pour water into the toilet tank. But you can still flush it by pouring water into the bowl.

If worse comes to worst, you can rig up a makeshift toilet with a five-gallon bucket, a plastic garbage bag and some sawdust or cat litter.

Prepare for Power Outages

Water for flushing is usually abundant during heavy rainfall or flooding, but not so in arid places. In California, where wildfire warnings and power company-initiated rolling blackouts to prevent wildfires are common, water may be at a premium when the power goes out. Consequently, it’s important to keep extra on hand for emergency flushing.

As soon as you see or hear the warning for an impending outage, fill the bathtub and as many five-gallon buckets as you can muster to prepare for an outage that might last several days. If you have a well, your water storage tank is a resource. If water pressure is too low to fill the toilet tank, you can draw water directly, using the tank’s spigot or a garden hose to siphon it.

Chris Deziel
Chris Deziel has been active in the building trades for more than 30 years. He helped build a small city in the Oregon desert from the ground up and helped establish two landscaping companies. He has worked as a carpenter, plumber and furniture refinisher. Deziel has been writing DIY articles since 2010 and has worked as an online consultant, most recently with Home Depot's Pro Referral service. His work has been published on Landlordology, Apartments.com and Hunker. Deziel has also published science content and is an avid musician.