Sewage Emergency: Thunder Bay Flooding

Recently the city of Thunder Bay Ontario experienced devastating flooding. There was enough water to flood out the waste water treatment plant. This effectively shut down the sewage collection and treatment system for the entire city. This turned the entire city to a zone without sanitation.  Over 1000 houses needed to be evacuated, and some people needed to evacuate immediately.

Contaminated Water Flooding Thunder Bay (from

The flood hit the city at night, and people living in basement apartments woke up to furniture floating in sewage.  One lucky family woke up to their baby’s crib (and baby) floating in sewage.  The rest discovered that their house smelled horrible when they woke up.

What overloaded the system was a prolonged rainstorm above the 100 year storm levels and the normal waste water levels. Combined sewers meant that all this water was supposed to be treated at the waste water treatment plant.  When the flooding reached the facility, the pumps shorted out, as in most large facilities most of the control electronics (there are a lot) are stored in the basement.  Electronics underwater rarely fair well, this shut down the entire facility.  Large volumes of contaminated water had nowhere else to go and it started covering most of the city. People had anywhere from 4 inches to 6 feet of sewage in their homes.

Sewage Flooded Basement (from

The city instructed residents not to use water, because all the flushed toilet water was ending up in basements and free flowing in the street. People didn’t stop washing and flushing. Now, when there is sewage everywhere there is a huge need to wash and keep clean. But when all you have is water for hygiene, all that waste will end up in the street or in your basement.  So there are strong reasons to use water, and strong reasons not to flush anything down the drain.  This is a good reason to have water-less cleaners available for when the waste has nowhere to go. Alternatively it is also a good reason to have short term storage for household waste.  There is no point in flushing the toilet if it just ends up in your basement.  I would personally deal with twenty feces filled buckets then one flooded basement.

When there is sewage in your house the environment becomes so toxic that even sleeping overnight can cause respiratory illnesses. Continue reading

A City Without Sanitation

This article is another one designed to get people thinking about the hidden parts of our cities. The water and waste systems are easy to forget and are often willfully ignored.
People living in modern cities take sanitation for granted. Many people don’t realize that cities appeared after we developed sewers and efficient garbage removal. Quite literally, sewers are the backbone of civilization. It is misleading sometimes because many cities have truly ancient origins, however they were barely more than villages before sanitation. The problem with have large numbers of people in a small area like a city is that it gets filthy, and it gets filthy fast. The problem with living in filthy places is disease. Water borne, airborne and vermin borne diseases boom when there are lots of people in dirty places. The reason settlements didn’t grow beyond villages is disease would keep populations small.
Before sewers, sewage flowed freely in the streets. It eventually flows into the nearest surface water and leaches into the groundwater completely contaminating all water supplies.

Before Sewers Streets Had Rivers Of Sewage

Cities will quickly regress into a similar state once the efficient removal of waste is interrupted.  I have written about what a breakdown of the sewers system will look like. In a long term scenario, people will either move or they will throw their waste into the street.

Sewage Overflow in San Francisco

This seems so foreign to us, but that is exactly what happens when waste services stop. Continue reading

Septic Tank Management

Homeowners are responsible for maintaining their septic systems.  It not only protects the investment in your home, but also protects your water supply and those of your neighbors.  You don’t want to be the cause of major ground water or surface water contamination because of a malfunctioning septic tank.  The liabilities are potentially huge and your homeowners insurance may not cover you if you didn’t do the required maintenance.   It will also make selling your home difficult,  I personally have walked away from houses I wanted to buy because the septic system was not in proper working order.

Septic tank management can be very simple. If the tank has been properly constructed and installed very few interventions will be necessary and the interventions will primarily be inspections.  The major components of a septic system are a collection pipe from the house, the holding tank, and the drainage system (usually a field).  The collection pipe is the final pipe leaving the home that contains all the household waste water.  This part of the system is identical for people connected to a municipal sewer except for where the pipe goes. Continue reading

Self-Reliant Liquid Waste Management

I have already written about how to develop a solid waste (garbage) management plan. If you are interested in living off grid, in a long term self sustainable way, you also need a solution to your liquid waste (sewage and others). There are two generic steps to accomplish this. The first is to separate the solids from the water and the second is a biological reduction of the organic material in the water and biosolids. If you are releasing into surface water there is frequently a disinfection stage as well and a dechlorinating stage after that.

There are two key groups of liquid waste. Biological waste, and industrial/chemical waste. Continue reading

Long Term Self-Reliant Solid Waste Management

Waste is an invisible (or willfully ignored) part of modern life. I write that sentence a lot. It shows up in a lot of my articles. What I mean to say is, think about your waste, even if all you manage to plan for is “eww! gross! I’m just going to throw it out the window.” then at least you know what to expect. For the record, just throw it out the window is a very bad plan. So what does one need to become waste independent? First we need to understand that waste comes in three different basic forms. Solid waste, liquid waste and gaseous waste. In this article I will focus on solid waste. Continue reading

Waste Management in Emergency Situations

Waste management is something many people love to never think about. I even spent a large part of my life never thinking about it at all. That is definitely not true today as I work in sewage facilities every day. I have spent some time planning and preparing for disasters to hit these facilities. If there is an evacuation order, I will evacuate. Even if there is no order to evacuate and the roads are blocked or impassable, I wont be able to respond to any emergency.

That means you need a plan for what to do. Continue reading