Plumbing 101: Will Your Plumbing Work Without Electricity?

September 29, 2020

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Having your home’s power go out suddenly is inconvenient, but will your plumbing work without electricity? Most homeowners would agree that having a working toilet and sufficient water for bathing, cooking, and drinking is more vital than electricity. So, will one work without the other?

When the Power is Out, Will the Plumbing Work?

Unless your home’s water comes from a well with an electric pump, your plumbing should work without electricity. However, many cities use electric pumps to pump sewage to treatment plants and filtered water back to homes; without backup power, those pumps fail, shutting down your water supply.

While most plumbing fixtures work without electricity, it can be helpful for homeowners to know how basic plumbing fixtures work so you know what is affected by electricity, and how to protect your home’s plumbing during a power outage. Consider some commonly asked questions about plumbing and electricity and what you can use, and what should be avoided, during any utility interruption. You can then discuss these plumbing issues with a plumbing contractor near you, as needed!

power outage candlelight

 Can You Flush the Toilet When the Power Is Out?

A home’s toilet doesn’t typically use power. Instead, gravity and water pressure create a vacuum effect. The flusher in a toilet tank is a very simple lever and chain, and the plumbing pipes delivering water to the tank work with a system of natural vacuums created by the home’s plumbing. In most cases, then, your home’s toilet will still work during a power outage.

The only exception to this is when your city uses electric pumps to pump sewage to treatment plants, as said. If those pumps do not have backup generators or don’t cycle back on as needed for any reason, your home’s toilets might not flush or you might notice backup in the bowl when it’s flushed. Those pumps also deliver water to your home; if they don’t cycle on, your toilet tank will eventually stop filling.

If your home’s taps still work, you can fill a bucket with water and use that to fill the tank or pour directly into the bowl and engage the flushing action. If you’re worried about storms moving into the area or find your power supply is interrupted consistently for any reason, consider filling some receptacles with water and keeping them on hand for use if the toilet tank stops filling on its own during a power outage.

If a power outage is caused by flooding, those floods can also damage or otherwise affect plumbing pipes. If pipes burst, for example, this can mean clogs that keep a toilet from flushing. Strong storms can also mean fallen branches and lightning strikes; if these occur near pumps and other equipment, a home’s water supply can be affected. In these instances, it’s best to wait for repairs and full power and water restoration before using the toilet.

fixing the plumbing on toilet

Can You Shower When the Power Is Out?

If the city’s pumps have failed, you might find that your home has little to no water pressure. In turn, water might simply drizzle out of the showerhead. Also, a gas water heater typically functions during a power outage but not an electric water heater! Once you drain the water in the heater’s tank or it cools off due to the heater not cycling on, you’ll be left with lukewarm water for showering.

As with the toilets, you might collect some water in buckets or other receptacles before storms come through your area. If you have a gas stove, outdoor grill, or own a camping stove, you can heat the water for a shower, minding all safety precautions and ensuring you don’t overheat it, of course! There is also a drain at the bottom of both electric and gas water heaters; you can use that drain to remove water from the tank as needed.

Be prepared for clogs when using your shower or bathtub during a power outage. As said, because city pumps often work with electricity, if those pumps don’t cycle back on soon after a storm, you might find your home’s bathtub doesn’t drain as it should! You can still use the tub for collecting shower water but keep in mind that it will simply stand there until pipes are clear and those pumps cycle back on.

How Can You Use Well Water Without Power?

If your home gets water from a well, the pump will not work during a power outage. You will typically have a small supply of water available, as the system pulls water from the well storage tank, but once this tank is empty, you’ll be without fresh water until the power is restored.

One way to avoid this risk is to invest in a generator backup for your home’s well and other essential appliances. A generator can power the well’s pump and your electric hot water, so you have fresh, hot water even during a power outage.

Since your home’s well provides water for the toilet tank as well as faucets, it’s often good to have a water reservoir for the toilets in case of power outages. Store several gallons of water in a tank or jugs you keep in the home; after flushing the toilet, refill the tank with a few gallons of your stored water.

What Should You Do, and Not Do, During a Power Outage?

If your home’s power is out but the water taps and showers work, there is typically no reason why you shouldn’t use that water. However, there are some cautions about using water during a power outage and especially an outage due to strong, excessive storms.

During a citywide power outage, the city’s pumps might not be operational, as said. Those pumps are used to take sewage to treatment plants; when they don’t cycle on, that sewage sits in exterior pipes. After too many flushes, your toilets might then clog or back up. To avoid this mess and inconvenience, use and flush your home’s toilets sparingly during a citywide power outage!

Homes along floodplains or that are otherwise prone to flooding might have an electric sump pump installed, typically in the basement. When the power is out, that pump will fail to cycle on, increasing the risk of interior flooding. You might have buckets and other receptacles ready to remove water by hand, to protect your home from as much flood damage as possible; if possible, invest in a generator you can use when the power is out, to keep the pump operational.

Does your home have an electric furnace and water heater? If so, you might be at a higher risk of frozen pipes if the power goes out during wintertime! Keep a faucet dripping, to keep water running through your home and reduce that risk. Open cabinet doors under sinks, to allow warmer air to circulate around those pipes and keep them from freezing.

Why Your Plumbing Might Not Work During a Power Outage

Whether or not your home’s plumbing continues to work during a power outage often depends on where you live, and the reason for the outage! If your city’s pumps have backup power, your home’s plumbing might not be affected at all, at least for as long as that backup system continues to function. Once those pumps fail, your home will have reduced water pressure, as those pumps aren’t pumping water to individual properties.

plumbing-repair

Apartments, however, usually have separate pumps that pump water to each individual unit. During a citywide power outage, those pumps will typically fail and you might not get water to your apartment. On the other hand, if you have a power outage in just your apartment, those pumps aren’t affected and you should still get water as needed.

Storms or heavy flooding that cause a power outage can affect your home’s plumbing as well. Saturated soil might cause a home’s foundation to shift, which then puts pressure on plumbing pipes. Heavy, saturated soil can crack exterior pipes, leading to clogs. In these cases, you might need plumbing repairs even after the power comes back on in your area.

Plumbing Fixtures You Should NOT Use During a Power Outage

During a power outage, remember that your kitchen garbage disposal won’t cycle on. Avoid putting food scraps into the sink, even if the taps work, as this can mean eventual clogs and backup. Turning on the disposal with scraps in the drain can also cause damage to its blades; put food scraps in the trash or wait until the power is restored before washing dishes instead.

If the power will be interrupted for an extended period of time, it’s good to turn off the circuit to an electric water heater and then drain the tank. Draining the tank and not using water from the heater reduces the risk of frozen water building up in the tank or connected pipes.

How to Keep Yourself Safe and Comfortable During a Power Outage

If your home’s plumbing has stopped working during a power outage, or you’ve run out of hot water in the heater’s holding tank, consider a few tips for keeping yourself safe and comfortable. First, keep in mind that most cities work with power grids, so nearby businesses might still have power and working plumbing! You might buy some bottled water for drinking and showering, and even use the store’s restroom as needed.

If your home is getting water from the shower taps, keep in mind that the pressure and supply can stop at any time, depending on the pumps used to get that water into your house. To preserve as much water as possible, take what is called a “submarine” or “RV” shower; turn on the water just long enough to get wet, then turn it off to lather up and wash your hair. Turn the water back on and rinse as quickly as possible.

It’s also vital that you keep yourself safe during a power outage; for example, never bring grills or camping stoves inside the home, such as for heating your shower water! Avoid walking through pooling water even if the power is out, as that power can come back on at any time. If outlets are flooded or there are downed power lines around your home, you might then suffer serious and even life-threatening shocks.

How to Prepare for Extended Power Outages and Related Plumbing Issues

If there are storms coming through your area, and especially if you live in a place prone to lots of storms and power outages, you might note some quick yet vital tips for preparing yourself and your home. One simple step you can take to keep everyone in the home safe and comfortable is to invest in a generator; use the generator to power your electric water heater, sump pump, and any other plumbing pumps in the home.

Fill some receptacles with water now, while the plumbing is still operational in the home. Use that water for showering and toilet flushing, as needed. Figure about four to five gallons of water for every occupant in the home per day, and don’t overlook water for your pets and houseplants. Stock up on showering wipes, available in the camping section of most department stores, for everyday bathing, to preserve as much freshwater as possible.

If you run out of this water and the home’s plumbing is not functional, or there is little water pressure in the home, collect rainwater to use for flushing the toilet. Be cautious about outside water for bathing and especially drinking or cooking, as unfiltered water can contain harmful microbes; however, that water is typically safe for use in the toilets!

If you have a safe outdoor space with adequate ventilation, you might also invest in a camping stove with a propane attachment. Use this stove for heating water needed for showering and washing dishes, as needed.  

What to Do When the Plumbing Comes On After a Power Outage

Cracked pipes caused by flooding might allow dirt and other sediments in, and those residues might make their way to your home’s water supply. After your home’s power and water are both restored, be aware of signs of contamination, including dirty or cloudy water, a chlorine smell, or any odd taste. You might also see or taste rust and other metal contaminations.

It’s also advised that you run the water for some time before you use it for bathing or drinking. Running the water can help drain residual dirt and other debris from pipes, and gives you a chance to check for odd smells and if the water seems cloudy or dirty.

There might also be a sudden surge in your water pressure the first time you use that plumbing after it’s been interrupted. Stand back from showerheads and sink faucets when you turn them on, and flush toilets while empty before using them! This will protect you from splashing and ensure those pipes and drains are free of clogs before you use them.

What to Do for Frozen or Burst Pipes

Since pipes are sometimes more likely to freeze when the power is out, it’s good to review what you should do if this happens in your home. One vital tip is to avoid trying to dry out the pipe with a hairdryer or other heat source; melting ice inside the pipe can mean pressure and a cracked pipe, which can then burst.

A plumber often removes a frozen pipe completely and replaces it with a new pipe, or allows that water to thaw elsewhere before reinstalling the pipe. This alleviates pressure on the pipe and its connectors and allows him or her to contain that water, letting it melt in a utility tub or elsewhere rather than inside your home’s plumbing system!

If the pipe has already burst, it’s vital that you use caution in trying to stop that water and stem the damage. Pooling water can mean electrical shocks, as said, and is also typically very slippery underfoot! Shut off the home’s main water valve if possible; if you can’t reach it safely, call a plumbing company or water damage repair company for cleanup and restoration.  

A homeowner should also remember that water coming in from a home’s plumbing system might contain germs, bacteria, and other harmful residues; these can cling to walls and floors of flooded areas. Trying to simply wash away these residues can mean actually spreading them around. To keep yourself safe, call a water damage restoration company or another professional service for needed cleaning.

Related Questions

Is the water safe to drink after the power goes out?

After flooding, damaged pipes might allow in sediment and debris, as said. Invest in a pitcher filter if needed, or have the water tested for purity after flooding or storms interrupted your power and water supplies.

How long does a power outage typically last?

Note that your utility company doesn’t make money if they can’t supply you with power, so most will work diligently to get it restored quickly. Many power outages last no more than a day or two; in extreme cases, they might last a week or more, which is why it’s good to note if your plumbing works without electricity.

A Word From K2 Plumbing: Trusted, Local Plumbing Company

This article was compiled by our K2 Plumbing team of professionals. If you feel so inclined please comment below if you learned something from this article. And of course, when you're in need of plumbing services near Hollywood, FL, we're there for you!

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