Does Plumbing Still Work When the Power Goes Out?

pipes under a sink

Although fairly common, power outages are always an inconvenience — you can't see anything, your home becomes vulnerable to various risks, and you can no longer use the electrical appliances you rely on. One thing that few of us think to prepare for, however, is an interruption in our plumbing, which can happen if your plumbing system runs on electricity. In this article, we'll go over what plumbing appliances use electricity, why you should not use your plumbing during a power outage, and how to best prepare for an outage.

Can You Use City Water During a Power Outage?

If you live in a city, you are probably wondering whether your plumbing will be affected by a power outage. This answer depends upon your living situation:

  • If you live in a house, you should be okay when using most plumbing appliances. City water is usually pumped into water towers, which tend to be in high-elevations. The water then flows into your house by gravity. However, during a power outage, only the water remaining in the towers will be available.
  • If you live in a multiple-story apartment building, your water will most likely stop working immediately. High rises usually have a water pumping system in the basement, and without power, the system will be unable to pump the water up.

Does Well Water Still Work When the Power Is Out?

Plumber working on pipe with text about plumbing and electricity

If you have well water, you will likely be unable to use your well water during a power outage. Well pumps are almost always powered by electricity, which means that when the power's out, no water will flow. If you have a reservoir, which usually holds 10 to 50 gallons, then you'll have water until your supply runs out.

Which Appliances Can I Use?

List of appliances that won't work and will work when the power goes out

If you have city water, your water supply will most likely not be interrupted by a power outage. However, you will not be able to use any plumbing appliances that run on electricity. Below we'll go over the appliances that you can and cannot use during an outage:

1. What Won't Work

Appliances that are not usable during an outage include:

  • Sump pumps: These appliances cease to function when the power is out, which can lead to disastrous consequences. Sump pumps are used to prevent your basement from flooding by pumping out rainwater. We recommend connecting them to a generator during a rainstorm when there's a power outage.
  • Tankless water heaters: Tankless water heaters provide a great service when the power is on, but if there is an outage, they provide no hot water at all, meaning that taking a shower — at least a comfortable one — will not be an option.
  • Pump-assisted toilets: Most toilets use water pressure and gravity to function, which means that a power outage will not affect them. However, some models rely on a pump to generate a sufficiently strong flow. Depending on the amount of water remaining in the pipes, you might be able to flush your toilet several times while the power is out. Eventually, however, your tank won't fill up anymore because the pumps are down. When this happens, you will need to flush your toilet manually by pouring in a bucket of water. We recommended that you prepare a bucket of water right after the power goes out so that you'll be ready to flush the toilet manually if you need to.
  • Pump-assisted sewer systems: Most sewer systems are designed for gravity flow, meaning that, unless you have a clogged pipe, no backup should occur during an outage. But if your sewer pipes rely on an electric pump, don't flush the toilet more than is absolutely necessary. Doing so could cause waste to back up and perhaps even overflow into the house.

2. What Will Work

  • Sinks: If you live in a house and get your water from the city, your sinks should function as normal. Whether you can get hot water from your sink, however, will depend on the type of water heater you have.
    Toilets: Again, while most toilets work without power, toilets that rely on a pump to operate won't function during a power outage.
  • Tank-style water heaters: If you have a traditional tank-style water heater, you may be able to take hot showers provided that there is still some hot water left in the tank. However, if you plan to take a shower, do it soon after the power goes out — while tank-style water heaters have a large reserve of hot water, the water only stays warm for one to two hours. This applies to both electrical and gas water heaters, as even gas heaters require electricity to ignite the pilot and maintain correct supply needs. So if you lost power recently, you should probably be able to enjoy a comfortable, warm shower. Before doing so, though, keep in mind that your supply of hot water is relatively small, so if there is anything else you need to use it for, think about your priorities first.

Plumbing Risks Associated With Power Outages

Power outages can pose several risks to your plumbing system, including:

  • Sewer backup: As mentioned above, if you have a pump-powered sewer system, flushing the toilet too many times may lead to a backup.
  • Frozen pipes: When your power goes out, there will still be some water left in your pipes. To prevent your pipes from getting damaged, empty them and turn them on again once your power comes back. If you do not do this, there is a risk that the pipes may burst if the water inside expands as it freezes. This is a particular concern with older homes, as their pipes are often not well insulated. If your home is older, make sure to check the garage, basement and outside plumbing for any pipes that are uninsulated and wrap them in old blankets, towels or foam.
  • Flooding in the basement: If you use a sump pump to prevent flooding in your basement, keep in mind that this pump will do nothing during a power outage. As this appliance is automatic and relatively quiet, it's easy to forget about it when the power goes out. We recommend that you have a generator for your sump pump to prevent flooding and the property damage that would result.

Well Water During a Power Outage

Sink faucet running water with text about well water during a power outage

Many homes throughout the United States get their water from wells, almost always with the help of an electric pump. As mentioned earlier, if you get your water from a well and experience a power outage, the pump for your well will not work. Although you will be able to continue using the water remaining in your storage tank, once it's used up, you will be without water until the power comes back.

In many parts of the country, this is not a serious issue because power outages tend to be short-lived there. However, in Upstate New York, where storms can be brutal and power can be out for several days, being without well water for extended periods is a real concern.

If you get your water from a well and a power outage is expected to occur in your area, follow these tips to better prepare yourself:

  • Store water. Fill as many containers with water as possible, including your bathtub. This water should be used only for flushing toilets.
  • Buy water. You should buy one to two gallons for each person in your household.
  • Find out where the switches are. Familiarize yourself with where the main water shutoff, breaker panel and pump system switches are. Make sure you have a flashlight in these places.

When a power outage does occur, follow the steps below to protect your well and filtration system:

  1. Turn off the breaker switch. This will prevent an electrical surge from occurring once the power returns.
  2. Turn off your home's main shutoff valve. This ensures that the water in your tank doesn't drain.
  3. Have your well water pump hooked up to a generator. Have a licensed electrician do this — if it is done incorrectly, it will burn out the pump.
  4. Test your sump pumps. If you have a sump pump and there's a chance of flooding, run a hose into the sump pump's pit to make sure it's working properly. You should let it cycle several times to be sure.
  5. Disconnect your filtration system. If you happen to have a filtration system, unplug it, noting the exact time you did it. By doing this, you can plug it back in at the exact same time and avoid having to reset the timers.
  6. Shut off your hot water tank. If you happen to have an electric water heater, turn it off.

Once your power is back on, reverse the actions in steps 1, 2, 5 and 6.

If you feel unsure about any of the above tips, feel free to consult a plumbing professional.

Backup Options During a Power Outage

There are several backup plans you can have to prepare for an interruption in your plumbing:

  • Use generators. Before your home experiences a power outage, consider purchasing backup generators and connecting them to your sump pump, water heater, waste removal system and any other important appliances. By having this alternative source of power, you won't need to worry about flooding in the basement, going without hot water, having a backup in your sewage system or being without any other appliance that you rely on. Make sure to run the generator outside and never connect it to your electric system directly unless the model is designed for it.
  • Empty your pipes. If you live in a colder climate where there is any chance of your pipes freezing, empty the pipes to prevent them from bursting and causing water damage.
  • Fill containers with water. Fill up buckets, bathtubs and other large containers with as much water as you can.
  • Make a checklist. Keep a checklist on hand of everything you need to do before an outage. It could include filling buckets up with water, turning on certain generators and more.
  • Have a backup toilet ready. To avoid running the risk of sewage backing up into your home, you can have an alternative toilet ready.

For a backup toilet, you can choose from several options:

  • Five-gallon bucket: One thing you can do is double-line a 5-gallon bucket with trash bags. If you want to make it more comfortable, you can put a toilet seat on top. Once you've done your business, you can cover the odor with sawdust, wood chips or kitty litter. If you'd like, you can also add a little bit of bleach. When the trash bags are full, replace them. This toilet option has the benefit of being portable.
  • Your own toilet: Even if you can't flush your toilet, you can still use it by lining it with a heavy duty trash bag. Attach the edges of the bag to the toilet with duct tape to keep the bag from falling off. To absorb the liquid and cover the smells, you can add sawdust, wood chips or kitty litter. When the bag gets full, replace it. Unlike the last option, this setup has the benefit of feeling like an actual toilet and is more comfortable than squatting over a bucket.
  • Composting toilet: Although an apartment manager is unlikely to approve this option, homeowners who have a garden might prefer it. A composting toilet requires no electricity or water at the beginning and can be extremely useful when the power is out. The purpose of this device is to separate the solid from the liquid, which allows you to use the solid as a fertilizer. The liquid is a great source of phosphorus and can be poured directly on the garden.
  • Portable latrine: Portable toilets flush and carry waste away just like traditional toilets, except that the waste travels to a holding tank under the bowl. The holding tank contains chemicals that break the solid waste down, kill germs and destroy odors. Portable toilets flush either with water from a concealed tank inside the toilet or with chemicals from the holding tank.

Hire a Professional Plumber

Mr. Rooter plumber with service van

When attempting a plumbing project — whether it's an installation, inspection or repair — things can get really dirty, and if you're not sure what you're doing, mistakes can have serious consequences. That's why it's best to hire a reputable, professional plumbing service for all your plumbing needs.

And if you live in or around Oneida, N.Y., the professional service you'll want to call is Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Oneida. We specialize in residential and commercial plumbing and are certified for any plumbing-related project including sump pump repair, water heater installation and septic system maintenance. Oneida residents keep coming back to us for our quality customer service, free inspections and 24/7 emergency services. Fill out our estimate form or call us to schedule an appointment today.