Last Updated on December 14, 2020
If you have ever thought about protecting your home from rising floodwaters or creating barricades that can resist a hail of bullets, you should know how to use sandbags.
Sandbags have been used for a long time to keep us safe in dangerous situations. Safe from rising flood-waters and from incoming rounds in combat. I started thinking about sandbags in terms of home security and the dual purpose they fill struck me. In some places, the threats of floods from winter’s ice thawing is a real and present threat to everything someone may own. Knowing how to build a proper sandbag wall would be important if you are faced with rising water.
Additionally, sandbags could be used in a complete and total collapse of society to augment our poor security defenses in most homes. Don’t have an underground retreat stocked with food and water? Perhaps you can build defensive positions on your property with a lot of hard work and several hundred sandbags. They can stop small arms rounds pretty effectively and are a simple plan (not easy) as a last resort.
How to Use Sandbags
The use of sandbags is a simple, but effective way to prevent or reduce flood water damage or build defensive walls. Properly filled and placed sandbags can act as a barrier to divert moving water around, instead of through, buildings. Sandbag construction does not guarantee a water-tight seal, but is satisfactory for use in most situations.
Sandbags are also used successfully to prevent over-topping of streams with levees, and for training, current flows to specific areas. Untied sandbags are recommended for most situations.
Tied sandbags should be used only for special situations when pre-filling and stockpiling may be required, or for specific purposes such as filling holes, holding objects in position, or to form barriers backed by supportive planks. Tied sandbags are generally easier to handle and stockpile.
However, sandbag filling operations can generally be best accomplished at or near the placement site, and tying the bags would be a waste of valuable time and effort. If the bags are to be pre-filled at a distant location, due consideration must be given to transportation vehicles and placement site access.
The most commonly used bags are untreated burlap sacks available at feed or hardware stores. Empty bags can be stockpiled for emergency use, and will be serviceable for several years, if properly stored. Filled bags of earth material will deteriorate quickly.
Commercial plastic sandbags, made from polypropylene, are also available from most bag suppliers. These will store for a long time with minimum care but are not biodegradable. Thus, they have to be disposed of or will remain around for a long time. Do not use garbage bags, as they are too slick to stack. Do not use feed sacks, as they are too large to handle. Use bags about 14-18″ wide, and 30-36″ deep.
A heavy bodied or sandy soil is most desirable for filling sandbags, but any usable material at or near the site has definite advantages. Coarse sand could leak out through the weave in the bag. To prevent this, double bag the material. Gravelly or rocky soils are generally poor choices because of their permeability.
Sandbag barriers can easily be constructed by two people, as most individuals have the physical capability to carry or drag a sandbag weighing approximately 30 pounds. Using the methods described below you can construct fighting positions or create barriers around windows and doors for your home.
How to fill a sandbag
Filling sandbags is a two-person operation. Both people should be wearing gloves to protect their hands. One member of the team should place the empty bag between or slightly in front of widespread feet with arms extended. The throat of the bag is folded to form a collar, and held with the hands in a position that will enable the other team member to empty a rounded shovel full of material into the open end. The person holding the sack should be standing with knees slightly flexed, and head and face as far away from the shovel as possible.
The shoveler should carefully release the rounded shovel full of soil into the throat of the bag. Haste in this operation can result in undue spillage and added work. The use of safety goggles and gloves is desirable, and sometimes necessary.
Bags should be filled between one-third (1/3) to one-half (1/2) of their capacity. This keeps the bag from getting too heavy, and permits the bags to be stacked with a good seal. For large scale operations, filling sandbags can be expedited by using bag-holding racks, metal funnels, and power loading equipment.
However, the special equipment required is not always available during an emergency. Remove any debris from the area where the bags are to be placed. Fold the open end of the unfilled portion of the bag to form a triangle. If tied bags are used, flatten or flare the tied end.
Place the partially filled bags lengthwise and parallel to the direction of flow, with the open end facing against the water flow. Tuck the flaps under, keeping the unfilled portion under the weight of the sack. Place succeeding bags on top, offsetting by one-half (1/2) filled length of the previous bag, and stamp into place to eliminate voids, and form a tight seal. Stagger the joint connections when multiple layers are necessary. For unsupported layers over three (3) courses high, use the pyramid placement method.
Pyramid Placement Method
The pyramid placement is used to increase the height of sandbag protection. Place the sandbags to form a pyramid by alternating header courses (bags placed crosswise) and stretcher courses (bags placed lengthwise).
Stamp each bag in place, overlap sacks, maintain staggered joint placement, and tuck in any loose ends. Use the following table to estimate the number of bags required:Height above levee Bags/100 feet
- 1 foot 800
- 2 feet 2000
- 3 feet 3400
A boil is a condition where water is flowing through or under an earth structure (such as a levee) that is retaining water. Free flowing water wants to move to lower elevations. If a levee is stopping flood-waters, the water may be able to find weak points to enter. This action is called “piping”. If the water finds a large enough path, the flow will become visible, and is a serious threat to the integrity of the levee. Most boils occur in sand, silt, or some combination.
A boil is found on the landward side of the levee, or in the ground past the levee toe (the exact distance varies with local conditions). Possible boil sites can be identified by free standing or flowing water (other than culverts, pumps, etc). A boil can be found only by close inspection. A prime indicator is water bubbling (or “boiling”), much like a natural spring. Another is obvious water movement in what appears to be standing water.
Carefully examine the water for movement. Boils will have an obvious exit (such as a rodent hole), but the water may be cloudy from siltation, or the hole very small. If there is any movement in the water, carefully approach the site, disturbing the water as little as possible. Let the water settle, and look at the suspected site. If you see the hole, examine it carefully. If the water flow is clear, there are no problems as yet. If there is no distinct hole, the water flow is not a threat. Monitor the site regularly for changes, and take no other actions.
Flood Fighting: How To Use Sandbags to stop water
A dirty water flow indicates that the soil is being eroded by the water, and that could mean failure of the levee. A boil ring is the best solution. The idea is to reduce the water flow until the water is flowing clear, but not to stop the water flow. This acts as a relief valve for the water pressure; the water continues to flow, but is not eroding the material. If the water flow is stopped, the pressure will remain, and another boil will form.
Ring the boil with sandbags, with the first bags back 1-2 feet from the boil. More, if the soil is unstable. Build the first layer in a circle, 2-4 bags across, and then build up, bringing each layer in. If possible, keep the interior face straight. Build the ring wall with the means for water to flow out, leaving a gap in the wall, or using pipes. Adjust the flows until the water slows, and becomes clear. Monitor the ring wall constantly. Raise or lower the height of the wall as necessary, maintaining a slow, clear flow. The height should be only enough to create enough head to slow flow so that no more material is displaced, and the water runs clear.
Editors Note: A large portion of the text for this article came directly from a document called “Flood Fighting: How To Use Sandbags” put out by the US Army Corps of Engineers in Washington. I have also made a PDF of this document available on our Resources page for you to download if you like.