Water is life. In case of emergency, a reliable water supply is critical. If power is interrupted due to storms or other events such as solar flares or grid overload due to high demand, for most of us, our water supplies are also interrupted. Municipal water supplies could also be a likely “soft” target for terrorist attacks. Emergency water storage should be a part of any emergency preparedness plan.
How Much Water Do I Need to Store?
FEMA recommends a three day supply with one gallon per person per day, half of that just for drinking. Age, physical condition, activity level, foods consumed and environmental conditions will influence those requirements. Hot, humid weather, illness, pregnancy and lactation, increased physical activity levels will all increase the amount needed. The Crisis Preparedness Handbook recommends 20 -30 gallons per person for a period of two to three weeks without water. This allows water for drinking, cooking, hygiene and some reserve. If you plan to rely heavily on dehydrated food, store an extra 2 to 5 gallons per person.
What’s the Best Way to Store Water?
I recommend two tiers of storage – “Use First, Best Quality” and “Use as Needed Reserve”. Commercially packaged, unopened containers will have the best shelf life, but clean home stored water that is hygienically packaged comes very close.
To Prepare Water for Storage
If you are using normal tap water for long term storage, it should be treated prior to storage to prevent the growth of bacteria (distilled water and RO water have already been purified and can be put directly into storage). Two options for pretreating are:
Bleach – use 8 drops standard bleach (avoid scented, “color safe” bleach or any with added cleaners) per gallon of clear water, mix and let stand 20 minutes. It should still have a faint bleach odor. Bleach looses potency with age, so you should rotate your bleach yearly. Double the amount of bleach if your bleach is over a year old. Note: Bleach may react with some plastic containers.
Heat – Boil water vigorously for 3 minutes, then allow to cool before packaging. Alternatively, you may process mason jars of water with one half inch head space in a water bath canner or pressure canner. To pressure can, process at 10 psi for five minutes. To water bath can, process quarts 20 minutes and half-gallons for 25 minutes. Canned water will last for years, but presents risks in earthquake prone areas or it your storage area is likely to be hit with flying debris.
Best Containers to Use for Storage
While just about any water tight container can be used for storage, keep in mind that any leftover food particles or other materials left in the container are potential sources of contamination. If you recycle, you’ve probably come across food containers in the recycling container that had been rinsed before disposal, but still end up stinking.
FEMA recommends 2 liter soda bottles, but we don’t drink much soda. Milk jugs have gotten thinner and thinner over the years. I wouldn’t personally recommend them. Containers that once held carbonated beverages need to be stronger to compensate for the carbonation, so that works in your favor for storage. Vinegar jugs and bleach jugs are also quite sturdy, but I wouldn’t personally use them as a first choice for drinking water. Canning jars can be used as mentioned above.
Boxed water storage kits may be one of the easiest and cleanest options to use. The basic 25-Gallon Boxed Water Kit from Emergency Essentials includes five heavy-duty (stackable up to three high to save space) box each with its own metalized five-gallon water storage bag with pour spout. Food grade buckets are also very sturdy and stackable. We recently purchased some Water Brick storage containers, and were very satisfied with the how sturdy they are and how easily they stack.
Larger quantities of water can be stored in barrels (such as rain barrels), cisterns, swimming pools, and underground storage tanks. Don’t count on your waterbed, as the material the waterbed is made of is loaded with antibacterials and such. Bath tubs, large utility utility sinks and garden tubs or buckets can be filled for short term storage. Ideally, your storage barrels should be kept in a cool, dark location to extend shelf life and barrel life, out of direct sunlight and not in direct contact with cement. (We use wood pallets to keep much of our storage off the concrete floor.) Be sure to date your storage containers so you know when they were filled. Ideally, your water should be rotated yearly, but sterile water in a sterile container can keep pretty much indefinitely. (It just won’t be particularly tasty.)
To improve the “flat” taste of packaged water, shake or agitate to introduce oxygen to the water. If you are using distilled or RO water, you may also want to use remineralizing drops to add trace minerals back into the water.
What Are the Best Ways to Filter/Purify Water?
At times you may be forced to use water of questionable purity, so it’s good to know how to make it safe to use. Note: use groundwater rather than surface water when possible, to take advantage of the filtration offered by the soil itself. Freshly collected rainwater is also a better option than standing surface water. If you must use surface water, avoid water with debris and foul odors if at all possible.
Boiling – Boiling water vigorously for 1 minutes will kill bacteria, 3 minutes will kill most other harmful microorganisms. Double this time for each 5000 feet of altitude and/or if the water is dirty. Boiling will drive of some chemicals, but not all, and doesn’t clear out the chunks. Run it through a sediment filter (even a clean t-shirt or handkerchief will do) to remove particulates.
Chemical disinfection – Chlorine and Iodine are used to sterilize water. Be Prepared.com states:
Iodine has been found to be very effective against viruses, bacteria, and protozoa with the exception of cryptosporidium. Using iodine has some drawbacks. The colder the water you wish to disinfect, the more required time is needed for disinfecting. Because iodine is absorbed into dirt and debris, which is found in water, its purification dosage varies.
Pregnant women and people with thyroid conditions should not drink water purified with iodine. Additionally, iodine is a short-term water-purification solution and should not be used regularly for more than three months. Iodine does not change the clarity of water but it does change its taste. Iodine is not necessarily a flavor that people enjoy. This taste can be improved by adding a sugar-based drink/juice mix. A good product is Potable Aqua™ Iodine Purification Tablets—Just add two tablets per liter of water.
Emergency Essentials also offers Katadyn Micropur Purification Tablets (chlorine dioxide tablets), which work similarly. Household bleach is used as mentioned above, one scant teaspoon per ten gallons of water. Too much chlorine or iodine can cause additional problems, so please exercise caution with this option. The Crisis Preparedness Handbook spells out dosing and risks in detail.
Mechanical Filtering – Mechanical filters physically strain some impurities from water. They can be as low tech as draining water through sand or clay, or as high tech as a ceramic microfilter combined with an ion-exchange resin bed. The best filter for your needs depends on your situation. Beprepared.com explains:
Ceramic elements (most expensive, most durable, and maintainable) have the smallest pore size (0.1-0.5 microns) and are used by some of the leading portable water filtering companies in the world. Portable ceramic filters boast an impressive list of long-term users, such as: International Red Cross, World Health Organization, Armed Forces (USA, Germany, Portugal, Switzerland, and US Navy Seals), United Nations, and the FBI. Ceramic elements can filter only free floating particulates and microorganisms. They do not remove chemicals, poor tastes, odors, or pollutants.
Glass fiber elements and compressed surgical paper (mildly expensive, medium durability, and usually not cleanable) also have small pores (0.2-1.0 microns). Like the ceramic filter, they remove only particulates and microorganisms, but they do not help much with pollutants. These are good low-cost filtering elements for home, backpacking and scouting needs, but they are not good for long-term storage because they can develop mold and mildew and they are hard to clean.
Hard-block carbon elements (less expensive, brittle, and not cleanable) have a small, but still effective pore size (0.4-2.0 microns). They are also used as an absorption filter. The best contribution that carbon makes to filtering is its ability to reduce chemical quantities, poor taste, odors and many pollutants. Because carbon is only mildly effective in filtering out particulates and microorganisms, it is mostly used as a second or third stage filter in home and portable water use. It is seldom used as a stand-alone filtering unit.
Last year we purchased a Big Berkey and a Sport Berkey (with ceramic filters – see the Big Berkey at the top of this post). They effectively remove the “off” smell and taste from our well water. A simple “straw” type filter might be a handy addition to a bug out bag or for camping use. We will probably add a Katadyn Pocket Water Filter (also with ceramic elements) to have on hand for filtering larger quantities/filtering on the move. Ceramic filters are a bigger investment, but they have the longest life and are most durable. (For instance, the Pocket Katadyn Filter is rated for 13,000 gallons.)
Other filtration/purification options include distilling (such as solar stills), ultraviolet light, ozone, reverse osmosis filters, and colloidal silver, but these may be difficult to use and unreliable in an emergency situation. In a pinch, you can also filter water through fabric. Natural fabrics such as silk, cotton or even burlap work better than synthetic fabrics. The synthetic fibers have much smoother surfaces, which do not trap contaminants well. View data on effectiveness of cloth water filters.
I hope you’ve found this post useful, and will make sure that you and your loved ones have enough water on hand should an emergency strike. Please share if you’re so inclined, and let me know if you have any comments or questions. You can view other similar posts on the Preparedness page.
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