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Emergency Water Storage and Filtration – What You Need to Know Before Emergencies Hit

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You can only survive for approximately 3 days without water, so water isn’t just necessary, water is life. In case of emergency, a reliable water supply is critical.

Our water supply ends if power is interrupted due to storms, earthquakes or other events such as solar flares or grid failure. Water supplies are a likely “soft” target for terrorist attacks. Emergency water storage should be a part of every home emergency plan. The picture below shows part of our water storage next to home freeze dried food in Mylar bags.

emergency water storage tanks

6 Water Storage Options

  1. Your favorite bottled water. Pick thicker bottles they are less likely to leak in storage.
  2. 55 gal drinking potable water drum with pump and roller base
  3. Traditional 5 gallon water bottles
  4. WaterBrick stackable water storage
  5. 5 gal-Stackables water storage
  6. Pack of 4 1.2gal water container (not stackable)

How Much Water Do I Need to Store?

FEMA recommends one gallon per person per day, and at least three days. Half of that is just for drinking, which doesn't leave much for cleaning and cooking. We suggest 5 gallons per day and at least a week of storage or an emergency water source.

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 3 gallons per week.

It's important that you find room for water storage, even if you are living in a condo or apartment. Consider 3 to 7 days of water storage.

Best Emergency Water Storage Containers

While just about any water tight container can be used for emergency water 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.

Emergency water storage
Water bottles

Start with standard water bottles. A stock of these are something you will likely use. Buy them on sale, and they get you started right away.

Our second recommendation are containers specifically designed for potable (drinking) water storage. We have the Water Brick storage containers. They are sturdy and easy to stack, but expensive.

A more affordable solution for much larger storage is a 55gal drum. We have a setup almost exactly the same as this 55 gal drinking potable water drum with a pump and roller base. This requires more space due to its size.

Alternate Water Storage Containers

Two liter soda bottles will work. These are good because containers that held soda need to be stronger to compensate for the carbonation, so that works in your favor for storage.

If you use them, make sure they are completely clean because sugar can foul the water long term, also keep them out of sunlight. Another alternative is canning jars for people who are home canners.

Water Containers We Don’t Recommend

Milk jugs are much thinner than they used to be. We don’t recommend them. Even the gallon drinking water contains commonly found in supermarkets will likely fail in storage.

Vinegar jugs and bleach jugs are also quite sturdy, but I wouldn't personally use them as a first choice for drinking water.

Cheaper water bottles, with very thin plastic, tend to fail in storage. Spending a few more dollars on better water bottles is worth it for longer term storage.

Potable Water Storage Containers

We recommend two tiers of emergency water storage – “Use First” which is your best quality and “Use as Needed” as a reserve. Commercially packaged, unopened containers will have the best shelf life, but clean home stored water that is hygienically packaged will work also.

Hurricane Preparedness Sale

Emergency Bathtub Water Storage

A great emergency water storage solution is the waterBOB or 65gal Emergency bathtub container. It is a “thick balloon” for your bathtub.

Even if you don't have a water bob or aqua bladder, fill your bathtub with water. Worst case you can boil it to drink or use to flush toilets.

Free Emergency Water Storage Options

  • Clean old soda bottles and store filtered/boiled water in them.
  • You can get drinkable (potable) water from your hot water tank. (Be careful if the tank is still hot.)
  • Fill bathtubs, sinks and buckets with water. Note – these will need to be filtered and/or boiled to use at potable (drinkable) water.
  • A plastic bag lining a garbage can can give you a fast way to store a lot of relatively clean water. Run this water through a filter before using. (See filtering/purification options below).

Alternate Water Sources

More 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 antibacterial chemicals and such. If you have a safe way to harvest water or bring up ground water, you can reduce your emergency water storage.

  • Consider adding a hand pump to your well
  • Ponds, lakes and streams are okay water sources to flush a toilet, but remember to consider them contaminated. Filter, boil or otherwise clean the water before you drink it.
  • Rain Barrels – See also “How to Build a Rain Barrel“. This will require filtering to drink.
two rain barrels for rainwater collection

Where to Store Water?

Ideally, your emergency water storage should be kept in a cool, dark location to extend shelf life and barrel life, out of direct sunlight (especially soda bottles). Water containers should not be in direct contact with cement.

We use 2x4s or 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.   It's best if your water is rotated yearly, but sterile water in a sterile container can keep for several years. (It just won't be particularly tasty.)

Note that single use water containers are getting thinner, so they may start leaking in storage once past their expiration date. Don't stack them above items that may be damaged by water exposure.

Store water containers under a bed, in the bottom of a closet or in a crawlspace if you are tight on storage space. See also “Prepping Food Storage” and “Preparedness Storage – Finding Room and Keeping it Safe and Sound” for more ideas.

Preparing 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. Three options to prepare your emergency water storage include:

  1. Filter Water – Distill the water or use a Big Berkey 99.999% filter or use RO water – each provides purified water that can be put directly into storage. 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.
  2. 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 loses 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.
  3. 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.
Big Berkey emergency water filter

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.

  • Filtering – running water through mechanical or gravity driven filtration
  • Boiling/Pasturization – 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.

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. For more on using fabric filters, see 3 Emergency Water Filtration Options to Get the Funky Chunks Out.

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. A Countertop Distiller will purify water but requires power.

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.

Gravity Filtering

Filtration is a good compliment to emergency water storage, especially when local water supplies are tainted by flooding. Either the Big Berkey and Crown Berkey are excellent. Each individual Black Berkey Water filter will last up to 3000 gallons and the Big Berkey uses up to 4 filters and the Crown uses up to 8 filters.

The Black Berkey Elements remove 99.999% of viruses, 99.9999% of pathogenic bacteria, chlorine, volatile organic compounds including pesticides and herbicides, and 95% of most heavy metals. We have the Big Berkey in our kitchen.

  • The 2 gallon Big Berkey 99.999% with 6 (3 packs) filters will filter 7 gal per hour with all 4 filters. Note: You need 6 extra filters, to add 2 and still have 4 left as replacements.
  • 6 gallon Crown Berkey 99.999% and 12 (6 packs) filters will filter 14 gal per hour with all 8 filters. Note: You need 12 extra filters, to add 4 and still have 8 left as replacements.

For portable filtering consider the LifeStraw, the Katadyn pocket microfilter consider one per vehicle and a couple spares.

Other options for emergency filtration include:

Pasteurization

Heating water to 149° F (65° C ) for 6 minutes, or to a higher temperature for a shorter time, will kill all germs, viruses, and parasites. This can be done over a fire or other heat source.

You can also use a solar cooker to pasteurize drinking water. (Note: Pasteurization does not get rid of other contaminants, so a mechanical filter is still recommended.)  The Sun Oven Dehydrating and Preparedness package comes with water pasteurizing indicators to show when your water is pasteurized.

See “What’s the Best Solar Cooker? Choosing the Right Unit for Your Cooking Style” for more information on the Sun Oven and other solar cookers.

Chemical Disinfection Options

Iodine is 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.

Our Water Filtration Options

We purchased a Big Berkey and a number of years ago with ceramic filters. They effectively remove the “off” smell and taste from our well water. A simple “straw” type filter (lifestaw) 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.) We also have a Sun Oven with pasteurization option.

Other Things to Consider

If you have pets or livestock, do you have a plan for water for your animals? For those with a private well, did you consider a backup manual pump? If there is nearby water (pond/lake/stream), how will you transport it? Do you have backup power for your septic and well water if you are in the suburbs or county? You might want to rinse with fresh after bathing in a lake, stream or pond.

Sanitation

We won't go into all the details, but remember if your sewer/septic system is still functional but you don't have clean water, use dirty water to flush such as: old water from sink, old bath water etc. Don't pour drinkable water down a toilet when you can't get it easily. Consider another emergency option the DIY portable toilet. Also, in an emergency you probably don't want to waste water bathing, so buy a bunch of the no rinse bath towels/wipes to allow you some cleanup.

emergency water storage - water brick stacked on water barrel

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 more every day preparedness posts on the Common Sense Preparedness page.

You may also find useful:

Originally published in 2012, updated Jan 2020.

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50 Comments

  1. Great info Laurie! Water is LIFE.
    Someone told me about two types of Iodine people may buy and the Lugol’s is NOT the stuff for water purification. (We use that to stain medical slides)

    1. Thanks, Lisa. You are correct. People should look for iodine marked as ”water purification tablets” or “potassium iodide” and dose according to the package directions.

    1. Patty – I haven’t personally tried the Zero Water Filter. It looks like it should work, but I’m concerned about the large number of negative reviews on Amazon. It looks like they may have some quality control issues.

      I’m also wondering what contaminants it doesn’t get – “Few ion-exchange resins remove chlorine or organic contaminants from water – this is usually done by using an activated charcoal filter mixed in with the resin.” That may or may not be important, depending on the situation. – (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ion-exchange_resin)

  2. Love. My. Berkey.
    Seriously, love it. Downside: we have to fill it regularly, and in Texas summers that can mean 3+ times per day. Plus side: less concern about storing precious water. The Berkey is designed to purify non-potable water without needing electricity. I can use rain water, ground water, our neighbor’s pool water or pond water.
    I do wish we had gone with a larger one….we go through the water so fast!

  3. I just wanted to add that, in a pinch, filtering pond/rain/whatever water through multiple layers of a tightly knit fabric is a surprisingly effective method.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloth_filter
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/health/27sari.html
    They found that simply folding an old sari greatly reduced pathogens. While it wouldn’t be my first choice, it is a good thing to know to do in an emergency situation, and it would be a minor cost to procure a tightly woven fabric remnant to have on hand in a 3-day pack or to know that you can do this with your clothing if you’re staying in place for a long-term situation.

  4. I love my Berkey too. Love it! We live on 2 lakes and have a pond on the property so we will just need to transport it to the house. 🙂 I highly recommend the Berkey! Great post!

  5. Great information on water storage! You mention that you shouldn’t store water containers on concrete floors- I haven’t heard this- do you know why?

    Thanks! Ann

    1. Ann – Having left things sitting for long periods on concrete floors, I do indeed know why. Even with AC and air circulation, concrete sweats, and that point of contact is a great place for mildew and other nasties to build up. Much better to put some breathable material between your concrete and your air and water tight containers.

  6. Hello Laurie, I just added your article to my Pinterest to share with some of my friends, Hope you don’t mind. It is great information and I hope that some of my friends get something out of the great info you put together for us. Thank you again.

  7. Hey there! I’ve got some rain barrels that aren’t rain barrels yet :). They were used to store syrups but have been cleaned out. I am thinking about using them to store emergency water in our basement – wondering what you think :). They are pretty huge and were super cheap…

    1. Hi,
      Can you use rain for cooking and drinking in case we don’t get water from the tap?
      Please reply
      thanks
      almas

      1. Yes, you could, but it would be best if it’s filtered and/or boiled, just to be on the safe side. Unfortunately, we live in a time when even rain can be very contaminated. Rain water is probably much safer than most surface water.

  8. Laurie, Would you explain the Berkey. It looks like a great idea. I guess I will have to get one for my house up north (if I get it, that is ). We have great well water up there but I suppose these filters would be a good idea. I will also have to look into seed saving as well. I am so looking forward to all of this !!!

    Thanks so much Laurie……………… Jerry

    1. Hi Jerry. The Berkey is made up of two reservoirs, a filtration reservoir and a storage reservoir, one on top of the other. The lid at the top is lifted, and water is poured into the upper filtration reservoir. It drains via gravity through the filters into the lower reservoir. It’s dispensed via spigot from the storage reservoir. It’s all gravity fed, so no power required. There are different levels of filtration available, and you can use two or four filters at a time.

  9. Hi Laurie,
    my question is about putting our well pump on solar energy. We have lots of water, but if the power goes out, would have a heck of a time retrieving it. How can I put my well on solar?
    love all your posts and inspiration!

    1. Hi Laura.

      Glad you enjoy the site.

      You have a couple of options – put in a full system with batteries, etc – enough to power your existing well pump. More on that and a generator backup in the post Emergency Power Options for Your Home.

      Another option is to skip the power altogether and install a hand pump, like the Handy Well Pump setup.

      Third option – bulk above ground storage, enough to cover your use for a few days to a week. A shed or home roof can gather hundreds of gallons of water in just a short time period of moderate rain. More on rain collection in the post How to Build a Rain Barrel. (If storing for stock use, you’d want more storage than the 100 gallon setup we have, but the concept is the same.)

  10. You can also freeze water and it will last a long time. Even if you loose power it will stay frozen a few days if well insulated. I jave around 60 + liters frozen plus another 80 + liters just for drinking and so which last up to a month with 3 people.

    1. If you have the freezer space, it also helps to keep it full in case of a power outage. Our freezers are usually pretty full with bulk meat purchases and garden produce.

  11. I just found your site and I LOVE it! Great information, and we are from Wisconsin too so that is a plus. We have gallon glass jars and 2 quart canning jars of water stored for drinking and plastic jugs for washing and flushing toilets with in case the power goes out. I try to remember to dump and refill the drinking water yearly, but I have a Berkey water filter system and figured I could pour the stored water through that first to make sure it is safe. Am I right about this? Would I need to add any trace minerals after it’s filtered?

    1. Hi Shelly. Glad you’re enjoying the site.

      If the water was safe going into storage, odds are it will be safe coming out of storage. The primarily issue with safe, sterile water over time is that it tastes stale and flat. You can shake to aerate, which will improve flavor slightly. A Berkey should remove most contaminants (they do have different levels of filtration). Adding trace minerals to filtered water is never a bad thing, and may help improve flavor. It wouldn’t be essential, but could help ensure you get these minerals, which would be a good idea in times of stress.

  12. Just wanted if you have or anyone else have ever used or have a “Survival Still water purification system as emergency back-up for water filtration.

  13. We try to have a few types of water storage in our 72-hour kit and food storage. We like to store different sizes of bottled water, have a large barrel full, we also have 3-4 different was to filter water, and extra containers to store it after it’s filtered.

  14. I have a 1500 gallon storage tank and would like some input on filtration as the water in the storage tank water will sit there longer before it’s cycled through to the house. We have a well and only recently added the storage tank and booster pump to keep the well pump from working so hard as it’s 360ft down.

    1. The extra storage is a good idea for multiple reasons. Couple of questions: Is the feed on the 1500 gal tank high and the draw low? Is the tank above or below ground? Are you in an area that freezes? Please provide information on the tank/flow setup. Couple of ideas: Assuming the average 80 to 100 gallons per person per day you can calculate the turnover of the water (how many people?). You can get the water tested to make sure your storage tank has no bacterial count and the testing will check for other contaminants that you might want to filter or treat. I recommend that you filter your drinking water through a Berkey or similar filtration system just to be safe. Unless its heavy metals, boiling should protect other food use.

  15. Great article Laurie. It just baffles me, the number of people that still do not have a backup water plan in place. You see the natural disasters going on around us, you would think that would be enough.

  16. I never recommend reliance products. I’ve owned 5 of the six gallon and 2 of the seven gallon ones. I bought them all within a year for storage preps. All of them leaked around the gaskets and lids. Two of the 6 gallon ones busted while sitting in a closet. I contacted reliance for warranty work and feedback on what i found. They went back and forth with me, promised to send new gaskets but they didn’t arrive. I would rather use two liter bottles than reliance brand products.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I just checked, did I miss something? We aren’t recommending Reliance. We have had issues with leaking on other products and removed them from the post. We may actually add a section on products that failed – for exactly the reasons you noted. We avoided the soda/tea bottles – the plastic has changed, they don’t survive as long as the old ones, so we are recommending the purpose made products that have survived for over a year (some longer) in our basement. Note the 55 gal drum actually rolls when full. And having 55gal extra on top of the water heater water and Big Berkey really gives us more potable water options. All the best.

  17. Thank you for such an expanded and very informative post. I do have rain barrels, but have yet to install them. Need to get that done!

  18. Your water needs figures are way off.
    the first one is for “survival” drinking water needs only, until help arrives.
    Don’t expect or rely on outside help or government water trucks being brought in.

    The other source is slightly better, but still way off.

    Refugee camps plan on 10 to 15 gallons per person, per day for all water needs. This is the long term water needs number, needed to stay healthy.
    It takes into account cooking, cleanup, drinking, personal hygiene* and a small amount of laundry. If you are dealing with sick people ( fevers, diarrhea , etc), that number goes up.
    * this does not include using flush toilets.

    These numbers are easily found ( verified) by an internet search of refugee organizations and their camp planning guides.
    If things got bad, no one would be there to keep things like electricity and water services running.
    So you better have local water sources picked out and purification methods that don’t require electricity planned for.
    You also better plan on having a lot of replacement filters.

    Since everyone else will be looking for or securing the easy water sources for themselves or selling water at a profit. make sure you have planned well and have a backup plan.

    1. The post focuses on short term emergencies. We do recommend 5 gallons a person a day for hot conditions for all water usage. The feds recommend 1. Most the refugee sites I see recommend 20liters or 5gallons per person per day (allowing for minimal bathing). The filters the Big Berkey has 4 black filters each one filters 3000 gallons for a total of 12,000 drinkable IF you have a water source. We suggest in a different post pre-filters such as a sock or gravel/sand filter to get bigger chunks out before you run it through the drinking filter. https://commonsensehome.com/emergency-water-filtration/

      A water source is absolutely critical in a long term emergency. Remember a nice shower uses a LOT of water. More is more water is better. We might write a post about long term water emergencies based on your feedback.

      1. Hello. Would it be best to filter the water before filling my 55 gallon blue containers? If so would it be something like an RO that a hose plugs into, like ones you see at hydroponics stores? Or just fill them with tap water from the garden hose? My tap has about 600 ppm last time I checked
        Thanks

        1. If you are comfortable drinking it “as is” (without filtration), then you can store it without filtration. If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t store it.

          As for how you filter it, that’s up to you. We haven’t tested filters that go on the end of a hose, but that sounds like it would be faster than most other filter options.

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