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30 December, 2012

A Primer on General Basic Emergency Preparedness: Water Safety and Storage

Recently, a dear friend of mine since our undergraduate college days followed my recommendation and read the novel "One Second After" by William R. Forstchen (Kindle edition).  She loved the book, but it also terrified her to the point where, for the first time, she asked me to put together a list for her of some things she would be wise to sock-away in the basement in case of emergencies.  Rather than do this strictly in private (though I will be consulting with her privately), I decided to publish it here on the blog for others to read as well.

This is to represent a primer on basic general preparedness when it comes to a supply of clean drinking water.  Later posts will concentrate specifically on other aspects of preparedness and for specific scenarios, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.  It was originally my intention to write a post that would act as a list of general items needed for (in home, as opposed to "bug-out") preparedness that every family should have the foresight to procure, but it grew in the writing into what will now be a series of articles.  Together, these will describe an average family's survival preparedness supplies; a list that can be upgraded and augmented later, and that is the product of both the recommendations found in U.S. government FEMA guidelines as well as my own expertise and experience.

Other articles in this series include Food Storage and Survival Gear


Water is the cornerstone of all life on this planet, and therefore it should come as no surprise that it represents the most central part of all preparedness plans.  It is often heard repeated among survivalist and emergency preparedness circles that survival works, roughly, by the Rule of 3.  In harsh conditions, one will only survive around 3 hours without appropriate shelter; 3 weeks without nutritious food; or 3 days without clean drinking water.  For the purposes of this writing, we are assuming a scenario where the family will be "sheltering-in" inside their own home, therefore water is our prime concern.

The standard rule in preparedness circles is that you should store one gallon (128 fluid oz.) of water per day per member of your family.  This includes drinking water as well as allotments for cooking and hygiene.  That said, you can get by on less, if you're willing to play fast and loose with putting up with each other's stink and if you're food supplies are such that they do not require extra water i.e. canned soups, etc.  A typical, physically-active adult will require one half-gallon (64 fluid oz.) of water just for drinking in order to maintain optimum health.  This also can vary, depending on such criteria as age, physical condition, level of physical activity, diet, and climate.  Expect children, nursing mothers, and ill people to require more water.  Very hot temperatures can double the amount of water needed, and more might be required in the event of illness or a medical emergency.

If there is a source of water near your home, even if you are unsure how clean it is, this can make things much less complicated for you.  If readily available, even water of dubious origin is easy enough to make drinkable.  NOTE: We are not talking about water that could have been compromised/poisoned by chemicals, but rather a supply that could contain harmful protasoa, bacteria, and viruses i.e. a spring, lake, river, or pond.

If you do not have a source of water available to you, you may skip the next section and go on to the discussion of water storage.

Questionable water can be treated and made safe to drink through the following:

1.) Filtering.  The best option is to purchase any of the Berkey filter models and a bunch of extra filtering elements (these can be stockpiled a bit at a time over the months following the purchase of the filter itself).  Kits are available to test city water for eight common contaminants and well water for 10 harmful contaminants.

Also, I have seen people with basic knowledge of plumbing create a similar apparatus by stacking two food-grade plastic buckets and adding a real Berkey filter element between them; you pour the questionable water into the top bucket and it passes through the filter element into the bottom bucket, where you then access the clean water via an installed spigot that is available at any hardware store.  I suppose a siphon would also work.  You basically end-up with a filter that does the same thing as a real Berkey unit, but it is decidedly less attractive and requires DIY knowledge on your part.

A cheaper option for a filter would be to purchase one or more of the filters that are made for backpacking/hiking.  Katadyn makes good models.  Still more affordable is a model made by Coghlan (and it's extra filter replacements).  Be advised, however, that the Coghlan rig is only good for 400 quarts i.e. 100 gallons before the filter needs replaced, whereas the ceramic filters in the Katadyn's are good for thousands of gallons if you keep them clean.
In addition, Katadyn is trusted by millions worldwide: they are used extensively by the U.S. military (their hand-held desalinators are standard equipment in Navy life-rafts and fighter aircraft ejection seats have Katadyn units included in their attached survival gear).  Likewise, they are utilized by the militaries of Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Canada, and Switzerland; the Red Cross and many other relief agencies use Katadyn products in challenging conditions, including tsunami relief efforts; and, hikers, campers, and backpackers around the globe rely on Katadyn to provide safe drinking water. 
Still other filtering options include individual straw-type filters, such as the LifeStraw, Frontier, and Survival Straw brands.
2.) Treating.  Questionable water can be made safe to drink via treating with special chemical solutions, such as Purification Tabs / Tablets / Pills or through the use of a product like the PurifiCup.
3.) Ultraviolet purification.  Ultraviolet light destroys harmful bacteria.  Products that are available for this process are marketed under the SteriPen brand.
4.) Disinfecting.  A tried-and-true method of disinfecting scummy water is achieved simply by bringing it to a good, rolling boil for about 10 minutes.  By and large, this will kill *MOST* of the bad stuff, but has the disadvantage of requiring you to use fuel that you have set aside for cooking.  A better option is to disinfect any water that comes from a source that hasn't already been treated with a tiny bit of bleach, as this is the same method used by municipal utilities.  Simply use eight (8) drops of *UNSCENTED* liquid household chlorine bleach per 1 gallon of water, and allow 30 minutes or so for the chlorine taste/smell to subside.  Many folks say 2-3 drops is enough, but the Clorox company, themselves advise 8 drops per gallon of clear water and 16 drops per gallon of cloudy or suspect water.

If you have no access to natural sources of water, then storing a supply is your only alternative.  All stored water must be kept in food-grade plastic containers.  Avoid glass containers as they break too easily.  One option utilized by many is to simply purchase cases of commercially-bottled water and rotate their supply.  You may, likewise, store your own water in clear plastic 2 or 3-liter soda bottles.  Stay away from milk-type jugs as these are not meant for long-term storage and will break-down over time, leaching chemicals into your water.

If using the clear plastic bottles, you need to thoroughly clean them with dish-washing soap and rinse them out really well to get rid of all the soap.  Then, sanitize them with a solution made by adding one (1) teaspoon of *UNSCENTED* liquid household chlorine bleach to about a quart of water -- swish the sanitizing solution around, so that it touches all surfaces inside the bottle, then rinse thoroughly again with clean water.

Any stored water that originally comes from a municipal source i.e. "tap" water can be stored in the bottles after they are cleaned without any further treatment.  Fill the bottles completely and seal them tightly, using the bottle's original cap (this is to ensure a tight fit).  Be careful not to touch the inside of the cap or mouth of the bottle with your fingers in order to be sure bacteria present on your hands does not contaminate the bottle you just disinfected.  Date the outside of the container, so that you are aware of when it was filled, then store in a cool, dark place.

Do not use a typical garden hose to fill your containers, as this can result in both bacteria and trace amounts of lead being introduced to your water storage.

It is best to rotate your water supply to keep it fresh, but water never really goes "bad."  Water that has been stored for long periods can have a bit of a stale taste, but this can often be rectified by re-oxygenating it.  All you need to do is pour it back and forth between different containers, and this will solve that issue.  Treating with bleach before using is always a good idea, just to be safe.

I would be remiss, however, if I did not inform you that FEMA suggests that you rotate it every six (6) months.  Also, if I decided to store water beyond the FEMA suggestion, I would consider treating it with the bleach disinfecting process described above before drinking, just in case any bacteria made its way into my supply.

The large, 5+ gallon water cooler-type bottles are a decent option for long-term storage as well.  Granted, they're bulky and they don't stack, so they will take-up more room than some other options might, but they should keep well.  Wal-mart sells them pre-filled with Polar Spring or other brand bottled water, and they should be good as-is for as long as 2 years (in my experience) without you doing anything other than keeping them in a cool, dark place protected from possible freezing.  I can't speak to how well they'll last after the 2 year mark, but it would be easy enough to rotate them at that point or to treat them as you would other water with 8 or so drops of *UNSCENTED* bleach per gallon.  Obviously, if you buy them empty and fill them yourself from the tap, it wouldn't hurt to do the same before you seal them.

FEMA guidelines say it's okay to store tap water with no further treatment, but you aren't going to poison yourself if you add a few drops just to be safe.  By the time you get around to using any of it, the bleach will have dissipated.  This is also true of the 2- or 3-liter bottles.  You can do this before you store it or before you use it.  In fact, the latter is probably the best idea.  READ: You need to store some *UNSCENTED* chlorine bleach.  Another good idea is to cover your stored water with a couple of layers of black trash bags, so that it's in total darkness; this will retard any algae/bacteria growth.

Also, it is often overlooked, but the fact is that most of the people reading this are already storing water, where they are aware of it or not.  To be succinct, most hot water heaters and toilet tanks represent readily-available sources of water you can utilize in an emergency.  In the case of the hot water heater, we're talking about a supply that could top 40-50 gallons and which is just as clean as what comes from the tap.  Be advised, however, that the water from your toilet tank may not be drinkable if you use one of those in-tank cleaners, due to the chemicals involved.

If you aren't going to store water regularly, one needs to keep their ear to the grindstone and not be caught unawares in an emergency.  At the first sign of trouble, it will be important to fill all bathtubs and available containers as quickly as possible.  Even in a situation as severe as an EMP attack, where we won't get any warning and the power for the pumps fails, all of the water that's already in the pipes is there; you just need to acquire and store it before others use it up on frivolous things like long showers and watering lawns.  I won't kid you, this method won't save you in a long-term emergency, but it could easily help you to weather a short-term disaster or even buy you time in a long-term one.

As always, feel free to add to the discussion via the comments section.


  1. Thank you for this informational posting. However, I am seeking a small scale, low cost and sustainable way to remove iron and manganese contaminants from my well water source. Your guidance will be much appreciated.

  2. Yolette,

    Apparently, what you're talking about isn't easy thing to accomplish, especially sustainably. Most rely on whole-house filters. One option might be to construct a slow sand filter.

    See: http://www.biosandfilter.org/biosandfilter/index.php/item/229

    Understand that it isn't really the sand doing the filtering to remove the metals, but rather the slime layer that grows on top. I must admit that I've never built one, though, so you'll need to research it yourself.

    Have you had any luck at all with any kind of filtering?

  3. Thanks for your prompt response.
    We have used whole house filters in the past- only to have them clog up and cease to work after a short time period. It's very expensive and time consuming.
    Now, I purchase water for cooking and drinking purposes- very inconvenient.
    I will look into the suggested resource above.
    Thanks again.
    Happy New Year 2013!

  4. Your courtesies have been much appreciated. As a result, I have included a link to your site here... http://diasporaresources.org/resources-and-links/
    This comment is for your information... you may or may not publish same at your discretion.
    Thanks again,


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