How to Safely Store Water for Emergencies
Between the wildfires that have ravaged the southwestern United States and the ice storms that killed power to much of the midwest and the northeastern US in recent years, it’s becoming clear to many families that they are not prepared for an emergency. Storing water safely can help make these tough situations less dangerous and uncomfortable.
Many families take their city water systems and water pumps for granted and are caught off guard when the power goes out for an extended period. It’s easy to forget that you can't get water through your city utilities if the power's down because the entire city system is run on electricity.
If you have solar power or are on a separate grid, you should have the power you need to run your pumps. But if you're stuck without plumbing, you might wish you'd stored some water for some basic drinking, cooking, and bathing.
Preparing for an Emergency
When an emergency strikes, it’s essential to know the top three things you’ll need to survive. Food, water, and shelter take priority over the comforts of home. We are very resilient and resourceful creatures when it comes to survival and protecting our families. The first and most important thing you need to establish in the case of an emergency is a water supply.
Somewhat surprisingly, an average human can handle a lack of food for about three weeks. But as a general rule of thumb, you can survive without water for just three days.
Start your emergency preparedness mission with a plan of action for water storage, and you’ll have the basis of a solid survival plan. On average, a family should store at least three days’ worth of water and have a collection plan for more if they should need it.
How Much Water Should I Store for My Family
Each family member should have one gallon every three days as a minimum standard. When storing water for your family, you should include pets like cats and dogs. Add another gallon per three days for pregnant women, the elderly, or the sick and frail. Also, add a gallon per three days for warm and dry climates.
Depending on your region and the frequency of natural disasters, you’ll want to consider how much water to store so you and your family can remain safe and hydrated. The Center for Disease Control recommends a two-week supply at a minimum if you can dedicate the space. Never ration water without reasonable advice from authorities. It's always better to drink what's needed today, and find more tomorrow.
Can I Store Tap Water for Emergencies?
The best option for water storage is store-bought bottled water. However, this option isn’t always available for those on a budget or without a safe place to store the clear bottles. You can choose to collect and store tap water in most cases.
Still, floods, hurricanes, and chemical or radiation contamination incidents can make tap water unsafe to drink straight from the faucet. If your water has become contaminated, or you’re unable to clean it properly, it's no longer safe to drink, cook with, or bathe with.
Check with your local city utilities company to determine if a lab should test your water for safe storage or if you’ll want to process it before storing it. Decide on the best method of making safe water for your needs and resources, and ensure you have the supplies to make that happen when you need it most.
How Can I Ensure My Water Is Safe to Drink?
There are several ways to prevent low-grade contaminants and water-borne illnesses from causing issues with your stored water. The best way to start cleaning the water available to you is to keep it in a dark and cool place in a sanitized container with a tight lid.
You can purchase specialty water storage containers for your emergency kit, or you can buy flats of bottled water from the store and keep them in an appropriate place.
Water Storage Containers
Water storage jugs should be food-grade, like these seven-gallon rigid water storage aqua-tainers from Reliance Products. They are a great way to store safe water as the solid-colored walls keep sunlight out and the temperature more consistent than clear-sided containers.
You can also look for food-grade water storage systems at most military surplus stores and sporting goods stores. It would be best to refresh any water container you’re filling yourself with a new batch of safe water every six months.
You can also keep a few flats of individual water bottles or gallon water jugs in the dark plastic totes in a cool place like a cellar or garage. These Rubbermaid Roughneck totes make a great place to store bottled water out of direct light. They also stack nicely and can be used for storing other emergency preparedness supplies.
When you store water in individually packed and sealed bottles, you’ll need to pay special attention to the expiration date on the bottle. It can be used after this date but may need to be re-processed to make it safe for consumption and sanitation.
Whatever method you use to store your water long-term, you’ll want to ensure it is properly cleaned and sanitized every time it’s refilled to prevent contaminating your water supply. Do your best to select a container made from food-grade plastic with a skinny bottleneck for pouring and a tight lid.
These factors will reduce the chances of contamination and make it easier to access your water. You can rinse your containers after getting any previous liquid or debris by filling and rinsing them with a dilution of water and household bleach with a 5-9% concentration of sodium hypochlorite.
Methods of Sanitation for Water Storage
There are a few methods of sanitization you can pursue with your water once your containers are prepared. They range in complexity and cost but are all achievable with supplies you already have or can find at your local grocery or sporting goods store.
There are four primary methods of cleaning your water for use—boiling, disinfecting, chemical sanitization tablets, and filtering. Each of these methods holds its own space in the emergency preparedness plan.
Bring your water to a rolling boil for 1-3 minutes, longer for higher elevations, then let it cool before storing it in a safe, cleaned container. Boiling your water is the best way to kill the microbiology in the water, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Boiling your water will not clear it of sediments, chemicals, or radioactivity. Boiled water can hold a flat taste for a while after the process, and you can prevent that by adding a pinch of salt for every liter of water you store.
You can also use boiling to further distill water if you need to remove things like salt and sulfur from the water.
While boiling is still the best option, you can prepare small quantities of water for safe consumption by adding chemical disinfectants, such as household chlorinated bleach, iodine, or chlorine dioxide tablets. The chemical processing option cannot consistently kill all strains of resistant bacteria and parasites, such as giardia and cryptosporidium.
In the US, the most common bleach is unscented household bleach with 5-9% of sodium hypochlorite. You will want to add ½ mL of bleach (about eight drops or just less than 1/8th tsp) to a gallon of water.
Swirl the mixture in the water, and let it sit undisturbed for at least 30 min before consumption. If the water is cloudy, has sediment, or is very cold, you should filter it through a coffee filter, clean towel, or stack of paper towels, and then double the bleach content and let it sit longer, at least an hour to process.
Follow the instructions for cleaning water on the label with other chemical disinfectants exactly.
Portable Filtration Systems
These tools are widely available in sporting goods stores and online. The primary thing you’ll want to consider when purchasing a filtration system is the size of the pores in the filter, as this will determine the level of sanitization you’ll be able to achieve.
Aim to purchase a filter system with an absolute pore size of less than one micron. These systems will filter out parasites but will not be able to process bacterial or viral contaminants.
You will still want to process your water with a disinfectant tablet. Further, these systems are only approved for freshwater, as they can not filter out salt from seawater.
Additionally, you will want to work with a portable filtration system that is gravity fed, or uses a handpump. In most circumstances where you’ll need to use a filtration system for survival, you won’t have access to reliable electricity.
You can also treat your water with UV sanitization or solar rays from the sun or purification tablets available in sporting goods stores or online.
Finding New Sources of Water to Fill Your Supply
There will be situations when you run out of water, or the water you saved is no longer viable for use. If the water in your storage containers has gained an odd smell or color, it is no longer safe.
There are no treatments available to purify water that has been contaminated with fuel, toxic chemicals, or radioactivity. You can find sources for additional water within your home that most people don’t think of at first.
- Your home’s water heater tank (the one hooked to your kitchen and bathroom faucet, not the one for heating radiator heaters and HVAC systems)
- Melted ice cubes made from non-contaminated water
- Liquid from canned fruits and veggies
- Toilet tank water that has not been treated with cleaning tablets that change the watercolor
- Chlorinated pool water can be used for sanitation, such as showers, washing clothes, cleaning dishes, etc., but should not be used for consumption or cooking.
You can also look for water sources outside of the home. Still, these sources will need to be treated as listed above, like rivers, lakes, and other similar sources can be contaminated with livestock or human waste.
- Rainwater collected from your roof or in open containers during a rainstorm
- Streams, rivers, canals, and other bodies of moving water
- Natural springs
- Lakes and ponds
A Note on Rainwater Collection
In some states, rainwater collection requires legal permits to certify safety. Unfortunately, rainwater isn’t as pure as you might hope, especially if it's being collected from your roof, which can introduce contaminants into the container.
If you plan to use rainwater as part of your emergency plan, ensure you have the treatment options discussed above available to clean your water for safe use.
You can use untreated rainwater to water plants you don't intend to eat, wash clothes, and complete other non-consumption-related tasks.
If you're in a buggy area, reduce the chance of mosquitos in your rain barrel by adding a filter at the water inlet and keeping the container well sealed.
Its Better to Be Prepared
Taking the time to prepare your family’s emergency plan and ensure you have the supplies to keep you safe in advance of a disaster will help you feel less panicked when a catastrophic event happens. Learning how to stay prepared and keep everyone safe doesn’t need to be filled with fear and anxiety.
Research resources like emergency shelters, food banks, and your community plan in case of an emergency long before it becomes critical. Practice preparing clean water from different sources when it’s not a life or death situation or a natural disaster—when the time comes, you’ll know how to do what needs to be done. Keep a water test kit in your emergency kit to make sure your water is safe to drink.
To really up your game, reach out to organizations that teach emergency preparation courses, first aid courses, and community reaction planning, such as the Red Cross or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to discuss how you can help your community when disaster strikes. Stay up to date on the emergency plans and new resources available to those in your area. Knowledge is more powerful than fear.
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