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Preparedness Priorities, Part VII

Water storage, continued
Previous post on water storage here. Read that first.

Returning to our series on preparedness basics. These posts are aimed at newbie preppers (please share with your family and friends), though they might also help us fill gaps in our existing preps. As always, comment away if you have helpful experience and/or other options to suggest.

How much water should you store per person/per pet?

For a long time, most experts on preparedness recommended keeping one gallon of water per person on hand for the duration of whatever emergency we’re anticipating.

That’s bare bones. It’ll be sufficient for drinking water and for cooking (depending on whether you’re re-hydrating a lot of dried foods or not).

But for drinking, cooking, re-hydrating, sanitation, and washing (self and dishes), three gallons per day is better. (Note: it doesn’t all have to be potable.)

A quart a day per pet is probably sufficient, unless you have a really unusual pet.

Farm animals? That depends on the animal and on your local conditions. You’re in a better position to evaluate that that any “expert.”

At home, you should have enough to get you through at least a week before emergency help arrives. Two weeks is better. In a vehicle or bug-out bag, three days might have to do because water is heavy and bulky.

How to keep it safe

Purchased (and unopened) bottled water is inherently safe as long as the bottles are intact and haven’t been submerged in something nasty. Just be sure to rotate supplies at least once a year.

Bottling your own takes a little — but not much — more care.

Realistically, when bottling their own water, most people are just going to wash out new or used containers with detergent and water, then fill them with tap water and call it done.

You can do that and usually be just fine.

But why take chances when one more simple step could make the difference between good water and green scuzz? After washing with detergent and water, fill the container with warm tap water, add a teaspoon of unscented bleach, and let it sit an hour or two.

Then come back, rinse out all the bleach water, fill with tap water, cap, and store.

Write the date on the containers. Toss the old home-bottled water and refill at least once a year, better yet, six months. Yes, it’s probably overkill, but it gives you a chance to check for damage, too. And if you somehow get the Dreaded Green Scuzz, that’s the time to find out about it.

I’ve personally got a paradoxical attitude toward ensuring good, clean water storage. While I scrub and bleach the heck out of everything, I also sometimes use scrounged or garage-saled containers of unknown origin (I once scrambled into a desert gully to retrieve a five-gallon jug so dubious that, even after I had scrubbed and bleached it several times and left it soaking in the sun for a week with various cleaning and disinfecting solutions in it, my fellow hermit Joel refused to drink from it — and believe me, his standards of cleanliness are generally lower than mine.)

But water containers can be expensive. Unless you can recycle containers of your own (e.g. 2-liter pop bottles or similar juice bottles), bargain containers are to be prized — with some careful inspection, sniffing, and lots of cleaning.

Plastics and stored water

Most of us are going to be storing water in some sort of plastic. There are three main concerns here:

1. Is it really food grade? Water should only be stored in food-grade containers. There’s a huge amount of contradictory infomation out there about what that means. I’ll put links here so you can either sort it out or totally confuse yourself. But basically, if you look for the marking “PET” or “HDPE” and are sure that the container has never been used for anything but food or water, you’re probably good. The markings “1” and “2” correspond with the above. Markings “4” and”5″ are probably okay, but you’re not going to find them as often in suitable water containers.

Also, any new containers marketed as being for water storage are probably good. But don’t believe that guy on Craigslist that says the old barrel in his backyard is “food grade.”

Links for further confusification:

What is food-grade plastic?

Is that drum really food-grade?

2. Is it durable for long-term storage (in your storage conditions)? Most PET (1) containers are. Some HDPE (2) containers (e.g. milk cartons) may not be unless you take special precautions. See earlier post and, when possible, store water in a cool, dark place.

3. Is plastic, in general, healthy? I know a lot of readers of this blog are very health conscious and concerned about chemicals in plastic (of which BPA has gotten the most press). Frankly, since most of us are going to use stored water only for a week or at most, two, I wouldn’t make this a big worry.

Freezing and thawing (water in vehicles)

A bigger worry — and a topic that came up big time in the comments on the earlier water storage post — is freezing and thawing, particularly with water that’s carried in vehicles.

I’ve been doing some experimenting (and I know at least one member of the Commentariat has, too), and here’s a simple take on the subject:

Freezing: If you carry water in your vehicle in an area that gets well below freezing, there aren’t many simple, practical things you can do to prevent it. You can keep it in insulated containers, wrap it in blankets, keep it inside an electric cooler/warmer, etc. But without trucker-level precautions your water is going to go solid. So:

  • Fill containers no more than 90 percent full to allow for expansion. Water expands about 9 percent when it freezes.
  • Use containers that are both flexible and durable — e.g. those 2-liter pop containers, similar juice bottles, or one-gallon jugs of drinking water with a little of the water drained off.
  • Do NOT use hard-sided plastic jugs or milk containers. Don’t use glass, either. Glass will survive a lot of freezing and thawing if you keep the water level safely low, but it’s too dangerous to keep glass containers banging around in a vehicle.
  • Inspect and possibly replace containers every spring and fall.

Generally, the contents of bigger containers are going to freeze slower, smaller ones, faster.

Thawing: IMHO, thawing is a bigger concern than freezing, since freezing is inevitable in some conditions, while it takes work to thaw frozen water in those same conditions.

And when it comes to thawing, a small container is better than a big one. Oh, sure, you can set that five-gallon ice cube in the sun or next to a fire and start pulling trickles of water off it. But small containers you can carry around in a pocket or inside your clothing (but not next to your body — think layers). You can rub them with your mittened hands or apply those chemical hand- or toe-warmers to their sides. And of course the same sun-or-fire trick that works with the five-gallon ice cube works here — only faster. Plus, if you’re stranded and have to walk out, you can carry small bottles a lot easier than big ones.

One good pre-packaged product for carrying in a vehicle is Aqua Blox. These little “water boxes” aren’t terribly expensive. They have a five-year shelf life. They can handle expansion and contraction (so well that some people use them as cold packs after they’ve reached their recommended shelf life). And you can tuck them into various spots if you don’t have one good storage spot for water. Since the water in them is sterile, it can even be used to treat wounds.

It’s been a long time since I lived in a really brutal climate, so some of you who do might want to chime in on this. Again, though, we’re looking for simple solutions that even newbie preppers can use; leave those diagrams of the fiendishly clever Rube Goldberg machine you rigged up to enable your vehicle exhaust to power a water warmer for another day.

Filtering and purifying

As long as your stored water holds out, you’re golden. But in an emergency, if you have to drink water that is dubious, here’s what you need to know.

First line of defense: Filter cloudy water with a coffee filter, then boil it for at least one minute. Other tips.

If you aren’t in some cozy spot where you can heat up a pan of water, then you have two alternatives — as long as you have the right portable equipment with you. The right equipment falls into two categories:

Purifiers/disinfectants: These do nothing to filter crud out of the water (and in fact, with some of them, you may need to filter cloudy water before using them), but they kill bugs — including viruses.

These range from cheap, but not-tasty iodine tablets to really cool, but more expensive (and mostly battery-operated) SteriPens. One decent, cheap solution that still gives okay-tasting water is Potable Aqua Plus, which contains chlorine tablets to kill tiny water varmints, then ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to neutralize the taste of the chlorine.

Filters: These filter out dirt particles in the water and also filter out common disease organisms like giardia and cryptosporidium. A few of them are also fine enough to filter viruses.

Again, there’s a vast range of filters available, from Emergency “straw” types to a variety of filter bottles to pricier and more sophisticated (but still portable) systems.

It’s a good idea to have two methods/devices (on the theory that “two is one and one is none” in an emergency, but also because purifiers and filters are good at different things). On an extreme budget, you can accomplish that with less than $20 with purification tablets and a water straw.

If you really want Cadillac water treatment (a flippant way of saying the best, most reliable results) and you don’t want to have to check out a multitude of confusing options for yourself, consider the combination of the Katadyn Pocket Water Microfilter with a SteriPen purifier (get the hand-cranked SteriPEN Sidewinder if you’re concerned about dead batteries and you have the muscular oomph to operate it).

Longer-term storage (without major hassle)

55-gallon food-grade barrel

Or for greater storage

And follow all other water-storage guidelines.

(I’ve given an Amazon link for the 55-gallon barrel. However, I don’t recommend paying that kind of price unless you’re either rolling in money or absolutely have to have a new, pristine barrel. You can often get similar barrels from soft-drink bottling companies for less than one-fourth that price — if you don’t mind either a heavy-duty cleaning job and/or a slight flavor to your drinking water.)

Bonus stuff

How to find hidden sources of water that’s already in your home. (Good ideas, but keep in mind that much of this water may be polluted and will need to be boiled! And swimming pools and waterbeds — do people still have those? — are absolute last resorts.) This is good advice for finding extra water for flushing toilets and such.


  1. David
    David November 25, 2012 1:04 pm

    Water? You mean like in the toilet?

    Use Brawndo instead. It’s got electrolytes.

  2. Claire
    Claire November 25, 2012 1:12 pm

    Wiseass. 🙂

  3. Bear
    Bear November 25, 2012 4:00 pm

    I’ll make one DISrecommendation for storage containers: those 5 gallon aqua-colored “jerry can style” jugs sold at Wally World. Utter crap. They’ll leak just sitting in place. And I don’t have one handy to check plastic codes, but I used to notice an odd “chemical” odor from water in them. When I did use them, it was only for nonpotable water.

    The squarish blue 7.5 gallon containers have been acceptable; been using those for years without any problems.

  4. just waiting
    just waiting November 25, 2012 8:20 pm

    I’m really lucky to live in the headwaters area of a watershed that serves over 2 million cityfolk, so I usually skip prep stories about water. (But I often think of those cityfolk when the dog and I bathe in the stream out back). I’m on my own well, so as long as I have power I have pump and filtration. Without power, its a short walk to haul buckets from the stream.

    I can use a lot of water in a day because of a medical condition, thinking opsec and noise, I wanted a way to have silent access to a large amount. I saw a fellow beekeeper using a 275 gallon food grade tank on a pallet to feed his hives. He said he found it on C-list. Looked myself and sure enough, 275 gall totes – $100. Originally used for some fruit juice, washed twice at carwash and there’s no discernable odor or taste. Placed right, gravity does the work of the wellpump.

    I got 2, 1 is for water, I was wondering, can fuels such as gasoline and diesel be stored in food grade plastic without degradation of the plastic or other problems? Thanks

  5. winston
    winston November 25, 2012 10:54 pm

    Been trying to convince my parents to do it for years…my dad works around manufacturing and has decent access to those blue drums…not sure if all of them are food grade…

    They get used for everything else you can think of though. Awesome for dog food.

  6. G.W.F.
    G.W.F. November 26, 2012 5:03 am

    Bear, sorry to hear about your negative experience with those jugs. I have actually used those (same as Claire’s link) for years with no issues. I actually have 6, 3 of them have been filled with water for 5+ years. I dump them on the garden in spring and refill them each year, but they are always full and never leak. I needed something to mix concrete with far away from where I have hoses so I sacrificed the 4th one about 5 years ago and use it just for mixing. It has been abused. It sits in the sun for extended periods, gets dropped, kicked, stepped on…still holds water great, no leaks. I just recently expanded my shelving in the basement, so I had room for 5 of these and added 2 more. I will watch them for leaks, but so far 6 months they have shown no leaking. I guess it depends on which batch you get.

  7. David
    David November 26, 2012 6:32 am

    I’ve used the same containers Bear’s talking about. Some of them have leaked, but no worse than other stuff. Actually they do a lot better than the 5-gallon “water cooler” types. I just blame subzero temps & generally assume plastic containers won’t last too long if I leave ’em outside. Which I tend to do, for one reason or another.

  8. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty November 26, 2012 7:19 am

    When hunting in the desert many long years ago, we ran out of the water we’d packed in. One of the gentlemen promptly set up a filter at the next watering hole we came to. A 2 liter bottles that had held water earlier was sacrificed, the bottom cut out. A stone was found that almost blocked the neck, and then it was packed with alternating sand and charcoal from an old campfire nearby. The pond water was poured into the filter and the result captured in another empty bottle below. It was slow, but the resulting water was clear. We boiled it in a regular camp pot and used it without problems on the trek back out to the vehicles. Wouldn’t filter out everything, of course, but should be ok for a real emergency. Almost any plastic bottle would do, I suppose.

  9. Bear
    Bear November 26, 2012 7:27 am

    Claire et al: Yep, the the Reliance Ozark 6 gallon (HDPE 2) jugs. I just remembered that my landlord still has one that was the last I purchased; he uses it for nonpotable toilet flushing backup.

    Despite some people’s experience, I’ll stand by my criticism. The jugs I used were stored indoors, in the living area of my home(s), not used for transport. Not temperature extremes, no direct sunlight (usually specifically stored in near darkness); still leaked. The only one that didn’t start leaking was the aforementioned landlord-possessed jug. Yet.

    Confession: I used to work in the sporting goods department of a Wally World. I got a lot of customer feedback on those jugs which mirrored my own experience. People would only buy them for specific short term applications (like a big storm in the immediate forecast), and usually that’s as long as they lasted. If that long; WW threw out plenty that showed cracks and splits sitting empty on the store shelves.

    (In fact, I’d be happy to describe issues with a number of Wally World sporting goods products — such as the enameled camp coffee pots, egg carriers, “good” Stanley steel thermoses, sleeping bags, hurricane kerosene lamps… — I wouldn’t buy prep gear there except for short term disposable use, and I’d inspect it _carefully_ before buying.)

  10. ILTim
    ILTim November 26, 2012 9:07 am

    I keep trying to think of ways to ‘buffer’ from the grid, rather than go completely off it.

    Computer battery backups are a great example. Typically they provide 15-minutes run-time for your computer after the power goes off, but more importantly, they bridge those little brown outs and momentary (1-2 second) power interruptions that are more common in my area.

    The UPS (uninterruptable power supply) creates a boundary and a buffer between the computer (point of consumption) and the wall outlet (supply). The system can scale to whole commercial buildings with diesel generators backing a small battery bank.

    The point is that you consume from on-premise equipment/supplies which you control, and replenish from outside sources.

    It doesn’t seem like it would be hard to create a similar arrangement for domestic water by placing one or more large water heaters (not heating, just as tanks) in a high point of your house. Turn off the main water supply and they could provide a couple hundred gallons of gravity fed water to toilets and sinks. Self refilling, automatic inventory turnover.

    If the water goes off permanently, that’s a different cat to skin. But if (and I believe this happens in third world places regularly) the city water is off/on for several hours a day, a couple day buffer would completely sustain you.

    Even refilling the tanks via buckets of river water could be feasible if you have a good/appropriate filter on one tap for drinking water. Once the buffer is in place, re-sourcing your supply is easier.

    My big concern with ‘preps’ comes down to in-the-flow vs some warehoused idea in the back of the shed. Even good ideas, unpracticed and forgotten, will atrophy.

  11. ILTim
    ILTim November 26, 2012 9:10 am

    I visited a historic museum home this summer which was built (I think) in the 1930’s. It had one bathroom which was luxury in it’s day, and two faucets in every sink. There was a huge water tank in the attic collecting rainwater from the gutters, which fed those second taps.

  12. Laird
    Laird November 26, 2012 10:01 am

    Anyone here have any experience with the Big Berkey water filtration systems? I’ve been thinking about getting one, but they’re rather expensive. Worth the money?

  13. G.W.F.
    G.W.F. November 26, 2012 10:33 am

    I never tried the Berkley, but if you are worried about cost, you can build a cheaper version for around $30 using a basic kit: (video included) . I have one of these, that I have tested and it seems to be well worth the cost. I also have a modified version of it using four of the the candle style filters (allows you to filter more water): with a hand pump to air pressure. These are my no-power back-up options.

    I created a larger volume electric water filtration system that has mechanical, chemical and biological stages (activated charcoal, paper filtration and UV filter) using 26″ Lifeguard aquatic canisters powered by a 1200 GPH little giant pump to hopefully cover all the bases. I just searched mostly on aquarium sites to see how some of those folks setup systems and modeled the same for my water filtration needs. I have a backup UV bulb, canisters or charcoal and filters so I should be able to filter water as long as I have fuel for the generator to run the system. If that fails I will use the gravity fed options. It sounds excessive, but I probably built the system for < $200, and if I ever need it I figure it will be worth its weight in gold.

  14. Claire
    Claire November 26, 2012 10:35 am

    Laird — No personal experience. But friends who have them have said they’re a very good, relatively low-tech solution. There’ve been several BHM forum discussions about them:

    Apparently, other than one bad production run a year or two ago (which Berkey stepped up to fix; details in that second link), nearly everybody is very happy with them.

  15. Ellendra
    Ellendra November 26, 2012 2:24 pm

    There was a water filtering jug I read about several years ago that got really good reviews from the people that used it. You could put straight-up ditch water through it and it would work. I’ve been trying to find it again, but all I can remember is that it looked a lot like a red plastic gas can. Anybody remember the name of it? I’m hoping to add it to my christmas list for when I camp out on my land next summer. I need something rugged.

  16. Claire
    Claire November 27, 2012 8:17 am

    Woody — Oh yeah, I’ll just go out and build me one o’ them AK shovels this morning. (Whotta hoot, though.)

  17. Claire
    Claire November 28, 2012 12:01 pm

    My apologies to G.W.F.! I just pulled his very helpful response to Laird out of the spam filter — rather belatedly!

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