Water, Water, Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

Boil, baby boil!

When the grid goes down, is the water safe to drink? Will there be enough to last the period of crisis?

FEMA suggests that in the event of a three-day crisis one should have stored a gallon of water per person per day. This water is for drinking, cooking and basic hygiene. For a family of four, that is 12 gallons! One gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds. A 5-gallon container weighs 41.7 pounds. That 12 gallons of water for a family of four weighs a bit more than 100 pounds. How is one to store all that Water? After three days, the water is gone, what is one going to do?

While most municipally supplied water systems are pressurized by gravity, if your living space is a high rise apartment your water may have to be pumped to the upper stories. A more rural community or a home away from a municipal water supply will rely on electric pumping to supply the residence with water for drinking, washing and cooking. More than likely you will have sufficient pressure to be able to draw water from your faucets. In rare situations, like earthquakes, water main breaks, and the like the water will not be flowing.

First, let’s look for resources inside the primary residence. A standard toilet tank holds 3 to 4 gallons. A standard bathtub holds about 90 gallons up to the overflow. A 9X11 plastic drop cloth used to line the tub and add about 20 more gallons with enough plastic sheet left over to keep dust, insects and the like out of the water stored in the tub (or you can get one of these). The hot water heater (provided it is not tankless) will hold between 20 and 100 gallons of water. A washing machine will hold 18 to 20 gallons and a laundry sink about 20. Using the lowest point to drain water from the remaining pipes of an average house you could get 5 to 10 gallons, maybe more. 

Water does not “spoil.” But it can get contaminated. What came out of the tap 4 days ago and stored in the laundry sink might have dust, spiders, crickets and even mice and rats visiting it or even in it. YUCK! We now begin to look at ways to filter, disinfect or purify the water.

Filtering removes particulates. Some of the new hollow fiber ceramic filters can even remove the larger viruses! But they don’t remove dissolved chemicals.

Disinfecting, using boiling, bleach, iodine, UV light etc., kills diseases and other things that will make you sick. It does not remove particles and with boiling, can concentrate some dissolved chemicals. If your water has been contaminated by volatile chemicals like gasoline or diesel fuel, boiling should remove those.

Purifying water is most effective when using a combination of methods. There are filters that will remove most common disease causing pathogens, and in combination remove many chemical contaminates. Reverse Osmosis is also an effective method of purification. It generally requires electricity, but there are some that option in which a mechanical pump provides the required pressure. These are expensive and wasteful of water because they must be back flushed with clean water more frequently than the hollow fiber ceramic filters. Distillation remains the easiest and cheapest way to purify water.

After 3 or 4 weeks sitting stagnant in the waterlines under the city streets should the water be considered safe to drink?  Probably not. The chlorine or the chloramine has lost its effectiveness after a week to 10 days. Anything that was not killed by the process will return with a vengeance! Boil the water before using it to wash or drink. There are many schools of thought on how long and at what temperature to heat water to kill any pathogens living in it. Many say that one needs only to bring the water to 180 to 190 degrees (F) for 10 to 15 minutes. This is the procedure to sterilize milk in the cheese making process. Others take the “Catholic” approach to making Holy Water…  Boil the Heck out of it for at least 15 minutes. Your choice of method is what makes you feel the most comfortable. The Britta filter in the fridge is of no use removing pathogens! 

Look into getting a few ceramic filters for the family. One Sawyer Squeeze (1) filter will remove the pathogens from over 10,000 gallons of water. A LifeStraw (2) will filter less than half that of the Sawyer. The new Grayle filter has filter elements that will also remove inorganic chemical contaminates. These will do a few liters at a time. A gallon of unscented bleach will also kill pathogens in about 100,000 gallons of water. A box of Calcium hypochlorite (from a pool supply store) is really the active ingredient in bleach. It has the advantage of being dry. 

Distillation is in fact the most effective method of all that has been mentioned here. It will kill any pathogens, remove particulates and most all contaminates, A 5-gallon distillation device (a pot still) (3) can be had for about $150.00 on eBay. Now a word of caution. Virginia has prohibited to ownership of that piece of emergency equipment. Possession of a still is punishable with up to 12 months in prison and or up to a $2,500.00 fine. Quoting from the Virginia Code (4):

“§ 4.1-314. Keeping, possessing or storing still or distilling apparatus without a permit; penalty.”

“No person shall keep, store or have in his possession any still, or distilling apparatus, without a permit from the Board.”

“Any person convicted of a violation of this section shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.”

A permit can be had, but you must apply, and the ABC agents can come to the location where you store the still at any time without warning because your permit application allows them to do so.

The majority opinion is that you cannot have too many ways of having safe drinking water. Make it a priority.


1 https://www.amazon.com/dp/B005EHPVQW?tag=duckduckgo-exp-b-20&linkCode=osi&th=1&psc=1

2 https://www.amazon.com/LifeStraw-Personal-Camping-Emergency-Preparedness/dp/B006QF3TW4/ref=sr_1_2_sspa?crid=VV3QFFWVYAMK&dchild=1&keywords=lifestraw+personal+water+filter&qid=1596717434&s=sporting-goods&sprefix=lifestraw%2Csporting%2C141&sr=1-2-spons&psc=1&spLa=ZW5jcnlwdGVkUXVhbGlmaWVyPUFKQVM3UDFXUEVGTEImZW5jcnlwdGVkSWQ9QTAwNDcxNjIzTk03UlNSS0w4SElDJmVuY3J5cHRlZEFkSWQ9QTA1MzIwNzBUVENVUE82WlJFSUQmd2lkZ2V0TmFtZT1zcF9hdGYmYWN0aW9uPWNsaWNrUmVkaXJlY3QmZG9Ob3RMb2dDbGljaz10cnVl

3 https://www.amazon.com/Moonshine-Still-Stainless-Distiller-Thermometer/dp/B07TJJXYFV/ref=sr_1_7?dchild=1&keywords=5+gallon+pot+still&qid=1596717544&sr=8-7

4 https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title4.1/chapter3/section4.1-314/