One of the biggest benefits of living in a modern society is unlimited access to clean water. We rarely even think about water quality when we can turn on a faucet and have millions of gallons of clean, safe water. This seemingly endless supply of water relies on huge investments in infrastructure. Most don’t realize that the water from the tap travels many miles through pipelines and treatment plants and distribution systems to get to the kitchen sink. These systems are robust and very well designed, leading to very reliable service. With such reliability, it’s easy to see why water is overlooked in preparing for emergency situations.
There are many reasons why interruption in water service can occur. A few that come to mind are long term power loss, infrastructure damage, and terrorist activity. What are we to do when that reliable source of water stops flowing? A simple answer for the short term is to have water stored. Storing water is as simple as it sounds… Put water in a suitable container and seal it. There are products out there for treating stored water, but they are largely unneeded. If the water is clean when stored, it will remain so as long as the container isn’t damaged or compromised. If you feel the need to treat the water, standard household bleach will work as well as any chemical preservative.
Let’s assume we have a loss of water service that is going to last more than a day or two. In this scenario, we need the ability to source water and make sure it is fit for our needs. Surface water is available in most areas of the country, but will not be safe to drink as it stands. We’ll look at a few ways to make this water safe to drink.
Selecting the Source
One of the best ways to get safe water is to start with the best you can. Running water is always preferred to standing or stagnant water. Just like we need water for life, so does every other organism on earth. Standing or stagnant water is a hotbed of life, including microbes that can rob us of our life. However, please do not assume that running water is safe as is. It can contain plenty of unsafe microbes as well. All water sourced will need treatment of some sort.
One handy way I’ve found to locate surface water is the use of Google Maps. You can zoom in on your area and use satellite images to locate ponds, lakes, and creeks nearby. More often than not, you will find water sources you didn’t know about.
If the water you have is not clear, you will want to filter it before treatment. This will remove large particles and dirt from the water. This can range from pouring water through a cloth such as a bandana up to building a sand filter. There is a lot of information available online for basic water filtering to remove large particles and contaminants. We’ll cover water filtration for microbe removal a bit later.
Now that we’ve found a source of water, we need to decide how to make it safe. There are a lot of options available to ensure clean water for drinking.
This is the most basic way to make water safe to drink. Microbes that can make us sick don’t do well with heat, so we can heat water until they are dead. At what point are we sure they are dead? The general consensus is 30 minutes at 160F, less than 5 minutes at 185F, and by the time water comes to a rolling boil, all microbes are dead. I’ve seen some sources that recommend 10 minutes at boiling, but anything over 1 minute seems to be overkill. I wouldn’t fault anyone for letting it boil for a few minutes to be sure if fuel sources are abundant.
2. Chemical Treatment.
There are several options available to use chemicals to treat water to kill microbes. One of the cheapest and most effective is chlorine. 5 to 7 drops of chlorine bleach per quart of water will kill anything in the water. Just shake up the container and let it stand for 10 minutes to let the chlorine kill everything. There are other chemical treatments available at outdoor supply store such as iodine based treatments. If you go this route, just follow the directions on the container for optimum results.
There are a lot of filter options available these days. Most of them work very well, but you have to pay attention to the size of the pores on the filter element. Most water filters will filter out all bacteria and particles from the water, but will allow a virus to pass through. There are filters available that offer pore sizes down to .01 microns. These will take out viral contamination, but they are generally expensive. If your filter cannot ensure virus-free water, you might consider additional treatments listed here.
4. Ultraviolet (UV)
Microbes (including virus) can’t live long when exposed to UV light. One of the easiest methods to kill microbes is to expose them to UV light. If the water is clear and placed in direct sunlight in a translucent container, wait for 6 hours and the water should be safe to drink. If you can place the container on a reflective surface, it will increase treatment effectiveness. The catch to using this method is that the water must be clear. If it is cloudy, UV light cannot penetrate and kill microbes.
I still think it is important to keep some clean water stored up. It will offer a good buffer during a disaster or survival situation while you make plans to procure and purify additional water. Of course, the best option is to have a plan in place in case you need it. So go ahead a take a few minutes to evaluate where the nearest source of water is and what would be the most effective means to make it safe to drink.