Beyond the Emergency Fund: Water, Water Everywhere, but Not a Drop to Drink

This article is the first in a five-part series on preparing your household “Beyond the Emergency Fund.” For five consecutive Mondays, we’ll look at a variety of preparedness methods such as food and water storage, alternative power sources and ways to prepare for specific types of household emergencies.

On the scale of household emergencies, being without fresh drinking water has to be right at the top. While most people can survive weeks with little or no food, none of us can go more than a few days without water. In extreme conditions, such as the heat wave many have been suffering through this summer, that survival time is even lower as excessive sweating robs our bodies of even more fluids and minerals.

Bottling Water by metdevthegamer on Flickr

Storing Water – Inside Storage

Short of building your own water filter, most of us have to resort to storing water. There are a number of ways to store water, but making it safe to drink is another matter. How much water should you have on hand? A good rule of thumb is a gallon per person per day.

Every paycheck, we’ve been ordering a couple Reliance Products Desert Patrol 3 Gallon Rigid Water Containers. At 3 gallons, it is not so heavy that my wife and kids couldn’t lug a couple in an emergency, or if I wasn’t there or was out of commission. These rigid style containers are more durable than gallon water jugs, so they are less likely to leak.

Another idea to consider is to have a back-flow valve added to your hot water heater. If you lose water pressure, this valve prevents water from draining out of your tank and back into the local water supply. I recommend a professional installation by a plumber, because an improper installation could cause bigger problems.

In a pinch, you could tap your water heater as a water source, but I would recommend filtering and/or boiling the water to filter away any materials from corrosion inside the tank, and reduce the chance of bacteria being present.

If you know an emergency is coming (hurricane, flooding rains, etc.) that might negatively affect your public water system, a product such as a Water Bob can be used to collect and store water in your bathtubs. These things hold about 100 gallons of water, and I suggest filling all bathtubs in your home ahead of an emergency. Covering the Water Bob with towels, and keeping the room dark will help prevent light from hitting the water (limiting bacteria growth).

The rain barrel by madmack66 on Flickr

Storing Water – Outside Storage

We are in the process of adding gutters to our home. When the installation is complete, we plan to hook two of the gutters at each end of our home to 65-gallon rain barrels. The rain barrels’ primary purpose will be to irrigate our square foot garden and other plants, but the barrels will also serve as a backup water supply. Again, it’s important to note that standing water must be treated and/or boiled to be made safe for human consumption.

It’s worth noting here that boiling water requires a heat source. While I plan to cover this in much more detail later, a very basic household emergency kit should include the equipment and fuel to boil water.

Just remember, in time, all fuel sources run out. Propane tanks and hand-held lighters eventually empty. Electricity could be cut. Matches get used up. You may have to think more primitive to be ultimately prepared. A large magnifying glass trained on paper or dried leaves can start a fire. A flint strike can throw sparks hot enough to start fire. And of course there is the old stick-rubbing exercise that never seems to work in real life emergency scenarios.

If boiling water is not practical, or you lack a heat source, there are products available to treat water to make it potable. Polar Pure Water Disinfectant is one such product, but there are many options available. Coffee filters are also good to have on hand for filtering out any sediment found in your water supply.

This post has primarily focused on storing drinking water for emergencies, but there are plenty of other uses for water around the house (and ways to find it). There’s cooking and cleaning and – flushing. What’s that little rhyme we’re taught if the water is turned off? If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown…I digress.

As I was saying, items like rain barrels are nice to have around for catching rain water to use for crop irrigation, and for other household uses (yes, like flushing). In addition to your rain barrel, you might investigate building a solar still in your own backyard to collect distilled water for drinking. This is actually a fairly safe way to create your own drinking water in a pinch, assuming your collection methods are all sanitary, and there are no toxins in the moisture trapped below your still.

Remember the old rule of thumb: Humans can live 3 days without water, if sheltered, and 3 weeks without food. When survival planning, start with the worst care scenario first and build out from there. Have shelter? Check. Have three days of water for every person in your household (including pets)? Check. Have a one-month supply of water, or a reliable method of collecting water from the environment? Well, that might take some time and money. But the peace of mind is worth the investment.

Comments

  1. Yes, water is an absolute must! Great post.
    We save our two-liter bottles, rinse and refill with water. If you plan on long-term storage, I’ve heard you can add a tiny drop of bleach in it. I’ve never done that because I rotate the water fairly regularly by using the bottles to water my potted plants.

  2. Great post! Home owners should be aware of their local ordinances regarding water collection. In some states, it’s actually illegal to use rain barrels to store water from rainfall. Why? There are a lot of old laws on watershed rights to protect ranchers and farmers downstream and occasionally they are still enforced. Thankfully it’s not an issue in my area, but it’s always good to be aware of these situations ahead of time.

  3. Looking forward to your post tomorrow! I knew that all those trips in the wilderness as a boyscout would pay off someday … I’m a pro at lighting fires by rubbing two sticks together! :)

  4. Hi,

    You may want to think about how to avoid a buildup of mosquitoes and the like in your rain catcher. I guess it depends on your area, but in mine it is really not a good idea.

    Dan

  5. sometimes we don’t realize how much we rely on water until we don’t have it temporarily because of a snow storm, hurricane or water pipe burst. those are all very helpful tips & I also look forward to tomorrow’s post.

  6. In my area it is also illegal to collect rainwater – the rights belong to the water company. We are also required to have backflow preventers on the water heater. If you re planning ahead for filtration purposes you can buy a water filter to use rather than boiling so you are not dependant on a heat source. I know that some come in very large sizes for use in filtering 5-10 gallons at a time.

  7. I am wondering why you continually buy 5 gallon water bottles. We have six and rotate them- taking them in to fill every week. I am considering glass. We learned this one after being out of water and electricity for a week in the worst part of winter.
    In a REAL emergency- we live by a major lake and it has great swimming holes:>) If it is dry- then the entire country is really in trouble.
    Mosquitos? If the rain barrel is covered there should not be a problem. sort of like compost- if you take care of it and rotate it- it does the work!

  8. I’ve got 2 rain barrels, and barrels to make 2 more. If you put a screen over the top, you can keep the skeets out. I haven’t had a problem yet. If that doesn’t work for you, they make small disks that can float on the surface that keep mosquito eggs from hatching.

    Rain barrels can be made for under $20 in about 20 minutes if you can find a good supply of food-grade barrels.

  9. Frugal Dad writes:
    “While most people can survive weeks with little or no food…”

    I don’t know to whom you are referring when you say “most people,” but I rather doubt that a typical family, which could include children, older folks, and many relatively healthy middle age folks can survive “weeks” with no food (you used the word “or” above). And if anyone of any age has health issues, chronic or otherwise, the absence of food is a major health threat.

    We’ve seen people who are healthy have problems when they’ve gone more than 8 hours without food while traveling (we’re talking by plane here, where because of delays and location, food is not available).

    Those that do are few and far between as we’ve seen from major tragedies where people were not rescued within days.

    I think you can make your point about water without that inaccurate and misleading statement.

    Anyone who lives in a place where power goes out regularly or periodically knows to plan ahead with food staples that can be eaten in emergencies and they know it may have to last for a week or more (stores can be closed; no deliveries, etc.) That’s just commonsense.

    • @SarahA: I was simply reciting the standard rule of thumb presented by survival experts that humans can live for three weeks without food. Of course, that is not without consequence, as malnourishment will quickly lead to serious health problems. I regularly do intermittent fasting for periods of 24 hours with no problems (Thursday night dinner to Friday night dinner).

      • I’ll second his reply. Everything I’ve ever been taught about emergency preparedness says – shelter, then water, then food. It’s a matter of priorities when disaster strikes. You only have so much time and energy so you have to take care of things in order. I’m not saying it would be fun or that you shouldn’t prepare food ahead (we stock MREs), but most people can go without food for a long time if they have to. You will die from lack of water before you die of lack of food.

        • I went without food for 17 days. Before this i would get the shakes if i didn’t eat every 6 or so hours.. I was miserable and at times was afraid i was having a heart attack. I had severe headaches. I felt so sick. But… suddenly, i woke up 4th morning and i was, for the most part feeling normal, at least my heart rate and stomach ache anyway. It’s amazing what the human body will do to survive. Water though is definitely a horse of a different color. The craving for water trumped my hunger by far. It actually incited panic at times.

  10. Great post. In case you didn’t know, the LDS Church is all over this type of information. Here’s a few sample links: http://www.providentliving.org/content/list/0,11664,8034-1,00.html

    http://www.providentliving.org/content/list/0,11664,7446-1,00.html

    As members of this church we are encouraged to keep food and water storage along with a “72 hour kit” (it generally takes 72 hours for assistance to reach you in an emergency). The resources of the church are available to anyone. Each area (ward) has someone responsible for emergency preparedness and would be willing to help anyone with this (member or non-member). There are often group discounts or free materials. The church also sets up storehouses that sell bulk storage goods and sometimes containers for food or water. In my area we run a preparedness fair each year that includes all the local government and non-government services.

    In short, there are a ton of resources for gathering, storing and using these supplies.

  11. I have stored water a variety of ways. Currently have a 55 gallon drum, several 1 gallon jugs & then smaller combinations of water bottles. I attended an emergency prep seminar where 8-16 oz water bottles were encouraged for purposes of cooking (H20 is already measured). Many of the freeze dried meals, etc (stored for emergencies) call for 1-2 cups of water & the small bottles make it easier rather than having to measure it! Also easy to refill from a larger water source.

    I immediately ordered the WaterBob you featured a couple weeks ago!! Where was my head & why didn’t I think to invent it????

    With such a transient world, people are reluctant to store large volumes of water b/c of moving. Smaller amounts which are easily rotated are best. But the WaterBob was an answer to many of my friends who are assigned to our area for 1-3 years. (I live in Hurricane Alley).

    Looking forward to your Monday posts…great job!

  12. If you ever need to drain your hot water tank, make sure you turn it off. If the elements are still on with no water to heat, they WILL blow and you’ll need to replace them.

  13. Since we live in Houston and hurricanes always seem to be a possibility, we try to keep a minimum of two pallets of 20 oz water bottles in our pantry. We reuse the bottles until they seem to wear down and moved on to another 12 bottles from there…two pallets would last us at least 6 days. We fill the bathtubs as you suggested before storms come and used that to flush…

  14. Does anyone have experience with the Berkey filter systems (www.bigberkeywaterfilters.com) ? I’m considering one for the family. I like that they are portable and if I understand correctly, will filter stagnant water to drinkable in just about an hour with no power or other effort.

    • They are great but expensive – good flow rate using multiple ceramic ‘candles’ (2 to 4 candles fit in the larger units)

      You want to pre-filter the water to remove sediment (don’t want to clog the ceramic filter)

      Here’s a cheaper, but lower-flow option often used on the trail:

      http://pwgazette.com/gravityinstructions.htm

      (no connection to the company)

  15. These are all excellent tips! Many of us think in terms of that will never happen to us, until it does and we aren’t ready. I am going out to purchase gallon water jugs tomorrow!

  16. The Water Bobs rock! I’m glad you mentioned rotating the stock of any stockpiled water (or other emergency supplies). That’s one tip that, if forgotten, makes a big difference when it’s time to use the items. Even water expires (or changes taste in a plastic jug).

  17. Running out of water where I live must be rare (not a dry climate), but I guess in the case of a major storm, one had better be prepared…Thanks for the post. We keep 3 cases of water bottles (1 in use with 2 for back-up) in the event of an emergency.

  18. Hey Frugal Dad,

    I have a SteriPen (http://amzn.to/ciox6T) and recommend it. It cleans a glass of drinking water in seconds. You will also need to store a set of extra batteries, but that’s easy (most houses have them lying around anyway.)

    Also great if you plan to travel to 3rd world countries or if you go camping.

    -Erica

  19. If your roof has normal tar shingle you should not drink the water from the rain barrels or use them on vegetable you plan on eating.

    • Cedar shingles are worse, they’re treated with arsenic and a whole bunch of other chemicals that leech out over time when the rain hits it

  20. I think I’m going to like this series!
    I keep a case of one litre water bottles in my garage, but it really wouldn’t be enough for us for even three days. I’ve thought of reusing gallon milk jugs for emergency water, but am not sure it’s a great idea.

  21. I am pleased to read all that as well. Yes, it looked like a boy scouts tips but on the end it makes a lot of sense. We are really very dependant on drinking water. Those storage tips are very useful, I definitely will try (and recommend) them further.

  22. So true – this post reminded me of a time when we got stuck on the beach and the lights/water went out. Despite having an ocean in front of us, there was no drinking water. Luckily the situation never got dire, but I realized the value of keeping extra fresh water.

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