Monday, December 31, 2012

How to Store Safe Clean Water for Emergencies or Homesteading Supply

Here’s what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)[1] says about preparing containers and water for storing:

• Containers for water should be rinsed with a diluted bleach solution (one part bleach to ten parts water) before use. Previously used bottles or other containers may be contaminated with microbes or chemicals. Do not rely on untested devices for decontaminating water.

• If your water is treated commercially by a water utility, you do not need to treat water before storing it. Additional treatments of treated public water will not increase storage life. [emphasis added]

• If you have a well or public water that has not been treated, follow the treatment instructions provided by your public health service or water provider.

• If you suspect that your well may be contaminated, contact your local or state health department or agriculture extension agent for specific advice.

• Seal your water containers tightly, label them and store them in a cool, dark place. It is important to change stored water every six months.

If you wish to treat our water prior to storing it, I recommend the site for the latest information on disinfecting water with chlorine bleach. Any “clorox” type bleach product will work, as long as it only contains 5.25% or 6% sodium hypochlorite as its active ingredient and does not contain brighteners or scents. Per the Clorox site use the following amounts of bleach to disinfect water: 4 drops per quart, 16 drops per gallon, 1 teaspoon per 5 gallons; shake or stir the water and let sit for 30 minutes before using. If, after 30 minutes, you cannot smell chlorine, retreat and wait 30 minutes. On my used barrels from the local bottling plant, I treat my stored water with a saturated iodine crystal solution, just for insurance. Again, if you have confidence in the cleanliness of your local tap water, using it as-is is okay also.

Some may advocate the use of potable water-compatible hoses to fill large barrels. However, I just use my garden hose, running the water for several minutes to ensure I am getting fresh water direct from the water main in front of my house. Again, YMMV; use what you’re comfortable with.
Except for those containers which I note that I have no experience with, I have listed water storage containers in order reflecting my personal preference and experience. Currently, I have over 450 gallons of water stored, with approximately 330 gallons in the water storage containers discussed in this FAQ.

With one exception, none of these containers have leaked. Your personal circumstance and preferences (cost, need for robustness, convenience, storage space, amount of water to store, etc.) will determine what’s best for you. This FAQ is designed to help you determine what to containers to store the amount of water you feel you need. All prices shown represent the North Alabama area during 2002.

Freezing water containers: Most of the containers listed here are freezable, with certain limitations. Sufficient headroom must be left in order to prevent splitting or bursting the container since water expands when it freezes into ice. Headroom is nothing more than air left at the top of the container. The only exception to the headroom rule are store bought 12 and 20 oz. water bottles that can be frozen as they come from the store; all larger containers need to have headroom to ensure the container will survive the freezing and water expansion process. Usually ¼ of the container’s volume is sufficient headroom.

Cleaning previously used containers: First make sure you know what has been previously stored in your used containers. This usually means that you bought the container new with its original contents (e.g. pop bottles) or you have confidence of its previous use from a commercial source (e.g. a Coke Cola or Pepsi bottler). Under no circumstances would I use containers that I was not sure what it might have been used for in the past. For example, I do not recommend that people collect used pop bottles from recycling centers or bins for use as potable water containers.

To clean small used containers, I rinse out several times, allow the container to soak filled with hot water a couple of times, and then fill with tap water and call it good. For larger containers like barrels, I will use a solution of Clorox and water (1/8 cup per gallon of water) and rinse several times afterwards. I do not recommend that you use any type of detergent or other cleaning solutions to clean your containers. If the containers are really dirty, grungy or contain visible signs of algae, I would not use them, unless you can ensure you can fully clean the container (i.e. can physically remove the dirt, not just rinse) or use them for non-potable water uses.

To clean new containers, I usually just rinse them out a few times, fill them with city tap water and call it good to go. I have tested my city water (Madison, AL) several times for chlorine and it always has a very high level of free chlorine. YMMV, especially if you are using well water. All of my smaller containers are filled from the water tap; the larger containers are filled with a standard garden hose, well flushed to ensure clean, fresh water is stored. For the ultimate in cleanliness, a water potable hose could be used; these are available from RV suppliers. I personally don’t feel its necessary, but feel free to use what you think is best.

Attributes assessed for this FAQ: Cost, robustness, size, convenience, and FDA approved materials along with other comments as necessary.

Cost assessment is important to people new to preparedness; they almost always looking to save money when they are starting down the preparedness road. Cost is also important in order to maximize dollars for water stored.

There is another dimension to cost that most people might not think about. Suppose there’s a crisis in your area and you’ve prepared but your friends, neighbors and relatives haven’t. A neighbor comes to the door asking for water knowing you have several hundred gallons stored; will the decision to share easier knowing that you can give him several gallons in containers that cost you nothing vs. the possibility of losing a $20 USGI water can? Exactly. There are a number of good reasons to share with others during times of crisis and the possibility of losing expensive water containers shouldn’t be an impediment to so doing.

Robustness is important for 2 reasons: mobility and longevity. People need to know which containers they can take with them if they are forced to evacuate, having confidence the containers and therefore their water will survive travel; longevity is important so containers don’t have to be replaced once they are bought. Furthermore, people usually store their water with their stored food; it’s important to know that your water containers are not going to leak and destroy your food supply.

Size is important to people with very little storage area available for preparedness items because they live in an apartment or small house. Size also allows everyone to maximize their storage capability. Size is important if you have to carry your water container any distance to fill or use.

Convenience is important to those who may be aged or are not strong enough to move heavy weights or may have children that need to use the water. Water weighs 8.3 lb/gallon and cannot be condensed or dehydrated (despite what you read on the Internet!). Having comfortable handles makes it easier moving and using water containers.

All weights shown below are for the water only; container weights are usually pretty negligible compared to the weight of the water; exceptions are large barrels and other very large water containers. Even an empty 55-gallon barrel is pretty easy for even a child to move.

Very large containers (i.e. +100 gallons) may be more difficult to move or handle.

Containers made to FDA specifications for potable water is obviously important because we want our stored water to be healthy and safe when we need it. However, just because a container is not made to FDA standards does not mean it’s not useful for preparedness: water stored in non-FDA containers such as water beds or swimming pool water can be used for non-potable water uses such as toilet flushing or bathing. This leaves the precious stored potable water for drinking and cooking.
Containers specifically NOT recommended for storing water:

Glass containers: too fragile, especially in earthquake , tornado and hurricane prone areas; glass is heavy, making it harder for people to move the containers when filling, emptying, etc. Glass containers are especially hazardous if you are forced to evacuate.

Metal containers: will impart a metallic taste to water and will eventually make the water undrinkable. Note: I have no experience with FDA approved lined steel containers designed for storing water. Assuming the liner remains intact (big assumption IMO), the only objection would be cost and the fact that metal containers would be heavier than equivalent sized plastic containers. For example, the 5 gallon metal jerry water cans sold by Back Country Trailers cost $49 each, plus shipping i.e. +$10/gallon of water stored!

Milk jugs and other containers made of milk jug type plastic materials: This material, while approved by the FDA for contact with food, are made of Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE), which is a very thin container material and designed to biodegrade; it is guaranteed to leak after a couple of months, sooner if exposed to light.

Used bleach jugs: Designed to biodegrade plus the added hazard of using a hazardous material container for potable water; not made of FDA materials approved for potable water; thin material, will leak within a couple of months, especially if exposed to light.

Plastic fuel cans: Material not made of FDA approved materials for potable water; also increases the chance of contamination with petroleum products. It’s just a bad idea to use any hazardous material container, new or not, for a water storage container.

Any container that previously contained any hazardous materials, chemicals, pesticides, petroleum products or food products that will impart an objectionable taste to water (i.e. pickled eggs, meat products, condiments etc.)

“Desert Patrol” water containers: Although designed for water storage, I’ve personally had both of my units leak. I ended up destroying both of them. Furthermore, I’ve heard from at least 3 other users that their Desert Patrol containers also leaked.

“Collapsible” containers: made of LDPE, not robust enough to hold water permanently and the fact that they are collapsible almost guarantees they won’t be filled until the crisis occurs, then it will be too late to discover this container has a pinhole and leaks.

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