Ensure Your Family Has Safe Water If the Grid Goes Down

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Water is a critical component of life.  Go without any for three days, and your chances of being dead are very high.  We are used to water being available at every tap, water fountain and purveyor of beverages.  The only problem is, this continuous availability of water depends on a lot of infrastructure, and if some or all of that collapses, water is going to “dry up” quickly.  And if you head out into the wilderness, taps, fountains and retail sellers are few and far between.  You should always be keeping an eye out to make sure you have “enough” water and/or a way to get water.

Different Types of Water

Water is water, but not all water is the same.  There is pure water, just combinations of two Hydrogen atoms and one Oxygen atom (H2O).  Generally the closest you can get to this is distilled water.  This is useful and fairly harmless, although it is hypotonic (has a lower solute concentration than do human cells) and can cause hemolysis (rupturing of red blood cells); this is usually not a major concern even if this is all that is available to drink.  Using it on wounds may delay healing a bit; and it might be a problem for people with ulcers (bleeding in the stomach).  But this is still way better than no water.  On the other end of the scale are various degrees of contaminated water, polluted with chemicals and/or biological organisms, which can make you very sick and even kill you.  Salt water can be considered in this latter class as well, even if there is nothing else in it besides the salt.  In between are various types of water, all of which are potable (suitable for drinking without major harmful effects).

Determining what water is potable and what is not can be quite a challenge.  If it is in a sealed container and properly labeled, then it MIGHT be OK.  Labels have been known to be inaccurate (accidentally and even deliberately).  If it comes from a municipal tap, then it MIGHT be OK.  Just ask the people of Flint, Michigan about that.  If it is from a known well, it MIGHT be OK.  My dad’s well was found to contain arsenic.  And if the water is from an open source, such as a stream or pond, there is a chance it might be OK, but the odds are very high that it is contaminated.

Market failure.

Even if some water does not have anything seriously harmful in it, there might be particulates (sand, silt, plant or insect parts and the like) which would make the water unpleasant and/or things which might be only relatively harmless.

During “normal” times, pre-packaged or professionally provided water is usually tolerable, but if the water infrastructure breaks down for any reason, all water is not to be trusted as is.  Open water should always be viewed with suspicion regardless of the state of the surroundings.

Contaminants in Water

There is a tremendous variety of contaminants.  Some are “natural”, such a minerals in water drawn from a well, or silt from the bed of a river.  Some are man-made, and leaked into surface water accidentally or even deliberately; some eventually work their way into the water table.  Some are added accidentally or even deliberately by water distribution networks or packaging.  For convenience, let us group contaminates into particulates, organisms, organic chemicals (contain carbon), inorganic chemicals and salt (a special case of inorganic chemical).

Determining some specific contaminates can be done with a “pocket-sized” kit, but many require chemical tests which may be a challenge for people without lab access.  But you can get a compact “TDS” meter cheap which will tell you the “Total Dissolved Solids” in your water.  As an example, fish tank water gave a reading of 448, tap water read 229, and reverse osmosis water read 17.  We don’t know WHAT contaminants are there, but we have an idea of HOW MUCH.  Some of these meters also measure “EC” (Electrical Conductivity); pure water is an insulator and it is the ions added to it which makes it conductive, so TDS and EC are closely related.

Purifying Water

There are six common, practical philosophies of treating contaminated or suspected water.  Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

  1. Chemical reaction changes harmful chemicals (usually inorganic) to harmless ones (such as ion exchange), or adsorb (attract to the surface and “grab onto”) some chemicals (usually organic).
  2. Filtration removes particulates and bigger organisms; most filters allow some organisms (particularly viruses) and all chemicals through.  Salt water cannot be purified by filtration and can damage the filter.
  3. Boiling kills all organisms; it is useless against particulates, salt and chemicals
  4. Chemical treatment has pretty much the same effect as boiling, without the cost in fuel, but often adding an unpleasant taste (you are adding chemicals).
  5. Distillation is an extension to boiling which, if done correctly, should be able to deal with biological, particulate and most chemical contamination, as well as salt.
  6. UV radiation kills organisms exposed to it as long as the water is pretty clear; it is useless against particulates, salt and chemicals

There may be other methodologies which I am not familiar with, particularly large-scale, but these six would seem to be those of most interest for survival purposes.

Since no method is perfect, often two or more methods are used together.

Chemical Reaction

The most common form of this is “activated charcoal”.  This is carbon (charcoal) media which has been treated with Oxygen to create a myriad of tiny pores between the atoms, resulting in a massive surface area of potential chemical bonds.  The carbon attracts some chemicals, particularly organic ones, and they bond to the surface (adsorption).  These usually cannot be cleaned, so clog up and must be replaced fairly quickly.  Also, if the carbon media is granular, some dust sneaks out, requiring a pre-flush of the filter before normal use.  Because the intention is for the contaminants to bond with the carbon, we want the contaminants to be in contact with the carbon for a “long time”.  Thus, the better ones of these have a slow production rate, and arguably the “best” of these uses “carbon block” technology where the media is fused together into a mildly porous solid.

You have probably heard of one common Ion Exchange device, the ubiquitous water softener.  It exchanges two sodium (salt) ions for each calcium or magnesium ion.  This is for non-drinking reasons, because calcium and magnesium are often better for you than salt, and tastes better too.  For water purification, the process has two different beads which exchange inorganic ions to produce Hydrogen ions and Hydroxyl (OH) ions, which combine to form H2O (pure water) to replace the chemicals.  Of course, the ions are used up rapidly, they are for a specific list of chemicals, and the beads need to be regenerated.  And of course, this method has no effect on organisms or particulates.  These are fairly rare; an example would be the MB series filters from CustomPure.com which also include carbon filtration for some of the things Ion Exchange won’t handle. They claim it can remove “sodium” which is salt, but I doubt it would be able to handle the amount of salt in salt water.

Water Filtration

Filtration is very simple in concept.  You pass the contaminated water through a medium with holes smaller than what you want to take out.   As such, a key specification for any filter is what size the “holes” are.  This is usually specified in “microns”, or “micrometers”.  That is, one millionth of a meter.  Some claim this measurement (micron) is obsolete, but it still seems to be the measurement of choice for filters.  Some recent purifiers specify their size in “nanometers”, where 1 nanometer is .001 micron.  Keeping with the “metric” measurements, filter capacity (how much water can be processed before replacement) is often specified in Liters (L); for a rough estimate, a Liter is approximately the same volume as a quart, so four Liters is approximately a gallon.

When comparing filters, the one with the smaller holes would seem to be the better choice.  The problem is that some companies have varying sizes of holes, and claim the size of the smallest hole in their filter rather than the biggest.  Since it is easier for the water to get through a bigger hole and much of it does, this can be a seriously misleading rating.  In your final analysis, try to find out the actual percentage of contaminants removed.  This is the most accurate way of determining filter effectiveness.  Another term which can sometimes be used in a misleading manner is water “purifier”.  The correct use of this term is for a unit which removes the much smaller viruses.  Units which remove particulates and organisms as small as bacteria are simply to be called “filters”.

Some filters become “plugged up” quickly and are rated for a specified number of gallons (or liters), while others can be cleaned and restored to service or even are self-cleaning.  Reverse osmosis (RO) is a prime example of purification and self-cleaning.  It forces the water through a semi-permeable membrane and continuously washes any contaminates off of the source side of the membrane.  This is a very effective system (see the TDS meter example above), but requires the water to be pressurized, and worse, the wash water now has an even higher level of contamination than it had at the beginning.  In many systems, you “throw away” as much as four gallons of water for each gallon purified.  I’ve heard of one household system where the wash water is fed into the hot water line rather than the drain, but I’m not seeing how the pressure in that line is overcome.

LifeStraw Personal Water Filter – $20

Other filters run the gamut from several layers of cloth or a coffee filter, suitable only for large particulates, to 0.01 micron (or less) water purifiers; from pocket-sized to counter-top and bigger.  Since the smaller the holes, the slower the filtration and the more likely it is to clog up, often filter systems have multiple filters, starting with a pre-filter for “chunks”, course filters for large particulates, possibly some medium-sized filters and ending up with the finest filter.  Smaller holes require more “energy” to force the water through the holes; this can be from gravity, or more effectively, a pump or suction.

In filters (i.e., won’t remove viruses), perhaps the most compact and simplest to use is the “Lifestraw“.  This is rated at 0.2 micron, with a 264 gallon capacity.  It is light, easy to carry and reasonably priced.  To use it, stick the input end into contaminated water and suck the water from the other end just like from a straw.  It takes a few seconds of sucking to start delivering water.  There also seems to be a Lifestraw Steel model, which adds a metal body and an activated carbon filter to remove some chemicals.  This latter part is replaceable, which is good because its capacity is 26 gallons, only a tenth of the main filter capability.  Another popular compact option is the Sawyer Mini system.  This is rated at 0.1 micron, and can be cleaned to provide up to 100,000 gallons of filtered water.  It can be pressurized by squeezing a pouch of contaminated water, or used inline with a hydration pack, from a standard soda bottle, or used as a straw from an open source.

As for portable purification, an example is the pump powered MSR Guardian, rated at .02 microns and with about a 2500 gallon capacity.  Another, bigger option is the Lifestraw Family, rated at .02 microns and with a 2600 gallon capacity.  I found a particularly compact suction powered (straw) system which sounds promising; the Etekcity 1500L rated at .01 microns with a 396 gallon capacity, but don’t know anything about the company.  They have a wide range of products, so it’s not like they specialize in water purification.

A countertop system is an option at a fixed location.  An example of this is the gravity powered Big Berkey (actually, the whole Berkey family).  This company doesn’t provide a micron rating since it can be misleading as mentioned above; they stand on their contamination removal percentages.  Their filter cartridges have a capacity of 3000 gallons per filter element, with two to four elements installed in the system.  More elements don’t filter any better, just faster.  Not only is it very effective against virus (and bigger things), but many chemicals as well.  And you can get an add on filter for each element which takes out Fluoride, Arsenic and a couple of other additional chemicals, with a capacity of 500 gallons per add-on filter.

Tune in for Part 2, which investigates the other four purification methods.

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  • R. Ann

    Hey, head’s up:
    Article states boiling will kill all organisms (“3. Boiling kills all organisms; it is useless against particulates, salt and chemicals”).
    Not quite.
    It reduces the pathogen load, but it’s not foolproof or a guarantee.

    Also, the speed at which water is brought to a boil (slowly over a wood fire, slightly faster on a gas-electric cooktop, fast in a microwave), the amount of time it boils, and then how quickly it or food are used can also affect how effective boiling is as a purification.
    It also depends HIGHLY on people starting count at a hard-roiling boil, not a simmer or a few bubbles rising.

    A number of bacteria and viruses are able to morph into endospores when given 10-25 minutes to adjust to the changing environment, with spores that can survive boiling temperatures of 212*F.
    And then, if water isn’t consumed immediately, bacteria can reactivate.
    In other cases, the bacteria is killed, but generates a toxin either while it’s alive or after its death, with the toxin resistant to denaturing when boiled for 20-30 minutes.

    That’s why the acidity level is important when you water-bath can foods.
    In combination with the boil that forms spores, the acidity and in some cases the high sugar-salt concentrations prevent bacteria from reactivating.

    Boil longer than one minute, more than ten if possible.
    If it’s an option at all, a pressure canner can be another very effective way to reduce the pathogen load.


    • JD

      What do you think about running boiled water through a water filter? Would that add any degree of safety to the water or would that just be a waste of time?

      • R. Ann

        It depends on the filter, but I’d actually filter it first, unless it was just impossible.
        There’s some exception, but usually the spores will be smaller than the microbes.

        I will always be a fan of two types of water clearing over just one of any kind.

        The biggie is to make sure it’s a dense enough filter (another of my head-shakers: dust masks for pandemic kits).
        When we talk about micron, that’s micrometer (the funny backwards um symbol for some). Viruses are going to pass through a lot of them.
        Size comparative:

        Most of what we want are the bacteria and protozoa, because fewer waterborne viruses are a major issue and serious survivors in this case.
        However, it’s good to have an idea of the sizes for other applications.

        There are some pretty good drip-through filters, some pretty inexpensive and long lasting, for simple bucket systems.
        This Is An Example – Please Price Shop (but watch the micron number/size when you do):

        Also, they have a nice by-culprit list of what and how many of the food and water poisoning critters they cull.
        Even once the finest-size becomes unuseable, you’re still getting some reductions and parts are rinse-wash reusable.

        I’m always going to be a fan of filtering in questionable water sources because boiling isn’t going to remove the particulates of any kind or make the water less cloudy – just more dead stuff in there instead of swimmers.

        It’s pretty easy even in the bush to set up a clean concave pot lid over boiling water, tilt it a half inch, and let it drip into a clean mug or bottle.
        Rising water vapor is pure H2O – you’re just hastening the evaporation process (which is one of nature’s two purification methods). As long as the lid is clean, that’s a GOLDEN way to clean nappy or questionable water.
        Flip side is: Do you have some Dawn with you to wash the pot after the H2O leaves all its impurities behind? 🙂

        If you’re somewhere out-out, just boil harder and longer if there’s no other option.

        If it’s clear-running and tap-type or well-drawn, and the second stage is a chemical treatment like a drop, shake it to distribute, give it a minute or two to work and further distribute, then loosen threads on the cap and shake, or “roll” the container around so that the rims and edges get the water treatment, too.

        In a lot of cases, just reducing the load to the 95th or 99th degree is sufficient.

        Most of why I mentioned it was for the “not worth it” risks, the shortened time and boil rate people use, and those people who are at risk and sensitive.
        Or, because it’s not out-there that at some point we’re going to see something insane happen and-or develop, and that ‘just boil’ misconception is going to be an issue.


        • JD

          Thanks for the reply R.Ann, very informative!

      • John Hertig

        Yes, the boiling, done properly as mentioned by R. Ann, will greatly reduce the biological contamination. The filter will get out particulates which the boiling does nothing about. Some filters might even take out some chemicals.

    • John Hertig

      Botulism is an example. It has three states, the bacteria itself (can be killed by boiling), the deadly toxins the bacteria produces (can be deactivated by more than 5 minutes at 185 degrees F or higher) and the spores, which cannot be killed by boiling. In the spore form, they are not particularly harmful to drink, but over time, they can become more of the bacteria. So don’t plan on storing boiled water.

  • GregChick

    As a plumber and water specialist I liked this posting. As well as what was said, there is another option that may be needed in dire straights. This is using plastic bottles, filling them with the questionable water, exposing the bottles to strong sunlight all day. This is what some people do daily in other countries. Not recommended, but better than no solar cleaning. The water needs to be clear as possible to allow the light to access all the water particles. One way to remove dirt/debris from water is pour it thru panty hose! If you fold up the fabric several layers and not stretched the filtering is quite good. Panty hose also works to remove cactus needles from skin. How about hiding food in panty hose buried a stream Away from ants and heat ? If your worried about having them in your bag, have your lady carry them…

    • John Hertig

      Tune in for Part 2 🙂

  • The Deplorable Cruella DeVille

    If you’re on a private well, as I am, you will have lots of water – just inaccessible via any practical means. My average depth to the static water table is roughly 40 feet: so a tin can on a string, small enough to fit in the well casing, would be a terribly tedious method to extract the water. Doable, but not really practical. There are a few hand pumps that can extract water from that depth, ie; not relying on a suction method, but do you have one on hand?

    To get around this, (following the last week long power outage), I hit up amazon for a deep well ranch pump. These are powered from 12 or 24 volt DC supplies, are designed for permanent submersible installation, and will pump to roughly 200 feet water height. Adding a small solar setup to keep a pair of used forklift batteries charged up, a hundred feet of 1/2″ direct burial pex, 100″ of #8 landscape lighting cable, a milsurp potable water bladder, and I can supply the house with normal water pressure at the spigot indefinitely. Total out of pocket, minus the solar stuff was about $200.
    As an added benefit the entire arrangement can be pulled, rolled up, and thrown in a car trunk in about five minutes. I’m considering adding the basic parts to my bug out gear.

    • JD

      That’s a great idea! I’ll be exploring this further as I have a well. I have a length of pvc pipe that is capped on one end and climbing line through the the top of the top end, I just lower the pipe into the well casing, let it fill, and pull it up and empty into 5 gallon bucket. It’s work, and I wouldn’t want to be doing it this way when I get old, I like your idea better!

      • The Deplorable Cruella DeVille

        I find if I put the water bladder, 250 gal, in the attic, I can connect the riser pipe into the standard system with a check valve. Now normal pressure throughout the house….
        And just fill it once a day.

    • John Hertig

      If it can be “rolled up”, that implies it is on the ground or just under. How do you keep it from freezing?

      • The Deplorable Cruella DeVille

        I added a 2nd pitless adapter, and buried the line a few inches down, which is all that’s needed around here. But: If it comes down to shtf, I have a second roll of PEX and wire, so I’ll just need to pull the pump itself. The buried stuff “could” be pulled with minimal effort as well though.

    • GregChick

      Better have a wrench for the well cap if the well your tapping has a cap. I realize you are referring to your own well and your good with that, but as a prepper tool the pump should include access tools to well heads. Often a pipe wrench would be needed to remove the pipe at well casing top too.

      • The Deplorable Cruella DeVille

        Good points.
        I put a 2nd pitless adapter in to accept the new pump, but if you’re planning on using a different well, the pipe wrench and a large crescent wrench should be handy. I carry a ton of tools in the vehicles, so that’s not an issue for myself.

        • GregChick

          As a plumbing contractor I am worthless with out tools, and as a service repair guy, I keep every tool possibly needed on my van, it’s kinda like being a prepper plumber…as well a hose bib key to access water from handleless hose bibs…

  • Patrick Lee

    I have purchased a new 55 gall emergency water storage tank with a 2 inch opening but cannot find out the best way to clean it for long term emergency water storage. Any help information would be greatly appreciated.

    • R. Ann

      This is one of the times buckets have a serious advantage (for rainwater catchment, too).

      The author or somebody else may pop up, but you asked 2 days ago, so…

      Do a higher concentration of bleach than for water purification. (Some people also use PoolShok for large-quantity storage – up to you, whatever’s cheaper or there.)
      If the ratio you like is 1/8 tspn (or, 5-8 drops – you hear it all ways) per gal of water for drinking safety, double it.
      Make up 2-5 gals.
      Get them inside. Slosh and roll, leave it on one side, slosh and roll, rotate it to cover another span (with overlap), repeat until it’s gone all the way around, do the bottom, do the top. Ideally, it sits in each stage for 1-2 hours, but even 10 minutes will work.

      ***You can do this with Dawn, too, so that you can use the waste water for gardens and not feel guilty for environmental destruction as you go, but it’s even more important to get that puppy well rinsed afterwards, because dish soap can replicate dysentery symptoms.
      ***If you don’t use Dawn, consider doing this at a car wash – they typically have some water settlements and chemical controls if they were built in the last 10 years, and they’re typically in areas less likely to have your bleach add much to the chemicals already in place, as opposed to killing your yard, tree, or the creek at the bottom of the slope.

      Then the real fun begins, because you need to rinse that puppy forever.
      Try angling it up on a porch, or with a sawhorse and bucket, bucket in a tailgate, something like that. Strap it down so the bung hole is at the lowest point.
      That way you can use a higher-powered hose spray to rinse the majority.
      There’s a rim on the inside roll of a lot of drums. Get that good, too.
      Shake out as much as possible, fill a gallon or two, shake with it lid/bung down, roll.
      Good times. 🙂

      Remember, you only used a 10th of the water capacity to clean, and only double-or-so the bleach.
      You want it rinsed, but over 55 gal, if you missed a bit, it’s okay – you’re about to put 275-440 MORE drops in with your water, and you can just go 5-6 per gal instead of 7-8.
      The biggie is just getting residual badness and any shavings out, starting clean so it doesn’t grow stuff immediately, and neutralizing whatever was last used on it at the factory.

      You’re going to want to treat your water with something before storage, because if you get algae, you’re going to repeat this in the 2-hour increments or you’ll need to just fill it all the way with the bleach and repeat the rinse.
      People with smaller containers and-or lid-lift kegs/drums who can get in there can skip pre-treatment.

      Also remember:
      Bleach is coming out during the rinse.
      Wear your painting shirt and your best trash-bag kilt/loincloth, not your Sunday shoes or your favorite jeans.


      • John Hertig

        Yes, bleach will do the job. Unscented, plain bleach, FRESH, because it deteriorates in effectiveness fast.