Estimated reading time: 22 minutes
There’s More to Emergency Water Storage Than Filling Up Jugs and Putting Them in the Basement.
Water is consistently identified as the most critical survival need for anyone in any kind of disaster situation. Most all of us can’t survive 3 days without water. Many depend on local emergency management for help, but as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated in 2005, water supplies can quickly run out leaving people desperate and at risk.
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Table of Contents
- When No Water is Safe
- Estimating Water Needs
- Weekly Totals for Water Usage in an Emergency
- Estimating Disaster Durations
- Water Storage Details
- 1. The Water is Safe
- 2. The Water is Purified
- 3. The Containers Are Designed For Water Storage
- 4. You Have a Place to Store Your Water
- 5. You Have a Way to Preserve the Quality of Your Water
- 6. You Have a Way to Test Your Water
- 7. You Have a Way to Extract Your Water
- 8. You Have a Way to Transport Your Water
- 9. You Have a Way to Store Grey Water
- 10. You Have a Schedule for Rotating Your Stored Water
- Should You Do it?
- The Weekend Waterless Test
When No Water is Safe
A standard scenario following many disasters is a local loss of electric power. The result is that well pumps don’t operate and even the large, industrial pumps used to refill municipal water towers can’t refill the water tanks.
A more devastating result is when natural water sources like ponds, lakes, and rivers become saturated with wastewater, debris, chemicals, and petroleum products from swamped cars.
There’s even the possibility of heavy metal contamination from industrial debris in local waterways. The end result falls in the category of water everywhere and not a drop to drink.
In those instances, the most complex filtration and purification can be challenging and it’s all complicated by scores of desperate and thirsty people competing for limited resources.
There will no doubt be some efforts to provide water through emergency management agencies, but it will mostly be in the form of bottled water for drinking and, as many past disasters have demonstrated, there never seems to be enough for everyone.
Without electricity, you’ll have no hot water from an electric hot water heater. Then again, it’s worth remembering that the 50 gallons or so of water in your hot water tank are already standing in reserve. It may be cold, but it’s as clean as the water you’ve used from the sink. Unfortunately, most people who live in an apartment building don’t have a water heater holding any water in reserve.
Flushing a toilet will become a fond memory, and you can certainly use water to refill the toilet tank for a flush, assuming you have enough to spare. The good news is that you really don’t need to use clean, fresh drinking water to flush a toilet, so there may be easy solutions with unpurified water. The better news is that for some reason many of us will be well supplied with toilet paper.
Taking a long, hot shower will not be an option although there are some shower options that campers use with smaller amounts of water. Again, it all depends on how much you have in reserve.
The most critical reality is clean, fresh drinking water. That’s the priority, and we’ll look closely at all the things that need to happen to keep that water clean and fresh while in storage over time.
Water Storage as an Option
In a time when clean drinking water is scarce, it makes sense to at least have some drinking water stored. But how much and for how long? A lot of that depends on your location and the size of your family or group.
People who live in urban environments would be well served by a reliable water supply in storage given the scarcity of natural water sources and the size of the local and very thirsty population.
Even people in suburban and rural environments can be challenged by natural water sources that have rapidly become highly polluted. Regardless of where you live, finding and openly transporting water publicly at a time when everyone is looking for it may not be a good idea.
It’s Not Just About Drinking Water
We need clean water for basic sanitation, water for cooking and cleaning up dishes, and water for eventually washing at least some amount of clothing. We take water for granted and sometimes don’t appreciate how much we use every day.
Estimating Water Needs
According to the Mayo Clinic, the average adult male requires 15.5 cups (about a gallon) of water a day. Adult women require 11.5 cups (about 3 quarts) of water a day. And that’s just water for drinking.
It also doesn’t take into account increased needs for hydration due to high degrees of physical activity or extremely hot or dry weather conditions. It’s quite likely in a disaster that most people will be quite active in some way. We’ll round up the averages and say one gallon of drinking water per day per adult. And that’s at a survival minimum.
- Drinking Water: 1 gallon a day per person
A lot of this depends on circumstances, but at a minimum, we all like to brush our teeth at least once a day and we wash our face and hands as needed throughout the day. Following a disaster, things often get messy and the need to clean up may be more frequent.
It’s quite likely that a bath is out of the question, but we might need to at least do a sponge bath from the kitchen sink, wash our hair, and keep our hands clean. This can vary depending on the individual but at minimum, 1 gallon of water and at least 2 gallons total if we’re washing hair on a daily basis.
And while we’re on the subject of bathtubs, it’s worth remembering that they can be improvised for emergency water storage at the last minute.
- Sanitation: 2 gallons a day per person
It may seem that cooking would use up a lot of water, but there are simple ways to avoid that. For one, cook with methods that don’t require water. If you are cooking with water, make sure it’s part of the dish like a soup or stew. It will contribute to your daily intake to some degree.
Things to avoid are foods that require a lot of water that’s discarded, like pasta water. Eat something else until things settle down, or learn to live without it for a while.
It may be tempting to save the old pasta water or the water you used to boil potatoes, but that water is a Petri dish for bacterial growth. At least bring it to a boil for 3 minutes if you plan to reuse it for consumption in any way.
Let’s figure boiling will evaporate some of the water and assume at least a quart for cooking with the assumption that we’re only cooking recipes that include water as part of the dish.
- Cooking: 1 quart a day per person
Now’s not the time to scrub the floors and steam clean the carpet. Then again, if you’ve been flooded, that’s exactly what you’ll be doing. There’s also the need to do dishes (by hand obviously), laundry (also by hand), and general cleanup of all the things around us that shouldn’t remain dirty. Doing these things by hand actually conserves water. Dishwashers and washing machines are water hogs.
If there’s a priority, it’s doing the dishes. Food poisoning from dirty dishes is a bad thing to have in the midst of a disaster. More to the point, things like dishes and occasional laundry are regular, ongoing needs. You only need to clean up once after a flood (hopefully), but if there’s one thing life has taught us is that dishes and laundry never end.
On a brighter note, we don’t have to do laundry every day, and how many times have we said, “I’ll do the dishes tomorrow?” Regardless, the day always comes when it has to get done.
One way around part of the problem is to use disposable paper plates and other disposable items for cooking and eating. It stands to reason that if you’re thinking about how to store water for any length of time, you’ve probably given some thought to other things you should store in case of a disaster. This assumes a relatively short duration. If the disaster results in a long duration the challenges grow on every level, including the water level.
Estimating water needs for cleaning is tough. We’re going to assume someone will do dishes at least 3 times a week and some amount of laundry once a week.
General cleaning like wiping counters, appliances, spills, and other small domestic accidents can happen anytime, but we’ll need to assign some amount for that on a daily basis. With that in mind, here are some very lean estimates for cleaning again, assuming one person.
- Doing the Dishes: 3 gallons per week
- Laundry: 6 gallons per week
- General Cleanup: ½ gallon a day
Weekly Totals for Water Usage in an Emergency
|Drinking Water:||1 gallon a day per person X 7 =||7 gallons|
|Sanitation:||2 gallons a day per person X 7 =||14 gallons|
|Cooking:||1-Quart a day per person X 7 =||3 ¾ gallons|
|Doing the Dishes:||3 gallons per week||3 gallons|
|Laundry:||6 gallons per week||6 gallons|
|General Cleanup:||½ gallon a day||3 ½ gallons|
Total gallons for one person for one week: 37+ gallons
Total gallons for one person for one day: 5+ gallons
A Realistic Estimate?
That’s hard to say. A lot of the above is based on personal choice and the current state of the situation. On a fundamental level, few people can go 3 days without drinking water so at the very least, 7 gallons a week is critical to just stay alive.
Beyond that, the order indicated is a good indication of descending priorities. But even though 37 gallons may sound like a small amount, that’s only for one person. If you’re talking about an average family of 4 you’re up to around 150 gallons of clean, fresh water a week just to satisfy some basic needs. In actual fact, 7 days is a long time based on average statistics related to power outages and water shortages, but better safe than sorry.
And while children may require less water to drink on a daily basis due to their smaller body weights, their other needs related to eating, sanitation and cleaning are the same. All of which gets to the biggest question. How long before the water comes back on?
Estimating Disaster Durations
Loss of electricity is the biggest threat to local water supplies. On average, a community affected by a power outage due to a natural disaster is without power for only minutes to hours, but in some cases, it has extended from 2 to 5 days. In extreme cases, some communities have been without power for weeks and others have endured life without electricity for months.
It’s also true that some areas require months to repair, rebuild and recover from a disaster, and all services including water can see continuing interruption.
Figure at Least a Week
If you’re concerned about a lack of water following a disaster, it’s a safe bet to at least have a week’s worth of water or 40 gallons per person in storage. If you want to roll the dice, you could cut that to a 2-day supply of 10 gallons per person if all you want is water for basic needs, but if the duration extends into weeks or longer, you may wish you had more.
Some people go all in and use high-capacity water tanks that can hold up to 300+ gallons. but be forewarned: A gallon of water weighs 7.5 pounds. 300 gallons of water weighs 2,250 pounds. That’s more than a ton of water and if it’s not resting on solid ground, it could actually collapse a poorly supported floor.
Water Storage Assumptions
Storing or stock-piling anything brings a certain set of assumptions whether it’s food, medical supplies, and medicines, or something as basic as water.
Here are the 10 standard assumptions associated with any level of water storage:
- The water is safe and has been taken from a relatively safe water source that you are reasonably certain does not contain high levels of bacteria, heavy metals, chemicals, or anything else that would challenge traditional water filtering and purification methods.
- The water is purified before storing.
- The containers are designed for water storage and are BPA-free and sterile.
- You have a place to store your water that can support the weight of large amounts of water.
- You have a way to preserve the quality of your water with a water treatment.
- You have a way to test your water to assess its quality before storing and over time.
- You have a way to extract your water either with a hand pump, 12-volt pump, or spigot.
- You have a way to transport your water in containers that can be carried from one location to another, even if it’s from your basement to your kitchen or your mother-in-law 5 miles away.
- You have a way to store grey water that’s clearly labeled for non-drinking water usages such as flushing a toilet, watering vegetables, or other needs that don’t require filtered and purified water.
- You have a schedule for rotating your stored water. Under perfect conditions, water has an indefinite shelf-life according to the FDA. How many of us can know that the conditions are perfect?
Water Storage Details
1. The Water is Safe
There are two assumptions about water sources when it comes to water storage. The first assumption is that you’re drawing water before a disaster has struck. In that case, water from your sink faucet is as good a source as any. If you have a faucet in the basement where you may be storing your water, all the better as long as it’s the same water line connected to the faucet tap.
The second assumption is that you need to find a way to replenish your water storage after a disaster has struck. This gets a little more complicated and much has been written about how to harvest water from natural sources.
It’s quite possible you’ll have enough stored to get you through a water shortage, but as time goes on, so does the water. The good news is that sources like rain and freshly fallen snow may have the least amount of pollutants after a disaster. A lot depends on the type of disaster, but in most instances, the rain and snow are not significantly affected.
It’s when we have to turn to local, natural sources like lakes, ponds, and rivers that things get complicated. And don’t assume that because other people are doing it, it’s safe. There will always be some amount of bacteria in any natural water source, and you’re going to filter and purify it later, but think about the possibilities:
- Lakes and ponds are the best place to start. You can usually see if any debris or material is in the water and the larger the lake, the better.
- Springs and creeks are also a fairly reliable possibility but try to draw the water as close to the source of the spring or creek as possible. The farther water runs along its course the more likely that pollutants from the disaster have found their way into the water course.
- Large rivers may be the worst source simply because everything feeds into a large river. Fortunately, its current may run any pollutants or contaminants downstream assuming a chemical plant upstream hasn’t been compromised by the disaster.
2. The Water is Purified
Even water from the kitchen faucet would be well served by purification. This isn’t about drinking the water immediately, it’s about storing it, and the safest water to store is the purest.
If the water has been drawn from a natural source, it should definitely be filtered and purified. Even rainwater should be purified. Rain often runs over leaves from trees and any amount of airborne bacteria could have found their way onto the leaves along with a fair amount of bird droppings.
Purification can be done with a water purifier that also filters the water or you can purify using tablets and treatments. The size of any purifier is up to you, but even a relatively inexpensive backpacking water purifier can filter and purify a lot of water.
If you’re preparing for the long-haul, you can buy more advanced water purification systems but all that matters is that the water you store is pure before storage.
3. The Containers Are Designed For Water Storage
There are water containers of various sizes and configurations that are specially designed and manufactured for long-term water storage. Use them. Water is highly corrosive and metal containers will oxidize over time, both polluting the water and giving it a bad flavor.
Plastic seems safer, but make sure it’s a plastic that is also non-corrosive and does not have biphenyl-A or BPA. It’s a polycarbonate chemical added to many plastic containers that has been shown to have adverse health effects. Make sure your water storage containers are BPA-free.
Most water storage containers come in 3 basic sizes:
- 5 to 7 gallons – 37.5 to 52.5 pounds when filled
- 40 to 50 gallons – 300 to 375 pounds when filled
- 300 to 350 gallons – 2,250 to 2,625 pounds when filled
The smaller 5 and 7 gallon sizes are usually designed to be stackable for storage. The 40 to 350 gallons sizes are usually the shape of standing water tanks.
Some of the smaller 5 to 7 gallon sizes have a spigot you can install to make drawing water easier. The larger sizes require a pump. The size you choose depends on your needs and whether your living space can support the weight.
4. You Have a Place to Store Your Water
One is the problem of freezing and thawing. Water expands when it freezes and if your water storage container freezes and cracks open, you’ll have water everywhere when it thaws.
Another thing to consider is the weight of water. It’s probably not an issue with water containers in the 5 to 50 gallon range. The heaviest would be 375 pounds and many appliances are about the same weight.
It’s the extra-large tanks running at 300 to 350 gallons where weight becomes a real concern. Nothing in most traditional apartment flats weighs a ton, and that’s what you’re talking about with a 300-gallon water tank.
The ideal location for large tanks is on a poured concrete slab in a basement or garage. Even then, it could cause a weak slab to crack in a corner, so keep an eye on things. Especially if you decide to put it next to the water heater that’s already adding about 300+ pounds of weight to the slab.
5. You Have a Way to Preserve the Quality of Your Water
There are water treatments designed to preserve the quality of water for long-term storage. Most are designed for use in large boats, yachts, RVs, and campers that have large water tanks that are used and refilled infrequently.
The treatments prevent long-term bacterial and fungal growth, and some promise to enhance flavor. The amount they treat varies, so check the label. It’s a good idea but you should still test any water that has been stored for months.
6. You Have a Way to Test Your Water
There are water test kits also designed to test water that has been stored for any length of time. These are different than the swimming pool test kits and usually test a range of characteristics that may indicate treatment or caution you to drain off the water, cleanse the tank, and refill.
This is a good idea. Even treated water can succumb to bacterial and fungal growth, and bad water can lead to any number of conditions from intestinal distress to full blown Typhoid. Test the waters.
7. You Have a Way to Extract Your Water
300 gallons of fresh water in reserve can be quite reassuring during a water shortage, but given the frequency that we use water, you need to have a simple way to draw water from your storage.
Most smaller containers in the 5 to 7 gallon range have a spigot that can be inserted or removed. The container is relatively easy to carry and sits on a countertop and the water is drawn from wherever it’s located.
Anything you can’t lift in the 40-gallon to 350-gallon size needs a way to draw the water from the tank. A siphon hose is the easiest solution but there are simple hand pumps and even electric pumps powered by a 12-volt battery that can make short work of drawing water when you need it.
And make sure any hoses you use for drawing water are also BPA-free. A garden hose can work in a pinch, but if you’re going to get serious about long-term water storage you might as well get the right stuff.
8. You Have a Way to Transport Your Water
Regardless of where you store your water, chances are good you’ll need water in multiple locations. If you’re using 5- to 7-gallon containers, it makes sense to have one on the kitchen counter next to the sink, one in the bathroom downstairs, and one in a bathroom upstairs.
That’s easy to do if you are storing all of your water in the smaller containers, but if you’re storing in containers that are 40 gallons and above, you need smaller containers just to move the water around the house. The easiest solution is an empty one-gallon water jug, but you may soon find that even a gallon goes fast.
9. You Have a Way to Store Grey Water
Grey water is untreated water that’s still relatively clean but hasn’t been purified or is being recycled from previous use. Sources include rinse water from doing laundry, dishes, collected and unpurified rainwater, or even water from a lake or pond.
Grey water can be used to fill a toilet tank for flushing, water a vegetable garden, wash mud from a vehicle or piece of equipment, or any other use that won’t contaminate anything someone might eat or drink or come into close contact with.
Any container holding grey water should be clearly marked “GREY WATER – DO NOT DRINK.” The containers should also be stored separately from your purified water storage so no one gets confused in the dark or doesn’t take the time to read labels.
10. You Have a Schedule for Rotating Your Stored Water
This is a question of when should you dump out and refill your containers. It’s comforting to know that the FDA gives water an indefinite shelf life, but that’s for professionally processed, purified, and bottled water. In a do-it-yourself environment, anything can happen.
The standard recommendation is that you rotate your stored water every 6 months. You can push it off longer, but you might want to do a quick water test before waiting any longer.
This is also something you should keep in mind when determining the best location for your water storage. It’s not just about supporting the weight and ease of access—is it located in an area that’s easy to dump and refill?
Specially designed water containers also come with instructions on how to clean and purify a dumped container before refilling. Read them so you get off to a fresh rotation.
Should You Do it?
Why not? It’s not that hard to set 5 to 10 gallons of water aside in the basement. You can buy 5-gallon bottles of water at most stores and, according to the FDA, bottled water has an indefinite shelf life, although that assumes a BPA-free plastic container that will not leach polycarbonate compounds into the water. Always check to see if the container is marked as “BPA Free.”
The bigger question is whether or not you should store more than just 10 gallons. You also need to think about how to replenish your water supplies if you find yourself in a long-term disaster situation. Anyone who owns a swimming pool may have an easy answer to that one in their backyard. If you’re on a budget, do your best and have at least have 2 days of water in storage for each person.
Maybe the best way to evaluate your true water needs in a time without water is to do a test run at home.
The Weekend Waterless Test
If you’ve ever gone camping at a remote location, you know what it’s like to live with limited water supplies. You only have the water you brought, and we don’t blink when we step into the outhouse.
It’s an interesting lesson, but have you ever tried it at home? And how many of us have an outhouse in the backyard? The next time you have a slow weekend on the calendar, try living out of water jugs for a couple of days.
You start with buying ten 1-gallon jugs of drinking water at the dollar store. If it’s more than just you embarking on this water jug adventure, add 10 gallons per person. You have to make it through the weekend from Friday night to Monday morning. You can’t use a faucet, can’t drink any soft drinks or other canned or bottled beverages, have to wash your face and hands and brush your teeth using only the water in those jugs.
It’s probably wise to keep most of the jugs on the kitchen counter and maybe one or two in a bathroom. Every time you need water for anything, you can only pour it from the jugs. And by the way, when you flush a toilet -subtract 2-gallons from your total. That will quickly convince you of the benefits of a grey water supply.
Hopefully, by Monday morning you’ll have a new appreciation for your water usage and needs. If anything, the complaints from your family about the miserable weekend you forced them to endure will make that very clear.
It May Be the Most Important Thing You Store
Across the whole subject of preparedness, we see constant reminders of how important it is to stock up on a food supply that will last for decades and why we need to build a bug out bag that will survive the apocalypse. For some reason, there’s not as much said about the need for water storage.
Maybe it’s because water isn’t as profitable an item to aggressively market and sell. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying the fact that we can’t live without water. In fact, most of us can’t live 3 days without it. That alone should be a good reason to take water a little more seriously. And maybe get more than a few jugs in the basement.
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