Product Reviews: Semi-Portable Water Containers

We’ve already talked about how to prepare water for long-term storage, but we need to get down to the nitty-gritty of choosing actual containers. This week we’ll focus on “semi-portable” jugs, because those are likely to be the backbone of most families’ water storage. There are no commercially packed containers in this size range, so the only option is fill-your-own.

Deciding on the basic type of container is easy, because (with one exception described below) there is really only one type available: the plastic jug. There are three main things to look for:

  • Be sure your containers are made of rigid plastic. Don’t even consider the collapsible camping jugs, because those are far too prone to rupture to have any place in your emergency plans.
  • Be sure the plastic is food-grade. In general this won’t be a problem because any jug specifically sold to hold water is likely to pass this test. Just pay attention, and don’t accidentally buy something that is only intended for fuel.
  • Be sure the plastic is BPA-free. This is something of a judgment call, because there is some disagreement about whether BPA is completely safe or horribly dangerous, but I prefer not to take chances and “BPA-free” is now relatively easy to find.

Your next decision is on size. Jugs are readily available in 2.5-gallon, 3.5-gallon, 5-gallon, and 7-gallon sizes (and probably more, but that’s plenty for our purposes). The trade-offs are fairly obvious:

  • Big jugs hold more, so there are fewer to buy/clean/fill/store/rotate.
  • Big jugs generally have a lower cost-per-gallon.
  • Big jugs are heavier when full so they’re harder to carry.
  • Big jugs need more space, which makes it harder to find a place to store them.

The best strategy is usually to get the biggest size which you can both store conveniently and lift safely. This may not be very big, as even a 5-gallon jug weighs well over 40 pounds when full and that’s too much for some people to handle.

Finally you have to choose a brand. Manufacturers each have their own special features, so we’ll look at a few of the major ones:

  • Generic jugs

    These are your plain vanilla plastic jugs, available at many surplus or camping stores.

    • Comes only in the 5-gallon size (but if that’s too heavy, you can simply fill them part-way).
    • As you’d expect from something that doesn’t really have a “brand”, they are the least expensive of the plastic jugs.
    • They are surprisingly rugged: I purchased 4 of these in my youth, and it was about 28 years before the first one failed (probably because I abused it by jamming too much stuff into the back of my van and crushing it), so I have confidence that these will hold up pretty well if you’re reasonably careful with them. (I’m still using the other 3 original jugs.)
    • Avoid direct sunlight (always a good idea with any container), because these let a lot of light into the water and I did once get a bit of green stuff growing in one that was incorrectly stored by a window.
    • The normal caps are not very convenient to pour from, but for a couple dollars you can buy a separate spigot cap that works quite well.
    • These cannot be stacked.

  • Reliance Aqua-Pak and Aqua-Tainer

    These are similar in concept to the generic jugs, but with a couple of bells and whistles added.

    • Comes in 2.5-gallon, 5-gallon, and 7-gallon sizes.
    • Made of a dark blue plastic which blocks most light and discourages algae from growing in the water, but it also makes it harder to see how much water is in the jug.
    • Every jug comes with a spigot cap that can be reversed (spigot on the inside) for storage. That seems like a good idea at first, but it does have drawbacks:
      • The integrity of the seal in storage is only as good as the spigot valve, which isn’t nearly as tight as a solid cap.
      • The inside of the spigot is exposed to dust and dirt during storage, so you need to tape over the opening to keep it clean.
      • Supplying a spigot with every single jug can’t be free, so I assume it increases the cost slightly.
    • These are shaped with ridges to make them stackable, but there have been reports of sagging so I’d be very reluctant to go more than two jugs high (especially with the larger sizes).

  • Water-Brick

    These are made of heavy plastic and remind me of children’s building blocks.

    • Comes in 1.75-gallon and 3.5-gallon sizes.
    • The most expensive of the lot.
    • Very rugged, probably the strongest available.
    • Available in light blue or tan color, so they block some light but you can still see how much water is in each one.
    • Shaped with bumps and sockets so they actually interlock when they stack.
    • A separate spigot is available. It’s rather expensive, but you only need one.
    • They can be stored in either a vertical or a horizontal position. If you want to stack them you must use the horizontal position, which puts the cap (and therefore the gasket that seals the cap) below water level. This means that if a gasket dries out or fails that one container will almost certainly leak, which is not true of the other jugs.
    • The shape is designed so that when you hold one by the handle it hangs naturally at your side, making it much more comfortable to carry.

  • Boxed Water

    These are not jugs at all, but rather a mylar bag with a cardboard box.

    • Available only in the 5-gallon size.
    • About the least expensive system you can find.
    • Since the box is rectangular, it should fit nicely on shelves.
    • The box shape is well-suited to stacking, but the boxes themselves bulge a bit even when not stacked so I’d be very careful about stacking them too high.
    • The mylar completely blocks all light.
    • The caps are made of a flexible rubber-like material. They snap/peel on and off, and they have a flexible piece that allows you to pour without removing the cap. I have no experience with how well that material holds up over time, but if it were to dry out or become brittle it would create a problem.
    • Filling and rotating these is a bit tricker than with the others because you must not allow the cardboard to get wet. The best way I’ve found is to fill the bag in the bathtub separately, close the cap, lift it out onto a towel, dry it off, and only then slide the bag into the box.
    • The boxes have no handles, so carrying them can be somewhat awkward.

Just to avoid any confusion, please note that the various caps and spigots are generally not interchangeable between brands, so be sure to get the ones that match your containers.

Do what works for your own situation, but for most folks my recommendation is to do the following:

  • Buy the generic 5-gallon jugs to minimize cost without giving up ruggedness. The extra features of the other jugs don’t seem worth the added expense, and the boxes are not strong enough for my taste.
  • Get a couple of the spigot caps. You only need one, but they’re so cheap you might as well get an extra one as a back-up.
  • Store the jugs in the dark.
  • If nobody in the household can carry 45 lbs, fill each one with only as much water as you can handle comfortably and safely.
  • If a full 5 gallons is too much for some family members but not for others, consider filling most of your containers completely full, but leaving one or two partially full. This will provide manageable jugs for the first day after an earthquake regardless of which family members are home at the time, and unless you have a really bad relationship with your neighbors, by the second day somebody will be able to help you with the remaining water jugs.