Storing Water

The Need For Storage

Once you get into the third (“long-term”) phase of earthquake response, the most important thing to have is water. Humans can often survive without almost anything else, but you cannot stay alive for more than 2 or 3 days without water. You could easily lose your normal supply of clean, safe water in the aftermath of a major earthquake, due to either damaged pipes or because of a power failure which shuts down all the pumps, so it is very important to ensure that you’ll have your own independent supply. Today we’ll do a broad overview of this topic, and in later posts we’ll look at different aspects of water storage in more detail.

If you read “survival manuals” they’ll often give detailed instructions for finding a stream or building a solar still to get water from fresh leaves. Those are entirely appropriate strategies if you’re lost in the wilderness, but a post-earthquake urban area is completely different. In most parts of the Bay Area local streams cannot possibly supply the amount of water needed by the number of people living here, and you’ll have much better things to do with your time than mess around trying to extract water from your landscaping plants. In other words, the only reasonable plan is to store all the water you’re going to need.

How much will you need?

You will see different numbers quoted, because they are describing different things.

  • You may see some sources quote a number as low as 1 quart per person per day. Assume that this refers to barely keeping a healthy person alive while waiting quietly for rescue in mild weather conditions. Assume that this does not refer to you.
  • A more realistic number is 1 gallon per person per day. This takes into account the fact that you may be doing physical labor and sweating a lot, and it may be summertime and hot, and it also includes a very small allowance for personal hygiene like brushing your teeth and washing your face and hands.
  • Storing 2 gallons per person per day is more conservative, because that also allows for a bit of cooking and dish-washing.

The formula I use is: (total number of gallons) = (number of days you need) times (number of people in your family) times (2).

The number of days will come from your estimation of how long you’ll be on your own, but water is so crucial that you would do well to store more days of water than days of food. Two weeks would be great if you have room for it (remember Katrina), but even 3 days is much better than nothing.

Container Size

Containers come in many sizes, but I find it helpful to divide them into three categories, each with its own purpose:

Portable

Image of small portable containersBy “portable” I mean that you can conveniently pick up the container and walk off with it, or stuff it into a backpack. Roughly speaking, these have a capacity of one quart or less. You won’t generally be using these for the main body of your storage, but they’re the only practical type of container to include in a “car kit” that you can evacuate with — on foot if necessary. (We’ll do a separate post later dedicated just to Car Kits.)

Semi-Portable

Image of larger semi-portable containersThese are containers that you can lift and carry for a minute or two, but you wouldn’t want to lug them around for any appreciable distance. Typically these range in size from 1-gallon to 7-gallons. These are large enough so a single container can hold an entire day’s supply of water for a typical family, yet still small enough so you can pick one up to move it from room to room. In the event you need to evacuate, it’s also practical to bring along a couple or even a few of these in your car.

Non-Portable

Image of larger semi-portable containersThese are the big boys, typically barrels ranging from 30 to 55 gallons in size. They are great if you want to store a full 2-week supply or more, but you’re not going to move them (a 55-gallon drum weighs well over 400 pounds when full). Many readers will choose not to use these, but they are worth considering for large families.

Where to Store Water

When you choose a place to store water, remember that water is heavy; about 8 pounds per gallon. Before you start filling up shelves with water containers, check the maximum weight limit on the shelves because some are not designed for that kind of load. Remember that the shelving will be under extra stress during the shaking of a quake, so be conservative. If a shelf is rated for 500 pounds, I wouldn’t recommend putting more than a couple hundred pounds of water on it.

Another consideration is that you should never store water near anything that is poisonous or that smells bad, especially petrochemicals like gasoline. Over time the vapors can permeate many containers and ruin your water. The only reason my family can use our garage for water storage is that we never store liquid fuel or pesticides in there.

Expedient Sources

There are a couple of places that you may have water stored in your home without even trying.

Your Water Heater

Image of conventional water heaterIf you have a conventional water heater tank in your house, you probably already have 20-40 gallons of clean, potable water stored in the tank.

Advantages:

  • No extra cost.
  • No extra work.
  • The water is automatically rotated so it’s always fresh.

Disadvantages:

  • Limited capacity.
  • If you have only “on-demand” water heating, you cannot use this method because there is no tank in that kind of system.
  • You must remember to shut off the incoming water supply as soon as possible after the earthquake, so that problems in the municipal water mains won’t contaminate your tank.

To draw the water from your hot water heater, find the drain valve somewhere near the bottom of the tank and use that. If it doesn’t flow or flows too slowly try opening a faucet elsewhere in the house to break the vacuum in your plumbing system. Be careful: this water may be hot for some time after an earthquake!

Your water heater can be a wonderful source of clean drinking water for most families, but I’d be very reluctant to depend on it as my only source because things can go wrong: You might forget to turn off the input valve and get contamination from the public water lines, your plumbing system might spring a leak during the earthquake and let all the water leak out, etc. By all means use this source if you can, but for security I recommend that you also have separate containers with stored water.

Water Cooler Bottles

If you have a water service deliver to your house, you can order extra jugs so you always have a few full ones in reserve. Just be sure to rotate them so you’re always using the oldest one. Of course, this only makes sense if you already have the service anyway; I would not spend the money on delivery just to get some water storage.

Type of Packing, Rotation, and Filters

There are basically two ways water can be packed for storage: in a factory or do-it-yourself. Each way has its advantages and disadvantages:

  • Commercial packing is usually aseptic, i.e. sterile. This makes the water last much longer since there are zero spores, bacteria, or algae present that could later grow in it, but it requires special equipment that is not available in the home. On the other hand, it can be quite expensive because you not only pay for the packing process, you also pay for shipping the container and the water to your home. Hiring a UPS truck to haul a hundred pounds of water to your house isn’t cheap.
  • Packing water at home is a lot more economical: just buy the empty containers, fill them yourself with tap water, and add a little bleach to kill any bugs. For large quantities like 55-gallon barrels it’s really the only reasonable way to do it. However, you’re going to be stuck with chlorine-based sanitization (which kills most but not all of the undesirable biological “stuff” in it) rather than heat-based sterilization (which kills all of the bad stuff).

There are applications for both types, but for most people commercial packing will be prohibitively expensive for your main supply and thus you’ll be filling your own containers. I’ve stored water with just a little bleach in it and it still seemed fine years later so I’d love to tell you that’s all you need to do, but I trust that the microbiologists at the CDC know what they’re talking about and they say that it’s really only safe to drink for 6 months even if it looks and smells clean. (The American Red Cross and FEMA also give the same recommendation.) The last thing you need is to get sick from bad water when there is little or no medical help available, so please pay attention to what the nice people at the CDC are telling us.

On the other hand, let’s be realistic here: Are you really going to rotate all your water containers twice a year, every year? Forever? Maybe your family has that kind of organization and self-discipline, but most of the rest of us don’t. Maybe for the first year, but dumping out all your jugs and refilling them gets old really fast, and we’re all busy, and … in the real world, it’s not going to happen. So what can we do? Is all hope lost?

Not at all. The CDC has a second recommendation, which says that if you must drink water of uncertain safety, run it through a filter which is certified to remove biological nasties. These filters are based on carbon or ceramics (or both), and the good news is that the shelf life of the filters is indefinite. (They also say you can skip the filtering and simply re-treat the water with bleach, but bleach has a short shelf life so that’s not a great method to bet your health on.)

Now we have the strategy I recommend, which:

  • Is consistent with CDC guidelines, and
  • Is not exorbitantly expensive, and
  • Is actually practical for busy families.

I’ll provide detailed directions for how to do this next week, but here’s the general idea:

  1. Buy empty containers, and clean and sanitize them.
  2. Fill them yourself with tap water, and add a little bleach to kill most of the bad stuff that might be in it.
  3. Seal up your supply and store it in a cool, dark place.
  4. Store a good filter with it.
  5. Check it every few months, and rotate if it looks or smells funny.

Sources You Should Not Use

Bottled Water

Don’t even think about it. It seems wonderfully convenient to just pick up a couple cases of bottled water and stash it away, but there is one little problem: they will leak.Image of unacceptable containers Not right away; they’re sneaky and will wait for a year or two until you’ve forgotten about them in the back of the closet, and then they’ll start silently leaking, damaging the other contents of your closet and wreaking havoc on your home as they leak into the floor and out the ceiling on the next level down.

The problem is that those bottles simply aren’t meant to last very long. In fact, they’re supposed to break down after you throw them away. The same is true for the 1-gallon jugs you can buy in the grocery store.

Re-Used Containers

Some very frugal folks save bottles and jars, wash them out, and re-use them for water storage. I don’t recommend this:

  • Jars are glass. Earthquakes make things tip over and fall. Glass breaks.
  • Plastic product bottles are designed for one-time use and may slowly and invisibly degrade over time.
  • Plastic containers tend to absorb whatever is in them, which then leaches back out into any water you store in them later.

Swimming Pools

A swimming pool is an obvious expedient source of water, but it has two serious drawbacks:

  • Opinion is mixed on whether this water is really safe to drink in large quantities. A lot of dirt and crud ends up in any pool, and some of it can combine with chlorine to make compounds you don’t want to drink.
  • Swimming pools often crack and leak in earthquakes, so it is not prudent to rely on them.

Your pool water will be fine to use for sanitation, but I wouldn’t rely on it for drinking water.

Waterbeds

Another obvious source of water is your waterbed (if you have one). Don’t drink that! The water in waterbeds is typically treated with poisonous conditioners to inhibit algae growth and prevent bad stagnant smells from developing. Use it for flushing but never for drinking.

Conclusion

You now have an overview of storing water, which is more than enough information to absorb in one week, but you will still need to select actual containers to use. We’ll cover that in future posts, considering each size of container in detail, discussing when each type is appropriate, and reviewing specific products that are available.

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