Water

Clean, safe water is absolutely essential — much more important than food. If a large earthquake seriously disrupts the municipal supplies you may be completely on your own for a while, so it is vital that you have a stored supply. The water itself is almost free, but it will generally cost at least $2 per gallon to store it.

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 we can use our garage for water storage is that we never store liquid fuel in there.

Simple Plan

Summary of options

Long-term water storage options
TypeBrandStackable?RotationAmount per
container
Aprox.
Cost/gallon
Example
Vendor
PacketDatrexin casereplace in 5 years4.2 oz.$13Amazon
Small aseptic boxAquaBloxin casereplace in 5 years8.4 oz.$15Emergency Essentials
CanWorld Grocerin casereplace in 30 years24 oz.$22JJWTech
Large aseptic boxAquaLiterzin casereplace in 5 years34 oz.$12Emergency Essentials
Blue rigid jugAqua-Pakempty and refill2.5 gal$6Amazon
Blue/tan rigid blockWaterBrickempty and refill3.5 gal$5.50Shelf Reliance
Blue rigid jugAqua-Pakempty and refill5 gal$4Emergency Essentials
White rigid jugempty and refill5 gal$2.50Emergency Essentials
Boxed bagsempty and refill5 gal$1.6Emergency Essentials
Blue rigid jugAqua-tainerempty and refill7 gal$3REI
Plastic barreldrain and refill15 gal$4Emergency Essentials
Plastic barreldrain and refill30 gal$3Emergency Essentials
Plastic barreldrain and refill55 gal$2Emergency Essentials
Water heaterautomatic30+ galfree
Normal bottled waterNot acceptable for long-term storage.
Supermarket 1-gallon containers
Empty food or beverage containers
Swimming pools and waterbeds

How much do you need?

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

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.

Your water heater

Image of conventional water heater.
Brass drain valve
at bottom.

If you have a conventional water heater tank in your house, you probably already have 40 gallons or more of clean, potable water stored in the tank. Advantages:

Disadvantages:

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.

Lifeboat packets

Image of Datrex 4-ounce water packets.
Water packets from a car-kit.

You can buy sealed packets (typically 4 ounces each) of sterilized water which are intended for use in lifeboats. Advantages:

Disadvantages:

Because of the high cost these are a terrible way to store any significant amount of water. If you do use them, consider putting them in a ziplock bag for an added measure of safety against leaks (the packets are tough but can be punctured by sharp objects).

Datrex, MainStay, and MayDay all offer similar products. In a pinch you can tear these open, but I suggest packing a small pair of scissors to make it easier to avoid spillage.

Aseptic boxes

Image of aseptic water boxes.
Aseptic water boxes.

You've probably seen the little boxes of fruit juice that are made for kids' lunchboxes and come with a straw. These are called "aseptic packages" (i.e. they are sterilized), and you can buy water packed in them as well. Advantages:

Disadvantages: If you must use these, put them inside Ziplock bags the same way you would the pouches. The bag won't prevent leaks, but it will capture the leak and prevent it from ruining everything nearby.

Cans

Image of canned water.
24 oz. of canned water.

Yes, you can actually buy canned water. It may sound silly, but for certain situations it may be the best solution. Advantages:

Disadvantages:

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. Not right away; they'll 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 other side.

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 gallon-jugs you can buy in the grocery store.

Boxed bags

Image of boxed bags for water.
A 5-gallon mylar bag and
a box to hold it.

If you are very tight on space, you can purchase mylar bags (typically 5 gallons each) which fit into cardboard boxes. Advantages:

Disadvantages:


Jugs

Image of a 5-gallon plastic jug.
Portable water.

Plastic jugs are another good option for small (under 10 gallons) amounts of water. Use only jugs made of heavy rigid plastic, and of course make sure they are specifically rated as safe for drinking water. Avoid the collapsible ones, which I've found are prone to damage and leakage. Advantages:

Disadvantages:

Jugs are available in various sizes, such as 2.5, 3.5, 5, and 7 gallons. The larger ones tend to be cheaper per gallon, but water is heavy and the larger sizes can easily be too heavy to be portable once they're filled. Even if you're strong enough to lift it, your spouse or child might not be, or you might not be in perfect shape yourself when you need to move it. Go with the biggest size that is still manageable for you and your family.

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.

Barrels

If you choose to store a significant amount (50 gallons and up) of water for your family, drums are a very viable alternative. I recommend only new drums; although some people claim you can get used drums cheaper and clean them out, new ones are not that expensive and water is too important to be worth the risk of contamination. I would also avoid steel and stick to plastic to avoid any chance of rust or corrosion. Advantages:

Disadvantages:
Image of 4 55-gallon blue plastic drums.
Almost a ton of water.
Image of 4 55-gallon blue plastic drums.

Check out these pictures for a number of helpful hints:

If you want to buy barrels, shop around for price because it varies considerably from place to place. Also be ready for high shipping because UPS adds extra charges for barrels no matter where you buy them from. (They don't weigh much, but they take up a lot of room in the UPS truck.)

You can get either "closed head" or "open head" barrels, but all the emergency supply places offer only closed-head — I assume they must be a lot stronger. They are also impossible to get inside to clean, but since you're buying a brand-new barrel that's not an issue.

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:


Treating water for storage

The water that comes out of your tap is already potable, but it is not sterile. For long-term storage, you should add some disinfectant to make sure that the inevitable bacteria, algae, and spores don't grow. You can buy all kinds of expensive iodine or colloidal silver solutions for this, but all you need is a bottle of bleach. Get a fresh bottle (bleach loses potency after about 6 months) from any supermarket, and make sure it contains only sodium hypochlorite at a 5%-6% concentration (no scents).

Image of disinfectant supplies.
Nothing fancy required.

Step 1 is to disinfect your container. I know they're new, but the air is full of dust and random germs, some of which are bound to have drifted into your nice "clean" containers. Rinse them out well to get rid of any dust or dirt that might be inside, fill them half-way with water, add a high concentration of bleach (e.g. 3 fluid ounces per 5 gallons or 1 quart per 55 gallons), then fill the rest of the way right up to the top (no air space left). Don't drink this; such a high concentration of bleach is for cleaning not drinking. Let the container sit for a few hours to kill all the little buggies.

Step 2 is to actually store water. Dump out the disinfectant solution (down the drain, not on your plants), rinse it out with clean water and discard the rinse water, fill the container half-way, add bleach (this time at 1/2 teaspoon per 5 gallons or 1 fluid ounce per 55 gallons), and fill the rest of the way but this time leave a little air space at the top. If you've done this correctly, the container should remind you of a swimming pool when you sniff it, but the chlorine odor should not be overwhelming. Screw the lid on tight, put the container somewhere safe, and you're done. Your water will now have about 7 ppm sodium hypochlorite, which is high enough to disinfect but low enough to be drinkable.

Rotation

Water stores well but it won't store forever. You should occasionally rotate it (dump it out and refill the containers), but doing so is a fair bit of work. I've seen recommendations to rotate every 6 months, but that's really for untreated water. If you treat with bleach it should last much longer; I've let mine go for 3 years without any problems. A lot will depend on your storage conditions and whether you used enough bleach to disinfect the water. The most practical strategy is probably to check a couple samples every 6 months to see if it smells or tastes funny, and rotate when needed.

Improvised sources and filters

The most obvious expedient source of water is a swimming pool, but there are two drawbacks:

The next most obvious source of water is your waterbed (if you have one). Don't drink that! The water in waterbeds is typically treated with conditioners to inhibit algae growth and prevent bad stagnant smells from developing. Use it for washing or flushing, but not for drinking.

If you read "survival in the wilderness" books they'll explain how to find water in the wild and how to build solar stills. That's fine if you're lost in the wilderness, but after an earthquake you'll have better uses for your time. Do yourself a favor and store as much as you expect to need.

Image of Britta pitcher filter.
A pitcher filter.

You will also see a variety of filters for sale. Again, these are great in the wilderness where you have to drink water which has nasties like giardia in it, but this should not apply to your stored water — that was safe to drink when it came out of your tap, and the additional chlorine has had lots of time to kill anything that was left.

If you are worried about chemical contaminants in your tap water (or about all the chlorine we added), just use a charcoal-based pitcher-style filter (e.g. PUR or Britta) the same way you would use one now.

One final hint: before you drink stored water, pour it back and forth between a couple of clean containers to aerate it. Water tastes funny without any dissolved air in it, but a little pouring is all you need to put the air back into it.