The average family of four uses about 400 gallons of water per day but you can get by with much less. According to U.S. government guidelines, for emergencies, it is recommended you store at least one gallon of water per person. About ¾ of the water would be used for consumption with the remainder used for sanitation. Children, nursing mothers, and people with disease or illnesses (e.g. diabetes) will require slightly more water. But U.S. guidelines presume you only require an emergency water supply for 3-4 days. What if you need water beyond that? How do you stockpile water and ensure it remains safe to drink in an extended emergency?
Storing bottled water for an emergency
If the seal has not been broken, bottled water can be safely stored for several years. However, the life of flavored water, vitamin water, or coconut water is significantly lower. For instance, the life of vitamin water is only about 9 months. For this reason, only pure, filtered bottled water should be stored for emergencies.
How long bottled water remains safe to drink depends highly on the type of plastic used in the bottle’s container. After a few years, chemicals from the plastic bottle will leach into the water and reach a level where they pose a health risk. This leaking of chemicals can be detected by an “off” taste in the water.
Storing tap water for an emergency
Unlike bottled water, tap water will only last for about 6-9 months if it is tightly sealed and stored in a dark, cool location. After several months, the water runs the risk of being contaminated with dangerous bacteria. The determining factor for tap water shelf life is the amount of chlorine the municipality adds to the water. Chlorine is added to improve taste and kill harmful bacteria. The more chlorine in the water, the longer the water will remain fresh. Most chlorinated water contains between 1-2 ppm (parts per million) chlorine. EPA says that 4 ppm is the maximum amount of chlorine that can be safe to drink.
Storing water – how to extend the shelf life of water
Water should be stored in a cool, dark place (but not near other chemical containers). Sunlight and heat leach chemicals from the container into the water and encourage the growth of dangerous bacteria. If a refrigerator and electricity is available, use it to store the water and slow the growth of bacteria.
Place the water in the container and tighten the lid. Then place the container in a cool, dry place. If wax is available, melt and apply around the lid before attaching.
If you use a water hose to fill the container, ensure the hose does not touch the container. A hose can introduce bacteria which will eventually grow inside the container and render the water supply useless. If possible, use a drinking-water hose, the type used for campers and RVs, instead of a regular garden hose.
If available, use a chlorine tester to test the amount of chlorine in the water. A swimming pool test kit will work but a chlorine test kit for testing drinking water is even better. If the amount of chlorine is less than 4 ppm, add chlorine until the level reaches 4 ppm (the maximum amount of chlorine that is safe to drink). If a test kit is not available, you can use your sense of smell in a pinch. Add chlorine until you can faintly smell it in the water. Since your sense of smell can be desensitized when handling the chlorine, have someone else smell the water (a female is best since their sense of smell is keener than a male’s).
Picking suitable water containers
It is best to store water in multiple containers. Keeping water in multiple containers ensures you have “backup” water in case a supply container is contaminated. Small containers can be used for water that will be consumed first and larger containers used for longer-term storage.
Storing water in office water cooler bottles
Five-gallon office water cooler bottles are easy to obtain and cheap. They are constructed from materials that will not leach chemicals into the water supply. Since the containers are typically clear, it’s imperative that the bottles be stored away from sunlight.
Storing water in 5-10-gallon water storage containers
Your best option for water storage is five- or ten-gallon drums designed specifically for water storage and transport. These jugs are portable (often used for camping) and are typically blue in color. As an added bonus, they are typically stackable which makes storage much easier.
Storing water in used water bottles
Used water bottles can be used but they should be cleaned first. Wash the bottle using dish soap and then sanitize with 1 teaspoon of bleach mixed with 1 quart of water. Don’t forget to sanitize the lid too. Fill the bottle ¾ full of bleach solution, attach the lid, and shake. Pour the solution out and repeat. When finished, rinse the bottle with clean water. Finally, fill the bottle with clean water and add 2 drops of unscented household bleach (4-6% sodium hypochlorite) to extend the water’s shelf life.
Storing water in 55-gallon drums
Large drums can be used to store water, but you must ensure they are either new or they were not previously used to store dangerous chemicals. Two 55-gallon drums will provide a family of four with water for about a month. Note however, that a filled 55-gallon plastic drum will weigh 440 lbs. so they are not very portable. An additional advantage of drums is that once emptied, they can be placed outside to collect rainwater.
Plastic drums typically seal the best and can provide a watertight seal if they are in good condition. Many are designed for food storage and thus use food-grade plastic that is BPA-free and UV-resistant.
The metal type (carbon steel or stainless steel) with removable tops (open head drums) can be used but are often difficult to seal. Manufacturer’s gaskets can age and disintegrate and typically use bolt or lever lock rings for closure that can break or loosen. If the drum’s gasket is bad or the locking mechanism is broken, silicone, if available, can be applied to the rim to seal the container. Rope can also be superglued to the rim for a decent seal. Be aware though – chlorine in water corrodes steel and thus, steel drums are only useful for short-term storage.
Regardless of the type of drum used, if the drum will be stored on concrete (e.g. garage floor), place it on a wooden pallet. The drum material can interact with chemicals in the concreate and degrade the material. This is especially true for plastic drums.
Storing water in rain barrels
It’s not an ideal long-term solution but is still a good idea to place rain barrels under gutter pipes to collect rainwater. The water can be filtered and/or boiled and used for sanitation purposes, saving your other water supplies for personal consumption.
Storing water in a bathtub
A bathtub can hold about 100 gallons of water. It is not sanitary though. Water stored in a bathtub will contain dirt and soap film. Still, if an emergency occurs, fill the bathtub immediately but only use the water for short-term sanitation purposes. The water can be boiled before use to reduce the risk.
Note that there are products designed specifically for bathtub water storage. They are often 100-gallon plastic bags that are designed to be placed in a bathtub and filled with water. The kit usually contains a hose that can be attached to the bathtub faucet and a siphon pump to allow easy extraction from the storage bag.
Storing water in IBC Totes (Intermediate Bulk Container)
IBC Totes are used for storage in the food industry. Used IBC Totes are often discarded by restaurants after use and thus, are easily obtainable for a reasonable cost. They typically come in 275- or 330-gallon sizes. If they are food grade containers, they provide excellent storage for water. They are not portable though. Once filled with water, they will weigh over 2,000 pounds.
Storing water in a hot water heater
You likely have a large capacity water container already installed in your house – your hot water heater. Turn off the hot water heater and seal off openings. A hot water heater will provide nearly a month’s worth of water for two people. However, hot water heaters often contain sediment that will contaminate the water supply over time.
Storing water in milk jugs – NO!
Do not store water in milk jugs. Milk jugs are not constructed for long-term storage and degrade quickly, leaching chemicals into the water supply and contaminating your water.
Storing drinking water in a swimming pool
A swimming pool will contain about 20,000 gallons of water and is pre-treated with chlorine. It can be the first source of drinking water. But, since the water is left exposed and the chlorine preparation is only 2 ppm, the water will become contaminated quickly. The water will go bad even quicker if lack of electricity renders the pumps and filtration systems inoperable. If pumps remain operational, chlorine can be re-added to the water to keep it fresh for a longer period. Regardless, don’t forget the water in a swimming pool can be extracted during an emergency situation and quickly placed in containers for longer-term storage.
How to identify “bad water”
Discoloration and odor can help identify “bad” water. The water may become cloudy and may have a strange smell. You can also taste the water to test it. If it tastes bad, spit it out and discard the water. However, if the water tastes “flat”, it may not be bad. Air molecules in the water will escape over time and cause the water to taste “funny”. To see if lack of oxygen is the cause of the unusual taste, pour the water back and forth between two containers a few times and taste again. The process of pouring the water back and forth will aerate the water, putting oxygen molecules back into the water supply.
A gallon of water per person per day is the general rule. Three quarters of the water is used for drinking and the remaining quarter used to maintain safe hygiene. Since most of your water supply will be used for drinking, it makes sense to attempt to reduce your need for water. To lengthen the supply of water, reduce the amount of unnecessary movement and stay in a cool place, away from the sun.
Water for pets and livestock
Don’t forget about pets and livestock. To calculate the water requirements for a pet, take the weight of an animal and divide by 8. This is the amount of water in cups your pet will require. Also, pets can handle contaminated water better than humans. In an emergency, discarded water can be used for pets.
Labeling water supplies
You should rotate water supplies about every six months. Once the container is filled, write the date on the container to keep track of the age of the water supply.