Storing Water

Most disaster preparation materials suggest that you keep bottled water on hand. Whenever there is a disaster, there is a run on bottled water. It doesn't hurt to have a couple of gallons of unopened water in the garage or on top of the refrigerator. However, it is not very practical to try to store large amounts of water all the time. Water is heavy and water is bulky. Bottled water also does not last forever. There are expiration dates on water like on foods. Although the taste quality may not be an issue, bottled water can get contaminated over time.

You need to have about 7 gallons of drinking water for each person in the household. We are trying to plan for a week and you want about a gallon per person per day. If you use bottled water normally, then keep some extra bottles and rotate them, at least one five-gallon bottle for each person in the household.

Remember that there is a lot of useful water in soft drinks. You may not be able to wash your face in Coke, but we are talking about the water you need to drink. If your family keeps bottles or cans of soft drinks around, make sure there is always a good supply. If all the bottled water is gone when the disaster is coming, stock up on sodas. Get the sodas in the two liter bottles. You can use the bottles for storing treated water after you have drunk up the soda.

The best way to store water for a disaster is to keep containers that you can fill with water. There are expandable containers that are used to make wine and beer at home, and camping supplies also include water containers. They collapse flat when not in use and expand to hold as much as five gallons when filled. These can easily be stored with other disaster supplies. Another option is to keep a small garbage can with a tight fitting lid clean and available. You don't want to use one that is more than about 10 gallons. Remember that water weighs about 8 pounds per gallon.

Always set aside water for cooking and cleaning as well as the drinking water. Clean the bathtub carefully and fill it with water. Make sure you put something around the stopper, like caulk or silly putty that is nontoxic but that really seals well. Otherwise, it will all have drained out in a day or two. Keep a clean pot for dipping out water to use. Some cooking and all cleaning can be done with this water. It is clean the first day or two. After that it will begin to be contaminated. It can still be used for cooking if you boil it first or it can be treated with bleach to use for drinking. Save the drinking water for drinking and be very careful about not getting any contamination in drinking water.

Filling containers when you need them, as a way of storing water is particularly useful for situations where there is warning, like hurricanes, or when there is time to respond, like a blizzard. If you are in a sudden and unexpected disaster like an earthquake or a tornado and your city water supply is cut off or contaminated in the early stages of the situation, you are probably too close and you may need to evacuate to a shelter.

Once you have filled the bathtubs and your containers, turn off the city water coming into the house. If the public water system stays safe during the disaster, it is easy enough to turn it back on. If the city water becomes contaminated, you will still have a lot of drinkable water stored in your appliances. If you use up the drinkable water, you can then turn the main tap back on and use city water after you have purified it.

If the treatment system has broken down and the water coming out of your tap is not fit to drink or you have run out of your stored drinking water and need to drink the water stored in the bathtub, there are ways to make this water safe. There are also other places to find water that you can turn into drinking water.

If you have a private well or cistern or your regular water comes from some source other than a municipal water supply and you are in a disaster area, assume your water is unsafe until it is tested. You can take it from the tap but you have to treat it by boiling or adding bleach, just as you would treat water that you carried in from the river.

Assume well water is unsafe
until it is tested

Water Inside The House

When you need to find water to purify for drinking, start inside the house. Shut off the main water supply to the house if you know that the city water may be unfit to use. You have to do this before you run any water in anything; otherwise you pull in the dirty city water and contaminate the water inside your house. Once you have turned off the water main, you can use the water that is stored in your pipes and appliances.

To get the water out of the pipes, let air into the plumbing by opening the highest faucet in your house and taking water from the lowest one. Remember that there is no water pressure from the city pipes to make this water flow. You are using gravity to drain the pipes. If all your plumbing is on the same level you may not get much water this way because there is no low point to drain from. Once you have drained the lowest faucet, you can go back and drain the rest of the faucets one at a time to get as much water as possible.

Most houses have 40 or 50 gallons of drinkable water in the water heater. Turn off the gas or electricity to the heater. Then, when the water has cooled, you can drain it out through the flush drain at the bottom of the heater. Turn off the intake valve at the top of the heater. Then open a hot water faucet near the heater. This will break the vacuum and allow the water to flow out. The flush valves are not really intended to be used as faucets and they may not turn off very well. Also, they are there to let you drain sediment out of the tank to keep your heater working well. Be prepared with multiple containers to catch as much of the clean water as you can. The first water that comes out may look rusty. This can be filtered before use. As the water runs clear, it is fit to drink without further treatment.

Toilet tanks also have a lot of usable water in them unless you use cleaning agents in the tank. If you ever hang cleaning chemicals in the tank of the toilet, don't even think about trying to drink this water. Also, we are talking about the tank behind where you sit. This is the clean water that runs down into the bowl to flush the toilet. Do not try to use the water in the bowl itself. This is just too dirty. Take the lid off and look at the sides and bottom of the tank. If the sides of the tank look clean and not moldy, dip the water into a clean container for use.

Waterbeds can hold a lot of water, but they usually have toxic chemicals in the water to prevent mold and algae growth. If you are going to use a waterbed as an emergency source of water you have to plan this from the beginning. Never fill the mattress with water that has any treatment chemical except chlorine bleach in it. If your current mattress has treated water in it, get a new mattress. Drain the clean mattress yearly and refill it with water that contains one ounce of chlorine bleach for every 60 gallons of water.

Water Outside The House

Do you have a rain barrel?† If it is under the downspout from the roof, you can use the water for cleaning but don't try to drink it. There is a lot of nasty stuff on the roof. On the other hand, if the rain barrel is catching free falling rain, this is pretty good water. If you are trying to catch rainwater, think about what you are catching it in. Don't use the tarp that has been in the back of your pick-up for ten years and expect the water running off it to be clean.

If there is not a flood, water in streams and rivers that are free flowing can be used if you filter out the sediment and put chlorine in it. This is usually what the city does before it sends the water to your pipes. Be aware of where the water is coming from and what your neighbors are doing. If anyone is using the nearby stream as a toilet, don't try to use it for drinking water. You just can't clean it enough.

Lakes and ponds are also good sources of water if they are not contaminated. If you have a small lake nearby that has some natural flow in and out and it has not been flooded, you can use this as a water source. Be sure that it is a lake and not a detention pond for parking lot runoff or part of someone's septic system. "Ornamental" lakes and fountains around large buildings and housing developments are often part of the wastewater treatment or runoff control for that facility. These should not be used for drinking water since they tend to have the same problems as floodwater.

Don't try to use sea water or other salt water for drinking. To be drinkable, salt water has to be distilled, and there are a lot of chemical contaminants that become concentrated in the distilled water. I will include distillation in the ways to make water safe to drink, but if you get to this point, it is time to move your family to a shelter.

Swimming pools hold a lot of water but it may not be fit to drink. Remember, this is not a crystal clear spring. It has a whole lot of chemicals in it to keep it looking that clear. Most of these are there to poison something, like the bacteria on your body or the algae that want to grow on the sides of the pool. You don't want them to end up poisoning you.

None of the swimming pool chemicals is toxic to people in small doses since everyone knows that you are going to swallow some of the pool water when you are swimming. This doesn't mean that you can safely drink a gallon or two a day of this water. And don't try to purify this water by distilling. Distilling only takes out things like salt that don't stay in the water vapor. Chemicals that dissolve better in water vapor because it is hot or that have a lower boiling point than water will be more concentrated in the water you distilled. Use swimming pool water for cleaning and bathing, but don't try to drink it unless you are very sure of the treatments it has had.


You can use snow as a water source, but be careful. Don't use snow that has been contaminated by roof runoff or floodwater. Even clean looking snow may be contaminated with chemicals from the air. Get the cleanest snow you can and then boil it as treatment since you are going to need to melt it anyway. If it looks dark or smells, donít use water from snow.

Don't just eat snow for water. If you are sheltered inside, let it melt. If you are trapped outside in snow, hypothermia is a much greater danger than dehydration and eating snow cools off your core temperature very quickly.

Flood Water

Some water is just too dirty to use. If you are in a flood, stay out of the floodwater as much as possible and don't try to use it for anything. You can pretty much guarantee there are two things in floodwater that you don't want: poisons and human waste. Look around at all the cans of paint and insecticides and cleaning fluids that are stored in the typical garage. Is there a gas station or a photo shop near your house?† Where is the nearest mall or movie theater or other large public restroom?

When a neighborhood or town floods, everything that can float in water may be floating in the water around you. Most city sewer systems are pretty good about keeping the sewage in the pipes until it gets to the treatment plant. But, this usually depends on the pipes being above the level of the ground water and the streams around them. When an area floods, the sewer lines may be under water and able to leak out the top or through the manholes. If the treatment plant floods, the sewer lines may actually flow backward and flush raw sewage back into the floodwater.

Those cans of paint or insecticide in the garage may not stay closed when they are submerged in floodwater. They may get punctured by debris or run over by a car or boat. Everything in the can then gets into the water. The filling station tanks may be safe from leakage, but what about what gets spilled on the pavement and all the cans and bottles of oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid, etc. These are all in the trash that is now floating around. Any photo shop, paint store, hardware store, or the like has a lot of hazardous material stored on the premises. You just don't know what is in floodwater.

Never Use Flood Water.

How To Clean Water

Dirty water can often be cleaned enough that it can be used for washing or purified for drinking. Do not try to use water that has floating material in it, water that has any odor, or water that has a dark color. These are all indications that the water is significantly contaminated and may be dangerous no matter what you do to filter it or kill bacteria. On the other hand, a little dirt in the water can be cleaned out easily and won't hurt anyone.

If the water is cloudy, the first thing to do is take out as much of the dirt as possible. If you have time, start by letting it settle. Put the water in a tall container and leave it for 12 to 24 hours. Carefully dip or pour the cleaner water at the top into another container. Clean the water as you put it in the new container by running it through a filter. The easiest filter is a coffee filter. If you don't have a coffee filter, use a paper towel or a piece of a clean T-shirt or similar cloth. Change the filter whenever it gets visibly dirty.

Once water is filtered, it is fine as it is for cleaning things like clothing and floors. If you need it for drinking water, treat it to kill bacteria. Don't use water that you wouldn't drink to wash your face, rinse your dishes or clean the kitchen.