Household Drinking-Water Preparedness


How many of us have seen announcements like these in the places where we live? Most of us, probably, at one time or another. Whether from the inevitable water-main breaks that happen in a city’s water system, or from natural disasters or maintenance needs or other causes, no town or city is immune to the potential for contamination or shut-off of its water system. Not even a city like mine, where I consider the utilities and public-works departments to be highly competent.

In my city right now, the boil-water notice was announced for 48 hours starting this past Monday afternoon. A water-main break had introduced air into the system, opening the way for potential pathogens to get in.

My city’s instructions call for bringing the water to a rolling boil for 2 full minutes, as a precaution to destroy potential pathogens.

Boiling sufficient water to meet a household’s drinking needs is a bit of an effort. As a rough rule of thumb, I allow a gallon a day per person for drinking and tooth-brushing:

1. “8 x 8” (eight, eight-ounce glasses of water per day for drinking — that is a half-gallon)(in summer, in hot climates, more may be needed especially by people working outdoors)

2. Use the remaining half-gallon per person per day for cooking, brushing teeth, making ice if you choose to make ice during a boil-water notice.

Electric kettles speed up the task of boiling. And, whether it’s in an electric kettle or a pot or kettle on the stovetop, those of us living in the rich industrialized world are fortunate to have access to quick means of boiling water and cooking food.

(In countries where people have to gather firewood for this task, and countries where access to safe drinking water is an ONGOING problem rather than just a temporary glitch, you can only imagine how difficult it must be for people. More about that has been mentioned in my book and on this blog.)

But although our fossil-powered appliances make it easy, boiling water in large enough amounts to meet a household’s needs still requires significant time and care. And waiting for the water to cool down enough to drink takes time also.

And buying bottled water is expensive, as well as supporting corporations that are pumping out our aquifers and generating mountains of plastic trash. I recommend never buying or drinking storebought bottled water unless you absolutely have to. The only bottled water I drink is bottles filled from my tap.

Water shut-offs and boil-water notices can happen anytime! My recommendation is for ALL citizens to be prepared, 24-7, for a water-supply disruption. Here are my suggestions:

• My NUMBER ONE easiest and cheapest suggestion, and my own number-one go-to!!! If you do NOTHING else, do this!!! Keep drinking water on hand at all times, stored in bottles such as large glass jugs, used wine-bottles, stainless-steel water bottles, etc. that you fill from your tap. Also for this purpose you can fill the large jugs that are used for water coolers; they hold 5 or 6 gallons. To prevent growth of algae (which according to my understanding is not toxic but it can be unappealing), keep this backup water stash stored in a dark location such as a closet, or cover the bottles with a towel, etc. As (I hope) you do with the canned goods in your pantry, use up the stored water periodically and refill the bottles with fresh water, to ensure you will always have fresh drinking water on hand. I always try to keep on hand a week’s supply for each fulltime resident of my household. At this moment we have 20 gallons on hand (not counting our stored rainwater which right now is at 400 gallons), which could be stretched to cover three people’s drinking and tooth-brushing needs for a week.

*Make sure all roommates/housemates and guests know where the backup drinking water is stored. Encourage your neighbors to adopt a simple drinking-water storage method as well.

*Extra Tip: If you cook vegetables in water during a boil-water notice, save the cooking water for use as a nourishing “vegetable tea” which can go toward meeting your drinking-water needs.

• More-expensive ($300ish?) suggestion but highly recommended and a great investment: Get your household a Big Berkey filter or equivalent. According to my understanding, they remove pathogens to the same degree as does boiling water. Do your own research by visiting the manufacturer website, calling them directly etc. But I personally know many people who use and trust the Berkey, and I myself trust it as well though I do not have one.

• Another more-expensive ($300ish) suggestion: Invest in a solar oven, which can be used not only for cooking food but also for pasteurizing water. My personal top choice which I have used since 2006 is the Global Sunoven, but many other brands exist and you can also build your own. Unlike a stovetop or electric kettle or wood/charcoal fire, a solar oven can be left unattended for hours or even days with no danger of fire, kettle/pot melting from being forgotten and boiled dry, etc. It’s nice to be able to walk away and attend to other chores and errands, knowing that Mr. Sun is beaming down all those fat, sunny, free photons for you pasteurizing your drinking water.

• Another higher-end measure is to collect rainwater in barrels. I use my collected rainwater for irrigation and showers, but would not hesitate to use it as backup drinking water in times of emergency (actually have done that for periods of weeks at a time as an experiment).

• Global Sunoven also sells a Water Pasteurization Indicator, WAPI ($12). This is a small, sealed, reusable tube filled with a waxy substance designed to melt when water has been heated to a sufficient combination of temperature plus duration for pasteurization (killing of pathogens) to occur.

• If you don’t have a WAPI, you can still use the duration + temperature method by using a thermometer such as a candy thermometer. The WAPI or candy thermometer method works whether you are heating water using a solar oven, stovetop, regular oven, wood cookfire, pot on your charcoal grilll, or whatever.

Temperature Plus Duration example times:
*Rolling boil 2 min
*150 degrees F (65 degrees C) 6 min

(A rolling-boil advisory is used because it gives people an easy way to see if the water is boiling, and stand there and time the two minutes. BUT, pasteurization can also be done at lower temps — you just have to allow more time!)

• SODIS: Solar Disinfection method. Put water into bottles and put it outside; UV exposure will pasteurize the water in a few hours. I once did this with raw river-water in Austin TX on a cloudy day just to test it out; I drank the water and was fine though I am not recommending that other people go to this extreme except in event of actual emergency with no alternative. But the info is good to have!! (I am looking up the time duration + sun combo info for you and will post it here)

For detailed info – visit a water pasteurization info page (see links below) or contact me directly; I have been doing household drills and teaching community classes with these methods and tools for years as part of everyday household & neighborhood preparedness.

Water is life! Keep your household and community safe with redundant water supplies and a low-tech, low-fuel pasteurization method.

Photos from my corresponding Facebook post: 1) stovetop kettle; 2) electric kettle (left); and emergency household water supply that is always on hand: tapwater stored in large glass bottles and stainless-steel bottle (right); (3 & 4) Global Sunoven being used to pasteurize drinking water at my home, which is also the headquarters of my grassroots community-servant organization Permaculture Daytona.

And, on my art page: This pretty trio of bottles decorates one corner of my office/studio-bedroom, while also serving as measuring devices that, together, contain about a one-day supply of drinking water plus a little extra for tooth-brushing.

Safety and sustainability is a community thing, and low-tech simple preparedness methods are our friend! Reliable, central city water supply is a great blessing, but supply disruptions happen even in the most well-managed systems run by the most caring and competent staff as we have in my city. Let’s all reduce our vulnerability to disruption of centralized supply systems, look out for each other and keep each other safe and healthy!! I offer talks and workshops on this and other essential topics for your congregation, neighborhood group, or other community. Any questions, please contact me anytime. I am here for you!

Added 12/19/21: Bonus fun water storage tips: Have different pretty bottles in each room. (In my bedroom I have a set of differently shaped wine & liquor bottles in shades of pale blue, to go with an oceanic theme.) Each household member could choose their own bottles to suit them. For young kids, use stainless steel or other non-shattering bottles rather than glass. Also for kids, you could turn the water storage operation into a fun practical math activity, including liter-to-ounce conversions, figuring how many 8-ounce glasses in a bottle, etc.


• The WAPI:

• A Summary of Water Pasteurization Techniques, paper by Dale Andreatta, Ph. D., P. E. A treasure trove of DIY info:

• The SODIS method – info from CDC: