Storing Water For An Emergency 101 – Dos and Don’ts

Bottled Water Being Prepared For Emergency Distribution by National GuardsmenIt might seem like a simple enough thing, but storing water long-term in preparation for an emergency requires a bit of know-how. If you plan to bottle your own supply of emergency water, there are quite a few things to consider and safety precautions to help ensure your water is safe to drink when you need it most. In this guide, we’ll go through a crash course on the hows and whys of proper long-term water storage.

But before we begin, for those who prefer simplicity over doing it themselves, it is worth noting that an exceptional long-term water storage solution is available on the shelves of every supermarket. Commercially bottled water is held to rigorous sanitation standards and is specifically designed and packaged for long-term storage. Commercially bottled water with an unbroken seal is considered to have an indefinite shelf life by the FDA. In contrast, even with the best practices, water bottled at home is only considered to have a safe shelf life of around 6 months.

Not sure how much water you will need? Read our guide to ensuring you have enough water prepared for an emergency.

Simple Guide To Long-Term Water Storage

When it comes to water storage we have three main areas of concern:

  • Water Source: Where your water came from and what kind of treatment it has (or hasn’t) undergone is the most important factor in determining your needs for water storage. If your water comes directly from a well, stream, or lake, you will want to add disinfectants to the water in order to prepare it for long-term storage. Water from a municipal supply (like your local tap water) is typically already treated with disinfectants and does not require the addition of any disinfectant before storage. Consult your local water authorities for details on how your municipal water supply is treated.
  • Storage Container: What you store your water in can make a huge difference over the long-term. Always select quality, durable, food-grade materials for water storage. Always make sure the container can hold a proper seal. Consider where and how the containers will be stored. Try to keep your emergency water supply in cool temperatures ideally 65 degrees Fahrenheit or below, away from light, and in a location where they are unlikely to be damaged or misplaced. If selecting plastics, look for high durability HDPE containers, such as these. Unlike the type of plastic used in consumer bottled water, this is much more durable and less likely to degrade or leech chemicals into your water.
  • Sanitation: The primary concern with bottling your own water at home for long-term storage comes from sanitation. Even water stored with the best practices and proper disinfectants is still considered contaminated after six months and it is advised that it be dumped out and refilled. With this in mind, it is vital to properly prepare your bottles and your work space for maximum cleanliness and sanitation. Always wash your bottles thoroughly with soap and warm water and consider disinfecting the containers with a mild bleach solution before bottling.

What Is The Risk Of Storing Water Long-Term? Does Water “Go Bad”?

Legionella sp Bacteria On Plate
Legionella sp bacteria culture under UV light

The simplest answer is yes, water does go bad. In different ways and for different reasons, the perfectly tasty and drinkable water you bottled a few months ago could be foul-tasting or even dangerous to your health. The primary concern is from microorganisms – these little critters are more or less impossible to get rid of. Even with proper sanitation technique and disinfectants added to the water, long-term DIY water storage solutions are notoriously prone to contamination and after months of storage colonies of microorganisms can multiply and pose a real health risk.

While there are a vast array of potentially harmful organisms that could make themselves at home in your emergency water, the most looming health concern is a pneumonia-like condition known as Legionnaires’ Disease. Caused by Legionella, a bacteria which thrives in warm water. Even when treated with disinfectants, bacteria such as Legionella are not entirely removed from your water supply. One important thing to note is that bacteria and microorganisms love warmer temperatures. Storing your water in a cool place can put a serious damper on bacterial growth. For example, Legionella prefer water temperatures around 68-100 degrees Fahrenheit. Outside of that range they find it much more difficult or even impossible to grow and multiply.

When disinfectant is added to water, such as chlorine, the disinfectant begins to slowly breakdown. For chlorine, the lifetime of the disinfecting action is around six (6) months. This is why FEMA Water Storage Guidelines call for replacing your DIY-emergency bottled water supply every six months. After the disinfectant has broken down, bacteria and harmful microorganisms can begin to grow freely within the water. In extreme cases this can even result in algae growing on the inside of your containers – disgusting!


How To Disinfect Water For Storage

Unscented chlorine bleach
Unscented Chlorine Bleach is the most widely-available disinfectant in most locations

If you’re getting your water from a municipal supply, it has likely already been disinfected and is safe to store in a sanitized container for approximately six months. If you are getting your water from an untreated source such as a well or lake, you will need to add a disinfectant and may want to consider filtering the water before bottling. If the water appears murky, cloudy, or discolored in anyway, filter it before disinfecting and bottling. (More on filtering below.)

The simplest and most common disinfectant used is non-scented chlorine bleach. Be sure that it is UNSCENTED chlorine bleach, with an active ingredient of either 6% or 8.25% Sodium Hypochlorite. Using a medicine dropper, add 6 drops of 8.25% bleach per gallon of water, or 8 drops of 6% bleach per gallon of water.

Seal the container carefully. Consider wearing a pair of disposable gloves to minimize the germ exposure from your hands. Never touch the underside of the bottle’s cap or the rim of the bottle. Seal tightly and shake the container vigorously.

Thirty minutes after adding the bleach the water should be disinfected and safe to drink. The water should have a slight chlorine odor. If after thirty minutes there is no smell of chlorine, repeat the procedure with the same amount of bleach and check for odor again in fifteen minutes.

Use a real, calibrated Medicine Dropper to ensure accurate measurements when adding disinfectant

Disinfecting water with bleach is perfectly safe, but will leave a chlorinated taste and odor to the water. This taste and odor is not an indication that the water is unsafe to drink.

These recommendations are part of the EPA’s Guide To Emergency Disinfection of Water. Check out that page for more details and in-depth instruction.

Always be extremely careful when working with bleach as it is potentially toxic. Read the labels and packaging thoroughly, use proper measuring tools, and note that bleach itself expires. According to the Clorox website, bleach stored at room temperature of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit has a shelf life of about one year. Just like it breaks down in your stored water, bleach also decays even when unopened. Bleach kept past its expiration date should not be used to disinfect water.

High-Capacity Long-Term Emergency Water Storage With Water Tanks

Sure Water 260 Gallon Emergency Water TankA water tank or a similar water storage container can hold dozens or hundreds of gallons of water safely for extended periods. These are ideal for those who want to equip their home with an emergency water supply that can last days or even weeks in the even of a disaster. While such a system can represent a substantial investment, it can be a very serious lifeline should your home find itself without access to water for multiple days or weeks at a time.

For more on water tanks, be sure to check out our comprehensive guide: “Best Water Tanks – Choosing a High-Capacity Water Storage Container for Emergencies or Rainwater Harvesting.”

Filtering Before Disinfecting and Bottling

The Berkey BTX2-BB Travel Gravity Water Filter Disassembled
Berkey BTX2-BB Travel Gravity Water Filter (Click to view price)

If your water source is visibly murky or cloudy, has foul taste or odor, or you suspect it to be contaminated for any reason, it should always be filtered before being stored. In an emergency situation, you can easily improvise a filter from a thin cloth or a paper towel. Consider adding some coffee filters to your emergency kit as they can prove useful in hundreds of different ways.

Filtering through something like a coffee filter or paper towel will do a good job of removing all of the larger bits of sediment and removing a small amount of contaminant from the water. While it is better than nothing, this is not a proper water filter by any means. Our favorite solution for filtering water before storage is making use of a countertop gravity water filter, in particular the Berkey Travel. Equipped with some of the best water filters commercially available, the Berkey does an amazing job of filtering contaminants and providing safe and delicious drinking water. It is also incredibly useful in an emergency for replenishing your water supply.

While other solutions are available, in terms of emergency preparation the gravity water filter is hard to beat. Especially if you plan on bottling large amounts of water for storage, the multi-gallon capacity and high flow-rate of a quality gravity filter will make the job simple. Useful not only in preparing for an emergency, gravity water filters truly shine in an emergency situation where they can filter enough water to provide for an entire household’s needs.

Learn everything you need to know about gravity water filters in our Guide to the Best Gravity Water Filters 2017.

Berkey Water Filters

Filtering Water During An Emergency

Survivor Filter with Hydration Bladder Being Squeezed
The portable Survivor Water Filter (Click to view price)

In a serious long-lasting emergency where electricity and access to potable water can be severely limited for days or weeks, you can quickly find your well-prepared emergency water supply running dry. Even worse, you might find your water has been contaminated or the storage containers damaged and little more than a mess. Both of these situations are why equipping yourself with a quality gravity- or manually-powered water filter can literally be a lifesaving decision.

We’ve already mentioned the gravity water filter above and cannot endorse them strongly enough for their utility in an emergency. They are capable of rendering water potable from virtually any source, be it a stagnant puddle, flood waters, a lake, or even your own stored water which has gone bad.

But another great addition to any emergency preparedness kit is a portable water filter. The Survivor Filter is small enough to fit into your pocket or easily slip into your emergency kit. Capable of removing chemical contaminants, particulates, as well as viruses and bacteria with its 0.05 micron filtration pores, the Survivor is ideal as a backup emergency water filter. It too can filter from virtually any source and make even the nastiest water drinkable. With its bladder attachment (pictured right) it can be used to filter water for use for multiple people, filter water for cooking, and even provide water for personal hygiene use. Without the bladder, the Survivor Filter functions like a straw, relying on suction to pull water through the filter. Read our complete review of the Survivor Filter.

For more on portable water filters, check out our Best Portable Water Filters Guide.


Now Is The Time To Prepare

Flooding From Natural DisasterAs we draw this guide to a close, we want to encourage you to take action on what you’ve just learned. If you already have an emergency supply, make sure it is up-to-date, properly stored, and has not been contaminated by bugs or damaged by the elements. If you include items like water you bottled yourself, be sure to mark the date it was bottled and replace it every 5-6 months. Take note of any other expiration dates on any items in your emergency kit, including items which are not so obviously perishable such as chlorine bleach.

We noted at the beginning of this article that bottled water is considered to have an effectively indefinite shelf life. However, this is for the water in the bottle, not necessarily the bottle itself. Improper storage can result in the plastic bottles decaying or becoming damaged and no longer properly sealed. Commercially bottled water often includes expiration dates which are largely used to reduce liability and encourage inventory turnover, however they may also take into consideration the longevity of the bottle itself. Always ensure your emergency bottled water is properly stored and in good condition.

Good luck and stay safe!

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