Water, water everywhere, and none around when you need it most. This should be the number one fear of preppers. Two to three days without water and you’re done.
The lack of water will impair you or kill you quicker than you have probably considered. Mild dehydration under normal conditions can set in within hours. By the time you stop sweating and your urine turns dark, you are severely dehydrated.
Once a headache and dizziness set in, your cognitive abilities are severely reduced. At this point, you’re already making bad decisions. The hard part is you will not have the physical ability to do much about it.
Combating dehydration is easy. Drink more. However, as we currently have “water, water everywhere”, storage is too often overlooked. The good news is with a few simple rules you can ensure water safety for you and your family.
Let’s look at some of the best options and don’t forget about long-term food storage as well.
How to Store Safe Drinking Water
Pure water, H2 plus O, is great if you can get your hands on it. The problem is you’re usually not getting pure water.
If you have a water well, it’ll be chock full of minerals, gasses, and the occasional subterranean critter part. If you are on municipal water, they filter and treat it at the source. You only have to worry about what’s in the miles of pipes between you and them.
If you are collecting water from your roof, you have whatever a bird drops when flying by, or the wind drops. This all collects in the gutters then grows more stuff. It all finds its way into your storage container. Oh, don’t forget all the petroleum byproducts that leach out of the asphalt shingles.
Collecting water from a local spring or stream? Critters don’t exactly worry about where they do their business or die.
The short of it is, you don’t have to worry about the water, you need to worry about what’s in it. Depending on your source, water will last anywhere between several years or not be drinkable at all.
When storing water, consider the water’s source. Filter and treat it accordingly. The good news is that in most cases this won’t require much action on your part. Deep well and municipal water is good to go as it is. I’d save the creek and roof catchment water for non-potable uses. This includes flushing toilets, watering the garden, etc.
Treating water with bleach
I’m not a fan of waterborne illnesses during emergencies. Because of this, I have no problem treating water before I store it. The easiest option is to use household bleach. Not the floral-scented or color-safe stuff. Buy a little good old 8.25% sodium hypochlorite like grandma used to use.
The EPA has covered this topic in-depth on their website.
Bleach to water ratio
The short story is 1 drop of bleach per pint, 8 drops per gallon, 1 teaspoon per 16 gallons. Be sure to use fresh bleach as its efficacy diminishes after just 2-3 months. After a year you have a gallon of expensive saltwater.
Add the appropriate amount to your stored water, mix, and cap off. Any bugs that made it through the municipal treatment will now be finished off. Your water is ready for the long term.
How to store water
Secondly, you need to consider how to store the water you need. Light and oxygen are the enemies of all food and water storage. Light makes some stuff grow; oxygen makes other stuff grow. Keep it simple. Store your water in a cool and dark place, sealed up from the world.
As water is heavy (8 pounds per gallon) make sure that the floor is strong enough to hold the weight. Keep it away from heat and any other volatile chemicals. This includes paints and fuels. The gasses from these can permeate or weaken your plastic water container.
I will cover specific containers in a few sections. Simply put, you need a container that is food safe and hasn’t stored anything nasty in a prior life.
Once you have settled on the container and the location, elevate it off the floor. Not because it will leach chemicals from the floor but for convenience. I haven’t found any scientific research showing that concrete leaches through the plastic.
If you have the links, let me know I’d love to see it. You want it off the floor for when you siphon the water out of a larger container you have room to set catch bucket.
How Long Can I Store Drinking Water?
Let’s now cover the “how long” question. This one is easy. Water does not go bad. In its pure form, it stays water. No changes. No degradation. Nothing.
Water plus time equals water. You’ve just treated it, so now let’s store it.
Now that you have water that is good for the long term, let’s define the long term? Again, it depends. For me, it’s several years – but that depends on the container.
I hate wasting anything, water included. I have several acquaintances that cycle their water every six months. Twice a year they pour several hundred gallons down the drain (a few use it on the garden) and refill.
If you have more time and water than me, you are best off setting up a 6-month cycle. If you are in for the long haul check it every six months.
If it stinks pour it out, sanitize the container, and refill. If it doesn’t stink, but no longer smells like chlorine add the chlorine amount required for treatment, mix, and cap off for another half a year.
The point is, properly treated water will last a long, long time.
How long does bottled water last?
According to Nestle Waters, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates the bottled water industry, does not require a shelf life for bottled water.
Bottled water can be used indefinitely if stored properly, but we recommend no more than two years for non-carbonated water, and one year for sparkling water.
You can follow this link to their guide on how to store bottled water.
Storing water in plastic bottles
There are more types of plastic bottle types than I can count. When storing water, you need to narrow it down to two types of bottles. You want bottles that stored something mildly acidic or bottles that stored something under pressure.
This will narrow your choices to classes soda/seltzer and iced tea/juice containers. Do not use milk bottles. These are generally porous and it is not possible to clean them completely.
Two-liter soda bottles and Arizona Iced Tea bottles are my favorite. You can even talk your neighborhood box store into handing over those neat carriers so you can stack 12 at a time.
As for timing, these are good for a long while. As long as you have treated them (or plan on cycling them every six months) you can keep them in these containers for years.
Storing water in 5-gallon water storage containers
There is a complete industry build around water delivery. You see the big blue bottles everywhere. You can get home delivery, as well as buy them at big box stores.
These suppliers make their money on good clean water. They have a large investment in making sure the water is, in fact, good and clean. No need to treat this water.
Most manufacturers will label the shelf life of their water as 24 months. It is important to note that this more of a “best by” date. After that, the water will taste flat and plasticky. There’s nothing wrong with it other than the off-taste.
If in doubt, drink after 18 months and swap out with a new container
Storing water in food-grade water storage containers and 55-gallon drums
My dad once got a series of 60-gallon food-grade containers for storing maple sap when he was sugaring. Pickle containers… That was 40 years ago… Any guesses what they still smell like today?
Food grade containers are widely available. Both used and unused. If you get used, be sure of what was in them. There will be hardships enough when it hits the fan. Pickle water does not need to be one of them.
The best by date is largely by contact with the container. The shelf life of a one-gallon container is generally 18 months, 5-gallon is 24 months. The larger the container the longer the life. With storage containers, you are good for four or five years.
This is dependent on how pure the water going in is. The better quality the water the longer it will store. Make the water as good as possible, then cycle it out when it starts to pick up off-flavors.
Note: Don’t use metal 55-gallon drums. These are often used for chemicals and can have questionable histories. Stick to the blue HDPE water barrels.
Storing water in IBC totes
Now we get into the big guns. Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBC) are the large plastic cubes in metal cages. They hold 275-300 gallons and store everything from fertilizer to cooking oil.
Inexpensive for about $1 per gallon. They are an easy way to store large quantities of water on your property. That being said, they have two distinct disadvantages. Once filled you will not be able to move them unless you have access to heavy equipment. Second, the plastic is opaque and you will have to create a barrier to keep out light.
If you can get one into your house and keep it in a cool dark place then I am envious. You have the opportunity to store two months of water for a family of four. The shelf life will be measured in years (5+) as long as you properly treated it in the first place.
Outdoor storage faces several challenges including sunlight and varying temperatures. I recommend outdoor storage for non-potable water or water you will heavily treat before use.
What Is the Safest Water Storage Container?
Now that we know the basics, let take a look at some of the best options.
What is the Best Solution for Water Storage?
Ok, I’m going to throw a curve at you here… The best container to store your water in is your house. A cheap shot, I know, but it’s true. Let look at the advantages.
The water is in a drinkable form. If you’re on a well it’s most likely clean. If you’re on a municipal line, it’s been treated. Secondly, it is constantly being refreshed. Use a gallon, replace a gallon. It’s all automatic.
So how much do you have in your house? More than you think. Each 50’ section of ½ pipe contains 0.5 gallons of water. For ¾ inch pipe, it’s a little more than one gallon. Ok, for my house that’s 3 gallons.
Add that to the 30 gallons in my water heater. Add another 10 gallons in the deep well pressure tank. That’s enough for 10 days for a family of four.
The issue here is that it’s a small amount of water when considering a worst case scenario.
Large Volume Emergency Water Storage Tanks
The next best option is to set up your own personal emergency potable water storage tank. Accomplish this one main way. Underground storage.
If you want to have several thousand gallons of backup water, then this is for you. Underground tanks are plumbed between the well and the house. They are serviced by a secondary pump that brings water into the house.
They are out of the light, held at a constant temperature, and continually refreshed. They are the ultimate in water preparedness.
Practical Emergency Water Storage Containers
A little more of a do-it-yourself project is a bank of smaller emergency water storage containers. The goal here is to identify the number of days of water independence you desire. Multiply by people and gallons per day (generally 1, but I prefer 2-3) to calculate your total volume. Then start stacking up your containers.
Once you have them filled, create a schedule for water maintenance. This ensures that you aren’t refilling the entire set at once.
Now that we have all the pieces in place, let’s look at options for the emergencies we are likely to encounter. We won’t delve on specific events, just the duration.
Short Term Water Storage
Short term storage will be for events that happen with regularity. Examples include power outages, a local fire, and mild weather events. Not an emergency for the prepared, more of an inconvenience.
At an absolute minimum, you should have water on hand for 72 hours. By FEMA’s recommendations, you will need to store one gallon per person, per day. For a family of four, this is 12 gallons of water. You will want to keep this water rotated and fresh.
You can drain your hot water tank for this, but that’s a pain. Pick up one 5-gallon bottle per person, or one case per person. Add these to your regular rotation and cycle them at least twice a year.
Mid-Term Water Storage
I define any event lasting a week to 10 days mid-term. This will include major weather events. For a family of four, you will need 40-60 gallons of water.
You can stack up an even dozen of 5-gallon bottles pretty easily. If you go this route, use and replace one per month. Label them with the months of the year so you know when to cycle them.
Alternatively, you can add a single blue barrel to the basement. Rotate it according to your schedule as defined above.
Long-Term Water Storage
You will need to define your level of long-term storage according to your threat matrix. Is that 30 days, 90 days, or a year?
Based on the information above choose the best and most economical solution for your situation.
Bonus – Water Treatment Basics
So, the lights are out and you just had to tap the IBC container behind the shed. Good news, you have 300 gallons of water. Bad news, you forgot to cycle it for the last 3 years.
The water smell’s ok, a little like plastic, but ok. So, what do you do? Treat your water!
Just as you do with your pretreatment, add chlorine bleach. One drop per pint or 10 drops per gallon will kill the nasties in clear water. Double for cloudy water. Let it sit for 30 minutes before drinking.
FEMA covers this as well.
The universal water treatment plan is boiling. Bring a pot to a rolling boil for 10 minutes, then let it cool. Not much more needs to be said.
It’s a wonderful time to be alive concerning water filtration. Many options exist that are effective, long-lasting, and affordable.
The small and effective Sawyer Mini can be used as a gravity filter with any of the above storage methods. A Sawyer Mini can filter an amazing 100,000 gallons of water from one container to the next.
The big daddy of table top-filters is the Big Berkey. This two-part system has an upper chamber for the unfiltered water and a lower chamber for the dispenser.
Flat water tastes funny. You can’t describe the taste, but you know it when you drink it. The good news is there is a quick solution. Aeration. Simply pour water from one glass to the next to mix in some oxygen.
This is a two for one trick. If your water has been treated by bleach and has that off-taste, aerate. You will cause the chlorine to evaporate leaving a better tasting glass of water.
We all take water for granted. We spend resources to either pull clean water out of the ground. Treat it then pump it across town. Just to use it to go to the bathroom.
At our off-grid cabin, we use water from a shallow open well. We’ve had it tested and the agency recommends treating the water before drinking. We opt to use the triple threat of chlorine, boiling, and filtering. It’s a bit of a process that we take time to do every day. We have yet to be sick.
When the grid goes down and the S has HTF, we will find out exactly how precious a resource it is. Before that happens, develop your water storage plan and maintenance schedule.
Ensure your family doesn’t go through the hardship of having to find and then potentially drink contaminated water. Worse yet, go without.