How to Make Clean Water in an Emergency

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There’s no better way to start this article than with the phrase “water is life”. Indeed, in an emergency, the difference between treated and untreated water could literally mean the difference between life and death.

Knowing how to treat water to make it safe to drink is necessary for every homesteader. In this article, I aim to explore the options that are available to you. This article aims to remain practical using only material and equipment that is accessible.

I recommend practicing some of these methods before disaster strikes. I’ve also included a “water emergency must have list” to ensure you do not forget the most important things to keep your water safe at home or on a trip.

What Exactly is Pure Water?

To come up with treatment methods for water, we first need to understand what pure water is. The tricky thing about water is even if it looks clear it may not be safe to drink. It may contain bacteria, viruses and chemicals that are invisible to our eyes, yet harmful or even deadly to us.

Pathogens from human waste are a good example. They cannot be seen by the naked eye, but cause terrible stomach bugs.

Here are some of the things that you should remove from the water you intend to drink:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Pathogens
  • Heavy metals
  • Chemical toxins
  • Salt
  • Dirt sediment
  • Pesticides
  • Nitrates
  • Copper

Water Test Kits

Quality of water can also be determined using a simple water testing kit. Without a water test kit you will be unable to determine what you need to do to improve the quality of your water. The kit will determine how prepared you in the event of an emergency and if it needs further purification methods.

You can buy a simple water test kit online that tests for 10 common contaminants. It only takes 10 minutes to test your water.

Here’s how to use it:

Questions to Ask Yourself

Understanding the severity of the emergency will help us to determine, what quality of water we should be aiming for within the given period. Life and death situations will require immediate purification methods. In such a case water that meets the minimum basic requirements will need to be used. This brings into effect the need to have quick and effective purification methods on hand to reduce the response time.

On the other hand, you may have a situation where your normal supply of water has been cut off and you still have some in reserve. You will probably only need the water in a couple of days or hours. In this case, you are at liberty to calmly plan and choose the purification method most convenient for you.

In an emergency, though you may not have access to water purification kits, good judgment is needed. Ask yourself these questions.

  1. Where am I?

Knowing where you are can serve as a good guide as to if the water source is suitable to drink. Being in an emergency in a third world country is definitely different from being in a more developed country.  Identify all your water sources in advance. If you visiting an area or camping, this should be one of the first things you do when you arrive.

  1. Where’s the water coming from?

You need to run a quick mental analysis of the quality of the source. Is it from a local purification provider or is it a natural source. If it is a natural source, could it be possibly contaminated and is it free from sediment?

Remember that natural water is best when it is running like in a river or stream. Stagnant water (lakes, ponds) should be avoided at all costs because it bacteria and other organisms are more abundant there.

  1. Which water purification method should I use?

Run through the options that are available to you based on the resources that you have at hand. Sometimes it may be easier just to buy bottled water from a nearby store that to try to purify your own water. In some places though, even standard bottled water is questionable. Bear this in mind when traveling to developing countries.

  1. How much time do I have?

Choosing a purification method in terms of the time needed to do it is also important. Methods like solar purification that involve leaving water in the sun for more than 24 hours will allow

  1. How much do I need?

The amount of water that can be purified by different methods differs. For example, a water filtration pump will easily supply all your water needs if you have a large water source like a stream or river. However, it’s not very useful where you’re trying to collect dew or water from the tree leaves.

Now let’s look at the various methods of water purification in detail. Remember there are dozens of different ways to purify water. The explanations serve as a guide only and your preparedness will determine how successful you are at them.

boiling water

Boiling

Boiling water is the simplest and easiest way to purify water. It is also one of the quickest. At boiling temperature, harmful bacteria and pathogens are killed, making the water safe to drink.

Here are the things you need to do it:

  1. Clean pot with lid
  2. Pinch of salt

Instructions:

  1. Place the water into a pot, and add a pinch of salt. Bring it to the boil for 1 minute. If you’re at over 5,000 feet above sea level, then boil it for 3 minutes.
  2. Let your water cool before you store it in containers.

The reason why salt is added to boiling water is to increase the boiling point. A higher boiling temperature means more unwanted organisms being eliminated.

The main disadvantage of boiling is that it does nothing to harmful chemicals that may be in the water.

Pasteurization or sterilization?

This is an important distinction to know. Pasteurization is a process that kills all harmful organisms. Boiling is therefore classified as pasteurization.

Here is a video of how to boil water the right way:

If the water is cloudy, filter it before you boil it, using any of the methods mentioned below under “filtration”.

Filtration

Filtration is another method that is used to purify water.  It is very effective in removing unwanted particles from water making it clear. Unless you are using a more advanced filtration method, you should never drink filtered water directly before boiling it. This is because even though the water may look clear, it still contains harmful bacteria and viruses.

water filter flickr

photo courtesy of London Permaculture via Flickr under the CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

It takes a relatively long time to filter water using homemade filters. As such, it should only be used in emergencies and as a last resort. For the time being, you’re better off getting one off Amazon (recommendations to follow).

Install a Water Filtration System

Installing a water filtration system in your home will give you a steady supply of pure water for normal and emergency use. Most filtration systems are DIY unless you want a complex and more advanced filter, which will need to be installed by professionals.

Decide if you want a point of entry or point of use water system. The difference is that the point of entry is at the source of where you get your water from, ie main water supply point, while the point of use is normally very near your taps or in your storage containers.

Determine what you want to purify your water from. Different filtration systems will be more effective at reducing certain unwanted elements. For people that live in an area where they suffer from heavy metal contamination than a system that addresses this will be more useful than one that simply filters lime and salt.

Test your water after the installation of the water purification system. Review the quality of your water every 4 to 6 months.

Maintain your  system by systematically changing the filters and replacing any other replaceable parts.

Homemade Water Filters

A DIY filter may come in handy in a situation where your water needs to be rid of unwanted particles. A homemade water filter can be made easily.

You will need

  • Empty plastic bottle (1 – 5 gallons)
  • Knife
  • Sand or gravel
  • Rocks or stones
  • Charcoal (optional)
  • Collection cup
  • Cloth

Instructions

  1. Cut your bottle a few inches from the base. You can use the leftover base as a collection cup if you so wish.
  2. Fit your cloth tightly in the hole where the bottle cap goes.
  3. If you decide to use charcoal use small pieces and wash them to get rid of charcoal dust.
  4. Place your charcoal above the cloth
  5. Next, take your gravel or sand and pour it over the charcoal a few inches thick
  6. Lay rocks or stones over the gravel or sand.
  7. You can make several layers of the filter, placing other material like straw above the rocks if so desired.
  8. Turn your bottle upside down, so that the cloth is facing the water collection jar.
  9. Pour your water into the open end of the filter and let it drop into the collection cup.

You need to be patient as collecting 100mls of water can take up to 30 minutes depending on the number of filtration layers and how dirty the water is. For extremely dirty water, several attempts may need to be made.

Here is a video on making a water filter:

The advantages of filtering water are:

  1. Bacterial contaminants are removed
  2. The taste of the water improves, (not that this matters that much of a difference in an emergency)
  3. If your water source contains lead this also is removed by the water filter

Disadvantages of filtering water are

  1. Not all contaminants and germs are removed from the water
  2. The material you use to filter the water could contain harmful germs and bacteria
  3. Several attempts at filtering very dirty water need to be made
  4. It takes a long time to get a good amount of drinkable water.

Simplified Filtration

If you are in a situation where you cannot filter your water with sand, charcoal and gravel, you can also use the following to remove sediment.

  • Paper towels
  • Clean cloth (bandanas, t-shirts etc.)
  • Coffee filters

Simply place any of the above over the collection cup and pour your dirt water slowly to filter. You may want to do it water several times, until your water is clear.

This method should only be used as a means of last resort, to avoid your body shutting down due to dehydration. You must boil your water after filtration to further improve the quality of the water.

Personal filters

A personal filter is a must in any bug out bag. It aims to solve the disadvantages of homemade DIY water filters.

The LifeStraw is the most popular choice, but the Sawyer Mini, filters even more microorganisms and A LOT MORE water.

Tip: throw in a water purification tablet after you’ve filtered the water just in case. In theory, you might not need to, but in a real life-and-death scenario, you should not risk it.

Build Your Own Water Filter

This method is only practical if you know what pine sapwood is and it is readily available. The porous material known as xylem will filter water that passes through it.

You will need

*1/2 inch plastic pipe

  1. Find a branch of pine sapwood and break it off
  2. Peel the bark off and cut a piece of wood 1 inch thick and slightly less than ½ inch wide depending on the size of your
  3. Force your pinewood filter into the hose and tie with the hose clamps. Ensure the hose clamp is tightly secured to ensure that water cannot seep through without being filtered.

Use this to either drink directly from your water source or to slowly pour water into the pipe and let it collect into a container.

Here is a video showing how to do it:

Pump Filters

You can get a pump filter that uses a mechanical pump to force water through a filter cartridge. For water to be treated effectively the cartridges need to be replaced from time to time.

Most of these pumps are designed for the outdoors and are ultra-light as well as compact. It is claimed that these pumps will provide close to 99% pure water. Choosing a pump with a cleanable filter can help you sustain a prolonged water supply or treat water for a large number of people if needed.

A video explaining how this filter works:

 Chemical Purification

https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/3960354279/

Chemical purification of water uses chemicals in various forms and doses to kill the unwanted bacteria and other organisms that may be in the water. Other methods like filtration need to be carried out before treating your water with chemicals to remove unwanted particles and sediment.

Water Purification Tablets

Water can also be purified using water purification tablets.  The tablets normally contain chlorine, iodine and other disinfecting agents.  They are effective, cheap, lightweight easy to use, and many preppers have them in their bug out bags. All you need to do is place a tablet in water and wait for the prescribed amount of time which is normally 30 minutes.

After use the packet needs to be stored in a cool dry place, otherwise it is possible for these tablets to loose potency.

Household Bleach / Chlorine

In case you were wondering, chlorine is a component of certain kinds of bleach. For water purification purposes, always use non-scented bleach, and keep in mind it only has a shelf life of about 6 months. This means bleach isn’t ideal for a long-term survival stockpile, not unless you rotate it frequently.

Instructions

  1. Use 6 to 8 drops of bleach per 1 gallon of water.
  2. Let the water sit for 30 minutes before drinking.

When using bleach to purify water keep the following in mind:

Use a clean dropper to add the chlorine to the water

Make sure that the label says it contains sodium hypochlorite. Sodium hypochlorite is the chemical agent that kills bacteria.

Ensure that your chlorine has been stored at room temperature and is not more than 1 year old. You can check this by confirming the date of manufacture on the packaging.

Iodine Tablets

Iodine tablets should not be confused with regular iodine. The correct type of iodine is 2% tincture and 47% alcohol. Any other type of iodine will not purify water.

Here is a video on how you can purify your water with iodine.

The disadvantage of chemical treatment

  1. It does not remove dirt sediments from the water, which may render the water unsafe to drink.
  2. There is addition waiting time to let the water sit before it becomes safe to drink.
  3. Chemical treatment offers no protection from chemicals and other toxins that may be in the water

Distillation

Distillation is the process by which water is purified by heating and then cooling. It’s one of the most effective methods of water purification because it not only removes all bacteria, microbes and germs, it also removes heavy metals, salt, toxic chemicals, and even viruses. Distillation is actually used methods used to make bottled water.

How to Do It on Your Own

Most of us will remember this from our early science classes. Distillation is a simple technique that requires very little apparatus.

You will need:

  • Stainless steel pot
  • Heat resistant glass bowl
  • Ice
  • Water

Instructions:

  1. Ensure that both the pot and lid are washed and clean.
  2. Fill your pot halfway with water
  3. Place the glass bowl in the pot so that it floats in the water, ensure that it is stable and when water starts boiling none of it is able to directly fall into the glass bowl.
  4. Place your lid upside down to enable it to contain ice.
  5. Place ice on your lid.
  6. Bring water to the boil. When your ice has melted carefully, throw away the melted ice water and add more ice cubes if required.

In this method when the steam touches the glass lid, it is immediately cooled (condensed) and turned back into water that falls into the glass bowl. This water is free of bacteria and other unwanted elements.

Immediately storing this water in a clean water bottle will ensure that it remains safe to drink.

Here is a video showing everything:

An outdoor dug out hole- distillation method

Outdoors, water can be scarce. One may have to resort to collect water from plants. This method is known as transpiration. Green plants contain water and when it transpires, it will provide a source of pure drinkable water.  In this method, you will learn how to collect water from the leaves of plants.

For this, you will need

  • Plastic wrap
  • Metal can, or water collection cup
  • Rocks
  • Small pebble or stone
  • Green plant material

Instructions

  1. Dig a hole in the ground deep and wide enough to contain as much plant material as you can find. For any reasonable water collection to take place you will need a hole at least 2 feet in diameter.
  2. Place your water collection cup in the middle of your hole.
  3. Place the plastic wrap over the dugout hole and secure it in place with rocks. This is the most critical step, as you have to make it airtight. Use the dirt you have excavated to make your plastic further airtight.
  4. Place a small lightweight pebble in the middle of your plastic so that it makes a depression. Ensure that this pebble is directly in line with the water collection cup.

When the water from the plants evaporates, it will collect on the plastic and then flow towards the depression and fall into the cup. While this method may be time-consuming, the little water that you collect may be all that there is between you and absolute dehydration. You may want to leave this over-night, as this collection method will also benefit from the collection of dew.

Here is a video that explains this method

Turning sea water into fresh water

Another method worth mentioning here is how you can turn seawater into fresh drinkable water. There is nothing as frustrating as being dehydrating near the sea.

You will need:

Plastic water bottle (Preferably 2qt)

  • Scissors or knife
  • Metal can (or cup)
  • Patience

Instructions:

  1. Cut the out the bottom of your 2qt. plastic bottle with a knife or any other sharp object.
  2. Bend the bottom of your water bottle to a 90-degree angle as though trying to close the hole you cut out.
  3. Take out the top of your metal can carefully with your knife or scissors so that the top is hollow.
  4. Take the seawater and place it inside the metal can. Place you can on the ground.
  5. Ensure that the can fit into the water bottle.
  6. Place plastic bottle over the metal can and water. Ensure that the plastic cap on the water bottle is closed tight.
  7. Wait for as long as possible for the water to evaporate onto the sides of the bottle.
  8. Carefully tap the bottle so that the water collects onto the flaps at the bottom of the plastic bottle.
  9. Open the lid and pour out the distilled water into a collection cup.

Even though this method will collect very little water, people that have been in an emergency will tell you that this may be all you need to survive.

Here is a great video explaining how to carry out this method.

Leaf Transpiration

An even simpler method is to simply wrap a plastic bag around green leaves and let the water evaporate and collect inside the plastic.

Tie the open end of the plastic bag with string to ensure that there is no air entering the plastic bag. You can tie as many plastics as you like leaves for maximum collection of water.

A word of caution while using this method is that one needs to be careful that poisonous tree sap and insects don’t fall into the water that has been collected. One also needs to be careful that the trees have not recently been sprayed with any chemicals.

Here is a video explaining the plastic wrap method.

UV Water Purification

Artificial UV treatment

While it is not common that one will have a UV light lying around, it is worth noting that it can be used to treat clear water from bacteria. Treating unclear water is not effective because germs could hide in and around dirt particles, hence the light will not be able to kill them. You can get a UV device on Amazon.

Natural UV treatment

Sunlight can also be used to treat water. The UV light emitted from the sun will kill germs in your water. All you need to do is to leave it out in the sun for 24 hours before drinking. You need to make sure that this water is placed in a clear plastic bottle for the treatment to be effective.

While this method is easy and cheap, you need to bear in mind that not all bacteria may die from the sun.  Additional boiling, filtration or distillation of the water will certainly improve its quality.

Here is a video of how this simple purification method is conducted.

Alternative Sources of Emergency Water

Rainwater

If you have access to it, rainwater is one of the safest water to drink during an emergency.

The main disadvantage of this is the uncertainty of supply. You cannot depend on it to rain as this is very much out of your control. In general, rainwater is safe to drink, though it’s always safer to try and purify it first.

Toilet cistern water

We often overlook that water in the cistern is fresh tap water that is being stored to flush to the toilet. Due to the fact that there may be more germs lying around in the toilet will reduce the quality of this water. Adding a water purification pill before drinking it as well as other methods of filtration like, using Life-hack filter straw can also easily solve this challenge.

Here are some tips to prevent running out of water:

  1. Ensure that you have water stored away in case of an emergency.
  2. If you are going on a trip ensure that you pack gear for several purification methods especially that will both remove dirt sediment and treat the water from bacteria and if possible chemicals.
  3. Never drink water that you are unsure off

Snow

Collecting and melting snow is also another good source of water. Ensure that any dirt particles that may be in the snow settle at the bottom of your collection container before drinking. Similar to rainwater, the snow water may contain harmful toxins from the polluted air. Caution must also be taken not to snow water from an area where you suspect commercial road salt to have been used.

Here are some simple tricks for using snow as water.

  1. You can use snow to replenish your water Simply top up your water bottle with a handful of snow each time you take a drink and shake.
  2. Another method is to wrap snow in a piece of cloth which will act as a filter. Light a fire and hang your close next to the fire. Place a collection cup underneath the cloth filled with ice to collect the melting water.

Emergency Supply List

If you are planning a trip then having some if not most of the materials mentioned below will come in handy for water-related emergencies.

  1. Countertop water filters
  2. Portable water filters, e.g. the Sawyer Mini mentioned earlier.
  3. Water purification tablets
  4. Iodine
  5. Plastic, Zip-lock bags, large plastic sheet and empty plastic containers
  6. Knife
  7. Metal clips
  8. ½ inch pipe
  9. Duct tape
  10. String
  11. Metal cans and other collection cups
  12. Lighter
  13. Metal boiling pot

Even if you live in an area with abundant water, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that  water is safe to drink and you will be able to access it. It’s imperative for everyone to be proactive in water collection and treatment.

Feel free to share thoughts, stories, and experiences of water-related emergencies and how you got out of them.

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