In an emergency situation, water may or may not be available, and the water that is available may only look clean. Microorganisms in water can be fatal, or at least make you very sick, as anyone who has been south of the border knows. There are a thousand ways that water can become contaminated, and just because it happens to come out of your tap doesn't make it "safe."
Southern Californians have a slightly different perspective on water than most of the country. We do, after all, live in a desert region, no matter how hard the housing developers would like you to believe otherwise. In many areas, annual shortages of water can be very serious. At those times, most take a dim view of someone who lets the water run into the gutter while they wash their car, or uses a hose, and not a broom, to clear off their driveway of leaves. And then, with the possibility of an earthquake constantly looming over us, it becomes a good idea to have a couple of gallons of fresh water stored someplace. It's a good idea that very few Californians actually participate in unfortunately. This same good idea is something that everyone in the world should take up. Five gallons of fresh water when there isn't any to be had can make an incredible difference.
How much water is enough?This will depend on how many people are in your family, your comfortable level of consumption, and the kind of situation you are preparing for. If your goal is to have enough water for you and your family for a relatively short-term emergency, such as a tornado or earthquake, then you may only need enough to get you by until help can reach you. On the other hand, if it's an apocalyptical thing, such as a war or economical collapse, then five gallons just ain't gonna do it.
Why? Simple. Nobody knows what is going to happen. It might turn out to be nothing. Then again, you might be without public services for months. That's a very long time to be thirsty. So how much should you stock? The first step is to determine just how much you actually need. Remembering that it's supposed to be an emergency, you can restrict yourself a bit. You won't be using the same amount of water you would use day to day, and you won't be watering your lawn with the stuff, so how much will ONE body require per day?
As a rule of thumb, plan on at least a liter of water per person, per day. This seems to be the established minimum needed by your body for good health. (Although I have found a wide range of reputible sources claim completely different numbers, from .5 liters all the way to 2.5 liters per day!) You might be able to get by with less (or none) for a day or two, but after that, you could do yourself harm. During a big emergency, there might be a tendency to "over-conserve," to the point that you can make yourself sick. My medical guide-book says your body is around 50% water. You can't get too far below that number before things start to shut down, so don't risk it! Not only do you need to know how much water you need, but also how much you are comfortablewith. The best way that I have found to do this is to run a simple test.
Pick an average day (when you aren't sick or excessively exercising). Get an empty two liter soda bottle and fill it with water. (Or leave it full of soda if you like. This is only a test after all...) Then, during the course of the day, drink only from this bottle. At the end of the day, see how much you've consumed and you're set. Multiply your own consumption by the number of people in your family. Unless your kids are really young, treat them as adults. Better to have a little too much water than not enough. Also, don't forget to include a little for your pets. Fido needs a drink now and then too.
There are a few problems with the above method, the biggest of which is that you won't be just drinking your water. You will also need it to bathe, wash dishes, clean cuts and wounds, flush out your eyes, mix with and prepare food, and so on. Those items are a little harder to estimate because they are things that you don't normally do with extreme water conservation in mind. My suggestion is to hit them one at a time and try the same experiment like the above, only for bathing, cooking, etc... You can use numbers such as the ones at the end of this page, but you should try whenever possible to come up with your own tolerance levels.
StorageLet's assume for simplicity that your family consumes two liters of water a day. A great means of storage are those same two liter soda bottles that you used to test. They're cheap, available and durable. Best of all, you probably even have a few of them at home right now. They're a good size because they are a constant, measurable quantity, easily moveable, and can be stacked like firewood if you have a place to do so, although they will probably need braces on both sides. The back of a closet works pretty well.
You can use almost any plastic container, but some, like soda bottles, are a little safer. For example, you might not want to use a gallon milk container because of the "live" nature of milk. Soda is pretty benign, but milk goes "bad." Some plastic milk containers also "biodegrade" over time. If you use these for your water stash, in six months you'll have nothing but a pile of rotting plastic and a very wet floor. There are more expensive alternatives, such as large, sealed 30 gallon containers that come complete with a hand pump, but they cost money that you may not have right now. Besides, you can get a whole mess of soda bottles to fit nicely under your bed, and you don't even have to use up any of your precious living space.
You should rotate (empty and refill) your water supply about once a month if possible, more if you can't store containers in a fairly cool, dark place. Direct sunlight is a big no-no for anything you store. If you're like me, then you add to your water supply when you can, which means that some of your water is older than the rest. I mark off my two-liter bottles in rows of five, making them a little easier to count, and a piece of tape with the date allows me to track when I need to refresh them.
Interestingly enough, if you live in an apartment building or complex that has coin-operated laundry machines, you may also have another source of community water. These areas often use a larger hot water heater (for all the washing machines) that may contain 100 gallons of clean water or more. You may want to talk to your landlord ahead of time and work out a community contingency plan so that you (and others) can have access to that supply if there's a need. If you do use this water, be very carefull as it may be considerably hotter than your average hot water heater. Water for washing machines is kept at near-boiling temperatures, and in an insulated heater, could remain hot enough to scald you for quite a while.
Used carefully, 40 gallons of water can last you a long time, but every drop might count, so you might want to consider your toilet tank as well (not the bowl!). Most toilets hold between one and five gallons of water in the tank, and as long as you're not using one of those blue-water cleanser thingies, you should be safe. I understand that you might want to save the toilet for a last resort, but it's still nice to know you probably have another two to ten gallons as your emergency emergency reserve.
Filtering WaterI'm still in the shop on this one... As far as I can see, there are only two reasons to filter water... Re-use, and adding to an exsisting supply.
Re-using water might come in handy if you want your supply to go as far as it possibly can. You can start with food preparation, then re-use some of that water for cleaning or basic sanitation. (Note: Don't go the other direction, of course!) There are a number of ways to get that water as clean as possible, involving filters, chemical additives, boiling, or a combination of all three. If you are simply trying to re-use some of that water from your spegetti dinner, then a quick run through a filter might be enough for you to use it for brushing your teeth or cleaning your pits. On the other hand, if you're trying to capture the water that runs off your roof after a rain, or take advantage of a local stream, then you had better play it safe and use more extreme measures.
Even rain water isn't safe if you live in a major city, even if you catch it straight out of the air and not off of your roof. Pollution and smog can add dangerous levels of chemicals to rain, especially early in the season. After the "first rains" much of the smog is pushed down to the ground and the sky ends up cleaner, but you might want to wait to capture that extra gallon until after it's rained for several hours. If you live in Southern California, as I do, then you know the smell that accompanies the first rains of the season... It's like living in a wet ashtray. (Blech!)
Most of he filtering methods that I have seen involve replaceable cartridges that fit into some kind of pitcher or other container. Water is slowly fed through the filter and collects in the container. Most of these systems are fairly expensive (at least for someone on a tight budget) and have a limited number of uses before you must throw out the used filter and replace it with a fresh one. Even with a 10 micron filtering system (usually small enough for most biological hazards), certain contaminants can still pass through, so you still take a risk if you use unknown water. The point is, if you end up boiling the stuff anyway, then an expensive filter may not be the best choice of investment. It may be better to trust your own water supply and put your money into food.
Simple filtering, however, can help you to extend your water considerably. Excess water used in the preparation of food for example would be great to use for basic hygene if you could just strain it a bit. There are a number of ways to do this, including paper towels or several layers of cloth. One handy system involves something that almost everyone has in their home... A coffee maker.
Most coffee brewers allow you to swing aside the filter tray, both for new filters, and/or for cleaning. My own machine uses a "cup" type of filter that forms a "v" with a spout of sorts at the bottom that allows liquid to drip down into the pot. If I want to use the thing as just a filter, I simply swing out the tray and pour a cup or so of water into the "v", letting the water strain through the coffee filter without any coffee. Best yet, many coffee machines have a "no-drip" thingy at the base of the tray that keeps coffee from dripping out unless the pot is directly under the machine. This means that I can fill the filter and swing my tray back over the pot without any mess at all. Instant filtering system. And coffee filters are cheap. Granted, it won't purify your water, but a couple of passes will pull out enough to allow you to re-use it for bathing.
Basic Water Use Table
All values are per person per day.
|Food preparation||.5 - 1 liter|
|Large dogs||.5 liter|
|Personal Hygiene||.5 liter|