Emergency water storage

We’re finally ready for The Big One. In terms of emergency preparedness, we were pretty well set in terms of food, light, fuel, etc., but we didn’t have much water. Just some jugs, a rain barrel that’s empty most of the year, and the water in our hot water tank. This lack made me nervous, so we finally did took the bull by the horns–or the bung hole…

 How much water should you store? 

1 gallon of water per person per day. This is the minimal amount necessary for drinking, cooking and very basic hygiene. If you live somewhere it can get beastly hot, factor in extra water for drinking. In scorching temps you’ll need a gallon per person a day just for hydration.

Expect you’ll need at least a two week supply. That’s a minimum 14 gallons per household member. Then be sure to add extra water for pets and livestock. When we considered all of that, it seemed like a 55 gallon drum was not too much for the two of us and our pets. Ideally, we’d store more. It doesn’t rain here 3/4 of the year, and there isn’t any natural water source nearby. A second drum might be in our future.

What we’re using:

We shelled out the money for a brand new, food grade 55 gallon drum. The reason we didn’t go with a much cheaper used food grade drum is because some food stuffs leave behind residues which is impossible to clean from the drum. These might just manifest as off odors that make the water smell and taste bad, or they might even contain tiny traces of food will lead to bacterial growth during long term storage. For example, it is impossible to clean away traces of dairy, no matter how hard you scrub. It seemed better to just pay the extra money than to worry about it.

I don’t like plastic much, but short of buidling a concrete cistern or something like that, the only other similar option would be to buy a stainless steel drum. I’d much prefer to do so, but new ones priced out in the $800 to $1000 range. 

Accessories for the barrel:

There are two vital accessories that go with any 55 gallon drum: a bung wrench (see pic above) to open and close the drum’s bung holes easily (it apparently can also be used as a gas shut-off wrench) and a siphon pump to get the water out of the drum. There are nice, solid pumps sold for frequent use, but we got a cheap one ($20) and hope it will hold up in our hour of need.  All our equipment came from a surplus store, but many retailers can be found with a little simple googling.


You might find sturdy 5 gallon water containers more versatile, both for handling and storage. And choosing them instead of a drum will preserve you from ever having to say “bung hole” out loud. Just make sure they are strong, BPA free, and suited both for stacking and long term storage. The less expensive ones may leak, and can’t be stacked. Find them at outdoor and surplus stores, and online.

If you want to recycle, you can store water in plastic 2 liter soda bottles. Don’t use the white milk jug-type containers (whether they held milk or juice) because they don’t age well and don’t seal well. Glass jars are nice because they’re not plastic, but they are heavy and must be carefully stored.

You can just store commercially bottled water. If you do this, change it out according to the expiry date.

Cleaning the container:

Whatever container you use, clean it first by washing with soap and water if necessary, then rinsing it out with a mild bleach solution (1 tsp in a quart of water). Bleach is what The Authorities always recommend. I’m no fan of bleach, but in this case have decided to toe the line instead of trying vinegar instead, because I just don’t want to take any risks in this case.

Filling the container:

City water is already treated with chlorine or chlorine variants, so if your house water comes from a municipal supply line you don’t have to treat it by adding extra chlorine or iodine prior to storage. You can store untreated city water for 6 months.

If your water comes from a well or other untreated source, then you should treat it prior to storage by adding 1/8 teaspoon of regular, unscented chlorine bleach to each gallon of water.  

Treating dodgy water:

If you suspect that your water is contaminated–for instance, if after an emergency you doubt the cleanliness of the water from the tap, you should take steps to purify it before drinking. These are things to commit to memory, or maybe pin on the fridge, because in an emergency, you probably will not be able to check the internet.

Boil it:  If you have the fuel, you can purify water by bringing it to a rolling boil for 1 to 3 minutes. 

Bleach it: Even if you’re a bleach hater, like me, you should keep a small bottle of unscented, regular (not color safe, thickened, etc.) chlorine bleach on hand for emergencies.

Add 16 drops (1/4 teaspoon) of bleach to each gallon of water. Shake, and let sit for 30 minutes before drinking.

Iodine: If you have liquid 2% tincture of iodine, add 5 drops per quart. If you have tablets, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Apparently adding a pinch of powdered vitamin C or orange drink hides the iodine flavor. And prevents scurvy!

The preceding directions are for clean-looking water. If your water is cloudy, you will want to try to filter it as best you can to remove sediment (filter it though a coffee filter or t-shirt or somesuch), and then be extra rigorous in the purification. Boil longer. If you’re using bleach, you should be able (unfortunately) to detect a faint odor of bleach in your water after treatment. If you don’t, it’s not clean. Repeat the process. If you’re using iodine, use 10 drops per quart instead of 5.

ETA: Forgot! Another way to disinfect water in an emergency situation is through solar water disinfection, or SODIS. Basically you fill up a clear plastic (PET) liter bottle–it has to be clear, and it can’t be bigger than a liter–and put it in intense sun for 6 hours. Filter the water first if it’s dirty. See AfriGadget for details.

Storage length:

Stored water should be swapped out for fresh every six months (except for commercially bottled water–again, check the expiry date on that). Use the old water for your garden, sanitize the containers and refill. We’ve got the swap date marked on our calendar so we don’t forget.

Where to store the water:

Somewhere dark and relatively temperature stable. Also, no matter how sturdy the container, there is always a chance for water leaks, so you should keep that in mind, too. We live in a very mild climate, so we’re keeping our barrel in constantly shady, protected corner of our back yard.

Some resources:

How to Store Water for Drinking and Cooking (PDF from Penn State)

Backpackers Guide to Water Purification

FEMA Preparedness PDF

Emergency Toilet Sanitation

The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, Third EditionI was asked by our local neighborhood council to talk about emergency turlets for their public safety committee. Doing some preliminary research about what our government suggests concerns me.

FEMA and, it seems, all the state and local agencies I looked into rely on a poop in a bag, throw in some enzymes or bleach and throw it into a pit approach. In a short term emergency, a day or two let’s say, this might work fine. But if the emergency stretched out longer I can see some potential problems. And the cynic in me sees an opportunity for a contractor to sell toilet and enzyme kits to government agencies.

So what’s wrong with pooping in a bag? First off, it’s disgusting, something I know from backpacking. I have a feeling people might avoid latrines set up with “poop bags” and go do their business behind a bush. And I have a feeling that the government experts suggesting this approach have never tried it themselves.

Secondly, those pits full of bags could become a serious biohazard should rats, let’s say, start pulling the bags apart or should the pit get flooded.

As an alternative to the “poop bag” I was impressed with Joseph Jenkin’s humanure approach that he explains in a series of videos he shot in Haiti after the earthquake. You can see those videos here. Essentially what Jenkins did in Haiti was to forage carbon material (“bagasse” or sugar cane waste) and use that as a cover material in the latrines. This eliminates smells and maggots. He also set up a large humanure compost pile in a refugee camp using the same bagasse material as the carbon source. The hot temperatures in the compost pile kill hazardous microorganisms in human poo. As long as you’ve got a carbon source you can keep Jenkins’ sanitation system going indefinitely. With the FEMA approach you’ve got a problem when you run out of those bags and proprietary enzyme mixtures.

One problem with Jenkins’ approach could be finding a carbon source in an urban area, but I think that’s solvable (suggestions invited!). You also need water for the compost pile but it need not be potable.

I’m no sanitation expert and am interested in opinions on this topic, particularly those who have worked in emergency situations or in impoverished communities. What I like about Jenkins’ approach is that it relies more on knowledge (how to compost, set up a latrine) than equipment. The job then is to spread that knowledge. Learning how to compost should be a skill everyone knows how to do.

Jenkins’ Humanure Handbook: for purchase or free pdf download.

Animal Tracking

A track trap we laid to capture chipmunk tracks. We got some mice, too. No one wanted our peanuts–the chipmunk actually hopped over them. These critters had an advanced palette, preferring locally sourced pine nuts from the pinon pines. Photo courtesy of one of my classmates, Kurt Thompson.

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

I just returned from an amazing five-day sojourn in the mountains, at the Windy Springs Preserve, in which I learned the basics of animal tracking from a pair of wonderful teachers, Jim Lowery and Mary Brooks of Earth Skills.

Tracking is the kind of skill that you can easily spend a lifetime, or two, developing. Yet it is also possible, with good teachers, for even a neophite like me to pick up a working knowledge of the art over a couple of days. By the end of the class, I was able spend an enthralling hour tracking a cottontail through a maze of sagebrush–all by myself.  Over the course of the class, I was fortunate enough to see the tracks of deer, bobcats, bears, coyotes, cottontails, jack rabbits, grey squirrels, chipmunks, kangaroo rats, foxes, mice, snakes, horned toads, lizards and beetles. We also got to practice tracking people, which is a lot of fun.

One thing I particularly appreciated about this class was that Jim and Mary encourage you to use your intuition as well as the “hard skills” of print identification, precise measurement, gait recognition, animal behavior, etc. For me, this was rewarding–and intriguing. It took tracking out of a purely left-brain zone, into a place of deep connection with both the animal and the landscape.

You can down load a free pdf on tracking basics from their website.

Tracking and Gardening

Now that I’m home, it strikes me that some of these skills I learned could be useful in the garden. Most anybody with a garden has had a moment when they wonder, “Just what kind of critter is digging holes in my beds?” or “Who is eating my cilantro down to nubs?” With my new knowledge set, I can answer these questions by setting up a track trap.

A track trap is an area of soil smoothed flat to capture animal tracks. In this class we used two methods: one was to drag a big, flat sack full of dirt (for weight) across stretches of open ground to smooth and compress the soil. When made in the evening, these clear spaces catch the prints of any animals that come through overnight or in the early morning. The results the next day were often spectacular–a clean, written record of the night’s activities. You may have seen this type of trap occur naturally on the bank of lake, or on a beach, or on a clean stretch of ground after a rain.

The other type of trap made by dusting a thin layer of dry clay on the rough side of a particleboard sheet, and then arching a piece of something flexible, like thin metal sheeting, over the board to protect the clay bed from wind, birds etc. If positioned correctly, these traps catch the tracks of smaller creatures–rodent types–very neatly.

If your garden topography allows it, you could drag clear the area around your beds in the evening and see what prints might show in the morning. The Internets are full of track pictures that you can use to identify your particular culprit. You probably already have a few guesses about who it is–it would only take a minute of googling to find out the difference between the tracks of, say, an opossum and a skunk. Or a feral cat and a raccoon. Even if the prints are not particularly clear, you can often tell a lot just by their size. Websites with track ID pictures come with notes about standard measurements.

Once you know for sure who is causing the mischief, it might be easier to come up with solutions for how to protect your garden. For instance, you could look up advice from your local Integrated Pest Management program, like the one offered by the University of California.

Note: If you’re in the market for a good tracking book, I can recommend the book we used in class, The Tracker’s Field Guide, written by one of the teachers.

Pop Quiz Answer

The answer to yesterday’s pop quiz: as our friend Nic Sammond put it, “Your shelving was designed by Tokyo Electric Power?” Alas, I can’t pass the blame off on anyone but myself. When the big one hits, we’ll have a giant salsa bowl of pickles, jams and broken glass.

It’s well past time to install some bungee cords across the shelves.

And we’ll make our quizzes a little harder next time.