Monday, May 03, 2010

Do You Have a Backup Water Supply?

Most Americans take a reliable supply of safe drinking water for granted.  For most of us, it's a given.  However, this weekend the greater Boston metropolitan area was placed under an advisory to boil water due to a rupture in a gigantic underground water pipe.  Over two million folks were affected.

In other locales safe water supplies have been interrupted, for example, many areas of the Gulf Coast lost most major utilitites, including water, after Hurricane Katrina.  Aside from natural disasters, there's also the specter of terrorists contaminating the water supply or attacking treatment plants.

 There are a few things you can do to prepare yourself for a water supply interruption:

  • First, store some water in your home.  Empty 2L and 3L soda bottles work well for this.  Clean them out thoroughly with hot soap and water, add a drop or two of plain, unscented sodium hypochlorite bleach, and store in a cool dark place.  Bottled water from the store is of course fine, but more expensive than doing it yourself.  FEMA recommends storing a minimum of one gallon of water per person per day, for at least three days' worth.  This is really cutting it close, especially for hot environments when you may be expected to be exerting yourself, e.g., cleaning up hurricane damage.
  • If you have advanced notice of a possible water supply interruption, fill your bathtubs and any buckets you have.  Even if this water isn't drinkable you can use it for flushing toilets.
  • Second is having a water filter.  The small hand pump units sold for use by hikers work but require a lot of manual effort.  Better are gravity based units.  I recently bought a Katadyn TRK Drip Gravidyn Water Filter from  The Katadyn unit basically consists of two stacking plastic buckets and three filter elements.  You pour contaminated water into the upper bucket then wait for it to drain through the filters into the bottom bucket.  You can then get your filtered water via a spigot in the bottom bucket.  The Big Berkey Water Filter System with 2 Black Berkey Filter Elements
    is a similar system but is made from stainless steel instead of plastic.
  • It's also a good idea to keep a gallon or so of chlorine bleach around for disinfecting water.  The EPA recommends using 8 drops per gallon, while the American Red Cross recommends twice that.
  • When disinfecting water, whether by using bleach or a filter like the Katadyn or Berkey, it's a good idea to strain it through something like a coffee filter or cloth first, if it's at all cloudy.  Doing so will extend the life of your filter and help remove unpleasant crunchy bits.
  • In my opinion, boiling water is the last resort for making it safe to drink.  Boiling takes time and uses fuel, both of which may be in short supply after a disaster.
Safe drinking water is critical for sustaining life.  Think ahead and get prepared so that if your supply is interrupted you have something to fall back upon.

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