Everybody knows basic preparedness 101 (although knowing and doing are not remotely the same), and the mantra of storing a 3 day supply of food and water. I argue that water comes first. One can survive for days without food, and on a reduced diet for a lot longer. But you can’t get by without water – a gallon of water a day per person, according to preparedness gurus. So why not just grab a flat or two of bottled water, and you’ll be set! Or not, as the case may be.

Willamette River in Portland - but can you drink it? Photo by Sheila Sund.

Willamette River in Portland – but can you drink it? Photo by Sheila Sund.

Living on a gallon of water a day – a challenge!

Have you ever tried to live on a gallon of water a day? I don’t mean just drinking. I mean everything – drinking, cooking, washing hands, brushing teeth, and cleaning dishes. Give it a try for 24 hours. We’re simulating disaster here, so water is your only beverage that day. Be sure to drink at least half of the gallon (more if hot or active). You can decrease water use with hand sanitizers, but they won’t wash off the pervasive dirt and grime after a disaster. After just one day, I guarantee a new appreciation for water, both in terms of storage as well as the amount we waste.

This little exercise only considers “potable” water – clean water that goes in your mouth, or used for cleaning something else that goes in your mouth (hands and dishes). Bacteria, viruses, and protozoans thrive in contaminated water, and cause diarrheal illness. Diarrhea sucks in the best of times, but imagine diarrhea when toilets don’t work, when showers are a luxury, or when you’re living in a shelter with 500 other people. Needless to say, ample potable water is a must.

Will this be you?Photo by Gerard Stolk.

Will this be you?
Photo by Gerard Stolk.

Non-potable water – not for drinking

The gallon a day concept doesn’t consider non-potable water. Do you want to flush the toilet? Depending on your toilet, it takes anywhere from 1.5 to 4 gallons of water to flush. In a disaster situation, you probably only flush for solid waste (“if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down”). For a family of four, that’s still about 4 flushes a day, or at least 6 more gallons of water – not counting accidental flushes after #1. Force of habit is hard to break. By the way, does everyone know you can flush a toilet by pouring water in the bowl, even when water and power are out?

Do you care about bathing? Some may revel in the grime, but I get miserable without at least washing my hair and a sponge bath every few days (showers being obviously out of the question). From camping, I’ve got our routine down to 5 gallons for 3 people. We can use our waste washing water (another tongue twister) to flush the toilet a few times.

Pets need water too!

Don’t forget Fluffy and Fido! Dry vs wet pet food changes water requirements somewhat, but a reasonable estimate is 8-12 oz water a day per cat, and ½-1 oz water per pound of dog every day. Clearly Chihuahuas win out in the disaster planning category! Potable or not? Although some pets drink regularly from puddles or streams, I prefer not to worry about dog diarrhea with all the other disaster recovery issues. In my house, planning for pets means almost another gallon and a half of clean water a day. I also don’t trust in only 3 days of water for our potential disasters. After the Cascadia earthquake hits, it will be a long time before someone starts handing out water bottles. Even then, they will only pass out drinking water, not water for flushing or bathing.

Photo by Dave Dugdale

Photo by Dave Dugdale

How much water do you really need?

Adding our water requirements together, with 4 people, 2 cats, and one Great Dane at home, we need at least 40 gallons of water for 3 days (including just one sponge bath/shampoo each). If I plan for 2 weeks – OMG – I need 190 gallons of water! Only half needs to be potable, but that’s a lot of water, clean or not.

How do you store 40 gallons of water? Many people just buy flats of bottled water. At 16 oz a bottle and 24 bottles to a flat, that’s 3 gallons a flat. To meet our 3 day needs, I would need 14 flats – obviously not an efficient storage solution. It’s also expensive and an incredible waste of plastic. I keep a flat of water bottles in the car for grab and go, but that’s it.

 Storing water

For drinking water storage, it’s quick to buy drinking water in 2.5 gallon containers. Better yet, save money and store your own. 2 liter pop bottles are the way to go. No-nos include milk jugs, juice containers, any plastic not designed for food storage, and glass. Wash and rinse 2 liter pop bottles and caps, then sanitize by rinsing with 8-10 drops bleach in 2 cups water. Make sure to include the neck and cap threads. Fill with tap water, screw the lid on tight, and date. With city water, that’s all there is to it. For well water, add 4 drops of bleach to the pop bottle before closing.

Store drinking water in a dark cool location, safe from water damage if bottles leak. Keep away from gasoline or other fumes, which seep through plastic. Purchased water often has an expiration date, but is probably safe longer. Recycle self-stored water and containers every 6 months. I check stores and rotate water at the beginning and end of daylight savings – a handy reminder. By the way, household bleach also only lasts 6 months, even if unopened (something new I learned while researching this article). Replace it when you replace water – bleach is essential for emergency water purification.

Store non-drinking water however you can. I rationalize my hot tub as non-potable water storage (on well water, we are waterless when we lose power). Swimming pools are giant non-potable water sources – use Map Your Neighborhood to “map your swimming pools”. In wet, non-swimming climes, rain barrels work great (but aren’t as fun). Or go back to nature and get non-potable water from streams and rivers.

swimming pool

So you didn’t store water – now what?

Sadly, many of you will read this, think it is interesting, but won’t actually do anything. What are your choices when push comes to shove? If warned of an approaching disaster like a hurricane or storm, fill up everything with water – bathtubs, sinks, and pots (after a quick cleaning, perhaps?). With enough time, consider freezing water, both for storage and to keep your freezer cold longer.

Almost everyone has 30-60 gallons of emergency potable water in their water heater! (See How to Get Emergency Drinking Water from a Water Heater for illustrated  instructions.) Your pipes also store hidden water. Simply open the highest faucet in the house to release air, then collect water from the lowest faucet. If necessary, water from toilet tanks (not the bowl) can be purified for drinking. Be sure to shut off your water main to avoid contamination from outside pipes (and figure out where and how to do this in advance!).

All fluids are good (except alcohol) 

There is nothing magical about water. Take advantage of non-water beverages – use up the ones requiring refrigeration first. Myth holds that caffeine and carbonated beverages are dehydrating. Multiple studies have disproved this myth, so drink up the Diet Coke and Iced Frappucinos! Stay away from alcohol – it truly is dehydrating, despite temporary anti-anxiety benefits. Don’t forget canned soups and other water containing foods.

Water Containers - how far could you carry these?

Water Containers – how far could you carry these?

If you must hunt down water elsewhere (including aid stations), I warn you that hand hauling water is hard work. A 5 gallon water container weighs almost 45 pounds. I honestly don’t know how far I could carry a one handled 45 pound container. If flat and paved, I’d consider a wagon, but you can’t even bike around here. My to-do list includes investigating different portable containers. Ideas, anyone?

Of course, we haven’t discussed water purification, but that’s another story…. If you are dying for more information, FEMA has  good Emergency Water Storage and Purification Guidelines.

Stay safe,

Sheila Sund,M.D.

  1. mad thrad says:

    Thanks for posting this; you’ve given a lot of value here! (Do you prefer to be called Doctor or Sheila?) One dream of mine has always been to install multiple cisterns in the ground. The amount of rainwater that can be drawn off of a house or barn roof is staggering!

    • disasterdoc says:

      I’m fine with Sheila (or some like to call me doc). One can’t be in this field and be formal. I think the rain cisterns are a great idea as well. Oregon sure has plenty of rain to use them with. Now to convince my husband!

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