When the faucets don’t work, and the toilet won’t flush, and the bathtub is a desert – here’s what to do.
Life in the city can be tough. Life in a city without water can be a whole lot tougher. People in Flint, Michigan have lots of experience with that reality. In fact, many parts of the world have severe fresh water shortages and even when they find it it’s often polluted. Puerto Rico is still without adequate supplies of fresh water after Hurricane Maria. In any crisis water is critical to survival. We can go weeks without food but few of us would last two days without water.
There’s More to Water Than What We Drink
While our primary need for water is to keep our bodies hydrated, we use water in a variety of other ways that we sometimes take for granted. Here’s the list of uses in order of priority.
Water for drinking
We cannot live without water to drink. This is its most critical use and purity is the ultimate priority. This also includes water we use to brush our teeth. The rule is simple. If the water goes into your mouth it has to be pure.
Water for cooking
A good number of meals use water as an ingredient. But be careful. It’s easy to assume that boiling water for food preparation will kill any germs or micro-organisms. That’s not necessarily true. To totally purify water, it needs to be boiled for at least 10 minutes. Few recipes that use water as an ingredient require that amount of boiling time. Unless you are confident the water is pure before you start cooking, boil it for at least 10 minutes before adding any other ingredients.
Water for washing
A lot of this depends on what part of your body you are washing. If you are simply washing your hands or body the purity doesn’t need to be perfect. The use of any kind of soap also helps to wash away any micro-organisms. If you’re washing your face the purity of water is a different story. Any water used for face washing should be as pure as possible. The mucous membranes in our nose, mouth, ears and eyes are an open portal to our bloodstream and bacteria can and will freely invade those membranes. And don’t think soap will kill the germs. Most soaps don’t have germ killing attributes. In fact, soap essentially lifts germs from our skin and allows water to rinse them away. Unless you are using an anti-bacterial soap, germs can still survive the suds.
Water for sanitation
The is the easy one. You need water to flush a toilet and if you’re pouring water into the water tank of your toilet for a flush you don’t have to worry about perfectly pure water. On idea to keep in mind is to fill the bathtub with water for toilet flushing. A small bucket can be used to collect the water to be poured into the toilet tank, and because bathtubs are usually in close proximity to a toilet the water transfer is easier.
Bathtubs also make a good reservoir for storing water in general. You can always purify any of the bathtub water for drinking. Also, remember to put a piece of duct-tape over the closed drain. Even when a bathtub drain is closed the water can seep through over time and your bathtub can be empty in the morning.
Finding Water Resources in The City
An obvious source of water is rain. You just have to be able to effectively capture it. A large tarp is a good place to start. Even if you live in an apartment and only have a balcony you can capture water and funnel it into a bucket. A 5-gallon bucket is a good choice. Assuming the tarp and bucket are clean you can probably drink the water with little or no additional treatment or filtration. If in doubt, we’ll get into various water treatment methods later in this article.
Snow and Ice
Another source is snow and ice. Freshly fallen snow may be the cleanest water you can find and icicles hanging can be pure assuming they haven’t been polluted by whatever they’re hanging from. You’ll have to melt the snow or ice. You can do that by piling it into your 5-gallon bucket and letting it sit at room temperature. You can also melt it on the stove in a pot but you’ll want to make sure there’s a small amount of water in the pot to help accelerate the process.
Local Lakes, Rivers and Ponds
Be careful here. While these sources can offer plentiful supplies of water it’s a good bet they are polluted with everything from micro-organisms to rainfall runoff carrying anything from pesticides to herbicides and even sewage. The need for multiple filtration and sterilization steps is critical. Times are tough enough when there’s a severe water shortage, but an illness or disease from polluted water can make things much worse very fast.
Your Water Heater
It’s easy to forget but our water heaters can hold from 50 to 100 gallons of water. Better yet, the high temperatures the water has been subject to has done a good job of killing and inhibiting the growth of bacteria. If you have a water heater in your residence you’re in luck. Make sure you reserve this water for drinking water. There are other water sources you can use that are less pure for flushing a toilet or for hand washing or laundry use.
To collect the water from a water heater, look for the spigot at the bottom of the water heater. This is usually used to drain sediment from the tank. If you see any sediment, you’ll need to filter the water but you’ll find very quickly that most of the water will soon run clear. There’s a good chance you’ll be without electricity during a water crisis, but the action of gravity will make it easy to collect the water from the bottom spigot.
Public Water Distribution from Local Emergency Management Agencies
In an emergency many communities have Emergency Management Agencies that may setup water distribution sites. The water distributed is usually rationed depending on the supply and the demand. If you’re aware of one of these water distribution sites, bring the whole family. There’s usually a limit on how much water each person is granted, and everyone is going to need water. This water will no doubt be very pure and is usually distributed in plastic bottles of varying sizes or they will fill a water container that you bring to varying amounts from a water truck.
Boiling water to purify it is a standard practice but always follow the 10-minute rule. Water needs to be boiled briskly for at least 10-minutes. This also assumes the water has been filtered. Muddy water won’t magically get clear after boiling. The boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit and is proven to sterilize water as long as the 10-minute rule is followed.
Water purification tablets
These can easily be found at sporting goods stores with a camping department. They are commonly referred to as Halazone tablets. They have trace amounts of chlorine to kill any microbes and purify the water. However, chlorine leaves an aftertaste so there are also tablets available to neutralize the chlorine flavor. Another method to remove the chlorine aftertaste is a quick pass through an activated charcoal filter.
There’s another tablet developed by the U.S. Army called the Globaline tablet. It uses very low traces of iodine to purify water. It can also have a faint aftertaste. Whether you’re using Halazone or Globaline tablets, the water should be filtered until it runs clear before using any type of tablets. Read the directions on the label to determine the proper amount of time to allow the tablets to sufficiently kill any bacteria.
The 3 Basic Types of Water Filters
At its simplest, a woven piece of fabric with a tight weave can effectively remove debris, some particulates and even clarify muddy water to a degree. A thick, terry-cloth towel or a piece of clean canvas are options. Remember that a fabric filter will not sterilize the water. You could use the water to flush a toilet, but it would require additional treatment before using for washing or be safe to drink.
Charcoal filters do not sterilize water nor kill bacteria. Their primary use is to filter water to make it run clear and to remove off-tastes or odors. Activated charcoal is the most commonly used material and can be purchased at pet stores in the aquarium section or on the Internet. The charcoal will remove foul odors and further filter out small particles.
A Ceramic filter forces water through a dense piece of ceramic that physically removes most microbes from the water. The compact and very tight composition of the ceramic is measured in microns, and the action is similar to filtering water through fine-woven fabric only on a microscopic scale.
If in doubt about the purity of the water, it’s always a good idea to play it safe and boil the water for 10-minutes. The most popular ceramic filter carries the brand name Katadyn. The Katadyn water filters also have an activated charcoal cartridge installed plus an extra in addition to the ceramic element. Typically, the usage of water purification tables are also recommended as an added precaution.
It can be difficult and maddening to hunt and filter water on a daily basis. The best solution is to store as much water as you can and keep it in reserve. However, stored water can present a new challenge. Water that sits for long periods of time may have some residual bacteria in trace amounts that can grow and multiply over time. Here again, there are tablets you can add to stored water containers to inhibit the future growth of bacteria especially if you are storing water for extended periods in large containers. 40-gallon drums are available on the Internet for high capacity storage, but you’ll need a hand pump to draw the water from the drum.
Stored water can also develop an off-taste or flat taste, or odor over time. Filtering any drawn water from long-term water storage through an activated charcoal filter is a simple remedy. Another way to accomplish this is to pour the water from one bucket to another to aerate the water. This technique is often done with melted snow or ice which often delivers a flat taste.
Storage Container Options
Plastic and Glass Containers
Any clean container can be used to store water. This can be as simple as a 1-gallon milk jug, 5-gallon plastic buckets with a locking lid, and there are 40-gallon plastic water drums you can find on the Internet. Some come with a hand pump to draw the water or they can be ordered as an extra.
We covered this a bit earlier but a great way to store water is the in the bathtub. Post a sign cautioning people not to drink the water until it is filtered and sterilized.
Water is the Ultimate Priority for Survival
No one can survive without water over a two-day period. In fact, the collection, purification and storage of water in a desperate time can be the most critical success factor for both short-term and long-term survival. Many of us focus heavily on stockpiling food and medical supplies but none of that will matter if we’re without water. Don’t take it for granted and do everything possible to keep your water supplies stored, replenished, fresh and most critically -pure.