Storing water for emergency situations isn’t as simple as filling up the tap and waiting for an emergency to strike. We’ll be going over the various containers that are safe for water, ways you can protect your supply from contamination, and how to properly clean your water container.
How to Clean Your Water Container
Water containers are a vital asset to those who wish to prepare and protect their family from any emergency. While there’s always the hope that such a time will never come, having clean drinking water, alongside other foods and tools necessary for survival, can make a huge difference.
While both food and water are both vital to survival, it is water that remains the number one concern. According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), each person will need a minimum of a half gallon of water per day. With several members of a household and several days to plan for, the number of containers for water you’ll need can seriously add up.
Water may not have an expiration date—but water stored in improper conditions or left alone for too long can breed microbes and other bacteria that make water unusable. Emergency preparations will require constant vigilance and periodic maintenance of your water containers to ensure the water you use is safe.
Maintaining safe water starts with cleaning and preparing your water containers and knows the ins and outs of long-term water storage.
What Can and Cannot be Used
It can be tempting to use old milk jugs, soda bottles, and other large containers to store your water instead of heading to the store and purchasing the nicer options. However, according to the CDC, this can pose a serious threat to water integrity.
The common recommendation is to seek out containers that have been graded for food and certified not to seep dangerous chemicals into the water supply. If you’re trying to use old bottles, check the underside to make sure that these have been stamped and graded for food. If you’re not sure, it is probably best to err on the side of caution.
Other considerations include the durability of the container. Glass may be more tempting to the environmentally conscious then simple plastics, but anything that isn’t durable and ready to stand the test of time shouldn’t be used. Likewise, you’ll need to make sure that your water container can be sealed.
In a pinch, glass containers may work fine, but any container that has held toxic or noxious substances should never be used for water storage, no matter how diligently they are cleaned. It is best not to run the risk and choose containers that can survive heavy use.
Preparing a Container for Water
Once you’ve secured enough containers for water for your family, it is time to give them all a thorough cleaning. Start by preparing a sanitary and indoor work location and empty, open containers.
Next, wash the containers as you would any other water container—with dish detergent and water. It is okay to be gentle with the dish detergent, as we’ll be using some stronger chemicals later on. Wash diligently and rinse completely, ensuring that no dish detergent is left behind.
For the deeper clean, we’ll be using bleach. Be mindful not to pick up scented bleach or bleach that’s often used for clothes and cleaning surfaces, but rather unscented, liquid bleach. We’ll be diluting this mixture down greatly to sanitize the inside of the containers without leaving a harmful amount of bleach.
Carefully measure out a ratio of one teaspoon of bleach to one quart of water, and mix. Partially fill each container, seal the water container completely, and give it a good shake. Every inch of the interior surface needs to be coated for the container to be 100% sanitized. You’ll need to do this for at least 30 seconds per container, and drain.
Dish racks are a handy tool for this process, as the container will need to air dry completely before you’ll be able to load them up with fresh water. Position the cleaned containers upside down and consider using a ventilated location for this process to keep the bleach scent away from living spaces.
In a rush, these containers can be rinsed out with clean drinking water, but otherwise, wait at least a day before loading up. It is a diligent and somewhat boring process, but ensuring that you’re using the right ratio of bleach and the correct containers, your hard work will pay off.
Properly Storing Water
After filling your containers with clean drinking water and sealing them, it won’t be as simple as popping on a shelf and waiting for the next big emergency. Maintenance and periodic cleanings will be key to making sure your drinking water is bacteria and microbe-free.
First, proper labeling is key. This is especially pertinent when storing drinking water in unconventional containers, or for families that store clear fluids like rubbing alcohol or bleach in similar containers. Clearly write “drinking water” on each container in bold, permanent ink.
Next, we’ll need to find the optimum location. Before going for an outside shed or covered location, you need to make sure that zero sunlight can strike the water. Recent studies by the National Institutes of Health shows that water’s exposure to sunlight can breed compounds like antimony and bisphenol A, otherwise referred to as BPA.
Studies concerning the inherent dangers of the consumption of both antimony and bisphenol A are ongoing and generally inconclusive, but as we mentioned earlier, it is best to err on the side of caution. Exposure to sunlight also naturally increases bacteria growth, so if your cleaning methods weren’t thorough, storage in a sunlit location would only serve to exacerbate the problem.
Next, consider a location that has a consistent temperature. 50-70 degrees is often the cited benchmark to hit, so basements and cellars make for excellent storage locations. A place too cold will threaten to freeze the water and rupture the containers, and similarly, too warm a location provides a breeding ground for microbes.
There is also the issue of periodic replacement. Despite lacking an expiration date, there is little we can do to ensure a 100% sanity environment for our containers. As such, you’ll need to replace these at least once every six months. Dispose of the drinking water or repurpose as grey or black water, before repeating the cleaning process.
Seasonal maintenance is also something to consider, so it might be simpler for many to remember replacing the water once per season. The more often you replace your water, the lower the risk of contamination. To ensure you do this often, write a date alongside the label on each container—preferably in small print so that the date can be updated seasonally.
Finally, make sure that no dangerous substances are located nearby. Flammable materials like gasoline and rubbing alcohol shouldn’t be stored near the containers, and if possible, set the containers on a raised surface rather then the ground.
To best prepare for any possibility, it is also worth considering the many ways you can re-use these containers in case of emergency.
For example—purchasing large, 5-gallon containers from a convenience store might seem unnecessary if you have reusable bottles at home, but a 5-gallon container has excellent potential for reusability. These can be converted after use into grey water storage, storage for bulk meals, and even waste disposal.
Likewise, if you’re in a location that’s tight on space, skip the small containers and go for a few 55-gallon drums. These can be found both in food grade and BPA-free varieties and are an easy way to prepare your family for the weeks and months ahead. These work best for larger families if those who have pets that will also have water needs.
While we’ve kept the focus exclusively on drinking water, thinking ahead to grey water and black water will help you make sure you’ve prepared for every outcome. For example, 5-gallon jugs can be repurposed to fill up from natural spring water or rivers and lakes near you.
There is no reason why you would need to store water for grey water purposes when natural resources are so close at hand. In a pinch or locations without easy access to nature, you may need to consider re-purposing containers for temporary black water use.
As you can see, preparing containers for water isn’t as simple as filling from the tap and waiting for an emergency to strike. Remember to plan thoroughly, purchase the right bottles, clean thoroughly, and choose the right location for storage. Each of these steps is vital to ensure you’ve done your part in securing a safe amount of usable water for your family.
As always, hope for the best and prepare for the worst, so when the worst strikes—you and your family will have little to worry about and a plan ready to execute.
I like to use empty unscented bleach jugs. I give them a good washing and rinse then fill them with tap water. I recycle my stored water when I change my clocks. I use the stored water in the washing machine and refill the jugs.
What about reusing gallon water bottles bought from stores?
In interesting and useful article, but do you really mean “there is little we can do to ensure a 100% sanity environment”? We’re all a little bit mad, aren’t we?!
After you clean the 55 gal barrel with bleach, do you need to wait for them to dry before you add water again?
If you are in a hurry, you don’t have to wait as long as you rinsed everything off thoroughly. But it is advisable to let the barrel air dry (upside down) completely before filling it with fresh water. Sorry for the late reply.
Have a nice day!
Donald Scott says
A solution of baking soda used after the bleach sanitization gets rid of most of the chlorine order and sweetens the container. Can’t recall exactly how much baking soda per gallon but I’ll try to look that up.
Can rubbing alcohol be used instead of bleach?
Mary Smith says
It wasn’t clear if you rinse after pouring out the bleach solution and then drying upside down ….