What To Do When Your Backup Water Is Contaminated

Storing water in case of an emergency is a good idea. Having a reserve enables people to weather emergencies and minor service disruptions. A backup source of water is essential for emergency preparedness, three days without water will lead to death from dehydration, but serious and lifelong complications can occur well before you die from dehydration. Did you know that water sometimes needs to be retreated because clean water becomes contaminated? Water typically gets re-contaminated as people use water and they aren’t careful enough to prevent re-contamination, think about when you are washing up, hands are dirty and that leads to contamination of your stored water. Also a lot of stored water is stored for a long time “in case of emergency”. The problem with long term storage is the disinfectant residual deteriorates with time, reducing the water’s ability to prevent bacterial growth.

Preventing contamination is easier than removing contamination. Leave your stored water is a sealed and preferably airtight container. This physical barrier will stop bacteria in the environment from coming into contact with your drinking water. Next is to only open your reservoir with clean hands. Preferably washed with soap and water. It is better to pour the water you need for clean up before you make a mess. This is actually very important when you go to the bathroom, microscopic pieces of fecal matter on your hands will transfer to everything you touch, including the spigot/lid of your reservoir. Bacteria in that fecal matter will travel up the spigot into the water, it will only be a matter of time. Clean hands and routinely cleaning the exterior of your water storage tank/bottle/container/reservoir are essential to prevent contamination.

Another way to help prevent contamination is design of your storage system. Avoid installing a spigot for drinking at the very bottom of the container. Anything left in the water after it is stored will eventually settle out on the bottom, you don’t want this sediment to come out into your glass for drinking. Another design element to consider is to not use a container that is stored with an opening on the top (this isn’t always possible). But think of a 2L bottle, it is filled with an opening on the top but if it is stored on it’s side, the water inside becomes more secure. The problem with openings on the top is that dust and other airborne contaminants settle on top of things in much greater numbers than they do on the side of things. Less contamination near the openings of your water reservoir mean less risk of contamination in your water.

Let’s talk worst case scenario; what needs to be done after your stored backup water gets contaminated with bacteria. Simplest is to throw the water away, wash the container or throw it away. That will solve your problem but don’t always have to be so extreme, it is easier to treat water the second time as there is typically only one form of contamination. The demand for disinfection will be lower. This means less less disinfectant chemicals will be needed. If water is scarce, you may not have the luxury of throwing contaminated water away. The easiest thing to do is add more sodium hypochlorite or calcium hypochlorite. Just like I described previously in my many articles on disinfection. As soon as you have added enough disinfectant to have a measurable and lasting residual; then you have added enough. If you don’t add enough you will need to do it again.  This will work on reservoirs of any size, all that changes is the volumes and detention times involved.  The minimum acceptable concentration of a chlorine residual after disinfecting a stored water supply is 0.25 mg/L.  If you have a constant level above 0.25mg/L then you know there is no bacterial growth in your water.  If you are using your nose to measure the addition of chlorine, then you will be at least eight times over 0.25mg/L depending on how sensitive your nose is.  I can’t smell chlorine in water until around 4.00mg/L and my wife can smell it around 2.00mg/L, as you can see the nose isn’t the best measurement tool.

Preventing contamination and treating water contamination is just as important as having a backup source of drinking water.  Having large volumes of contaminated water in you home isn’t very useful, unless you are equipped to deal with it.  Being able to remove contamination when you are depending on your stored water for survival will stop you from getting sick at a time when getting help will be difficult or impossible.  With a little planning, and a little preparation, it is possible to keep stored water supplies clean and safe for drinking for as long as you have a supply of water stored.


9 thoughts on “What To Do When Your Backup Water Is Contaminated

  1. Pingback: What To Do When Your Backup Water Is Contaminated by omegam4n | Preparedness Blogs

  2. I’m using four food grade blue, 66 gallon olive barrels with a 9″ opening on top that may be screwed on close to airtight thanks to a clear rubber gasket in the lid. I have cleaned them with dish soap, and scrubbed it, before treating with a strong bleach/water solution. They are clean as heck. I then filled each up with the bleach solution and leak tested outside to make sure I wouldn’t have a 66 gallon problem in my basement. I then emptied and sprayed them out with a drinking water approved hose and put the lids back on. (By the way I cleaned the lids as well, and even put them in the dishwasher). Now I am preparing an area in the corner of my basement for these big, blue barrels. I have read I should put them off of the floor, so I am going to lay some 1X8 and 1X6 boards under them.

    I am now wondering a couple of things:
    1) I have a Big Berkey with both sets of filters on it. Should I filter the tap water before filling the barrel so I don’t have to worry about filtering in an emergency?
    2) Should I need to treat my storage water with bleach if I have filtered it through the Berkey?

    How am I doing? What do you recommend? I appreciate any advice, I am going to be filling these up in the next couple of days, and hope they will keep drinking water for years, if not decades.

    By the way, after filling and screwing the lids on tight I plan to run some plastic sheet (maybe just a simple trash bag) over the top and try to make an airtight seal over the lid to keep it as clean as possible.

    Thanks Pup

    • To answer your first question, Filtering before is what I recommend. The less in your water before you store it the better. However, the berkey filters remove chlorine. Chlorine is essential for the storage of water, (there are other chemicals you can use but most are worse). This is called a disinfectant residual, it isn’t there to kill bacteria, it is there to prevent the growth of bacteria. ALL water treatments are imperfect. They are ninety nine point something percent effective, the more nines the more effective. NONE of them are 100% effective, any that claim to are lying. So even storing treated water, you still need a residual disinfectant. Filter the water again with the berkey to remove chlorine, or buy a brita filter, they are much cheaper and are good at removing chlorine (but not much else).
      I think you are off to a good start, There is one caution with an airtight container, the water wont flow evenly from it. Also if you have disinfectant residual an airtight seal is not really necessary.

  3. Also, you could store your water in a number of smaller containers – say, ten 5-gallon jugs – so that only a small amount is subjected to contamination at one time.

    If you add a little too much chlorine, you could let it set in an open container for awhile to let the fumes escape or add more water to the mix to dilute it down.

    • leaving it in an open container will not really break it down, it will break down with time regardless of the container it is in. Sunlight (UV) will break down the chlorine, as will raising the temperature.

  4. Pingback: Water Security Before, During & After Hurricanes | The Ωmega Man Journal

  5. Pingback: Why?, How? And How Much? Of Storeing Water | The Ωmega Man Journal

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