Water Preparedness: Common Beginner Mistakes

Are you thinking about starting to store water? How about emergency water treatment? Getting started can be a very daunting task. Where should efforts be focused? What pitfalls should be avoided?  This article will explore a few of the mistakes I see people make when they start to take their personal water security seriously

Don’t be left without potable water. Avoid beginner mistakes. (source: always foodie.com)

The very first thing to learn is that there is no magic bullet. There is never a single product or technique which will always make water safe to drink. Combining, knowledge, multiple storage/treatment techniques and multiple products for storage/treatment is the best way to guarantee a safe source of drinking water for yourself and your family.  This logic or philosophy of combining as many protections as possible is used by municipal water systems all across North America.  It is referred to as a multi-barrier approach and it boils down to having many different protective measures to prevent contamination, in the event that one barrier fails, there are still many others in place.  To put it in layman’s terms, when it comes to water security, it isn’t a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket.

Marketing campaigns will make all sorts of claims about water products. Some will be irrelevant, like claims of BPA free plastic when the product is made from a type of plastic that never had BPA. Other claims will be over stated. The claim that is most often overstated is the number of times a water treatment product can be used. The quality of the water being treated is too variable for any company to give you an absolute number of times. This might not be done to deceive you. It could just be that the water they tested the product with was easier to treat then your water. Remember that no product will make the water perfect.  They will make the water safer when used correctly, if used incorrectly many water treatment products can make the water significantly more dangerous to drink.

Water needs to be stored in an appropriate container. This container needs to be able to physically hold the weight of the water and not leach any chemicals into the water. Assuming any garbage can sized container is appropriate will at best lead to soggy disappointment and at worst a severe case of gastrointestinal disease. For more information on water storage, read The Why? How? and How Much? of Water Storage?

Once your water is stored it needs to be kept safe. Water can become contaminated at any time. Anytime the container is open there is potential for contamination to occur. Read this article to find out what to do when your backup source of water becomes contaminated. The assumption that water only needs to be treated once is false. What was once safe to drink may be very dangerous when you need it if your aren’t protective of your supply. Water can turn stagnant when stored for long periods of time. Stagnation while not a health hazard is a taste hazard. Stagnant water tastes bad. Adding air to the water is how you relieve stagnation. Adding air is as simple as passing the water from one glass to another repeatedly or stirring the reservoir. The goal is to increase surface contact between the atmosphere and the water. It is important that aeration of the water will also remove the remaining chlorine (if any was present) in the water. If you are aerating the reservoir make sure you add some more disinfectant. Do this so you can keep your disinfectant residual high enough to keep the water contamination free.

Another mistake people make, is they store water but make no changes for reducing the water they use. Forgetting to change behavior during a crisis is probably the biggest mistake beginners make. Different situations require different behavior, this applies to your personal water use. You will be amazed at how much water is used if you aren’t careful. What could last a week might be used in a day and then you will understand the true value of water conservation. This mistake can also happen in more than just your water use.  For more information on water conservation read why water conservation is a prepper’s must do.

The single biggest mistake beginners is they assume that they can learn how to treat water later. Later becomes too late and then it can become fatal. It is very difficult to learn something complicated like water treatment when your life depends on it. Learning as much as you can before an emergency strikes is the single best thing you can do to stay safe.

This article covers just a few of the common mistakes I see people make when they start taking their water security more seriously.  There are many more mistakes that can be made and no one person has the perfect solution to them all. Water security is something that needs to be tailored to each person or family’s needs.  Have you found any common mistakes while preparing for water shortages? If so, leave a comment below, I would love to hear them.

Survival Bunkers: What Features Should They Have?

Survival bunkers are coveted by many as the ultimate survival preparation possible, providing it is full of food and water. The common elements for any shelter are food, drinking water, air circulation and waste removal. Honourable mention goes to electrical power and heating and cooling. The extent and the capacity of these essentials depends on the purpose of the shelter or bunker and how long it will be occupied. The characteristic that almost can go without saying, storage, lots of storage.

Many of the features described in this article are possible to build into almost any structure, some will only be possible or necessary in a fortified bunker. One note on fortified structures, many municipalities have made fortified homes illegal. This was done where I live to combat organised crime, and make it possible to evict criminal organisations, easier to raid these structures and to discourage to setting up of a headquarters in the first place. Be aware of what is legal before you start to fortify any structure.

The first decision to make is if your shelter will be underground or above ground. Both options have advantages and disadvantages. Underground bunkers are easily hidden and offer excellent concealment. The ground around the walls also offers protection from most explosions and most forms of natural disasters. Underground is a great place to hide. Underground is not a great place to defend. Civil unrest can easily exploit a weakness in all underground structures, if all the exits are found by an aggressive party then all inhabitants of the bunker are trapped. All anyone has to do is wait with weapons pointed at the doors, because the doors will eventually open when supplies run out. They won’t even have to wait that long. Blocking air vents, adding toxic gasses and flooding the bunker with water will flush people out faster. The primary security of underground bunkers is secrecy. Keep the location and if possible the existence of any bunker secret. This may even be more important than the strength of the walls.
Whether you choose to build above ground or underground there are features that are vital for both.
Multiple exits, are needed. There is little use in getting trapped in your survival shelter just to die later. Always have another way out. Speaking of exits, installing a barrier that forms a ninety degree bend outside the door will inhibit people from knocking the door down. A cinder block or concrete construction with just enough room to open the door will prevent anyone from swinging a battering ram against the door.

Bunkers that expect to be occupied for extended periods of time should have a UV growth lighting system. Something to at least start some seedlings. Volcanic eruption can create shorter growing seasons. Giving your food plants a head start could make all the difference between harvest and starvation. It would be awesome to have an underground farm that can grow enough food for your entire family, but I would bet money that it is too impractical to be a viable option.

Air circulation is also critical. Simple air circulation can occur with two holes and a fan. Easy to install but the can and will leave you open to any airborne contaminants or contagions. Screens and U-bends will keep out rodents and water. HEPA filters remove many small particles and some airborne bacteria and viruses. You can also use UV light to disinfect the air before it is circulated. And it is best done right after the HEPA filter.
Everything else requires a positive pressure system to keep any contaminants outside. Positive pressure is achieved when air is blown into a room faster than it can be released. This means air will constantly push out of any leaking point and physically push away from the bunker. Even when doors are opened the air will push our preventing contaminants from entering.
This is the opposite of an isolation room, like the ones in a hospital. Isolation rooms remove air from a room faster than air can enter the room. This means air is pulled inside constantly and out to an air disinfection system. This keeps the airborne contagion contained in the one room even when doors are opened.
Both positive and negative pressure systems have higher electricity costs and that could limit their applications.

Water needs mentioning. A source of drinking water is essential as well. Length of stay is the master here. If you only have a storm shelter then you can probably get away with storage of water. If you plan on outlasting extended civil unrest, then a well with access inside the bunker is preferred. A method of disinfection of drinking water is also preferential.

Next is waste, all the garbage and sewage needs to be dealt with. A septic tank can receive the sewage easily enough if the terrain allows for it. Garbage can be incinerated from within the bunker. For more on solid waste and liquid waste management see my other articles.

Fortification is a useful way to help survive many situations. Whether you expect a tornado or World War Three, having a place to retreat to that can take a beating could save your life. Anything that could save your life one day is always worth a closer look.

Disinfection Of Water Using Ultraviolet Radiation

Ultraviolet light is a very popular method of disinfecting water.  UV radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum that has incredible properties for the killing of microscopic organisms.  While there are varying degrees UV resistance within microscopic organisms, not one has yet been able to develop a total resistance.  Because UV disinfection systems are not chemical or biological they have an extremely long shelf life.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum with a UV Focus (From: agtuv.com)

There is a wide variety of ultraviolet disinfection systems that range from the size of a pen to large banks of meter long light bulbs and many options in between. UV systems tend to be very simple to install and operate and UV leaves nothing behind and there are no disinfection by-products from its application.  In fact ultraviolet radiation can break down some potentially harmful chemicals like chlorine and chloramine compounds.

Ultraviolet Lamp (from: halmapr.com)

The limitations of UV disinfection are; distance, time, turbidity and electricity.

Proximity is critical for UV disinfection, the water needs to be very close to the UV light source. The farther away the water is the more radiation is absorbed by the water. Meaning that with increasing distance you get weakening disinfection.  Proximity becomes even more critical in hard water.  Hard water sources leave a white chalky residue of calcium carbonate which covers the UV light bulb, making the radiation emitted significantly weaker.

Time is another significant limitation of UV disinfection. The amount of time pathogens spend in the UV greatly affects whether or not the pathogen is neutralised. This is similar to how people get worse sunburns the longer they are exposed to the sun.  Time is directly related to the flow of the water, if the flow is too much, the water will not spend enough time exposed to the radiation and will not be disinfected.  Slow moving water or even static water is best.

The efficiency of UV disinfection is greatly reduced by turbidity. Turbidity physically shields the organisms from the UV light. Exactly the way a beach umbrella shades people from the sun. This is called line of sight disinfection.  There is no disinfection in the shadows when using UV radiation.

Electricity is another limitation of UV disinfection systems.  They are limited in two ways by electricity.  First by the fact that  they are quite literally light bulbs placed underwater and secondly by fluctuations in the electrical source cause fluctuations in the UV radiation field emitted from the bulbs.  Both these problems are easily overcome.  By sealing the system in clear waterproof chambers can effectively keep the system safe from the water.  Fluctuations in the electrical source can be minimized through proper system design and using fresh/charged batteries in battery powered systems.

SteriPen Portable Ultraviolet Disinfection (from wikipedia.org)

Portability is a mixed blessing with UV disinfection systems. Smaller, pen-like devices are easy to transport, but are significantly less powerful. That means they need to be used on slower moving/still water and used for longer than larger UV systems.  Another mixed blessing of ultraviolet disifection is the fact that there is no disinfection residual left in the water.  Not having a disinfection residual is great if you are drinking the water immediately, otherwise recontamination can occur very quickly after the UV lamps are shut off.  UV is not enough if you plan on storing the water for a long period of time.

Recirculating the water to be disinfected a second or third time will greatly increase the chances of proper disinfection.  Remember that disinfection whether by UV or chlorine or any other method is one of the final stages of water treatment.  Forgetting to filter the water first will make disinfection significantly more difficult.  Regardless of the size of the of the system used, ultraviolet radiation can be used to supplement any water treatment process.

Sewage Emergency: Thunder Bay Flooding

Recently the city of Thunder Bay Ontario experienced devastating flooding. There was enough water to flood out the waste water treatment plant. This effectively shut down the sewage collection and treatment system for the entire city. This turned the entire city to a zone without sanitation.  Over 1000 houses needed to be evacuated, and some people needed to evacuate immediately.

Contaminated Water Flooding Thunder Bay (from news.nationalpost.com)

The flood hit the city at night, and people living in basement apartments woke up to furniture floating in sewage.  One lucky family woke up to their baby’s crib (and baby) floating in sewage.  The rest discovered that their house smelled horrible when they woke up.

What overloaded the system was a prolonged rainstorm above the 100 year storm levels and the normal waste water levels. Combined sewers meant that all this water was supposed to be treated at the waste water treatment plant.  When the flooding reached the facility, the pumps shorted out, as in most large facilities most of the control electronics (there are a lot) are stored in the basement.  Electronics underwater rarely fair well, this shut down the entire facility.  Large volumes of contaminated water had nowhere else to go and it started covering most of the city. People had anywhere from 4 inches to 6 feet of sewage in their homes.

Sewage Flooded Basement (from cbc.ca)

The city instructed residents not to use water, because all the flushed toilet water was ending up in basements and free flowing in the street. People didn’t stop washing and flushing. Now, when there is sewage everywhere there is a huge need to wash and keep clean. But when all you have is water for hygiene, all that waste will end up in the street or in your basement.  So there are strong reasons to use water, and strong reasons not to flush anything down the drain.  This is a good reason to have water-less cleaners available for when the waste has nowhere to go. Alternatively it is also a good reason to have short term storage for household waste.  There is no point in flushing the toilet if it just ends up in your basement.  I would personally deal with twenty feces filled buckets then one flooded basement.

When there is sewage in your house the environment becomes so toxic that even sleeping overnight can cause respiratory illnesses. Continue reading

How Does A Water Filter Work?

Whether you are building, operating or just buying a water filter, filtration is an essential part of most water treatment processes. Filtration is used in the counter top/faucet filter all the way up to municipal water treatment facilities serving tens of millions of people. Even in emergency and survival situations filtering with a shirt or other cloth is often the first thing recommended for water treatment. A shirt isn’t adequate on its own by a long shot, but it is better than un-filtered/untreated water. Used in conjunction with other water treatment steps, filtration makes the rest of the disinfection process significantly easier and cheaper.

We filter water primarily as part of the disinfection of water. Disinfection is the inactivation and removal of pathogenic organisms. Filtration is part of the removal portion of disinfection. (The other part being settling or clarification).
Filters work to physically remove contaminants from the water. They do this by passing the water through a filter media. The media presents a barrier to solids in the water. They literally collide into each other and become trapped. The media can be made of almost anything. As long as it has the ability to let water through and preventing solids from passing through. The pore size (size of space between the media) dictates the performance of a filter. The smaller the pore size the more that gets removed from the water. That sounds like smaller is better, but small pore sizes reduce the rate you can filter water and the total volume of water you can filter. It is always a trade off between ability to remove contaminants from the water and the ability to filter larger volumes of water.

Below is a diagram of pore sizes and which contaminants can be removed at a given pore size. Filters with smaller pore sizes tend to be more expensive. They require precise manufacturing techniques and maintenance.

Particle Size Diagram And How Fine A Filter Needs To Be To Remove Them

This trade off lead to the development of chemically assisted filtration. The filter media and the water itself is treated with chemicals. The water is treated with chemicals to make the particles in the water larger called floc (large groups of particles stuck together). At the same time the filter media is treated with a chemical to make the media attract and trap the particles in the water. Most chemically assisted media, has a electro-static charge opposite the one in the floc. Typically the media has a positive charge and the floc has a negative charge. Now instead of waiting for the particles to collide with the filter media, the floc is attracted onto the surface of the media (adsorbtion) and into the filter media itself (absorbtion). These types of filter media are said to be activated. Below is a diagram outlining the difference between straight filtration and chemically assisted filtration.

Direct Filtration Versus Chemically Assisted Filtration

Continue reading

PurifiCup Natural Water Purifier Product Review

When camping or hiking or even during an emergency drinking water becomes very important (water is important everyday really). You can store water easily if you don’t have to travel or evacuate, but carrying enough water if you are on foot is very difficult and very heavy. There is a need for a portable, simple, effective way to make safe drinking water.

PurifiCup is a commercially available portable water solution. I had the opportunity to test one and I put it up against some laboratory tests and my own personal judgments. It is very simple to use and is compact enough to fit into any bag and most cup holders.
This filter fits perfectly over wide mouth Nalgene bottles and screws directly onto standard water bottles. This product is very versatile and that makes it useful in a wide variety of situations.

PurifiCup Natural Water Purifier over a Nalgene Water Bottle

Some useful statistics on the PurifiCup. The cup is 10 fl oz, and it can filter 100 to 150 cups before it needs a new cartridge. It is 7.3 cm in diameter and 16 cm in height. The filter media includes ion exchange resins, activated carbon and nanoscale silver coating membrane.  The PurifiCup retails for $59.99 for the cup and filter, and replacement filters costing $13.99

Normal filters treat water by physically removing suspended materials in the water. A good physical filter removes particles as small as 0.2 microns. This will make the filter capable of removing all sizes of bacteria (but not all viruses).

The PurifiCup however isn’t a normal filter. It for one doesn’t filter below the 1.0 micron level. That is not rearly fine enough to remove all types of bacteria. This may seem like a bad thing, but the Purificup does something that no other portable water filter does (that I am aware of). The PurifiCup disinfects as it filters the water with a nano-silver membrane. Nano-silver has been shown to kill over 600 different types of bacteria.

What I wanted to know was, in a real world setting does it work? Does the product come close to meeting the claims? I tested the PurifiCup’s ability to remove turbidity, chlorine, color and its ability to kill bacteria.

PurifiCup Packed Up For Storage Or Travel

I took a sample of treated water to measure chlorine removal. The water sample I chose here is typical municipal drinking water. I also took a sample from a nearby river. This river represents a typical backup water source that could be used while hiking or in a survival situation.

There was a chlorine residual of 2.03 mg/L to start with. After filtering with the PurifiCup chlorine was reduced to 0.16 mg/L. To put it simpler, there was a 97% reduction of chlorine in the tap water. That level or chlorine reduction is amazing.

In the river sample I tested trubidity and color. Turbidity is the measure of suspended particles in the water, or the measure of the cloudiness of the water. Color is the measure of clarity of water, how close to perfectly clear is the water separate from suspended particles.
(Science Note: turbidity measures the scatter of light through the water sample and color measures the absorption of light by the sample). If you think of loose leaf tea, turbidity is the leaves in the water and color is the brown tint the water takes on. In general the lower the turbidity an the lower the color the safer the water is to drink (this is NOT always true).

The river sample started with 18.4 NTU (Nepheletic Turbidity Units) and after filtration it was 4.72 NTU. To put a little perspective to these numbers anything under 5NTU is invisible to the naked eye and at my water system I am not allowed to go over 1NTU. There was a 75% reduction in turbidity. The remaining turbidity is not terribly impressive but expected from a filter of 1.0 micron. Remember, the PurifiCup doesn’t claim to physically remove everything from the water.

Color is the final parameter I tested. Color isn’t in itself a health related property of water. A lot of color doesn’t necessarily mean the water is unsafe to drink. Removal of color however is a good indicator of the removal of many dissolved chemicals. The Color of my river sample was 128 (there are no units for color). The PurifiCup reduced that number to 81. Therefore 63% of the color was removed. This may not seem like a lot, but color is one of the most difficult things to remove from water.

Now for the parameter I was most curious about on a professional and personal level. Bacteria; does the PurifiCup actually disinfect water? I had to send this to an external environmental laboratory as I don’t have access to a biological lab. This limited the number and types of bacteria I tested. I chose to test for heterotrophic bacteria (heterotrophic plate count or HPC). These bacteria are not pathogenic, but they are resistant to many treatment processes and that makes them an excellent indicator of treatment success. I tested the HPC of the river and PurifiCup effluent.
First, bacteria tests are measured in colony forming units (cfu). A cfu is a group of bacteria that group into a visible blob (colony) of bacteria. The raw water from the river had a cfu count of 800 and the treated water had a cfu count of 500. 500 may seem like a lot, but it is a misleading number. Remember the disinfection doesn’t mean the killing of all bacteria, that’s sterilization. Disinfection is the removal or inactivation of pathogenic bacteria. Inactivation stops the ability of bacteria to reproduce and cause disease. Like I said before 500 cfu may seem like a lot. But these 500 cfu were inactivated. Remember the 1micron filter? A lot of bacteria go through the filter, but unlike the raw sample the 500 cfu didn’t grow. So while 500 cfu is a big number, they are not able to cause disease. The PurifiCup made the sample significantly safer to drink.

I highly recommend this product as part of a water purification system.  The portability and low cost of the PurifiCup makes this product a simple addition to your emergency preparations or for an avid outdoors-man’s kit.

How Big Of A Septic Tank Do I Need?

Septic systems are the most common type of sewage treatment for people living off of municipal or communal sewage systems.  The treatment of sewage is necessary even for people going “off grid”.  Most, and probably all jurisdictions in North America have some requirements for sewage treatment.  Treating sewage is also significantly better for the environment as exposure to untreated waste water is a common way to spread disease in humans and other animals.  Septic systems break down the organic components in sewage and provide water that is safe to be released into a form of biological treatment.  This is usually soil, in the form of a drain field.  I frequently get asked how large a septic tank is needed for someone installing or upgrading their waste management system. How large a tank needs to be ultimately depends on how much water will be put through it.

Predicting how much water will enter your septic tank will can be simple, or it can be very difficult but it always starts with your water use. To estimate your water usage there are some things you will need to know.
How many people are in your household? How many people are usually in your house and on your system?  This includes visitors which only visit once a year. How much water are you currently using? If you have a water bill now you can see it easily.  The water you use day to day becomes the waste water you have to deal with later.  The age of people in your household will play a factor.  Even if you are good at conserving water, children will waste a lot more water and they require more water in the form of bathing and laundry.  Both of those traits will increase the demand on your septic system when many kids are around.  Larger septic tanks are required for people not used to conserving water, when choosing your tank size, try to remember, most people are horrible at conserving water.

Ok, here are some guidelines for determining the size of the tank required.  The smallest tank size allowed in some jurisdictions is one thousand gallons.  A one thousand gallon tank can handle around 600 gallons of sewage per day.  In terms of percentages, a septic tank should he 40% larger than the flow of sewage into it, or the sewage flow should not be greater than 60% of the tank capacity.

What if you do not know how much water people are using or how much waste water you are creating?   Continue reading