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.

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Grid Shutdown: Boil Water Advisory

If you have ever had a water main break on your street or any other service disruption to your water supply you may have experienced a Boil Water Advisory or a Boil Water Order. Boil water advisories/orders are the official response from the people running the water system. Below is a brief description of when a system would issue a boil water advisory or order and some general ideas for what should and should not be done as someone under a boil water advisory/order.

Source: districtgov.org

The good news about a boil water advisory is that they are often issued as a precautionary measure. Meaning they are often used in cases where the water isn’t actually dangerous. The system operators issue the warnings so they have done the proper due diligence. The liabilities involved if someone gets sick or dies and the public wasn’t informed are huge. Ok, at this point you may be wondering what sort of situations would require a boil water advisory. Typically any time there will be work on the distribution system requiring lowering the pressure or if the disinfection of the water system is interrupted for a long time.

Boil water orders are more serious. They come into place when large and persistent problems occur. Things like contamination of the source water and major failure of critical treatment equipment can cause boil water orders.

Boil Water Notice From The Regional District Of North Okanagan (source: vernonblog.blogspot.com)

The first thing you should do when you learn about a boil water advisory or order is read the information given to you. It will have instructions for you. It will have essential information for you like the cause if it is known and the expected duration. It will also list acceptable uses of the water, you might need to boil before drinking but washing is fine. Or you may not be able to use the water for gardening if the reason is due to chemical contamination. If you actually read the notice you will appear to have inside knowledge because in my experience very few people will ever read them. It will also list sources for alternative drinking water supply. Watch how fast the corner store sells out of water. In my experience, people only let this happen once. Then they start keeping a supply.  The written notice will usually only talk about “drinking” but the list of activities that require boiled water include food preparation, coffee makers (some don’t boil the water long enough or hot enough), brushing teeth, making ice, making infant formula and anything going into an immune compromised person.  Veterinarians also recommend that any water given to a domesticated house pet should also be boiled.  Livestock are a different story.  Anything that is already free range is already drinking untreated water and will probably be unaffected by drinking the unboiled water.  However, there is still a limit for bacteria concentrations in water consumed by livestock, free range or not, just like there is for every other animal (including us) on the planet.  Here is a link to the standards for water uses for the Province of British Columbia, use table 1 as a guidline for how to use water during a boil water advisory or boil water order.  If table 1 says “no applicable standard” then it is safe to use the unboiled water. http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wat/wq/BCguidelines/microbiology/microbiology.html#toc

The biggest thing you should not do is abandon drinking tap water in favor of bottled water. This is a mistake. If you do this you are still at risk but you are significantly less likely to hear about it if something is wrong. Another thing to avoid doing is panic. This is one of those things where no news is good news. I tell the people that if you stop seeing me and hearing from me then everything is back to normal. This is because I am legislated to tell the public when there is a problem. At this time I also tell them the time line as does the written notice. After two consecutive clean water tests the system and water return to normal. It is also way too time and cost prohibitive to go back door to door and say “everything is fine now”.
If you live in a large city, there will probably be some media coverage of the return to normal situation. Otherwise if you don’t hear anything. After the date on the notice your water is fine. If there is still a problem they are legally required to tell you again about the problem.  Neither a boil water advisory or boil water order is something to panic about it is not time to call a well driller and go off the water system completely (if that is even an option where you live). It is time to start using your preparations and your backup water supplies.

If you don’t want to or can’t boil your water then you can always use an alternative form of disinfection.  Either ultraviolet radiation, sodium hypochlorite or calcium hypochlorite are acceptable alternatives.  Be careful of using these alternatives for highly turbid water sources.  The floating debris in the water can hide pathogens, cryptosporidum is highly resistant to chlorine as is girarda adding enough chlorine to kill these two microorganisims will make the water unsafe to drink.  Turbidity can also react with the chlorine to form hazardous chemical byproducts. Remember turbidity is removed from the water by setteling and filtering before disinfection to avoid these two problems. You may want to install a water filter in your home or purchase a portable water filter as a backup.

All that is left is what needs to be done after the boil water notice or order is lifted and everything returns to normal.  Flush all water-using fixtures like faucets and showers for at least one minute. Drain and flush all ice-making machines in your refrigerator. Run water softeners through a regeneration cycle.  Drain and refill hot water tanks set below 45 C (normal setting is 60 C). Change any filters either under sink style, on the faucet style and the ones in a jug in the refrigerator, regardless of the type of filter.  Filters that are designed for untreated water will not need to be changed unless they are used up.

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