Can I use a storm-water pond as a back-up source of water?

Storm-water ponds are the closest alternative source of water for many people living in urban areas. In an emergency this source of water may be all that is available to you.  Eventually any water you have stored will be consumed and the water in a storm-water pond may be the difference between life and death.  With the proper treatment your local storm-water pond can be a great backup source of drinking water.

Industrial storm-water pond (source: info.evergreen.ca)

Storm-water presents a unique set of challenges during treatment. Because storm-water ponds collect surface water, the water is exposed to all the contaminants on the ground in the catchment area. This includes but is not limited to pesticides and fertilizers applied to lawns, motor oil and gasoline leaking from vehicles and litter like cigarette buts. It all ends up is the storm-water pond. Those chemicals are already in storm-water ponds on a normal day. During an emergency there may be additional contamination from sewage runoff from an overloaded or broken sewage system. The water in the pond will also contain all the microorganisms like ecoli, giardia and cryptosporidium normally in surface water. Any one of these will make you very sick if you get infected with them.
Finally, there will be high levels of nitrates in storm-water ponds. Too much nitrates consumed by young children can cause blue baby syndrome.

The first step in treating water from a storm-water pond is straining. Straining the water through a cloth or loose sand filter will remove large particles (ones you could pick up with your fingers). Remove as much of the suspended particles from the water as you can. Straining the water first will extend the life of your proper water filter.

If you have a clarifying agent like aluminum sulfate, this is the best time to add it to the water.  It will make contaminants too small to be filtered become attracted to each other and become significantly larger.  Larger particles are easier to remove from the water. Let the water sit still for at least 30 minutes without disturbing it.  All the newly formed large particles (called floc) will sink to the bottom.  When you take the water from this container, make sure you leave the majority of the settled material at the bottom of the container.

Urban Storm-water pond (source: greenbmp.blogspot.com)

The next step is to filter the water. Filter the water even if it looks clear, the human eye is five times too weak to detect dangerous levels of particles. Filter the water at least once through an activated carbon filter. Activated carbon is known to remove many different chemicals from water including pesticides, chlorine and fluoride. Activated carbon is not the same as charcoal. Charcoal is similar, it can remove toxins from water but it is nowhere near the efficiency of activated carbon.

The third step is oxidation. Oxidation will help with disinfection as most disinfectant chemicals are also oxidizers. Chemicals like sodium hypochlorite and potassium permanganate are both oxidizers and disinfectants. Oxidation will break down many of the remaining contaminants and inactivate many of the remaining bacteria. Keep adding the oxidizer/disinfectant till you can detect a residual after 20 minutes. The 20 minutes is the minimum you should wait for a gallon of water. Wait longer for larger volumes. This is because oxidation is a chemical reaction that isn’t instant. It needs time to complete the reaction.

The fourth step is to filter the water again. Filtering again is necessary because the disinfection/oxidation step will create some potentially carcinogenic byproducts. We filter before oxidation to minimize the amount of chlorine (or other chemical) and to limit the possibility of forming dangerous byproducts. We filter the second time to remove any byproducts that have been formed.

The final step is to boil the water.  This will help with disinfection, but the main goal of boiling at this point is to remove any volatile chemicals.  Any chemical with a boiling point lower than water will be removed after boiling.

A note about disinfection.  If all of these steps are followed there is no need for a step dedicated for disinfection.  Between the oxidation and the boiling of the water any microorganisms will be inactivated.  If you are storing the water for a long time then add some sodium hypochlorite for a residual disinfectant.  The residual disinfectant will prevent the water from becoming recontaminated before you drink it.

One additional possible step is to aerate the water.  Ponds are frequently stagnant.  Stagnant water is green with algae, it smells bad and tastes worse. After the water is made potable, transfer the water back and forth between two glasses. This adds oxygen to the water and will make the water taste better.

This may seem like a lot of work for something as small as a storm-water pond.  What I have described are the basic steps to turn the potentially toxic water in the pond into clean and safe drinking water.

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.

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

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.

Non-Chlorine Pool Chemicals: Safe for Drinking Water?

When an emergency or a disaster strikes and you run out of clean drinking water, a clock starts counting down.  Three days is all that this clock has.  Three days is how long it takes a healthy adult to die of dehydration.  This journal entry is a continuation of my article on Pool Chlorine and Drinking Water. Many people with pools believe they can use this water as a back up source of drinking water,  whether or not that belief is a sound one is not always a simple answer.  While chlorine is by far the dominant disinfection agent used in pools there is a growing trend away from using chlorine.  In the first article (linked to above) I covered all the common types of pool chlorine chemicals.  In this article I will discus some of the other chemicals used in pools, and how they affect drinking water in survival situations.  I always recommend drinking the safest quality water you can get, clean untainted water that has been properly disinfected is always at the top of the list.  The advice that follows is for those situations where pool water and pool chemicals are better than tainted and untreated water.  That decision is something that everyone has to make for themselves when the emergency hits.

Salt Water Pool: (image source http://salt-water-pools.com)

Saltwater pools are the fastest growing among the alternative disinfectants. Saltwater pools may be safer to swim in, but are much more difficult to treat. If you were to drink the saltwater from a pool you would start an acceleration of the dehydration process as it takes more water to remove the salt from your body. To put it another way, it takes over one liter of water to remove one liter of saltwater. There is only one that can effectively remove salt from water is distillation. Boiling will not remove any salt at all. In fact you can boil it till all the water is gone and all the salt will remain in the pot. Distillation is the boiling of water and collection of the water vapor and steam. Then the cooling of the vapor and steam back into water into another container. Continue reading

Septic Tank Management

Homeowners are responsible for maintaining their septic systems.  It not only protects the investment in your home, but also protects your water supply and those of your neighbors.  You don’t want to be the cause of major ground water or surface water contamination because of a malfunctioning septic tank.  The liabilities are potentially huge and your homeowners insurance may not cover you if you didn’t do the required maintenance.   It will also make selling your home difficult,  I personally have walked away from houses I wanted to buy because the septic system was not in proper working order.

Septic tank management can be very simple. If the tank has been properly constructed and installed very few interventions will be necessary and the interventions will primarily be inspections.  The major components of a septic system are a collection pipe from the house, the holding tank, and the drainage system (usually a field).  The collection pipe is the final pipe leaving the home that contains all the household waste water.  This part of the system is identical for people connected to a municipal sewer except for where the pipe goes. Continue reading