Week 1: Water Module (Part 1)
Besides our need for oxygen, it’s hard to imagine something so crucial to life yet more taken for granted than water is. On the list of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs it’s one of the basics besides food, air, and a few others.
Remember, that we’re going to look at the water module–as well as all others–seemingly backwards. That is, we’re going to work on the Temporary aspect of the A.P.T. concept first, then move on to the Preferred, and eventually Austere recommendations. I’m doing this on purpose because I want to provide you with the most basic options that you can use to prepare yourself and your family faster and for less money, then we’ll work toward better options.
First Things First
The first thing that must be discussed is your water usage. It should go without saying that if water is no longer flowing from the tap and all you can count on is what you have stored and/or what may be gathered, then water must be regarded as sacred! For example, you’ll quickly realize that you can no longer afford to run a hot shower for 20 minutes at a time, you can’t let the water run while you brush your teeth or shave, and you definitely cannot flush the toilet each time you use it. :( Yes, your new mantra will be “if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” So, for starters, you’re going to have to carefully consider how, when, and where water will be used and for what purpose.
As an eye-opening experiment, take one day of your life–perhaps the rest of today–and consciously consider your water usage each and every time you interact with a water source for whatever reason, including flushing the toilet, washing your hands, brushing your teeth, shaving, drinking, cooking, bathing, cleaning dishes–including the dishwasher–water for the pets, maybe watering the lawn or houseplants, and so on. You get the idea.
Now, consider (1) how many times these activities may be repeated by you each day and (2) how much water is being literally washed down the drain each time when doing so. How about the water wasted simply waiting for hot water to emerge from the tap? That’s still a big one for me! Now imagine multiplying your estimation by the number of family members you have and I’m willing to bet you’ll come up with a big number. In fact, most families use hundreds of gallons of water per day. Surely, we can’t keep up this level of water consumption when the tap no longer flows. The only solution is to change your habits… and quick.
Just so we’re clear: I’m not saying you have to change your habits now at all. This is about your actions with regards to preparedness. So, think about how you can best utilize your water in an emergency. How will you brush your teeth or wash your hands when water is no longer readily available from the faucet? What activities may be unnecessary, such as watering the houseplants? How much water can you get away with NOT using if you really had to without sacrificing your family’s health when bathing, doing laundry, washing dishes? Can water be reused? These are pertinent questions to ponder and are best considered when times are good. We’ll attempt to answer these as well as other considerations in this course.
Last, I always feel it’s best to learn from your own experiences but the next best thing is to learn from others. This article on Living Without Running Water: A Practical Guide was a real eye-opener.
“Hidden” Water (in house)
The quickest way to find water–if not already stored–is likely what you already have “hidden” in your home. This article on How to Find Water and Make it Safe to Drink discusses “hidden” water and also talks about the many places you might be able to procure water outside the home as well as what you can do to make it safe to drink, though, that topic is covered here later. The article covers a wide range of possible water sources, from rainwater to snow, ground water, transpiration, and more. It’s a good place to start if you haven’t thought about alternative water sources before.
One thing to point out is that you likely have at least some easily accessible water in your hot water tank, water pipes, and toilet tank but definitely NOT the bowl. If you’re quick to turn off your main water line such as before an approaching hurricane or boil water order then you should be able to salvage any water remaining in your home’s hot water tank and pipes. Here’s a good article on Using Your Hot Water Heater as an Emergency Water Supply to start with.
If you’re going to use your hot water tank as a source of water then you’re going to need to (1) turn off the gas or electricity to it before draining and (2) filter out sediment that has accumulated at the bottom of tank after years of use. Using something like cheesecloth, a coffee filter, or even an old cotton t-shirt to filter the sediment while draining would help immensely; even allowing the sediment to settle at the bottom of a bucket or pail for an hour or two before use is better than doing nothing. In fact, this might be a good time to willfully drain your tank and remove any sediment that has accumulated; this article on How to Flush a Water Heater shows how.
Also, you should be able to collect a gallon or two of water from your house pipes if you open a spigot at the highest point in your home and drain water from the lowest spigot; be sure to catch all water when draining, even when initially opening the highest spigot.
The toilet reservoir tank water can be used as well but NEVER the toilet bowl which should be considered “black” water and not fit for human consumption, even if boiled, chlorinated, or whatever your favorite treatment method is. A note of caution: if you use any toilet cleansers or cleansing systems that go inside the reservoir then you cannot use this water for consumption or personal hygiene.
There are additional options besides “hidden” water in your home, such as rainwater collection using smaller receptacles, including trash barrels and 55-gallon drums. This article on Rain Water Collecting and Storage, by Tom C. gives some good basics while the following article discusses Plumbing Your Storage Barrels Together. And here’s another cost-effective rain barrel system to consider: DIY Rain Barrel For $50 Dollars or Less.
Know that although rainwater collection is definitely a viable option–it is against the law in some locales or at least frowned upon by the authorities–because it’s probably not safe to consume without treatment. This is in part due to the dirt and debris that would get collected, especially from the first few minutes of rain, among other contamination-related reasons, including any number of man-made chemicals that land on your rooftop. To help reduce contamination, this article on Diverters and Pre-Filters for Roof Rainwater Catchment, by Dim Tim may be of interest and is, in fact, a must-do in my opinion if you expect to collect rainwater for human consumption. You may then want to create an internal filter system for your 55-gallon barrels to reduce dirt and debris; this guy went a little overboard but you’ll get the idea. Remember that the cleaner your water is going in the more likely it will be that your subsequent disinfection/purification treatments will be effective.
If you prefer to listen to podcasts, these two relating to rainwater collection were interesting: Episode-199- Methods of Rain Water Harvesting and Episode-727- Tom Spargo on Rain Saucers and Rain Water Harvesting. Or, if you prefer videos, here’s how to make a trash can rain barrel system:
Contamination from rainwater collection can be caused by more than just dirt and debris collected from your rooftop. It is possible that an assortment of industrial chemicals and/or other pathogens may be present from being carried by the wind, animal and bird activity, including bird droppings… yuck!. Moreover, even minute traces of whatever your rooftop shingles are made of can make their way into your rainwater storage too. In short, there are a variety of potential contaminants to be wary of. In this case it is wise to have a quality filter–discussed later–and even include one that has an activated charcoal component to help remove chemical contaminants.
This would be a good time to point out that you don’t necessarily have to collect rainwater from your rooftop. Perhaps an even better idea would be to string up a large tarp between, say two trees or a tree and your house, and let that funnel into a water barrel system. This could be something that is relatively easily deployed when needed and taken down to avoid future contamination. Doing so would drastically reduce the aforementioned rooftop contamination problems… consider this food a thought!
I also want to remind you that you cannot and should not expect regular rainfall or even enough rainfall to provide for your entire water needs. Obviously, the amount of rainfall you may receive depends in large part on your geographic location as well as the time of year. And need I remind you that many parts of the country suffered very severe droughts much of the summer of 2012? I could only imagine having to rely upon rainwater collection alone during that time… it wouldn’t have been good. Regardless, rainwater can be a large part of your water procurement plan and I firmly believe that it should be included if you’re so able.
Ocean Water and Desalination
Many of you who live very near an ocean or other large body of salt water may think that you have all the water you could possibly want. In a sense, that’s true. However, the problem with ocean water is that it is extremely salty. So much so that you will do yourself more harm than good if you drink even a little bit. Likewise, it’s not the best water source for much of anything else either, from washing dishes to doing your laundry but I guess you could in a pinch.
In this case, consider distillation as a primary means of making salt water viable. The basic idea, if you’re unaware, is to boil the water so that the pure water evaporates thereby leaving the salt behind, condenses on something such as a copper pipe or plate glass, and then collects in another pot where it cools and can be used as-is. It’s actually a rather simple idea but not necessarily that easy in practice.
One idea is to use a solar still to separate the salt. While not a great option, it may be better than nothing. I know I’ve tried very simple distillation before which left much to be desired–it didn’t work worth a darn–but maybe this idea will work better:
I’ve also seen people develop more elaborate distillation devices that require the use of multiple pots, copper pipes, and so on. The major problem with this method is that you would need to maintain an active heat source in order to keep the distillation process going and understand that you’re not going to get gallons upon gallons a day either. Here’s a video about the idea in action:
In addition, there are some products on the market that can remove the salt from ocean water such as the following Katadyn Desalinators (shown on the left and middle below), but they are very expensive and NOT recommended due to sheer cost unless you for some reason had no ability to either store water or to distill it as outlined above. And here’s a book (shown on the right below) about desalination as well:
Katadyn also happens to have a PowerSurvivors series that run off 12-volt systems but they’re VERY expensive! Whatever model you might choose you’re going to need an assortment of replacement parts, including a membrane, cleaning chemicals, repair parts, and more. Relying on such units is a big deal and one that’s not worth it unless you’re out at sea.
There are some other interesting methods of filtering ocean water such as finding a lull in the beach and waiting for water to slowly fill up the hole but I wouldn’t bet my life on such techniques. Apparently, it is also possible to use a reverse osmosis filtering system–such as those under-the-sink systems–to filter out the salt from water but these require typical household water pressure (at about 50-70 psi) to even function which brings up a whole other issue yet to be addressed… water pressure.
The short answer is that if you truly expect to utilize ocean water as a water source then you need the proper tools to make that happen, which means spending the money on a desalinator or building one. Personally, I would much rather spend my money on a 250-500 gallon rainwater catchment and storage system rather than an expensive desalinator.
Swimming Pool or Jacuzzi
Another possibility to rely on–if you have one–would be a swimming pool or jacuzzi spa. These could easy provide from several hundred to tens of thousands of gallons of usable water. There are some concerns with doing so, however, including water contamination from any number of sources as mentioned previously–especially with outside, uncovered pools–or even a complete loss of water due to a crack in a swimming pool, such as after an earthquake.
Please don’t assume that these sources will be available to you… they may not be! Perhaps the best use of this water is for non-potable purposes, such as for laundry, dishes, watering the garden, etc. Seeing as though pools and jacuzzi tubs are often heavily-laden with chemicals in order to keep them safe, they’re not the best source for potable water. That said, they could likely could be consumed after appropriate treatment on a very short-term basis if you had no other choice.
That said, I have heard that once you’re no long active treating pool and jacuzzi water with chemicals that the chlorine should quickly dissipate into the atmosphere–within a day or two–which means that the water may well be relatively chemical-free but should still be properly treated (via quality gravity filter to be discussed later) as any questionable water should be.
A Last Thought
One last thought that I would consider a serious last resort would be to look for water still trapped in the municipal water system. It’s my understanding that even if there is no water pressure there could very well be water trapped inside these water pipes at lower elevations. I’m not suggesting you explore the depths of your city’s water system by any means but at least you’re aware of that possibility.
Rainwater Collection (IBC Totes)
This section will continue the discussion on rainwater but focus on larger storage receptacles, including IBC totes (275+ gallons) and bigger. If I had it all to do over again, I would have purchased a few of these larger IBC totes and used them as my rainwater collection. Honestly, they can’t be beat, at least, when compared to a typical 55 gallon drum. Given that a single IBC tote holds approximately the same amount of water as five or six 55-gallon drums alone AND that they’re relatively compact, I’d say they’re the way to go for a typical suburban home. If you can purchase two or three, plumb them together, and passive collect your rooftop rainwater, then you have a system that’s really beginning to be truly useful.
Here’s a descent written tutorial on a Rainwater Harvesting and Purification System to get an idea of how it’s done and this Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting [PDF File] will provide more information than the average person would want about the topic of rainwater collection, though, not specifically about IBC totes at all. If you like, this instructable on how to create a Heavy Duty 275 Gallon Rain Barrel system using an IBC tote was interesting.
And here’s a very good video series on using an IBC tote for rainwater collection too. Note that the last video in this series was added much later but is a great way to plumb and store four IBC totes together:
If you want to see an even bigger tank/system in action, watch this:
When we think about preferred and austere water procurement options, it must be a sustainable one. Unfortunately, the typical suburban home doesn’t have much land to work with, so the possibilities of well water are not great and that’s not even considering the costs to do it, which varies greatly by geographic location and water table depth. Regardless, well water is probably the most sustainable method of water procurement out there unless, of course, you’re lucky enough to have a nearby spring. If that’s the case then you’re likely not very suburban. Anyway, if you’re still intrigued by well water then start with A Guide to Domestic Water Wells, by Olive and then watch these videos which discuss a variety of topics on the subject:
For the DIY individuals, here’s How to Drill a Well and plenty more information here. This Flojack system may be a useful backup well pump since they offer a few options. If you prefer, here’s How to Make an EMAS PVC Water Well Hand Pump and a video on how to build a deep water well hand pump and one on a “ram pump” that uses no electricity to operate:
Again, well water is a very useful long term option but you really must consider the cost to install one. You should also know that not all wells produce water 365 days a year; some wells–depending on location and well depth–may run dry during the most critical times of the year, the summer, so keep that in mind and/or be sure to ask around before committing.
Lakes, Rivers, Streams
Other possibilities for longer-term water procurement include lakes, rivers, and streams for the simple fact that they are renewing resources. Besides being very difficult to retrieve and transport for most suburbanites any surface water MUST be considered contaminated so you must take steps to treat it. From bacterial contamination to wild animal feces and carcases, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned.
Really, lakes and rivers are only mentioned here for completeness and are probably not an viable option for most suburbanites due to the difficulty of transporting it in sufficient quantities to be worth your effort… this is a HUGE issue!
If you do expect to rely on surface water then figure out how you’re going to transport large quantities of water at a time and probably without the aid of a vehicle. Perhaps a garden cart or even hand cart would be useful here, but realize that you will probably be moving over uneven ground which could make these very difficult to utilize. Of course, you could just hoof it back and forth… good luck with that.
Last, read these articles on Giardia Infection and Treatment, by Dr. Bob and Waterborne Illnesses Prevention FactSheet [PDF File] while you’re at it. It’s good to know what you’re up against with respect to surface water diseases.
As a last possibility–and honestly the best option yet the least likely for suburban homes–here’s how to get water out of a spring: