Water, water everywhere. But how to store it?
By Claire Wolfe
Dora pointed at the damp and bloated sheetrock on her little sun porch and declared, "It's your fault, you know."
"You said I should store emergency water in old plastic milk cartons. I did -- and they leaked! Now I learn they biodegrade."
I glanced around at the sunny, unheated porch. Yep, the wall was a mess, and a dark stain marred the wooden floor. Several milk cartons sat there, suspiciously collapsed in on themselves. My fault, indeed. But this being the Clinton era, I'll make excuses; my advice wasn't bad; it just ... uh ... gave the appearance of badness.
Seems lots of people are storing emergency water, both as a precaution against short-term disruptions and as a Y2K preparation. Surprisingly, this age-old act isn't always easy for us modern sorts. You can store emergency water in milk cartons. You've just got to be careful how. And maybe, for you, there are better methods.
"Dora," I said, "I owe you a piece of sheetrock. But come have some tea. As people keep telling me, there are ways to do this storage thing, and then there are ways. ..."
At our house, we do successfully store emergency water in milk cartons. Been doing it for at least five years, and have had only one leak. However, here's how we accomplish that. After washing the empty cartons with hot, soapy water and giving them a swish with a light bleach solution, we fill them with purified water from Pickle's Groce Mart. (Hardyville tap water won't kill you, but tastes like it should.) Then comes the important part:
Almost none of them do become brittle simply because we keep them from the main trigger of biodegradation -- sunlight -- and that other enemy of plastic -- freezing.
Because we constantly rotate our bottled supply, we don't use any additives to retard growy stuff. If you put water away for months instead of rotating it, just remember 1) add a drop of unscented liquid chlorine bleach ("Drop" will be defined ... sort of ... later); and 2) refill and re-treat your supply at least once a year.
Okay, but what if you don't have a cool, dark spot, or you had a bad experience, or you don't buy milk in plastic cartons?
B.J., a former emergency medical technician who knows something about safe and sterile storage, wrote to say that "hurricane people" store water in chlorine bleach bottles:
After you drain the bleach, do not rinse the bottle. If you fill it with water, you already have your purifier (the few drops of bleach) in the bottle. They are impervious to outside weather and chemicals -- because if they weren't the bleach would make a mess on the store shelves. And they last forever.
Yep, this works. Watch out, though! You can do this only with plain, pure chlorine bleach bottles. You must never, never use bottles that have contained scented bleach, or bleach with any other additives. Those may be poisonous.
I also asked B.J. how a non-expert could tell whether the bleach left in an "empty" bottle was the right amount -- because another thing we learned early on is that you don't want to be over-generous with bleach.
"Guess it's a learned process," she answered. "I've always wondered anyway -- how big is 'a drop'? Is it bigger than a pinch but smaller than a smidge?"
A drop -- the right size drop -- is what you arrive at by practice. It's enough to keep your stored water from getting slimy and unwholesome, but so little that you don't taste chemicals when you drink it. One expert recommended ten drops, but I tried that and -- ACK! Ptooey! Maybe I had a different idea of a "drop" than she did. I'm sure glad I discovered the problem before I had to live on the stuff. Experiment! Remember, an expert is merely someone (like me) who can string two sentences together and send them through a modem. Expertise doesn't count for much if it doesn't work for you.
But what if you don't accumulate many bleach bottles or you prefer to heed the "DO NOT REFILL" advice from the manufacturers, what else?
You can buy multi-gallon bottles, barrels or bladders designed for longer-term storage. Some of these are quite clever, like the five-gallon mylar bag designed to store inside your future emergency porta-potty, or nice cube-shaped containers that stack. But it goes against my grain to buy containers when the world is already so full of free, recyclable ones.
Reader Brian Welch writes to say that he, too, "... would hesitate making [milk cartons] my sole storage source or keeping them near my other stores just in case. We use the one-quart Gatorade-style bottles, too, since they're a little handier size."
Juice and soft drink bottles, now there's a thought. And thanks for the reminder, Brian: It's definitely a good idea to keep any water storage well away from, say, your sacks of flour (unless your emergency plans include a potential need for a large, impromptu supply of Play-Doh)!
We've tried juice and soda bottles at our house, but with mixed results. Mainly, we've never completely gotten out the aroma or taste of whatever was in there. To deodorize them, we fill the empties with generous mixtures of baking soda and water and let them sit for several days. Still, there's always a ghost of a flavor. If you've found a way to get rid of it, let me know. As is, we use those only to store water for our pets. (You wouldn't forget your critters, would you?)
B.J. points out that any plastic containers sold with "non-chemically reactive fluids" are required by Your Helpful Government to be biodegradable. She's right and I wouldn't want to bet my life on a cracking carton. But we've had apple juice bottles banging around in the back of a truck up to two years, constantly refilled with travel water for the dogs, and they haven't suffered a crack. With more careful storage, you can make containers last a much longer time than theory and the government say they should.
By the way, in case you don't already know, you should store at least one gallon per person per day for cooking and drinking, and another gallon per person for sanitation. If you're planning for a weekend or a week, no problem. If you're storing for a longer emergency, that's a whole 'nother question. Then you'll require a lot more than milk cartons, soda jugs or bleach bottles.
In a future column we'll look at cheap and easy methods of bulk water storage. (Ideas welcome!) In the meantime, I have to go help Dora rebuild her wall. Even if there isn't ... er ... any controlling legal authority that says I really have to.
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