Let’s dive to the reader question right off the bat today. Here’s the question Alan asked us by email:
Alan’s Water Purification Question
I reside in a very agricultural area that also has some semi-large towns. The largest environmental issue here is agricultural runoff. I cannot think of a single waterway, creek, river, pond, whatever that is not affected by either runoff or seepage from septic systems or sewer systems. How then to purify water with such a heritage?
Our Response: Purifying Contaminated Water Tips & Tricks
Good question, Alan! It’s always interesting to get questions from individuals who are surrounded by environments vastly dissimilar from my own. Here in Canada, gaining access to potable water is not something I have ever considered a problem. Both freshwater and rain water are, here, so plentiful that the topic almost goes altogether out of mind. But of course, this isn’t the case for many who live in different parts of the world from myself. Having access to clean, drinkable water is and of course really should be the most important concern if you’re in a location where this resource may not be plentiful. It’s of course another reminder to always study your environment and the unique factors it presents that may be a roadblock to your survival and short and long-term sustenance.
So I’ll start off by saying it loud and clear – I don’t have any firsthand experience with contaminated water, let alone needing to purify it to the point where it’s drinkable for survival purposes. This is largely, as I’ve said, due to the fact that my location is quite good for access to drinkable water. Where I am, there are at least 2 wonderfully clean brooks within just a short, 20 minute walk from my place of residence. Based on my lack of experience, I had to do quite a bit of research into this topic, and what I found is exactly what I thought. As this excellent wikipedia article shows – cleaning contaminated water is both a complex and multifaceted issue that frankly, I am nowhere near qualified to find an end-all-be-all answer to. Getting clean water from a dirty source is a billion dollar industry – and if giant corporations have trouble with solving it considering their access to huge amounts of cash, I don’t think I’ll be of too much use.
That being said, it is possible to separate what you can do for basic survival from the technically common or “proper” way to do things. If you’re sitting at home and need to start a fire, you just pull out a lighter. This is the most common, proper technique to use these days. However, in a survival situation, we all know that doing this isn’t always possible, so we discuss other ways one can get fire even if they don’t have access to the technically “best” and most common way – in this example’s case, a lighter.
With that in mind, I will just tell you what I would personally do in a survival situation where I needed to get drinkable, clean water for my own personal survival. This is not something I think professionals would do. My recommendation is almost certainly nowhere near optimal on an industrial level and to get clean water for an entire town from a polluted source of water, say, but frankly, it’s the answer I am most comfortable with giving after a few hours of research and my own limited experiences with the topic at hand. So here we are…
How I would attain drinkable water for survival purposes
In a survival situation you need water primarily for hydration, but for extended survival, or being able to live long-term, you will need a source of (relatively) clean water for many uses that we take for granted here in our life-is-good-we-get-water-from-a-tap world. You’ll need clean water for things like washing clothes and dishes, basic hygiene (bathing, brushing teeth, etc.), and keeping your plants/animals hydrated as well. Going a day without access to tap water is not too difficult. Try a month, however, and tell me how hard your life suddenly becomes! Emergency purification is not at all realistic for everyday use – you can’t sit there purifying water with a small personal filter enough to be able to take a shower with regularly. As a result, I would suggest a 2 pronged approach with regards to water management: 1. Making due with passive sources of somewhat clean water for miscellaneous tasks, as well as, 2. Properly treated water for actual hydration.
1. Setting up passive sources of attaining clean water
Of course the environment you’re in sounds pretty terrible in terms of natural sources of water. The exception to this is of course rainfall, as that’s good, clean water to drink pretty much everywhere in the world (unless you just dealt with a nuclear apocalypse, but that’s an emergency situation we’ll deal with another day).
Rainfall is, unfortunately, quite unpredictable, so you’re not going to want to depend on waiting for the rain to fall to be able to collect it when you need it. Start collecting rainfall plenty before you need it with some sort of eaves run off system feeding into a cistern/barrel. There are some excellent ones on Amazon, or you can DIY them by using cheap barrels you bought second hand or found lying around the house, and if your family isn’t the prepping type, and thus don’t approve of the “ugly” ones, there are some better looking ones as well that they’ll be certain to be okay with having in their garden. Whether you’re shopping or making one yourself, try to get a hold or create one of these that has a spout, as that just makes getting the water out of the container easier.
Once installed, you’re all set to go. This is actually one of, if not the the single best, solution for passive water collection. You can also add a well to your property, grab some large empty containers and stick them around your garden to use as extra rain barrels (they might not fill up as quickly as the ones near the downspout, but they’ll fill up nonetheless!). Regardless of how you do it, setting up a system to collect rainwater is an easy step that can boost your supply of potable water without requiring a huge investment.
Of course, this system won’t work out too well if you live in the desert, but seeing as you’re dealing with agricultural runoff, I presume this is not your particular case!
2. Purifying contaminated water for at-home survival/prepper purposes
For personal consumption, I would go with a reverse osmosis solution like this highly rated one here, on top of getting the source water from a homemade well. The soil will filter the larger contaminates, and the reverse osmosis process couple with ultraviolet disinfection can take care of the rest on a large enough scale for a homestead without requiring an overly complicated (or expensive) solution.
Obviously these require electrical power, so consider throwing in a backup generator and ideally some solar panels on the roof, and you’ll be set to go. But in the case where you’ve got to decide whether to bug in or to bug out in case of an emergency, you’re pretty much going to want to stay put where you are and not even consider the alternative if all the water around you is polluted to the level you say. Not fun to have your options limited for you, but in a case like yours, it does seem to me the safest option.
3. Purifying contaminated water for on-the-go survival purposes
For a water filters with on-the-go use, a portable membrane filter like the LifeStraw (reviewed here) or the Sawyer mini system would work
Of course, if you’re talking long-term dependency, you will want a more permanent set up that doesn’t depend on filters with quite an inherently limited lifespan. So while these options definitely are okay for short term use, if you’re planning for long term struggles with water contamination, they’re not going to do the trick.
I hope this answer is satisfactory! It took me some time to ponder what I would suggest, as, like I said, not only have I never been in such a situation, but I have never really had to think about it either considering water is literally all around me and in survival, my number one priority (especially now that winter is coming) is fighting the cold and the risk of hypothermia, not any sort of lack of clean water.
So I am really out of my comfort zone when it comes to these queries. With that said, it’s always good to be forced to think about things from someone else’s perspective, and even though I have never been in your situation, I do think the method I outlined is relatively good when it comes to a short and long term survival plan. I definitely learned quite a bit in my research! So thank you for the question, Alan.
Do You Have Advice Concerning Water Purification?
If anyone has any extra advice/experiences/thoughts for Alan, please comment below and, who knows, maybe the perfect solution will crop up!
If you have a survival, preparedness, or gear related question you’d like us to answer, don’t hesitate to let us know! Find out how to reach us via the contact page. Although we don’t publish every question we’re asked on the blog, we try our best to respond to each and every one we receive.
In case you’re interested, you can also view our past responses to reader questions here.
Also, in a pinch, you can use the following:
– Wood filter (http://news.mit.edu/2014/need-a-water-filter-peel-a-tree-branch-0226)
– Ceramic filter (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceramic_water_filter). Use a non-glazed flower pot, glazed ones won’t let the water through.
Again, no guarantees, but both would be often readily available and better than nothing (or possibly better when combined with the sari filter).
I think filters are fine, as far as they go. But it seems like they are probably limited to reducing contaminants that are in suspension.
But, if you are getting water from (say) a runoff pond that might have chemical contaminents that are in solution, like run-off fertilizer or weed-killers, or that people are using as a toilet after SHTF, I doubt that it would be effective.
For example, if you pee onto a water filter, would the output be pure, potable H2O? I don’t know but I would guess not.
Likewise, if you dissolve some weed killer in water and pour that through a filter, would the filter retain the poison, keeping it out of the output?
Does anybody know if this is true? And if it is, is there a good resolution?
Thomas Xavier says
Very good question, I hope someone chimnes in with a well researched response- I would imagine that it would take out the toxins, but thats based on the advertising and we all know how trustworthy that can be!
1. purification is not the same as filtering.
2. there is no cheap way of removing radiation and heavy metals from water.
3. removing particles is filtering, not purifying.
4. killing pathogens is part of purifying and is not filtering.
5. A pound of the appropriate pool shock (hint-there are two kinds) will purify 17,000 gallons of pool water and costs about $7. Take the time to look up the US Government article on purifying water in an emergency.
6. A solar still will kill pathogens and not filter. Take the time to look up the United Nations cheap 2 liter pop bottle solar still. Basically free. You can then filter the purified water through a coffee filter.
7. In a shtf situation, your water will be turned off as well as your electricity and gas. So, any device that requires those items will be absolutely useless.
8. In most areas of the world where people don’t have safe drinking water, they rely upon a glass of tea. Of course, your teeth will turn yellow.
9. The single most important contribution to the large increase in the world population is chlorinated water. However, virtually no article on purifying water tells the ugly secret that your unscented gallon of household chlorine will lose its potency in three months. So, rely upon the correct pool shock and store it properly because it is hydroscopic (a short term for taking water out of the air, taking water even out of your hand!)
Thomas Xavier says
Great comment BDC,
Elise brought up your pool-shock suggestions- what a great idea and one I never really considered. Definitely something worth stockpiling.
You make a good point about chlorinated water, its crazy to think how different the world would be without it.
Thanks for dropping by!
I don’t understand how to build the homemade Berkey out of a five gallon bucket. Iget the bucket and the spigot. I don’t know what to do with the filters.
Thomas Xavier says
When I read these sorts of comments, I am often reminded of how lucky I am to have always lived in an area rich with natural water. Honestly, I rarely give it a second thought and the only reason I have ever really mused on the topic is due to our readers bringing it up.
Hopefully a reader chimes in with a clear answer for you- I am 100% not an expert on water gathering as I can barely walk 20 minutes in any direction without finding a body of water.
Please don’t drink rainwater unless your dieing. Rain washes all the dust and pollution down with it and if your collecting it off your roof your also getting everything animals and wind leave up there. I don’t know what they are called, but there are tablets for campers that will purify water.
Correct, AND the water is contaminated with chemicals that are not only in the air (if you are around manufacturing or industrial areas up to several hundred miles in some cases), but, the chemicals that are inherently in your shingles – yes, they contain chemicals too. So unless you use an active charcoal based filter – and even then, they don’t filter 100% of the chemicals depending on what the chemical is (although they are very good) you are taking a chance. Now on the other hand, if you have no choice – you go with it. On a regular basis however – I would treat water from rain runoff as gray water, which has it’s place of course.
Thomas Xavier says
Aye, as a last resort only!
Thanks for the article, Thomas. Here are my filter preferences for home or base camp in order of ease and practicality:
Sari filter – A sari is the garment worn by women in India, et al. You will want at least eight layers of linen. Older is better than new because the frayed fibers will catch more gook (that’s a technical term). These are supposed to remove 98% of the pathogens, greatly reducing incidents of illness. You should be good to go for washing with this water and better than nothing to drink if it is all you have. Also, this filter will remove sediment, debris and algae. So I would use it as a prefilter for other filters.
UV – Besides the 110V model you pointed out there are also the pen type UV filters, for which you’ll need a big supply of batteries in a survival situation… But, you can kill the last 2% of nasties by placing clear bottles of water in the Sun. IIRC this takes at least four hours, eight if it is cloudy. Bottles should be less than 4″ dia, so, 2 liter bottles are out. Please research this yourself before relying on my memory for your health.
Ceramic filters – You can get expensive, hand pumped ceramic filters made for back packing. But the bare bones, gravity-powered Katadyn Siphon filter is the least expensive model I found, coming in at just $.012/gallon. Compare that to a Life Straw at $.40/gallon (5 yrs ago). Rated for 5200 gallons, this would give a family of three drinking and cooking water for five years. Second would be the ‘candle’ type ceramic filters. Add a couple of 5-gallon buckets and a spigot and you have a homemade Berkey! More expensive than the Siphon, but also, much more convenient. You can also get candles with charcoal in addition to the ceramic, in case you are worried about chemical contamination.
Membrane filters – These give you near distilled/rain water quality water by forcing water through a membrane with holes so tiny anything lager than a water molecule cannot fit through. When I bought my ceramic filters the only membrane models available where the Reverse Osmosis, which you have covered. By the way, they have a limited lifespan, also. I bought a 12V RV water pump in case I HAD TO resort to using the R/O. Since then Sawyer has come out with some excellent membrane filters. The Sawyer Mini is rated for up to 100,000 gallons and the Squeeze model for a Million gallons! But, YOU have to be the pump to force the water through them. Fortunately, they also make a gravity powered model which is also rated for a million gallons. They are running $125 each, but that makes the cost for pure water $0.000125 per gallon! Wow.
I currently have : Sari, Siphon, candle kit for converting buckets, Life Straw, Sawyer Squeeze, and R/O filters.
Thomas Xavier says
That sari filter tip is awesome, a pre-filter filter- definitely a good option & if you have no other recourse its definitely better than nothing.
Calcium hypochlorite is your friend… easily purchased and a lb will store well and treat quite a bit of water for drinking.
Thomas Xavier says
Good tip TJ, thanks for sharing!
Thank you Xavier for a great answer. I feel like you researched and gave clear solutions about a very real need in a crisis.. Just when I thought you weren’t going to suggest a LifeStraw , you threw that in as well! Very thorough article. Filing that away now and may use this article in a blog I have already written.. You are a great resource .. Thank you!
Thomas Xavier says
Thanks PJ, glad you liked it!
Curtiss Martin says
What? No solar still? Actually, that might make an interesting research topic by itself. Do stills, solar or otherwise, remove everything from the condensate that results? What kinds of things boil at the same temperature and will therefore follow your distilled product path? Still, pardon the pun, this might be an interesting piece of equipment to have in your kit.
Thomas Xavier says
Definitely would be an interesting article to research- I will keep this in mind.
Thanks for dropping by Curtiss!
Worth mentioning that in some states in the USA, collecting rainwater is illegal. If you live in the Western US, I’d double check before setting up a rainwater collection system (or make sure you don’t get caught!)
Elise Xavier says
Definitely everyone should be sure to check in on what is and isn’t legal in their state/city before doing any rain collection, but for the most part, it seems to be perfectly okay to collect rainwater in most places, especially on the small scale.
That it’s outright illegal to collect rainwater in some states in the U.S. is a bit exaggerated of a topic. Governments have even been actively pushing out laws to make it legal. A small win for the preppers?
// For anyone who may be interested in learning more about the legality of rainwater collection, here’s an extremely informative article: http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/a11758/4314447/