We all know that sinking feeling. The room goes dark, images vanish from TV and computer screens, and the reassuring whirr of climate control fades away into dead silence. The power is out!
There is nothing like a power outage to remind us just how much we have come to rely on the power grid for supplying us with all the necessities of life. Chief among these is water. Whether your municipality releases a boil water advisory because of lost system pressure or there is simply nothing coming out of the tap because you depend on a good pump, a power outage usually means you are going to have to get creative to provide your family with safe water for drinking, cooking, and washing dishes.
The lowest common denominator of all water purification methods, boiling, is the simplest and most universally available. For this reason, when cities cannot guarantee the disinfection of their water supply they issue what is known as a “Boil Water Advisory.” Under such an advisory, residents who want to use tap water for drinking or washing dishes are encouraged to bring it to a rolling boil for two minutes before doing so.
As stated, this method has the advantage of being universally available. Almost everyone has access to a pot. However, there are some issues that may not make it the best plan for everyone.
The first complication that presents itself regarding this technique is that many people cook on an electric range which, obviously, won’t work in a power outage. Some folks can get around this by firing up the backyard grill, but even if you normally cook on a gas range, it is far from being the most convenient way to purify water. There is a necessary delay to wait for gallons of water to cool down, it can make the house miserable in hot weather with no A/C, and you are using lots of energy to purify relatively small amounts of water.
Every day, billions of people around the world drink water that has been purified by chemical treatment. Some form of chlorination has been the standard practice for city water systems since the early part of the 20th century. And with good reason. Chlorine has the oxidative power to break down the cell walls and destroy or render useless all the delicate proteins that make up a living cell. None of the bacteria or viruses that commonly contaminate drinking water can survive exposure to significant concentrations of it.
To chlorinate water in an emergency, you can use commercially available purification tablets or household bleach. These are basically the same thing and achieve the same result. The standard advice for regular strength bleach (5.25% sodium hypochlorite) is to use 8 drops per gallon or 2 drops per quart. If you are using a quart-sized container, here is a mnemonic device that some people find useful for remembering the right number of drops: “You must be 21 to drink.” The number 21 refers to 2 drops to 1 quart. Very important is to allow the water to sit for 30 minutes for the chlorine to take effect. Another often-overlooked detail is to be cautious about containers with threaded openings. If any amount of contaminated water remains on the threads on the lid or neck of a bottle, it can still make you sick if you put your mouth against it. Clean lids carefully.
If you don’t mind the taste and smell of chlorine (and under the circumstances, you may not), this can be simpler than boiling. One important caveat, however, is that some protozoan parasites like cryptosporidium and toxoplasma are resistant to chlorine. They spend part of their life cycle as a dormant cyst, enveloped in a covering that is immune to normal concentrations of chlorine.
Another old technique for purifying water is distillation. Distillation just means heating water up until it evaporates, then collecting the water when it condenses. This is a very thorough technique that can eliminate almost all contamination.
Of course, most people don’t just have a retort and condensation coil just lying around the house (illicit alcohol manufacture aside). You can, however, make very effective solar still with readily available materials. The internet abounds with instructions on how to make these ingenious devices. Most are some variations on the theme of stretching a clear plastic sheet over something that holds water. Weigh down the center of the plastic sheet and place a clean, empty container under the resulting low spot. When the device is placed in the sun, the water in the larger container evaporates, condenses on the plastic, runs down to the lowest spot, and drips into the container. What could be simpler?
Considering that it uses so few resources, is so simple to make, and works so thoroughly, a solar still is a very elegant solution in many ways. It even has the added benefit that in situations where any water at all is hard to come by, you can set it up over a shallow pit and it will actually draw the latent moisture from the soil!
On the other hand, this method is painfully slow and requires sunlight to work. It will keep you from dying of thirst, but you can forget about using one to make water for any other purpose. The volume is just too low.
UV light is nasty stuff. The earth’s ozone layer blocks much of it, but even what is left can damage our skin cells in short order. It does this because it can ruin the delicate structure of DNA.
In UV purification systems, water is passed into a chamber where it is irradiated by an artificial source of UV light for enough time that most bacteria and viruses are destroyed. There are domestic UV purification systems, but they will not work in a power outage for obvious reasons. Also on the market are some smaller, battery-operated models that are made to go down into a water bottle. These can make an interesting solution and are worth consideration. Keep plenty of batteries handy.
Gravity Fed Water Filters
Another solution many people choose is a free-standing gravity-fed water filter. These devices sit on the kitchen countertop and purify water drop by drop as it seeps out of an upper chamber, through a powerful filter, and collects in a lower chamber, purified and ready to use.
This type of system has a few key advantages. Appropriately, it works without any electricity. It filters several gallons at a time, so you will have plenty for drinking and dishes. The most important, however, is that the better models of these filters, such as the Berkey, remove chemical as well as biological contamination. With the exception of distillation (which has limited use), none of the other emergency measures will protect against the chemical contamination present in some bodies of water from which you may be forced to collect.
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