Emergency potable water supplies – an update

Some years ago, I wrote about the importance of water storage and purification as part of one’s emergency preparations.  It’s a very important, but often neglected topic.  All I had to say in that article remains valid.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that storing water long-term in most plastic containers has an added problem.  The water takes on a sort of “plastic taste” that I find unpleasant.  It’s not dangerous to one’s health (provided one uses containers made of food-safe plastic), but it’s strong enough to taint the taste of food, and can discourage drinking enough to stay properly hydrated.  One can remove most of it by using a carbon filter device (such as a water filter jug), but that’s an added step that might not be convenient, and can’t provide large quantities of filtered water on demand – it takes time to filter each jugful.  Another approach is to stock potable water ready-packed in plastic bottles, usually holding about a pint each (about half a liter, for those used to metric measurements).  This deals with the problem, but involves buying a lot of small bottles.  Storing them can be problematic.  I keep a few flats of them on hand, because they’re so useful, but it’s not an ideal solution.

Recently, I found that Sams Club was selling 4-gallon water jugs, made to fit the water vending machines sold there, for a very reasonable price – four dollars and change.  They may be labeled as “Spring Water” or “Purified Water”, but the jugs are the same.

Similar jugs, usually three to five gallons in capacity, mostly sell for higher prices (sometimes much higher, up to $20 or more).  Most are sold empty – one has to fill them oneself.  The Sams Club jugs are a very cost-effective deal by comparison.  What’s more, by design, these water jugs (made of food-safe material) don’t spoil the water by imparting a plastic taste to it.  They have a “use by” date a couple of years ahead, and probably will stay fresh rather longer than that.

I looked around, and found that there are many stands available to hold such water jugs ready for use.  I decided to try this one, because it was reasonably priced, and came with two taps that screwed onto the jug and made dispensing water very easy.  I found it worked very well with the Sams Club water jug;  the taps fit well and were watertight in use, with no leaks.  The stand made dispensing the water from our kitchen counter an effortless procedure.

I also found that several companies make caps to fit these jugs, so that one can refill them once they’ve been used.  I chose these caps after carefully reading reviews, and found that they do a good job.  They’re very tight indeed, hard to get on, but completely watertight once fitted.  This means I can refill the bottles every so often with potable water, either after use or after their “use by” date, and re-seal them for re-use.  (While you’re at it, handles like this one make it much easier to carry around the big water jugs.)

I’ve accordingly upgraded our emergency water storage.  I now have eight of those 4-gallon jugs in store, holding 32 gallons of purified, good-tasting potable water.  At a gallon per person per day, that provides Miss D. and I with approximately two weeks worth of drinking and cooking water.  I have another eight gallons in small, one-pint bottles, for convenience when carrying them around, so we have a total of 40 gallons of potable water.  I also have about 40 gallons of tap water stored in “regular” containers like these.  They’ll generally impart a plastic taste to the water over time, so I reserve them for cleaning and washing purposes – again, about two weeks’ supply at one gallon each per day.  That’s probably more than we need to be prepared for most emergencies;  but I’ve learned the hard way (as regular readers will recall) that it’s hard to predict what might happen.  I’d rather be safe than sorry, and all the water together takes only two shelves in a storage unit in our garage.  I can live with that.

I also have water filters, etc. (as mentioned in my earlier article) to cater for possible longer-term needs.  I think every household should have at least one.  (I currently use the Sawyer Mini system for individual needs, with one available for each vehicle, and the Lifestraw Family 1.0 unit for household needs if worse comes to worst.  I find the latter much more cost-effective than the excellent, but very expensive, Berkey and Katadyn countertop systems.  I think the latter are worthwhile if one uses them constantly to purify hard or chemically impure water, but aren’t cost-justifiable to leave sitting on a shelf for possible emergency use – not unless you have a lot more money to spend on that sort of thing than I do!  Also, their replacement filters are anything but cheap.)  If you’d like to know more, this Web site offers comprehensive reviews of almost every portable water filter on the market.  Recommended reading.

Don’t forget to have water purification chemicals on hand.  They’ll kill bacteria and viruses that might survive filtration.  If your water supply is in any way suspect, they’re essential.  I keep these tablets in stock for smaller quantities, and pool shock chemicals for bulk water supplies (see here for a primer on how that’s done, and make sure you get chemicals that are at least 75% calcium hypochlorite – I currently keep this brand in my emergency supplies).  I prefer to apply them prior to filtration.  That removes many impurities from the water, leaving it clearer and cleaner, so there’s less load on the filter:  and any aftertaste will be reduced, if not eliminated, by the filtration process.  YMMV on that.

Also, plan for additional water containers to collect impure or unfiltered water.  You don’t want to use your purified-water containers for that, for obvious reasons.  I use 5-gallon buckets for the purpose.  They’re cheap, and fast and easy to use.  With screw-on or snap-on lids, they won’t spill, either.  (If you’re using snap-on lids, make sure you have a pail opener tool handy.  It’s a lot quicker and more convenient than doing it the hard way, and you won’t break as many lids.  How do I know this?  Trust me.  I know this!)



  1. And don't forget that most basic of water purifiers – pure, unscented bleach. It's a bit unpleasant tasting, but it works. It takes at least 20 minutes to do its job, but an hour is better. If you can leave the treated water in the sun for three hours afterwards, that's even better. It lets the volatiles evaporate.

  2. Thanks for the great information! I find in trial runs (hurricanes) that one gallon PP/PD is way too low if you are counting drinking, cooking, and washing hands and pots/utensils. Our actual use was closer to 2.5 gallons PP/PD. That included disposables in the kitchen whenever possible. Water for hygiene is crucial. Re-hydration of freeze-dried would add significantly also.

  3. Hey Peter,

    Great post. I've been getting into prepping more recently and love this kind of info. Water storage can be a big challenge when you don't have a lot of space; water cooler jugs seem like a good option.

  4. Those PET water bottles will eventually give the water a plastic taste, it just takes longer. The water I store in my garage in Phoenix get lots of heat. After a year, it has that plastic taste, and after two years it's a burning sensation in the back of the throat.

  5. @tweell: Hence the caps, so I can refill and re-seal the bottles every couple of years. The fresh water will take as long to acquire the taint of plastic. We have a whole house water filter, so our tap water is very good quality, making refilling much easier.

  6. Your picture reminds me of a garden feature from my youth. The extended family shared a summer house with an extensive garden, and in the garden was an old fashioned ships' water bottle; at least 5 gallons, made of glass. Thick glass with a green color stronger than the old returnable Coke bottles, but lighter than a green beer bottle. Really handsome, in a plain way. Also fun to full up from the hose.

    I imagine loading the hold with such things, full, was a bit of a chore, though.

  7. I have noticed that the maker (bottler) and the construction of the bottle make a big difference in storage.
    An example: I have carried bottles of water in my car for years now, for both regular and emergency use. A case of 24 half liter bottles lasts me up to 6 months.
    I use only Dasani in the car because all the other brands I have tried get beat up, taste bad, or even leak before I use up a case. While the Dasani is more expensive, it lasts as long as I need and tastes good the whole time.

    One reason for taste issues is that many companies use ozone after filling a bottle to avoid bacterial growth and other health issues – over time the ozone will react with the plastic and cause an unpleasant taste. Companies willing to spend a little more will mix Vitamin E with the plastic used for the caps and the ozone will react with the Vitamin E instead and that reaction leaves no taste behind.

  8. Jonathan H. – I have had good luck with the 20oz Sam's Choice, available from Sams and Walmart. Inexpensive but as long as they don't get overly hot for a long period of time, I've drunk them after a year or so and not tasted any flavor change.

    Plus, I use empty bottles for milk or orange juice for the wife. Easier to control for people with shaky hands, and if you use a foam bottle cooler (the cheap thick ones sold in convenience stores) the bottle is less crushable.

    As to bulk storage, I usually fill up some plastic totes with water, for flushing and cleaning, when storms loom.

  9. Peter, where you are in Texas a gallon a day is not enough when it is warm. You need more like a liter per hour if you are active outside in the heat.

  10. Scrounge a coffee maker filter basket. 5-gallon bucket for dirty water + coffee filter basket + coffee filter is useful for removing solid matter from water (funnels don't work-no ribs to leave space for the filter to drain). Plywood with a basket-size hole in it on the bottom bucket, a small (1/8") hole in the bottom of the top bucket, fill the top one, wait.

    If you have a way to pressurize a water system, a fridge filter works well, especially if it also contains activated carbon for taste improvement; they're usually good for only 300-500 gallons. Scrounge filter fittings from an appliance repair service (most fridge filter systems require at least 20-25 PSI to work).

    Water tanks are available – mine's 250 gallon, 30Dia X 88H, 65 lbs empty, $275, but I had to fetch – shipping was prohibitive – suitable for non-potable water (flushing, bathing, etc.). 250 gallons=2100 lbs so be careful where you put it, to clean it roll around with 25 gallons of water and 1/2 gal bleach inside, rinse very well, and have the necessary fittings and valve to make it work (plus spares). Mine has a 12 inch access opening on the top, a painter's extension rod with a beach towel tied to it allowed drying it out after cleaning. Anything but a completely opaque tank will breed algae because sunlight (especially if it's filled from rainwater) so a translucent one like mine needs to be someplace like the garage.

    Water spigots in the water lines to/from your water heater makes it easy to fill the tank and sometimes full pressure/full hot water is handy.

    My neighbor has a swimming pool, so I have 400 ft of 5/8" garden hose, a submersible pump and a Honda 2000 watt generator. I buy him a couple cases of pool shock a year (calcium hypochlorite) in exchange for being able to pump from his pool if SHTF. I keep a 1 lb packet on hand so I can make 10K gallons bleach; careful how and where you store it, it will outgas though the plastic – so don't store it in a sealed container – and will severely corrode any metal that's near it.

    Garden hoses are non-potable use, RV stores have 10, 25 and 50 ft potable water hoses, they will cost more. Get male and female plastic plugs to fit hose/spigot fittings and keep the hose sealed when not in use.

    If doing a major remodel or new build, put toilet water lines on their own plumbing circuit with valves to separate that circuit from everything else AND A BACKFLOW PREVENTER BETWEEN THE HOUSE AND TOILET LINES . Once non-potable water is used in the toilet lines it cannot be allowed into the regular house water lines. An outdoor spigot on that circuit makes it easy to pressure- or gravity-fill the toilet tanks. Make your own fittings.

    5 gallon water jugs – look into getting a commercial account with a local bottled water company. Locally, full-for-empty exchanges are $6.49 each at retail; for my commercial account it's $3.90 and free delivery but only for 20+ jugs at a time. Home Depot sells 6-shelf wire rack shelving (48LX18DX72H) for $99, goes on sale for $79. 4 jugs store horizontally on each shelf, so 5 shelves=20 jugs (that's 850 lbs, so watch where you put the shelves). I keep 60 jugs on hand and wish I had room for twice that. The jug dispenser stand on Amazon Peter linked to is great (I have the older wire-frame version), get several more of the jug valves (they are available separately). I've never worn one out or broken one, but they're so handy I would not want to do without.

    When you get new water jugs label the cap for FIFO – "98" on mine = delivered Sept 2018. ("0" is Oct, X=Nov, Y=Dec). Same thing works for canned goods, packages of batteries, etc.

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