The goal for your water storage is to get you through the emergency, whether it lasts less than a day or for several months.
In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, the last thing you need to be doing it preparing water to drink. You want ready-to-drink water, at least a few days of it. Commercially bottled water works well, although it costs more than if you were to store water yourself.
After you’ve gotten through the first several days after the emergency, you will be in a better position to figure out where you can obtain water, and what options would be best to make it drinkable. This is why it’s best to have a few alternatives because one might be better than another in the actual emergency aftermath.
Water Storage Containers
My preferred storage containers are the 5-gallon water jugs, with a spout. These food-grade containers are fairly easy to move and transport, if needed. Should I need to evacuate by vehicle, I plan to grab a few of these.
You can buy huge water storage barrels, even some that stack. These are great, but you won’t be able to move them once they’re full. In some future year I may purchase a couple of these, although in our current home I’m not sure where I’d put them.
Be aware that an earthquake can knock over tall, or stacked, water storage. You should secure water storage to keep it from tipping/falling over. If you can push the top of the empty container and easily cause it to tip over, then, when it’s filled with water, the shaking of the earth could cause the weight of the water to rapidly shift inside the container, and knock it over.
Water Storage "On the Cheap"
Since I do a lot of preparations “on the cheap” we also use a lot of juice bottles, and a few soda bottles, for water storage. These bottles, and lids, need to be cleaned out really well. Sugar residue from juices and sodas gives bacteria a great place to grow.
Before using, thoroughly clean the containers using dishwashing soap and water. Rinse them really well.
Sanitize the bottles by adding a solution of one-quart water and 1 teaspoon of non-scented bleach to the bottle. Swish the solution around the entire inside of the bottle. If you’re sanitizing multiple bottles you can then pour the water-bleach solution into the next bottle or into a pitcher to be used when then next container is ready. After sanitizing the bottle, rinse it thoroughly with clean water.
After getting them cleaned out well, these bottles make easy water storage. Personally, I prefer the juice bottles as they tend to be a heavier-duty plastic. And most of the juice bottles are more rectangular in shape, which means they fit better on the shelves than round soda bottles.
As a child, I remember seeing some of our water storage in cleaned-out, 1-gallon milk jugs. These are not ideal as the plastic is flimsy and deteriorates easily. I’ve seen some jugs become brittle and break, and others that get punctured easily. But they are better than nothing, and they will last for a short period of time. Make sure the bottles and lids are really well cleaned out and sanitized because any milk residue will also become a bacteria breeding ground. If you don’t have anything else, at least start your water storage with these. Just plan to start replacing them as soon as you can.
Don't use cardboard-based containers. These are not designed for long-term storage.
And, it’s better to not use glass containers as they can break easily and are much heavier. But, if these are what you have to start with, they are better than nothing.
After you have clean and sterilized containers, you need to make sure you’re not going to contaminate the water. Before filling any containers, wash your hands really well. Ideally, use sterile gloves when filling the containers. Any bacteria from your hands can contaminate your water storage.
Fill your bottles with regular tap water. If the water utility company already treats the water with chlorine, you don’t need to add anything to the water to keep it clean. If you’re using water from a well or other source that is not treated with chlorine, add two drops of non-scented liquid bleach to each gallon of water. This is about one drop per two-liter bottle.
Use the original cap to close the container, being careful to not touch the inside of the lid.
Write the date on the container so you know when it was filled. Store the water in a cool, dark place.
Water Storage - Rotation and Location
The recommendation is to replace your water storage every 6 to 12 months. However, water does not have an expiration date if it’s stored in a clean, sealed container. However, there are a couple of reasons to replace the water.
First, rotating your water helps keep it tasting fresher. But it will still start to taste stale after a while. If your water tastes stale, aerate it a bit by pouring between a couple of clean containers.
Second, water rotation will keep you aware of what your water storage situation is like. If water is going bad, possibly due to a bad seal or contamination, you will discover the problem before you need to use the water.
When you do rotate the water, try to use the old water where it can do some good, instead of just dumping it down the drain. For example, if you rotate your water during the summer you could empty the old water on your garden beds, trees, or grass. They need to be watered anyway. Then, instead of using fresh water for the plants you can fill your water containers.
That said, if you forget, or choose not, to rotate your water frequently be aware that it probably won’t taste very good. Aerating it can help improve the taste. A pinch of salt might help. As long as the container was properly cleaned and sanitized, the lid has a good seal, and the water is still clear (and doesn't have an odor when you open it), the water should be usable for a long time.
When you do open stored water, check it before you drink or use it for cooking. In my experience there usually isn’t any kind of smell, but if there is don’t drink it. However, it could still be usable. Even if the water does smell bad, or is questionable, you may still be able to filter or sanitize it so it’s safe to drink.
As for where to store water, the best place is in a cool location, out of sunlight.
There is concern about storing water containers directly on cement. The cement could leach chemicals through the plastic, particularly thinner plastic, into the container. The reality is while cement can leach chemicals, it’s unlikely to do so in a cool environment. The leaching is more likely if the cement heats up, like in my garage. Storing water containers directly on the floor of the garage, where temperatures fluctuate could possibly have the leaching effect. However, in the dark, year-round cool of the basement the leaching is less of an issue.
You can probably safely store you water containers on a cement floor, provided the location is out of the sunlight and the temperature is constantly cool. But there are other reasons to keep storage containers off the cement (or other) floor. Personally, I prefer to keep my water storage containers off the floor—on a pallet or blocks of wood. If something spills on the floor, it doesn’t stick to the containers. Keeping the containers off the floor also allows for more air circulation under them.
Another consideration is you do not want the water to freeze. Not that freezing is bad. The problem is water expands when it freezes, and if there is too much water in the container when that happens, the container could burst.
I keep a lot of our water storage in our garage. However, it’s on shelves off the ground and against the wall of the house, which is warmer than the other three (exterior) walls of the garage. In the several years of having water stored there it has never frozen. We used to have a dog kennel in the garage, with an exit to the dog run, and I kept a thermometer near the door. There were times when the dog’s water froze, when the temperatures in that part of the garage dropped to single digits, but the water storage remained liquid. This doesn’t mean the water won’t ever freeze, it just hasn’t yet.
Water Storage Plan
A sample water storage plan could be as follows:
- Commercial bottled water for 3 or more days. This allows you some time to figure things out, get organized after the chaos of the disaster, and begin considering long-term water options.
- Your own bottled water, enough for up to 30 days. After the commercial water is gone, or mostly gone, you can move on to the other water storage. During this time, you need to really consider and implement long-term options. If the infrastructure was severely damaged, you may be months (or longer) without potable water coming through the pipes to your home.
- Long-term water filtration, disinfection, and sanitation solutions. What water sources are available? How will you disinfect/treat the water? How reliable are the various water sources?