Water: a simple thing most of us in our daily lives take for granted and don’t think much about, until it’s time to fill the coffee pot. In many parts of the world, it isn’t as simple as turning the handle on the faucet.

Waterborne disease such as cholera and typhoid contribute to more than 3.4 million deaths annually. Let the sheer magnitude of that sink in when you consider the population of Berlin, Germany is 3.5 million people. If you want a North American point of reference, Chicago, Illinois is the third-largest city in the United States and has a population of only 2.8 million (not counting metropolitan areas).

With its worldwide impact in mind, let’s discuss how water applies to prepping, and how not to be a statistic of waterborne illnesses. The first thing we have to cover is correct nomenclature. There are two classifications of water that are most important:

  • Potable water: free of harmful contaminates, usually filtered and treated by a standardized process. Water that will not get you sick. Good for consumption. Do not consider any source of water potable until you can verify it has been filtered or treated.
  • Non-potable water: from an unknown source or contains some manner of hazard if consumed. These hazards can be both biological or chemical in nature. This is water not fit for consumption, but can be used for sanitation depending on the situation. Non-potable water that is free of contaminants is often used for sanitation, such as taking showers and washing equipment. Non-potable water can be made potable with either filtering or treatment, but again, verify treatment or filtration has occurred before drinking it.

When I was deployed as a U.S. Air Force civil engineer, my most important daily function was receiving, treating, and maintaining both potable and non-potable water storage and distribution systems. Oftentimes, a water filtration and pumping station held in excess of 240,000 gallons of non-potable water and 60,000 gallons of potable water at any time. Attention to detail and ensuring proper chemical dosing and contact times for water can be tedious. It isn’t a glamorous job, but it is a vital one. If I did my job wrong, the roughly 5,000 inhabitants of Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, would know it rather quickly.

(Image courtesy: tyndall.af.mil)

The topics of filtration and storage of both potable and non-potable water will be addressed in part two of this series. Here, we are going to focus on selection of a water source and how that is important to your post-disaster prepping needs. It’s important to remember that in a post-disaster situation you will most likely not have a fully functioning power grid at your disposal.

Under normal conditions, if you need water, you just turn the faucet on and magically, water appears. Ninety percent of people are oblivious to the infrastructure needed to get water to that faucet. As we have addressed before, post-disaster, we will need to go back to basics. You have to remember modern indoor plumbing is a fairly recent invention in the overall span of mankind’s existence on earth. When we say “back to the basics,” think pre-1900 lifestyle.

Sources of Water

For the sake of keeping things easy, we will assume you are “bugging in” at a modern-style home.

Domestic water heater: (Considered potable.) Most homes built prior to 2010 or so will feature a tank-style water heater or what some people mistakenly call a “hot-water heater.” The 40- or 80-gallon tanks are the most common. Under normal conditions, these tanks are full of water, and even without power connected to central pumping stations or well pumps, you can drain the contents. There is one catch, though.

photo courtesy: supplyhouse.com
(Image courtesy: supplyhouse.com)

The following description might seem elementary to some, but remember that not everyone has the same experience and skill. For instance, many people will open the drain at the bottom of the heater (gold-colored spigot in the photo above) and very little water will come out. They forget or are unaware that you must first break the vacuum that exists before a consistent flow can be established.

In order to do this, first attach a garden hose to the drain—both have a 3/4″ diameter—then open the valve. To break the vacuum and drain the water heater’s contents into buckets or whatever receptacle you are filling, simply pull up on the handle of the relief valve. (In the above example, it is also gold-colored.) It’s important to note that most water heaters will have these relief valves either on the top or on the sides, but always in the top 1/3 section of the heater.

photoL JVMECH.com
(Image courtesy: JVMECH.com)

In some modern, high-efficiency homes, the standard tank-style water heater has been replaced by the “on-demand” or “tankless” water heater. While this does lower utility bills, increase the efficiency of your home, and save space, it dramatically cuts down on the amount of “emergency” water your home may have. Most on-demand heaters have between two and five gallons in their internal reservoir. However, most disaster-response agencies say that you should have one gallon per person per day at a minimum. You can see the problem rather clearly.

On high-efficiency water heaters like the one pictured above, you will also have to break the vacuum. In that photo, you can see the relief valve is located on the “outlet” side of the water heater. This is becoming more the standard piping configuration for these types of units.


If you live in an environment where it snows, you have all the water you need; you just need an ignition source and a place to store it. Melting snow or ice is not the best method, but it’s a method that has worked since the dawn of time. It shouldn’t need to be said, but the only crucial rule to remember when it comes to snow used for drinking water: Don’t eat the yellow stuff.

Swimming pools

Swimming pools are a source that raises some eyebrows because we all know everyone urinates in the pool, even if they say they don’t. As a raw water source, it is actually not as bad as you might think. Look at it objectively; its already been treated with chlorine, bromine, or some other chemical agent to reduce bacteria. Of course, if it’s an outside pool, it’s important to keep it covered to avoid debris or contaminates from entering the pool. But another positive aspect of a swimming pool as a water source is that most pools are made using a concrete or rubber housing. The shell of the pool, if intact, greatly helps reduce any possible ground contamination.


Ponds are another viable source of water for many reasons. Often, ponds are easily accessible by foot and by vehicle; this can be both an advantage and disadvantage. When assessing a ponds viability as a water source, it’s important to note whether there are any oil or chemical  products floating on the surface of the water or laying near the banks. Knowing your local area will greatly help you when determining if there could be potential contaminants present. Contaminates add more complications when it comes to storage and treatment.

Another consideration with ponds is the possibility of high amounts of fecal chloroform in the water. Fecal chloroform is a bacterium that originates in the feces of warm-blooded animals. It can lead to dysentery, typhoid, and in some cases, Hepatitis A. Properly treating the water with modern techniques will reduce this risk to a minuscule level.


River water is how thousands of people get their drinking water on a daily basis, but precautions must still be taken. During normal situations, the local water purveyor is responsible for the inspection and testing of source water to ensure it is free from unacceptable sources of pollution. Post-disaster, that won’t happen until the area is well into the recovery phase.

Proper inspection of your river water source is just as important as it is with inspecting a pond water source. While river water is usually fast-moving and should be able to dilute a lot of contaminates, it is still important to note anything that would be irregular under normal conditions. Irregular conditions may include dead animals in and near the water, unusual smells, or a sheen on the water surface.

Throughout history, people have used river systems to dispose of everything from human waste to toxic waste. If I was a betting man, I would assume that many will revert back to this method in a post-disaster environment. Keep a watchful eye on your water source; it can be a matter of life or death.


Courtesy: CityPictures.net
Courtesy: CityPictures.net


This first installment on water is just covering some basics. We will cover proper filtration, storage, and basic treatment in the next edition. To experienced preppers and outdoor enthusiasts, this information may seem redundant. But to the inexperienced prepper, this may be news. Adding potential water sources to your site maps or lists will help reduce stress and allow for better asset management should the need ever arise.

(Featured image courtesy: dansdepot.com)