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Storing Water for Emergencies: How Long Can You Safely Store Water?

A Large Water Bottle on Grass

We all know that drinking enough water every day is critical to our survival, but how do you really know that your stored water is safe to drink? Simple test kits to tell you if your supply is contaminated don’t exist. But, if there were, it would make our prepping efforts much less complicated.

Water can be indefinitely stored if using adequate storage measures. Properly treated tap water poured directly into properly cleaned, food-safe storage containers do not require any rotation or replacement schedule. Water will not go bad if it is not contaminated.

Is it really as simple as pouring your water into a jug and storing it? No. Safely keeping water for the long term means thoroughly sanitizing containers, finding the right storage spot, and ensuring your water source is free of debris and contaminants.

Long-Term Water Storage

We can agree that everyone needs an emergency water supply. We can have discussions about how much water we should have on hand or how much we need to survive, but the storage method should be relatively the same. Pick out a container, pour your clean water in it, seal, and store it in the corner of your basement or garage. It should be just that easy.

But miss one step and your supply may not stay fresh. You might not even notice until you have an actual water emergency when it’s too late to fix the problem. Though there are ways to recover contaminated water, keeping it fresh and safe to drink should be the goal.  Why do all the work to store the water in the first place if you know you will have to treat it again later?

Speaking of fresh, I see a standard recommendation to change or rotate your water supply every six months. It exists not because water magically goes bad after that amount of time but because water stored for a while can take on a stale taste. Over time, tiny bubbles dissipate from the water, making it flat like an open can of soda.

Fortunately, there’s an easy fix for stale-tasting water. If your water tastes stale after storage, pour it from one jug to another to mix air back into it, and it’ll taste just fine. Leaving the cap off for 24 hours can also help the unpleasant taste disappear.

Which containers can store water longer?

All plastic containers that store food or water must meet food safety requirements and never previously used as anything other than a drinking water or soda container. Don’t buy second-hand, unless you can trust the previous owner only used them for water storage.

You can fill thoroughly cleaned soda bottles, but the water might pick up the flavor. It’s perfectly harmless, of course, but it may not be to your taste.

Though I’ve stored water in milk jugs for flushing toilets and general cleaning, milk jugs should not store drinking water. According to FEMA, cleaning does not remove milk proteins and fruit sugars to the degree needed to keep your stored water safe. While I might personally disagree with FEMA on the reasoning, the thin plastic material is cheap and too easy to damage to serve as an adequate long-term solution.

Glass is okay for water storage, but make sure they never previously contained non-food items. Canning lids should be new and never used. Glass is not ideal due to weight and fragility, but it is the least reactive material.

What about metal containers? I don’t recommend using stainless steel containers to store water because the metal reacts with bleach and other chemical sanitizers. If you don’t plan on using bleach, they’re okay. Avoid aluminum containers as they react with many acids. Aluminum containers often have a plastic liner, which might contain a plastic softener called BPA, a known carcinogen that can leach out into the water.

Premade plastic water storage containers are available, ranging in sizes from typical 5-gallon blue water jugs to super-large containers of practically any size. It looks like blue water barrels are the most popular among people who store long term. I prefer containers made of food-grade HDPE plastic, which is very sturdy but still has a little give and can take a bit of abuse.

How do I properly sanitize a container before I store water in it?

Cleaning and sanitization is arguably the most critical step to storing clean, safe water for an extended time. Cleaning and inspection are relatively straightforward, regardless of what kind of container you choose.

Cleaning

To start, wash everything in hot water with dish soap. Thoroughly rinse, and let air dry. Inspect to make sure there are no particles or mineral build-up on the inside of the container. For previously used containers, do not hesitate to throw them out if it doesn’t come clean or if the inside looks damaged.

Sanitizing

There are three ways to sanitize your containers, but some methods aren’t suitable for all types of containers. Choose your approach based on your preference and your container material.

Bleach Method:  This is popular because it’s very cheap and reliable. All you need is a fresh bottle of bleach, a bathtub, and a bowl. There is no need to rinse as long as the proper time is taken to air-dry afterward. This method is not recommended for metal containers, bowls, or sinks, as bleach reacts with most metals.

No-rinse solutions:  This method is more straightforward, but it will cost a little more. Acid sanitizers like are popular with the beer brewing community to sanitize bottles and bottling equipment. Unlike bleach, surfaces only need to come into contact with the diluted product and be allowed to air dry. Best of all, these products are safe to use on all materials except aluminum. However, I do not recommend storing the product in anything but its original container.

Hot Water Method: This method is the most difficult, but it is the cheapest. You don’t actually need to boil your water to sanitize your bottles. However, the water temperature inside your container needs to reach at least 170°F for at least 30 seconds. There are ways to do this, but it becomes much more difficult without submerging your container in a big pot of water. Don’t choose this method for sanitizing single-use plastics like soda bottles.

Does water need to be chlorinated before it’s stored?

If your tap water is already treated and chlorinated, it’s perfectly fine to store as is. Different countries, counties, and even cities have different levels of acceptability. In the US, the EPA sets what standards all jurisdictions must meet. Check your local water authority to determine if your water meets the minimum suggested standards.

If your water comes from an untreated source, like a well, or if you have an artisan spring, filter and treat before storing. You can chlorinate it yourself, but a DIY chemical water treatment isn’t going to remove heavy metals and toxic pollutants.

Where should full water containers be stored?

An old wives’ tale warns against placing plastic containers full of water directly on concrete. There is no merit to this. A local concrete expert I spoke with suggests that the plastic jugs are more likely to break down and contaminate the water than concrete. If the concrete has absorbed gasoline, oil, or another chemical spill, definitely keep the jugs off the concrete. A pallet makes a terrific barrier.

I don’t suggest keeping your water outside, but sometimes that’s the only room you have. If the plan is to place your containers outside, make sure they’re UV resistant. Store the full jugs in a shady spot, and cover with a tarp to keep dust and dirt from building up.

If you live in an area that sees winter temperatures fall below freezing, make sure to leave enough room in the jugs to let the water expand.

Speaking of freezing, I ran across one of the most ingenious ideas for storing water in a freezer.  Placing a layer of one-gallon jugs of water at the bottom of a large chest freezer will help you in two ways. They will raise the usable space for storing food, which will make it easier to reach. The frozen water jugs will also keep your frozen foods cold for longer in the event of a lengthy power outage. Speaking as someone who has lost everything in my fridge and chest freezer to a 5-day power outage, this tip is golden.

The best place will always be a quiet corner in a basement or garage if you have either of those.

Can I Stock Up On Bottled Water Instead?

Should you buy water for storage?Stocking your shelves with bottled water is a great way to create an emergency drinking water supply. Since the US regulates bottled water, it is a clean and safe option with none of the work. The downside to buying bottled water is that it comes at a much greater cost.

If you would prefer to buy your water, look into the 5- or 10-gallon bottles from a water delivery service or water refill service at your local grocery store.

Otherwise, you’re probably buying small plastic bottles designed only for one use. The little bottles are wasteful and more susceptible to taking on flavors or aromas from whatever is stored nearby. The only positive attribute of keeping small water bottles is that they are ideal if you need to pack some water when leaving your house in an emergency.

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