How to Safely Store Water for Emergencies (Short and Long Term Options)


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Last Updated: September 19, 2022

Water should be your #1 focus when it comes to emergency preparedness.

This article will go over how to store water for emergencies, including links to more detailed resources and the ins and outs of long-term water storage.

1. Decide How Much Water You Need to Store

FEMA recommends that you stockpile at least 14 gallons of water per person, which would give you 1 gallon per day for two weeks.

However, because most people use more than a gallon per day and water outages can last a long time, it is better to aim for a minimum of 60-120 gallons of water per person.  You’ll also need water for your pets.

Read more about how much water to stockpile for emergencies.

2. Choose the Right Water Storage Containers

You must choose suitable containers for your emergency water stockpile.  Using the wrong containers could cause leakage or contamination issues.  Below are five options for storing emergency water.

Option 1: Bottled Water or Recycled Plastic Bottles

water bottles for storage

Many people buy bottled water or use recycled plastic bottles to store water.  It is a quick, cheap, and easy way to build up an emergency water supply.  However, plastic bottles are not a good solution for long-term water storage.

Plastic bottles are biodegradable; over time, tiny holes will form in the bottles, and your emergency water will start leaking out.

Personally, it hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve heard stories of people checking on their stockpiles only to find water all over the floor.  To prevent this, you’ll need to get rid of the plastic bottles every 6-24 months.

Another issue with storing water in plastic bottles is that eventually, the chemicals in the plastic will leach into the water. Cheap plastic is also slightly porous, so your water can pick up tastes from the outside world – such as end up tasting like your musty basement.

These aren’t serious concerns during a disaster (bad-tasting water is better than no water!) but is something to consider for long-term storage.

 Estimated Lifespan of Plastic Bottles

  • Milk Jugs – 6 to 12 Months
  • Store-Bought Water – 12 Months
  • Soda Bottles – 12 Months
  • Gatorade Bottles (or other thick plastic bottle)- 24 Months

Read more about this here: Does bottled water go bad?

Option 2: Water Storage Containers

WaterBrick review

Many plastic containers are specially designed to store water.  These containers are made from thicker plastic which doesn’t degrade like plastic bottles.

Water storage containers come in many different sizes, ranging from 1-gallon jugs to large totes which can hold over 500 gallons. There are also many different shapes and features.

Read about the best emergency water storage containers.

Option 3: Storing Water in Jars

Another option is to store emergency water in glass jars. Jars don’t deteriorate like plastic, and there are no chemicals to worry about leaching into the water.

The main problem with using jars for storing water is that they are breakable. An earthquake or hurricane could destroy your whole stockpile, which defeats the point.  Another issue is that you can only store small amounts of water in glass jars, so storage would be a problem.

Option 4: Water Bags/Pouches

Water bags or pouches are a relatively new product that allows for hassle-free storage of limited amounts of water.  They are only suitable for short-term water storage.

Read our guide to emergency water bags.

Option 5: Underground Storage Tanks

A fantastic long-term water storage solution is to get an underground tank.  These can even be designed to connect to your home’s plumbing: as you use the water in the tank, it gets filled up again.  In a water outage, you’d have an entire tank accessible.  The obvious downside is that underground water tanks are expensive to install.

3. Keep Your Emergency Water from Going Bad

Water itself never goes bad and has an infinite shelf life.  However, stored emergency water can get contaminated by algae, mold, or bacteria.  You will need to sanitize containers before putting water in them. You may also want to sanitize the water itself.

How to Sanitize Water Containers

Regardless of which type of containers you use for your emergency water stockpile, you should sanitize them first.  To do this:

  1. Mix a solution of 1tsp of unscented bleach and 1 quart of water.
  2. Put the solution inside the water container
  3. Close the lid tightly and shake well.
  4. Let the bleach solution sit for at least 30 seconds before draining.
  5. Let the container air dry.
  6. Soak the lids/caps in the bleach solution separately. This will ensure that the area in the threads gets sanitized.

Treating Water before Storage

Some sources of water – such as untreated well water – contain microorganisms.  If you leave the water sitting long enough, bacteria, mold, and algae can start growing. To prevent contamination, you’ll need to add bleach to the water before storing; add 2 drops of unscented liquid bleach per gallon of water.

Even though municipal tap water is chlorinated, many people still add bleach to it as an extra precaution against bacteria and algae.

There is also something called Water Preserver Drops which you can add to water to prevent contamination.  It will keep your water safe to drink for 5 years or more, so you don’t have to rotate as frequently.

Get water preserver here.

4. Know Where to Keep Emergency Water

Emergency water should be kept in a cool, dark place. The reason for this is that heat and light cause algae growth. They also cause plastic storage containers to degrade.

You’ll also need to keep stored water away from things that smell bad or produce fumes, such as gasoline or chemicals.

Finally, you want to ensure the water is somewhere that you can easily access during emergencies.

If you are short on space, read these tips for prepping in an apartment.

Storing Water in the Garage

The garage is a terrible place to store water.  The main reason is that garages are subject to huge temperature swings.  Your water might freeze in winter, which could cause the storage containers to crack.  Always make sure that you leave at least 10% headroom in containers, so frozen water has room to expand.

Garages can easily get 15 degrees F hotter than the outside temperature.  The heat can cause plastics – especially cheap plastic bottles – to break down quickly.

There is also the issue of safety with garages.  Garages can be easily broken into.  They are also typically the weakest part of a home and fail first during natural disasters.  Don’t be surprised if your entire garage blows off during a hurricane or tornado.

In addition to these issues, garages are typically musty.  All plastics are slightly permeable, so eventually, the water will absorb the musty smells of your basement.  It will probably still be safe to drink but taste terrible.

*Never store water directly on a concrete floor.  Contrary to what many prepper sites say, chemicals from the concrete will not get into the water and contaminate it.  However, dirt will accumulate around the bottoms of the water containers.  The containers will be more susceptible to any temperature swings in the concrete. Rodents are also more likely to chew on plastic containers directly on the ground.  So put all preps on pallets or elevated platforms.

Storing Water in the Basement

In general, the basement is a bad place to store your emergency water (though not as bad as the garage).  As with your garage, basements are musty, and your water will absorb the bad odors and taste terrible.

Another issue with storing water in the basement is accessibility. If you live somewhere prone to flooding, for example, you wouldn’t be able to access your emergency water once the basement started filling with water.

Storing Water in Your Vehicle

Don’t forget to put some emergency water in your vehicle too.  It’s not advisable to store cheap plastic water bottles in your car: your car simply gets too hot, and those cheap bottles will degrade quickly.  Make sure you leave 10% headroom in containers to allow room for freezing.

I personally only keep 2.5 and 5-gallon water containers with spigots in my car.  My reasoning is that these are easier to carry and pour.  I also have an empty Nalgene bottle in the trunk; I can fill this with water instead of trying to drink from a large container.

For more, read how to store water in a car.

5. Rotate Your Emergency Water

You’ll need to rotate your emergency water supply regularly.  This will ensure that the water doesn’t start growing algae or other contaminants, so it is safe to drink.  Rotation also ensures that your water tastes fresh and doesn’t get a foul smell from the surrounding air or plastic containers.

How often should I rotate my emergency water?

You will need to rotate your emergency water every 6 months to 5 years.  Cheap plastic bottles kept in a warm, bright place will need to be rotated every 6 months, so they don’t start leaking.

Thicker plastic bottles (such as recycled Gatorade bottles) kept in a cool, dark place only need to be rotated every 24 months.

If you invest in quality water containers, add bleach to the water, and store it somewhere cool and dark, you’ll only need to rotate the water every 5 years.

Emergency Water Rotation Tips:

  • Label bottles: Write the date you bottled the water, so you know when to rotate it.
  • Check on your water supply every six months: Make sure there is no leakage or contamination.
  • Swap out plastic bottles: If using bottled water or recycled plastic bottles, you’ll need to get rid of the bottles each time you rotate; put clean water in completely new bottles.

6. Have a Way to Treat Water

Even if you are stockpiling drinking water, you should still have an emergency water filter or purifier.  If your water supply becomes contaminated, you’ll still be able to safely drink it after treating it.

Likewise, if you run out of water, a purifier means you can gather water from other sources like rainwater collected from downspouts and safely drink it.

For more on this, read:

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  1. Remember to rotate your bleach as well. Sodium Hypochlorite based bleach degrades pretty quickly depending on storage and temperature.

    Bleach that is 6 months old may have its power cut by half or more. I know this from experience as I was assigned to assay gallon containers of commercial product for strength that were going to be diluted and used to sterilize cooling tower water.

    Reply

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