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Long Term Emergency Water Storage – How Much Water Do You Need to Stockpile?

One of the most frequently asked questions about long term water storage is how much do you need to stockpile.  I love that you can find exact numbers in gallons recommended all over the web.

As if we all have the same water needs!

A lot of people don’t realize how susceptible our water supply is to disaster.

Even during small emergencies like storms or blizzards, the power can go out – which means that the water treatment facilities stop working.

During large disasters, the water supply stops completely.  This is why it is so important to have a plan in place for emergency water storage.

What the “Authorities” Say about Stockpiling Water

If you look online, you will find these guidelines for how much emergency water to stockpile:

If we go by the higher recommendation, that comes out to 14 gallons of emergency water per individual, or 56 gallons for a family of four.

This amount is certainly better than having no emergency water and is adequate for most small-scale disasters like blizzards.

However, as anyone who survived hurricane Katrina will tell you, the 56 gallon recommendation is severely inadequate.

You Need At Least a 30 Day Supply of Water

Relief workers loading water for hurricane Katrina victims
Relief workers loading water for hurricane Katrina victims

The most common emergencies that we face – such as outages from storms – only last a few days.  This is why organizations like Ready.gov say that 3 days’ worth of water is adequate.

As the EPA says of the 3-day recommendation in their report on emergency water,

The time frame that residents would reasonably be expected to sustain themselves with their own water supply.

However, the EPA reports goes on to say that large scale disasters could knock out the water supply for much longer than 21 days.  We’ve already seen these types of disaster.

Just think of what happened during Hurricane Katrina when masses of people had to line up to get water handouts.

Haiti – 6 Years without Water!

Haiti earthquake aftermath
Masses fighting for supplies after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

Abroad, the situation after disasters is even worse.  People in Haiti are still going without water more than 6 years after the devastating earthquake.

We can also look at the earthquake and tsunami which struck the Indian Ocean in 2004. It took weeks to get in supplies to victims.

Yes, the USA is much more developed than these areas and could recover faster.  However, if a major disaster struck (such as an EMP attack), it could revert the USA into the likes of a third-world country.

The message is this: Don’t think you are immune from disaster just because you live in a developed country like the USA!

Start by stockpiling a 3 day water supply and then work up to 2 weeks.  However, to be fully prepared for all levels of disasters, you should really aim to have at least 30 days of emergency water (and food) stockpiled.

After 30 days, hopefully the infrastructure will be repaired.  If not, then it would be time to start sourcing your own water or evacuate to somewhere with a more secure source of water.

Calculating How Much Emergency Water Per Day

All of the major organizations are in consensus that you need to stockpile 1 gallon of water per day.

Their reasoning is that you need:

  • ½ gallon for drinking
  • ½ gallon for cooking and cleaning purposes

*Don’t forget about water for your pets! To calculate how much water your cat or dog needs: Take the weight of the animal in pounds and divide it by 8.  This is the amount of water they need per day in cups.

If you’ve ever gone camping or backpacking, then the 1 gallon water recommendation is in line with what someone off-the-grid would use. However, if you look at how much water homeowners typically use, there is a huge discrepancy.

According to the EPA, the average family of four in the USA uses 300 gallons of water per day!  Some of this water does occur outdoors, such as for watering the yard, but the vast majority of it (70%) is for indoor use.

If we exclude outdoor water, that means…

Americans use an average of 70 gallons of water per day, per person!

There is absolutely no feasible way to store 2,100 gallons of emergency water per person (70 gallons per day x 30 days).

Where would you keep all of that water?  The obvious solution is that you’ve got to learn how to cut back on your water usage.

Learn to Conserve Water NOW!

Don’t wait until an emergency hits to figure out how to conserve water!

If you wait until emergency hits and you have no choice but to rely on your water stockpile, you’ll probably find that you go through it much faster than you calculated.

Of course, you won’t be taking really long showers during a full-scale disaster nor will you forget to turn off the faucet when brushing your teeth (because there won’t be water coming out of the faucet).

But every smart prepper should have an idea of how much water he/she will really use during a disaster.

Containers for Storing Water

Choosing containers for your emergency water is actually more complex than you might think. The wrong decision could end up costing you a fortune or result in your water leaking all over your floor!

Option 1: Storing Water in Plastic Bottles

The easiest solution for stockpiling water is to just buy bottled water. A cheaper alternative is to put tap water in plastic bottles. Milk jugs and soda bottles are popular choices.

You’ll have to clean the bottles out thoroughly first. Pay careful attention to the lids (especially of milk jugs) because crust is often stuck there. It will get into the water and cause bacteria to grow. To make sure your plastic bottles are really clean, you can rinse them with a bit of bleach.

However, there is one major problem in using plastic bottles and milk jugs to store water:

The bottles will eventually start leaking.

Plastic Bottles Will Leak

Almost all plastic containers today are biodegradable. It will take years before these containers fully degrade but it only takes a few months or years until tiny holes start to form in biodegradable plastic bottles.

Leave your emergency water in milk jugs for a year and you’ll find it leaking all over your floor! 

You can still use plastic bottles for storing water. However, you will have to get rid of all the bottles every 6-18 months.

The life span of the bottles really varies depending on the type of plastic used and also where you are storing them. Light and heat, for example, will cause the bottles to break down faster.

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 permeable, so your water can actually 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

Of course, the plastic bottles might not start leaking until long after these estimated lifespans.

However, it is better to be cautious and get rid of the bottles before they spring a leak.

Not only would you be out of emergency water, but you could end up with a lot of water damage to your floors.

Option 2: Storing Water in “bricks”

Rotating water can be a fairly annoying task. Instead, you might want to consider storing your emergency water in specialist containers.

These types of containers can be found in camping and RV stores.

Water bricks are an investment, but they don’t degrade like cheap plastics do. You can see our waterbrick review here.

Note:

You’ll still need to rotate the water because mold and bacteria can grow in it. The good news is that you are only rotating the water and not tossing the containers with each rotation.

It is recommended that you rotate water in bricks at least once per year. One solution to make water last longer is to buy “water preserver drops.

You just put the drops into the water and you won’t have to rotate it for five years.

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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. Some people put a few drops of bleach into the jars to sanitize the water so it will keep longer.

It is still advised to rotate the water every year though.

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.

Think carefully about the types of disasters are you preparing for and whether glass makes sense.

Where to Store Water

The location of where to stockpile food is very important because sunlight, heat, and moisture can easily destroy the foods. With water storage, location isn’t as important – but it shouldn’t be overlooked.

Here are some points to consider:

  • Accessibility: Will you be able to get to the water during an emergency? For example, if your water is stored in the basement, flooding might make it impossible to get to without risking electrocution or touching hazardous water.
  • Freezing: Water expands when it freezes, so your containers could crack or break if the water is allowed to freeze, such as when stored in a garage.
  • Heat: Heat will cause plastic bottles to deteriorate faster. If storing plastic bottles in a hot place such as the garage or attic, you’ll need to rotate them more frequently.

Water Care and Rotation

Water never goes bad.  But the plastic bottle holding the water can go bad!  This is why you need to rotate your water stockpile.

Over time, the plastic bottle will start releasing chemicals.  These plastic chemicals won’t necessarily kill you, so you could still drink very old water in an emergency situation.  However, the water won’t taste great.

To ensure your water is getting rotated properly:

  • Tap water should be rotated every 6 months and store-bought water every 12 months.
  • Use a labeling system to write the date of the water on the bottle.
  • Regularly use and refill your water supplies so they are continuously getting rotated.
  • Keep your emergency water in a cool place away from direct sunlight. Otherwise chemicals from the plastic can leach faster.

Running an Emergency Water Drill

An Emergency Water Drill simply means that you go without running water for a designated period of time.  During this time, you only use stockpiled water.

At the end of the drill, you calculate how much water you went through.

This will give you a good estimate of how much water per day you really need to stockpile for emergency preparedness.

Tips for Running an Emergency Water Drill:

  • The drill should last at least 3 days. Any less than this and you won’t get an accurate assessment of how much water you really need to get through an emergency.
  • Plan your drill for a long weekend or period when you will be mostly at home. If you use water while not at home, this will impact the accuracy of your calculations.  If you must leave home, then bring water with you to use.
  • Consider doing an “Off Grid” drill at the same time as your water drill. During an Off Grid drill, you won’t use any electricity from the grid. This will give you a better idea of how you’d really use water during an emergency situation and also help you prepare for a grid-down disaster better.
  • If you need to use water from the tap while running your drill, first put it into gallon bottles and be sure to note the amount. You want to make sure your calculations are accurate!

If your drill shows that you really only use 1 gallon of water per day, then congratulations!

However, most of us will find that we use a LOT of water per day.  All that water for small tasks like washing hands and cleaning dishes really adds up.

An alternative way of calculating how much water you use per day is to just look at your water bill or water meter.  However, we obviously use water a lot differently during emergency situations than in everyday life.

For example, you aren’t going to be taking long showers when you are showering with a plastic bottle!

Thus, it is really important that you do your Water Drill in a “Grid-Down” simulation and not assess water needs based on your normal everyday life.

How much water do you have stockpiled?  Do you think it will be enough? Let us know in the comments.

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  1. Distilled water use to wash pots & pans, dishes, hands & face, laundry, counter tops, and appliances. Potable water use for cooking,and baths. Bottled water and or jugs for drinking and replenishment of water stores(big into smaller).

  2. Three days of supplies, including water, is still what FEMA, etc. are still teaching. We started teaching that three days is really just long enough to weather the shock and awe of your disaster and make an educated decision about whether you’re staying or leaving. If you’re going, great – move out. But if you’re staying, that’s when 30 or even 90 days worth of supplies might not be enough. Yeah, this is ‘Murica and all, but ask those people hit by Sandy how long they had to go without!

    • Yeah 3 days is really just a starting point, plenty of examples in recent times of huge amounts of people being cut off for longer.

  3. I liked your suggestion to use empty bottles from soda or milk. I never thought to use those for our storage before. But wouldn’t it be easier to find something that stacks more efficiently than typical bottles?

  4. Pleeeease don’t recycle milk jogs as water containers. It’s a bad, bad, VERY bad idea.

    First off, there’s no way to ensure every single scrap of milk solids has been purged from the milk jug and imagine what that water will smell/taste like in a couple of months, not to mention what it’ll be breeding.

    Secondly, the plastic used in milk jugs is biodegradable and it will develop minute pin holes in 3-9 months. It’s meant to do this so that it won’t live forever in a landfill, which is great for our landfills, but terrible for our storage spaces. (Don’t ask me how I know this, says she who’s mopped GALLONS of water from the garage floor!)

    Thirdly, milk jug plastic is permeable, which means any smells it’s around will be transferred to the water over time. Just think of what your garage, shed, under the stairs storage, or basement smells like and ask yourself if you want to drink water that smells the same?

    In lieu of real water containers, such as the Water Brick or a water barrel, I’ve found 2-liter soda bottles to be the most readily available container to upcycle as a water container. If you don’t drink enough soda to satisfy your water needs, ask your friends, and/or co-workers to save them for you. Other plastic jugs like those that juices –V-8 or their Splash! products are great!– come in, or Gatorade or other sports drink bottles, are also good choices.

  5. I use the COSTCO Kirkland brand plastic one-gallon jugs that they sell apple juice in for emergency water storage.

    After the juice is finished I wash a jug with liquid dish soap and water. When dry, I fill the jug with tap water.

    The COSTCO apple juice jugs are food-grade plastic, and have thicker walls than many grocery store bottles. They are strong. There are, though, some brands of apple juice in plastic jugs similar to Kirkland’s; you just have to keep an eye out for then.

  6. Could be a reasonable solution Porter. However these jugs will still need to be closely monitored for leakage as per the milk jug advice above.

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