There is a lot of debate when it comes to water and how long it stays safe to drink. This is not a new argument and for every person that says water does not go bad, it seems that there is another who will tell you that unless their water has been poured straight from a filter within the last 18.5 seconds, it is not safe to drink. To make matters worse, this issue has been further complicated by the introduction of expiration dates on commercially bottled water. As a society, we routinely believe that the expiration or "best by" date on that bottle is set in stone and that we may get sick or even worse should we choose to consume the contents.
So what is the answer? Can water go bad? The answer is NO. Water, in and of itself, cannot go bad. It is the circumstances surrounding the storage of the water that can impact how safe it is to consume (drink or cook with). As an example, water that is commercially bottled is placed into a plastic bottle in most cases. The plastic is composed of chemicals and these chemicals can then in turn leach into the water in the bottle. This leaching process does not necessarily in turn make the water dangerous to drink but it will likely change the way the water tastes. In the end, the Food and Drug Administration considers bottled water to have an indefinite shelf life as long as it was properly bottled and remains unopened. This means that any expiration date placed on bottled water is placed there voluntarily and is likely intended to get you to spend more money to replace it.
Do You Need Stored Water?
Absolutely! There have been a number of events just this year that have demonstrated the fact that everyone should have some water stored in their homes. The two events that come to mind include the chemical spill in West Virginia last January and the toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie this summer that caused the greater Toledo, Ohio area to be without a water source for several days. On top of events like this, there are natural disasters like flooding that can cause sewage and other contaminants to spill over into the tap water system. I am pretty sure you are going to want a store of water when untreated toilet water starts coming out of your tap!
Risks Of Storing Water
It is important to know that there are risks inherent with storing water. Obviously if the water is not in a sealed container, there is the opportunity for bacteria and organisms to be introduced to it. Water that comes straight out of the tap contains small amounts of chlorine that will kill any microorganisms for a day or two but leaves an environment where things can grow and develop after that. This is especially possible in a situation where you are filling the container and touch the rim with your dirty hands.
The International Bottled Water Association does say that the plastic containers that water is often bottled in are slightly permeable which in turn can allow ambient air gases like the ones that can come from some cleaners, solvents, fuels, and other chemicals often found in the household environment.1 This is a concern when looking at where your water will be stored.
To mitigate these risks, always ensure that you take your water for storage from a safe water supply. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, all tap water is safe unless otherwise informed by public authorities. They say that,
The public water supply is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). All municipal water systems serving 25 or more people are tested regularly for up to 118 chemicals and bacteria specified by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Individual states may require additional testing. Everyone who gets their tap water from a public system is therefore assured of regular testing and certain standards. And, when testing indicates a problem, corrective actions are instituted. These actions include notifying residents about the problem and informing them of any special precautions that may be necessary.
It is a good idea to ensure that you:
-Store water in clean, food safe containers.
-Place stored water in a cool, dark area to avoid the unlikely possibility of algae or mold growth.
-Treat your stored water with a bleach solution of 5.25 to 8.25 percent chlorine that does not contain any perfumes, dyes, or additives. The appropriate amount to add is 5 drops for every quart, ¼ teaspoon per gallon, and 1 teaspoon for every 5 gallons.
-Always clean and sanitize the containers again before refilling them when rotating your water.
Also, know that the Safe Water Drinking Act that governs tap water places more stringent standards on tap water than the Food and Drug Administration standards that are set on bottled water that only apply if it is going from one state to another.
What You Can Do
It is important to store water to have in the event of an emergency. The most widely accepted answer to the question of how long a human can survive without water is three days. This can obviously be variable based on the environmental circumstances and level of activity but none the less highlights the importance of having an emergency supply of water. Here are a few steps to consider when planning your water storage:
How much water should you store?
A typical person could survive on about a gallon of water per day for drinking and cooking. This obviously requires discipline and planning to ensure that the water lasts for the duration of the day. In addition, it does not factor in water for hygiene and sanitation. In that case, another gallon of water per person, per day should be calculated into the overall storage plan. This means that a family of four should have 8 gallons of water stored for each day. A minimum of one week should be stored in your home but even more is best if you have the room.
Where to store your water.
There are a number of commercially available storage options for your water but there are more readily available storage containers available as well. The key to storage containers is to ensure that they are always food safe. A best practice is to only use plastic containers which have the best chance of not breaking. One of the most popular options for storing water is to reuse 2 liter soda bottles. They need to be cleaned thoroughly but they are already food safe. There are also food grade 55 gallon drums that are often available from local sources that place them in online ad websites. You will know that a container is safe for water if is marked with HDPE (High Density PolyEthylene) and includes the recycle symbol with the number 2 inside. Never use a container that previously held chemicals! If you are left wondering, just find another container.
If you decide that commercially purchase storage options are the way to go for you, there are a number of options out there. Most of them are just new food grade drums or other containers like the water brick which is designed to be able to be stacked up on one another for easy and compact storage. Don’t rule out options like the Water BOB which is a bladder that fits inside your bath tub and can be filled immediately with up to 100 gallons of water as soon as you find out there is an emergency.
Rotate your water storage.
To eliminate the opportunity for your stored water to turn funky, rotate it out every 3-6 months. Zane Satterfield, National Environmental Services Center at West Virginia University, states that, " Most experts will tell you tap water has a shelf-life of six months, after that point, the chlorine dissipates to the point that bacteria and algae start to grow."3 This just reinforces the idea that it is good to be on the safe side and rotate your water. When water is placed in storage, make sure that you mark the date on every bottle to ensure proper storage and rotation.
Have a back-up plan.
Knowing that your stored water could be depleted or compromised, it is important to have a back-up plan. This essentially equates to having a way to filter and produce clean water. There are a number of options available but you can’t beat a gravity-feed ceramic filter that can be placed on your countertop. This allows you to fill the top of the container and walk away. The filter system will make safe drinking water while you take care of something else. Don’t forget to keep some cheesecloth or coffee filters on hand to screen out any big junk as you are pouring the water into your filter.
A back-up plan is also a consideration that should be made when putting together your survival kits (bug out bag, get home bag, etc.). There are many portable water filters that are not only effective but also very affordable. One of my favorites is the LifeStraw which is very light and portable and does not even require a container. You can simply place the filter directly into the water source and drink right through the straw. Other options include filters that pump the water from the source into a container or water treatment tablets. Whatever you decide is the right treatment option for you, look at the option of having a back-up to your back-up when it comes to your survival kits. You never know what might happen.
Who thought storing water for an emergency could be so complicated? The bottom line is that storing water is not really optional. If you truly want to be prepared for the unknown, you have to have water! But it is good to know that water itself does not get rotten, spoil, expire, or go bad in any way. With proper storage, your water will be there when you need it.
International Bottled Water Association. Bottled Water Storage. Retrieved from http://www.bottledwater.org/education/bottled-water-storage
Minnesota Department of Health. Bottled Water: Questions and Answers. Retrieved from http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/water/factsheet/com/bottledwater.html
Time Magazine. Aug. 13, 2014. You Asked: Can Water Go Bad? by Markham Heid. Retrieved from http://time.com/3104999/old-water-sick/#3104999/old-water-sick/