Long Term Water Storage and
Why It Is an Important Thing to Have!

The Red Cross, FEMA, your county Emergency Management all say to have a minimum of 2 weeks worth of water and food stored - why do you think that is?

I go to the Washington Emergency Management Conferences. When there is a disaster in WA State, I work at the Emergency Operation Center and then at the JFO (the Joint Field Office where WA State and FEMA are set up to manage the disaster).

What do you suppose is the number one, most important thing at the top of the agenda for all these people during the first few days? Making sure you have water to drink and food in your tummy? Nope. It is finding out where the hardest hit areas are, getting the different agencies all working together, working their fannies off to get an infrastructure set up ASAP so they will be able to provide the help to those who were hardest hit.

The municipalities, the counties, the State and FEMA have to be working together following strict guidelines. The Red Cross jumps in right away, but until all the infrastructure is in place (and FEMA can do the impossible in 3 days when it comes to setting up a base of command in a disaster), only the life threatening cases are going to be taken care of (in a best case scenario).

During that time, you need to be your own rescuer if at all possible. You need to have water and food or you have to go to a Red Cross shelter. With the pandemic threats nowadays, staying away from very populated shelters could be a very good thing.

If something BIG happens like a big storm or big earthquake or big bird flu or big whatever, you are going to be ON YOUR OWN for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. If it was something REALLY BIG, you could be "on your own" for quite a while. They (government officials, emergency management people, police, etc.) only want to know about you if your life is in peril, in which case, all effort would be made to assist you.

If any of the scenarios talked about for the Bird Flu come to pass, they may only be able to remove the dead, for there would be nothing that could be done for those still alive. It’s not that they don’t care about your fate, it’s just logistics and need.

I don’t think most people understand just how "on their own" they would be — it is so easy, so natural to be lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that the fridge is full, that there’s a new movie out, that the gas stations are open, and Safeway and Walmart are just down the street. There may be a few complaints, but on the whole, all is right with the status quo world, right? And who wants to think about being inconvenienced, about having their accustomed comfort zone interrupted? Not many. It’s much easier to ignore the whole thing (or to say you don’t want to create it or draw it to you by thinking about it).

Really, I’m almost to the part where I talk about the long term water storage, I just wanted to say a little about the why of it. Some folks might get the idea that the only people saying you should store water are those who think the world might come to an end in the year 2012 or at the Second Coming (for Christians, New Agers and those that listen to late night radio). Instead I want you to know that some very practical, sensible, level headed professional type people are saying the same thing. And in addition, they are having meetings and conferences to figure out not only what they have to do, but also how to get you, the public, to store water and food and get your family prepared, and maybe even help a neighbor or two to boot. One thing they have figured out is that it isn’t easy to get the public (which is any of us not at their meetings) to prepare themselves to be self reliant for even as short a time as two weeks. God only knows what would happen to us if we had to be self-sufficient for 2 months, 6 months or a year!

You say "Well it kinda makes sense, but it’d probably cost lots of money and I don’t have lots of money cause I don’t make much and after I pay the bills there’s hardly anything left"…(enter violins). Or you say "Gee, take care of it myself? OK, I’m game. What do I do?" And I say "WATER! You store WATER!"
How much? In what? Now we are at the part about long term water storage!


For drinking purposes – 1/2 gallon per person per day – is what you should store if you’re going to live on sandwiches, canned foods etc. If you are going to prepare food like rice, beans, soups and the like (and hence will need water for preparation and to clean out the pot and utensils) you should store another 1/2 gallon per person per day. The one gallon per person per day equation will only allow minimal personal hygiene, although with a Solar Shower you can take a thorough shower, including washing your hair, with around 2 1/2 to 3 gallons of water. The bottom line is you need a bare minimum of one gallon per person per day. If you don’t mind being a stinky smelly Sue after a few days, with nasty greasy grimy hair and a head that itches like crazy (and we won’t even GO to the other end of the body!), you might want to figure 2 gallons per person per day, especially if you live with someone who isn’t used to smelling you from 10 feet away.


When it comes to having extra water on hand, one of the first things people think of is the one gallon jugs of water seen on grocery store shelves. It comes in two ‘flavors’ – drinking water and distilled water, and the manufacturers say this water has a one-year shelf life. I knew that schools were buying plastic bottled water to put in some of their classrooms, and people were buying water (or using empty milk jugs to store water) for emergencies. However, I noticed that a jug of distilled water that I had had for about 9 months (unopened and stored in a dark, cool pantry) tasted icky when I drank it. I called the manufacturer to find out about this one-year shelf life story. The receptionist, though speaking with authority, was uninformed as to actual facts. Luckily, I knew enough to know she didn’t know enough, and I got the specialist!

First of all, the containers are made from a low density plastic which is very porous. The plastic is more affected by UV and heat than a high density plastic. It will start to break down much quicker than a high density plastic and will leach chemicals into the water. The plastic will become brittle more quickly and the water will have a tendency to absorb odors and tastes. Also, distilled water will "pull" chemicals out of the plastic faster than will normal drinking water.

So what does this mean in real life? It means if you’re going to store this type of bottled water, don’t buy the distilled water, buy the drinking water as it will store longer before leaching chemicals into the water. Buy 4 jugs at once STILL IN THE BOX and leave them in the box. By not exposing the plastic to light you will prolong the breakdown of the plastic and thus the storage life. Also, store the box somewhere that isn’t super hot (shouldn’t be a problem in the state of Washington, not so in Texas), like the floor of your coat closet or linen closet. Unopened, still in the carton, not hot, bottled drinking water should store 1 to 2 years without a problem. Then get rid of it and start over (or you could rotate it every six months).

If you are cleaning out milk jugs for water storage, wash thoroughly with soap and water, rinse well and then rinse out with a solution of bleach and water to kill any bacteria still in the container. Store in a dark place and change the water every 6 months. The jugs will become brittle after a while so you will have to change jugs every so often. [Please note that empty milk containers are NOT recommended for storing water. Just too much danger of contamination.]

Better than one gallon jugs are high density food grade plastic containers that hold 4, 5 or 7 gallons of water made specifically to hold water. These (especially the opaque, or colored ones) are much more UV resistant and will hold up for years and many have spigots on them. Water in these will have to be changed every 6 months or treated with a water preserver.

And of course, now that we know some plastic has BPA in it (and BPA is bad) we need to find out if the plastic our water is in is BPA free….


For larger amounts of water, you can use new or used food grade plastic barrels which come in various sizes (most common are the 15, 55 & 60 gallon sizes). Used barrels are just as good as new ones (which cost 2 to 3 times as much as a used one) as long as you know what was in them and you clean them properly. If it was apple juice, soy sauce, or another food you’d eat this is fine. If it was lemon floor wax or degreaser or a chemical, this is not fine. If you found a great deal on some barrels at a garage sale but the person can’t really say what was in them, forget them. Don’t store water in new or used garbage cans because the plastic is not "food grade". You will definitely get nasty things in the water you do not want in your body. For cleaning out used barrels, see our Barrel Washing Instructions.

To get the water out of the barrels, there are several models of pumps that are designed to be screwed into the small opening (bung) in the top of the barrel, plus special (bung) wrenches for opening and closing these barrels. For the barrels where the top screws on or snaps off, the water can be dipped out or pumped out.

For really large amounts of water (it’s all relative), there are above ground and below ground water tanks which hold anywhere from 500 gallons to 1500 gallons. The larger the size the more economical it is per gallon -- it’s a way better deal to buy a 1350 gallon above ground tank than a 500 gallon above ground tank. Below ground (full and partial burial) tanks generally cost more than the above ground models as they need more structural strength, a little more plastic, etc. To get the water out of an above or below ground tank there are many methods you can use including gravity flow, a cistern hand pump, a 12 volt pump or small pump run by a generator. Which method you use would depend on your particular place.


You need to change the water every 6 months unless you put some sort of water preserver in it. Then it will stay "good" for up to 5 years. Aerobic 07, Aerobic Oxygen and Water Preserver are several brands available. If you use Aerobic 07, Aerobic Oxygen or Water Preserver you use 1 oz. per 55 gallon barrel and the product will keep the water "good"for 5 years, if you keep the water upright and leave the lid on the container so no new germs can get in.

If you don’t want to spend the money for the long term water preserver, you can just change the water every six months. You should also add Clorox to inhibit growth of algae and germs, but make sure you use the unscented Clorox or a generic brand of chlorine bleach from the grocery store, not the kind of chlorine you put in swimming pools – it usually has other stuff in it that you don’t want in water you’re going to drink. When using Clorox, you put 3 tablespoons of Clorox bleach to a 55 gallon barrel of water. If you have small containers, use 10 drops per gallon of water.


To store your water, first make sure the container or barrel is scrubbed clean of whatever used to be in it. Then rinse it with a mixture of water and bleach -- about a tablespoon (or a "quick glug") to 1/2 gallon of water for smaller containers or about 1/2 cup (or a "few glugs") to a couple of gallons of water for barrels -- this part doesn’t have to be exact. Make sure to get the bleach mixture on all the interior surfaces as well as the lids and threads. Rinse again with plain water to remove excess bleach, then fill with your "good" water. Add your water preserver or bleach while the container is filling so it mixes well, and close the lid. That’s all there is to it.

Just an idea: if you are storing water in 55 gallon barrels put them where you want them before you fill them because they will weigh about 450 lbs. when full. Also, make sure you don’t fill the water all the way to the top. Leave some headroom for expansion so if the water freezes your containers won’t split (about 4-5 inches in barrels and half that for smaller containers). For a large water tank it is not always practical to rinse with bleach and water before filling. Oh well, that’s life. Rinse it out as best you can, fill with water, add your preserver and be thankful you have so much water, the elixir of life.

Teri Simpson is the owner of Optimum Preparedness located in Yelm, WA. For any questions regarding water storage or other information mentioned in this article, please contact Optimum Preparedness at: contact@optimumpreparedness.com