On Spring and Well Water, and Some Water Treatment Basics

Thursday, Jul 19, 2007

Plentiful fresh drinking water for drinking, cooking, washing, and gardening is the most critical resource for all societies. The vast majority of the residents of First World countries are dependent on grid power to supply their water. When the grid goes down for more than a few days, water towers will soon be drained and huge numbers of people will be forced to draw water from open sources. Thankfully, there are streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds in walking distance of most homes. Rainwater from roof downspouts can also be used. But the logistics of hauling water will just by itself be a challenge. Next, people will need treat all that water, or face infection. Most families don't own a water filter. Boiling water is an option, but only for those that have natural gas, propane, or wood cooking stoves, since electric ranges don't work without grid power. Even folks with well water will face difficulties, unless they have a backup generator, or better yet a fully capable alternative energy system. (Coincidentally, we recently addressed emergency well buckets in SurvivalBlog.)

Spring Water

Gravity-fed spring water is the ideal water supply for a rural retreat. There is no need for power, relatively low installation expense, low maintenance and little risk of frozen pipes. But unfortunately very few properties are blessed with a spring that is situated to provide gravity flow to a house. When I advise my consulting clients, I urge them to make gravity-fed spring water a top priority when they are evaluating properties when relocating.

Well Water

Grid-powered wells are problematic, since most wells use just a small pressure tank. Whenever there is a power failure, the water pressure drops to nil in just a short time. Photovoltaically-pumped well water is a good solution, albeit with a fairly high installation cost. With a large cistern that is positioned to supply gravity flow to your house (typically 35 to 60 feet of "head") you can skip putting a battery bank in your system. When the sun shines, it pumps, and when the sun sets it stops. Simple. A float switch on the cistern will insure that you prevent needless wear and tear on you pump.

Ultraviolet (UV) treatment is an interesting innovation that was first embraced by fish farmers and by koi pond enthusiasts. The UV technology is quite promising for anyone that has a shallow well or spring that has an unacceptable bacteria count. (This typically happens during a flood, or seasonally with heavy rains that increase surface water that can get into a well or spring.) The UV method of treatment is growing in popularity in the US and Canada because there is no need for chemicals. Ultraviolet light rays--just like those from the sun that produce sunburn, only stronger--alter the DNA of bacteria, viruses, molds, and parasites, so that they cannot reproduce. They are not killed, but are merely rendered sterile. Thus, they safely pass through your digestive tract, but cannot reproduce--which is otherwise the cause of intestinal illness.

The three questions that readers ask me about well and spring water are:

A.) Is well or spring water safe to drink?

Generally, yes. And because it is not fluoridated, it is probably much healthier than public utility-provided "city" water.

B.) Do I have to worry about pesticides, MTBE, or heavy metal contaminants in well or spring water?

Yes, and you should have the water tested before you buy a property that has a well. Any certified lab will test for these contaminants, as well as bacteria. Do a web search for your state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), or equivalent. The DEQ web site should list some approved/certified commercial laboratories that do water testing. In some states, spring and well water testing is also handled by state universities. The good news is that you will only have to do this once, unless you hear about some drastic change in local water conditions.

C.) Do I need to chlorinate my well or spring water?

In most cases, no. As preciously mentioned, it is possible that your well might get contaminated by a flood, or seasonally contaminated with coliform bacteria from rain water run-off. The best solution is to use a UV sterilizer year-round, so that you don't have to worry about it. Alternatively, if you know that there has been a contamination, you could add a calculated quantity of plain hypochlorite liquid bleach solution down your well shaft, as described at this web site. But if there is continual bacterial contamination of your well or spring then again the best solution is to use a UV sterilizer year-round.

Open Sources

As mentioned previously, water from open sources must always be treated before use. Typical chlorine concentrations will kill bacteria but not all viruses. So I recommend a three step approach to treating water from open sources:

1.) Pre-filtering. This remove particulate matter. Pouring water though a couple of thickness of t-shirts or tightly-woven bath towels works fine. The water that comes through will still look like tea, but at least you will have removed the crud and larger particles. By pre-filtering, you will also extend the life of your water filter. (You avoid clogging the microscopic pores in teh filter media.)

2.) Chlorinating. This can be accomplished following the time and concentration guidelines previously discussed in SurvivalBlog.

3.) Filtering. I recommend the large Katadyn or British Berkefeld filters. Some filter elements available for Katadyn or British Berkefeld filters can even remove chlorine. (Complete filter systems and spare filter elements are available from Ready Made Resources, Safecastle, and other Internet vendors)

Compact Water Treatment Systems

I am often asked about compact water filters for backpacking, hunting trips, and "Get Out of Dodge"/"Bug Out" situations. For this, Katadyn makes an excellent compact water filter/pump called a Pocket Filter. The volume of water that they can process is limited, but they are perfect for their intended purpose. Another option is the recently introduced Hydro Photon SteriPEN--a compact battery-powered UV sterilizer. This is a miniatur version of a home water UV sterilizer. Very clever! We are currently testing one here at the Rawles Ranch. Look for a product review of the SteriPEN that will be posted on SurvivalBlog next week. SteriPENs are available from Safecastle, Ready Made Resources, and several other Internet vendors.

An even more compact water treatment method for lightweight backpacking is Polar Pure--essentially just iodine crystals in a mesh-top bottle. This is used to create a strong iodine solution that is in turn used to treat a quantity of water. As recently mentioned in SurvivalBlog, the US government is about to ban the sale of iodine crystals and iodine solutions over 2%, since they now deem iodine to be a "precursor" chemical for illicit drug manufacture. Therefore, I strongly recommend that all SurvivalBlog readers in the US get themselves a lifetime supply of Polar Pure, as soon as possible. It is sold by Ready Made Resources and several other Internet vendors.

It is important that every prepared family make plans in advance on exactly how they will handle their water supply in the event of a long-term grid-down situation. Buy the gear. test is extensively. Also research a primary, secondary, and even tertiary source of water in your area. You need to plan ahead for transporting that water, even if fuel for vehicles is not available. Think in terms of a two-wheel garden cart or a bicycle cargo trailer with "Slimed" tires--or better yet, foam-filled "airless" tires (available from PerformanceBike.com or Nashbar.com). A cart or trailer can be loaded with 5 or 6 gallon plastic buckets or water cans. (For planning purposes, each 5 gallon water can will weigh about 42 pounds, so you'll want a cart or trailer with at least 200 pound capacity.) Oh yes, and don't forget that if times get really bad you'll need to plan for a security detail, to protect the water detail. This is starting to get complicated, isn't it? And if you are unfortunate enough to live in an area that lacks open water sources available in every month of the year that are within walking distance, then you ought to seriously consider relocating to area with more plentiful water .

Make plans to to be able to distribute water purification supplies as charity. (Pool Shock chlorination tablets can be bought in a five gallon pail--enough to treat many hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. Make some photocopies of of directions for using hypochlorite tablets. A few plastic zip lock bags of hypochlorite tablets (roughly 6 ounces per bag) along with direction sheets could save hundreds of lives.


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