Water Treatment

There’s a lot of bad information floating around (no pun intended) when it comes to treating questionable water to render it safe to drink. Here are the basic approaches available to the average person at home or out in the field. Personally, unless I’m certain the water source is clean and reliable, I’m going to filter or purify it in some way before consuming it. Dig into each of these methods on your own and see which one(s) might be best for you. This is intended to just be a very quick overview and I would encourage you to do your own homework on each method.


Boiling

Pros: Works very well on biological contaminants and requires nothing in the way of special equipment. The EPA and the CDC both recommend a rolling boil for one minute, extending it to three minutes if you’re above 5,000 feet. There’s no need to leave it boiling for several minutes, as bacteria, protozoa, and viruses are killed or rendered inert after being in 158°F water for about a minute. Water boils at 212°F at sea level (and 158°F at the peak of Mt Everest, so you’re fine there, too).

Cons: Requires a container, a heat source and fuel for that source. If you’re not able to get a fire going in the field, you’re not going to be able to boil your water. Boiling does exactly nothing about particulates, heavy metals, or chemicals in the water. In fact, boiling will actually concentrate those things due to the steam lost in the process.

 


Distillation

For the uninitiated, this involves boiling water and capturing the steam, then condensing that vapor back into liquid form.

Pros: Works very well to eliminate just about any contaminant in the water.

Cons: This is a pretty slow process. Depending on the exact method used, it could take hours to distill just a single gallon. There are kits and products on the market for distillation at home, but you can probably cobble something together fairly easily, once you understand the basic concept. Note, though, that it also removes all minerals from the water, which isn’t healthy for us in the long run.

 


Chemical Treatment

Examples: water purification tablets, chlorine bleach

Pros: Inexpensive, works very well on biological contaminants, easy to use.

Cons: Very limited shelf life, won’t do anything about non-biological contaminants.

 


Mechanical Filtration

Examples: Sawyer MINI, Big Berkey

Pros: Depending on the quality of the filter, it can remove virtually every contaminant from the water. Most are very easy to use.

Cons: You need to pay close attention and read carefully as to what the filter will and will not remove from the water, as they vary wildly. Filters also usually require some degree of maintenance, though some just have a limited lifespan, after which they are to be discarded.

 


UV Light

Examples: Steripen

Pros: These sorts of devices are very easy to use. You just place the working end into the water container and press a button. It will kill off any biological contaminants.

Cons: Requires batteries to operate. Will do nothing about anything other than biological contaminants.

 


SODIS

Short for Solar Disinfection, this is sort of a homemade version of the UV devices. You use clear containers and fill them with water, then lay them in the sun, ideally on top of a dark surface. As the sun’s rays travel through the water, the UV waves will kill the nasty stuff.

Pros: Essentially free and it will kill the biological stuff.

Cons: Takes a long time, like 1-2 days. The water needs to be reasonably clear to be effective, Won’t do anything about non-biological nasties.

 


As for the homemade filters, like the upside down 2L bottle filled with sand, gravel, and charcoal, they will work on some of the particulates in the water, but they aren’t going to do much of anything about bacteria, viruses, or protozoa.

Finally, I understand that there’s a school of thought out there regarding allowing your body to become accustomed to “wild” water. That’s great, if you have the time available to do so, but many don’t have the luxury.

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