Water is one of those little things that we can’t live without. In fact, it’s so important that the quality is, for the most part, regulated by the government. Sometimes, though, the municipal water supply goes a little wonky and the city will issue a “boil order” because they are not 100% certain that the water sanitation is where it needs to be. It doesn’t have to be a disaster situation in order for you to need to know something about water purification.

What is a boil order, and why do I need to follow it?
A boil order is issued when the water from a municipal source is compromised in some way. This can be from a water main break, a failure in the local water purification facility. The purpose of boiling water is to kill any disease-causing organisms that may have gotten into the water supply. Only the water that might end up in your mouth (e.g drinking, preparing food, ice cubes, washing fruits and vegetables) needs to be boiled in order to make it safe to use. Water that is used to wash your body (shower or bath) or your clothes does not need to be boiled before use, but it’s a good idea to use either bottled or self-treated water to wash your hands. During a boil order, it’s also a great idea to use alcohol-based hand sanitizer in addition to washing with soap.

In order to sanitize water by boiling, bring it to a full boil for a full minute and let it cool to room temperature on its own. Once boiled water has cooled, it is safe to use, but may taste a little funny. This can be improved by pouring it back and forth between containers to aerate it a bit, or a pinch of salt (one per quart) can be added. If you are more than 6,562 feet above sea level, increase boiling time to a full 3 minutes.

As an alternative to boiling water, you can also use plain (no dyes, no fragrances, no brighteners, no nothing: just plain bleach) household bleach. The recommended amount of bleach to use is 16 drops (1/8 tsp) per 1 gallon of water. A 5 gallon bottle of water should have a full teaspoon of water added. Once you add the bleach, stir the water around and let it sit for at least 30 minutes so that the bleach can do it’s work. Before using bleach-treated water, sniff it. Don’t use it unless there is a slight bleach smell to the water. If there is none, treat it again with the same amount of bleach that you used the first time. Stir and wait again. If it still doesn’t smell like bleach, you should resort to boiling your water as outlined above.

If you are a preparedness junkie, there are several other methods for sanitizing water that you might be interested, as well. My favorite is filtration. I have an MSR MiniWorks EX microfilter in my preparedness kit. There are menu different brands, sizes, and complexities of water filters available, so let your budget be your guide. I also have an MSR Miox purifier somewhere (probably still in storage), but it runs on CR 123 batteries and table salt. The Miox is expensive, but it is VERY easy to use, and the technology is in use in some municipalities to purify the city water.

There are also several different types of chemical water purification that can be stored and used in an emergency situation. Most of them are some form of bleach (chlorine dioxide) or iodine. Both of these types of treatment make the water taste funny, but adding vitamin C (ascorbic acid) to treated water helps that immensely. All chemical methods have to let the water sit in order for them to do their job, but they take very little effort beyond collecting the water.

None of these methods is going to help if the water has been chemically contaminated. In that case, the best bet is to use bottled water from a reliable source, or to get out of town until the water company has gotten things under control.

“I don’t always drink water, but when I do, I make sure that it’s treated. Stay thirsty, my friends!” 😉

Stay safe.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Water Treatment Methods