By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

How to boil water (really)

So the power goes out — because we’ve just had some sort of major disaster — and, in this scenario, those of you with gas stoves also are out of luck, because the gas is shut off, too. Once the general bedlam has died down, public officials issue a boil water notice.

With what, you wonder, a campfire on the patio?

Fortunately, you have a lot of options that don’t involve setting your deck on fire.

One is to keep a little Sterno stove and a few fuel cans in your emergency kit.

You have packed an emergency kit, haven’t you?

Well, do that first.

Now, back to our water issue.

You also might be wondering just where this water is coming from. If you’re on a well without electricity, the water isn’t coming up — unless you’ve invested in a hand pump, which can be pricey, but highly useful in the event of an extended outage. If you’re on city water, and the water lines are broken, or the reservoir fouled, or the water is pumped via electricity, it might not be online, either.

Officials strongly recommend keeping a two- or three-week supply of nonperishable food and drinking water on hand for major disasters, about a gallon per person, per day. That adds up, so buying bottled water might not be the way you want to go about it. You can thoroughly wash food-grade plastic bottles (but not milk bottles, because some of the fat or protein might remain and feed bacterial growth), or buy some water carriers and wash them. Fill with tap water, if it’s treated. If it’s from a well, talk to the Extension Service first. Or go visit your friends on city water. Store out of direct sunlight. Every six months, empty, wash and refill.

If you didn’t store water, take a look around. Maybe the hot water heater can supply you. If it isn’t July or August, maybe you could set up a rain barrel. Depending on the source you find, you may need to filter the water through a clean piece of cloth — kitchen towel, a clean sock, depends on where you are, and how many clean pieces of cloth you have available. Do not take the sock off your foot and use it.

At any rate, let’s assume you’ve got water, filtered, and it needs purifying. The best method is to boil it, which you can do, if you packed that Sterno stove, or you have a little camp stove of some kind, or a rocket stove, barbecue, whatever. Be aware of carbon monoxide issues when using any of these.

How long to boil it? I have seen recommendations ranging from one minute to 20. Your call.

To make boiled water taste better, pour it back and forth between two containers a few times to aerate it.

If you have no method of applying fire (or you can’t apply fire because there’s a gas leak, and you’re not supposed to cause sparks), you could use chlorine bleach — unscented and undyed only. Chlorine tastes pretty nasty, and it is toxic, and it won’t kill some parasites, but after all, this is an emergency. And it is effective, which is why they put it in municipal systems. It should contain 5.25 percent sodium hypochlorite. Use 16 drops per gallon. According to the Red Cross, it should smell like chlorine after 30 minutes. If it doesn’t, repeat the treatment, and let it stand another 30 minutes. If it still doesn’t, discard the water and find another source.

You are not yet out of options, which is good news if you have no chlorine.

You also can use the sun. Even in Oregon when it’s cloudy, apparently, although that takes longer. If it’s August, you’ll get your water a lot faster.

The World Health Organization provides these instructions, on the following webpage, which has a lot more details than I am providing:

After filtering your water, aerate it to increase its oxygen content. Put it in a clean bottle and shake hard for five minutes, for example, then let it stand for 30 minutes (this is in case there’s a lot of silt or sediment in the water, to let it settle to the bottom).

“When water is stored for a day in safe conditions, more than 50 percent of most bacteria die,” the WHO states. “Furthermore, during storage, the suspended solids and some of the pathogens will settle to the bottom of the container.”

Your container should have a lid, so no new contaminants fall in. A big pot or bucket with a lid will work nicely. Draw water off the top; don’t stir up the stuff from the bottom.

Still, you’ll want to disinfect it, and we’re back to boiling, chlorinating or ultraviolet radiation.

To use sunlight, “fill transparent plastic containers with water and expose them to full sunlight for about five hours (or two consecutive days under 100 percent cloudy sky). Disinfection occurs by a combination of radiation and thermal treatment,” the WHO states. “If a water temperature of at least 50 degrees C (122 degrees F) is achieved, an exposure period of one hour is sufficient. Solar disinfection requires clear water to be effective.”

To heat it faster, you can paint the back half of your transparent plastic container black, and set it with the clear side facing the sun. Assuming you happen to have some black paint handy.

Personally, I’d worry about chemicals from the plastic leaching into the water. Then again, if things were desperate enough to require doing this at all, that might be the least of our worries.

Now that you’ve got water boiling down, you may want to consider how you’ll cook without power. One method is the home-built solar cooker, which you can build yourself from some cardboard boxes, black paint or construction paper, and aluminum foil.

Better yet, hand your bored kids the instructions, and let them go. You can also buy them. (The solar cookers, not the kids.)

For instructions, I refer you to the ever-useful Internet:

Happy cooking.

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