Monday, 5 March 2018

Emergency Water Matters

You can live for a long time without food, but only a day or so without water. If you are lucky enough to live in a house that still has a cold water tank then you will have up to about 50 gallons on tap and ready to use. If you don't then you will need to store water, but before we look at that, let's decide if you have a water tank or not.

Put your thumb over a tap's outlet and turn on the cold water as much as you can. If you can hold the water back with your thumb then congratulations, you are taking your water from a tank and your next task is to find the damned thing. 

In many houses, it will be in the loft. If you don't have a loft and live in a Victorian tenement then look for a hatch near the ceiling. Open the hatch up and there's your tank. If you live in a post-war build then the cold water tank is often above the hot water boiler. Usually, with those houses, the tank only feeds the taps in the upstairs bathroom, with the kitchen taking its supply directly from the mains. If you lose your mains supply you can still draw water from the tank via those upstairs taps and flush the toilet, which puts you in a far better position than the poor sods who have no cold water tanks at all.

If you live in an older property and your thumb test with all the taps shows that you are taking the supply from the mains, it is pretty certain that your house had a cold water tank in the past, but that someone has disconnected it. It might be an idea to hunt around and see if the tank is still in situ and then arrange to have it reconnected. Say what you like about the Victorians, they knew damn well how in winter the mains pipes can burst and leave people without water so they made sure that every house had its own emergency supply.

In 1999 the then Labour government decided that water from a tank was bad, so they changed the regulations, with the result that few houses built since then have cold water tanks in them. The tanks in rented properties had so many new regulations added to their use that it was easier for landlords to just disconnect the tanks from the supply.

So, if you don't have a cold water tank then you are going to have to store water in containers. You can buy bottled water from a supermarket, or get empty containers and fill them from your tap. The recommendation is a gallon of water per person per day, and since water is now sold in metric measures which hardly anyone understands, a gallon is 4.5 litres, roughly, so by getting a five-litre container you have just over a gallon. 

I have a 5.5-gallon water container that I keep filled with tap water. The nice thing about this is that it can stand upright in a cupboard out of the way, but in an emergency, it can be laid on its side next to the sink, with water then being taken from its built-in tap.  

Occasionally the water will go off for an hour or so whilst repairs to the mains are being carried out. The last time that this affected me was in about 2015 when I found myself without the means to make a brew one morning. Since then I have always ensured that my kettle is filled after every use and I have a one-gallon bottle of water under the sink in case I want more tea.

When I lived in Mexico City I had a 10,000 litre (2,200 gallons) tank buried in the patio. That fed via a water pump to two 1,100 litres (240 gallons) tanks on the roof and those tanks then fed the house. In Mexico, where the water can be out for two or three weeks at a time, that is not an overreaction, but in the British context, I would say that three days is probably the maximum amount of time that a house in a major urban area would be without water in most conceivable emergencies. 

Hopefully, even during that period, the water bowsers would be sent out to allow people to fill their containers, but I did notice that during the March 2018 freeze, Thames Water was supplying its 20,000 homes who found themselves without water with small bottles of the precious liquid. That may be fine for drinking but is hardly useful for bathing when a bucketful of water would be needed.

That said, I have enough Mexican memories swirling around my head to ensure that when it comes to water, a five or six-gallon emergency supply is not enough. So I keep water purification tablets on hand and have a couple of buckets that can be used to ferry water from my local river to the house in a real emergency, or for bathing purposes. The tablets can leave a pretty nasty taste to the water, but beggars really cannot be choosers if the day ever dawns when they are needed.

Of course, there are water purification filters on sale which claim to make even the vilest of stagnant waters drinkable, but I tend to the view that they are probably an unnecessary expense for conceivable emergencies in the United Kingdom. Three gallons of drinking water per person should be enough to see most emergencies through and that is a minimum amount of water to have on hand.

When it comes to bathing, the situation really depends on the supply of water. If there is a standpipe on the street or a water bowser then filling buckets should not be a problem. If neither has been put in place, then the local river or canal may be your best option. Luckily, water mains tend to burst when there is a quick thaw after a deep freeze, so at least you will not be fighting your way through a blizzard to get to the riverbank.

How, then to bathe? The simplest, most traditional method is to fill a bucket with the warmest water available and stand in the bath or shower with a bowl in your hand to ladle the water over yourself. I have done that many times in Mexico when the water was out, and before I had the massive tank installed.

I would put a bucket full of water in direct sunlight, with a plastic bag over the top of the bucket to create a greenhouse for the water. Within an hour or so the water had heated to such an extent that sometimes I had to add cold water to it otherwise it was too hot to wash with.

The problem is that in Mexico City the weather in a mid-January afternoon is similar to the weather in Edinburgh in mid-July, so I don't recommend that method in a British winter.

Assuming water can be heated there are now rather simple camping showers available which consist of a shower head, six feet of tube and a water pump that sits in your bucket of warm water. The pump can be recharged by a mobile phone charger and all in all they seem very good value indeed. I have one since I only have an electric shower that will not work without the mains power supply, so it is mainly a backup for that.

To summarise, I would recommend only bathing if you have enough water on hand to allow you to do that without putting your drinking water supply in jeopardy.

Your drinking water supply should be a minimum of a gallon of water per person per day, and I suggest that three days supply is a reasonable stockpile to have in the house.

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