March 11, 2011

Safe Drinking Water

Safe drinking water. It's something I have been thinking a lot about lately. We take it for granted in many parts of the world, that safe drinking water will always be available at the turn of a tap. For many people in the world, that simply isn't the case on a day to day basis and recent natural events have hilighted to me how our 'safe' water supplies can be disrupted at any time, leaving whole cities with little or no safe drinking water at all.

In some cases, such as major flood events, it can seem like one of nature's great contradictions that you are surrounded by water but have nothing safe to drink but that is often the case. Contaminated flood water is not safe to drink. An earthquake can break water mains and sewer pipes, causing water contamination and even modern-day water treatment plants can fail for any number of reasons.

Water is vital for life. We all need to have water to drink and we all need that water to be as free from contamination as possible. If you happen to find yourself in the unhappy circumstances of having no safe drinking water, or the only water available is dirty and possibly contaminated, you can make a simple sand filter and remove most of the water turbidity. The water will still need to be boiled for between 3 to 10 minutes, depending on contamination levels, before it is safe to drink. It may not taste very nice or be absolutely clear but it will be safe to drink and it will sustain your life. One complaint with drinking boiled water cold is that it tastes flat. This is because a lot of the air in the water has been lost during the boiling process. This can be overcome by aerating the water again by pouring from one container to another, at some height, to mix air back into the water. This will improve the taste greatly.

There are many commercial water filters available that range in price and affectiveness. Many will require expensive replacement cartridges if in use for extended periods and these can work out to be an expensive luxury in some cases. There is one very simple water filtration system that can provide safe drinking water continuously for months and years. This is an unglazed clay pot water filter wich is simple to make and easy to maintain.

Clay Pot Filters
These filters are made from a suitable terracotta clay mixed with a fine-grained organic waste material such as coffee grounds, tea leaves or rice hulls. Coffee grounds have been found to give the best results. The filter is made in the shape of a pot or bowl, then fired, with or without a kiln, using  whatever fuel is at hand such as cow manure, brush material, dry grass and leaves. The organic matter is burnt away, leaving only silica remnant and tiny holes in the filter. As water passes through the tiny holes, it is purified. Water passing through initially tastes of soil or is alkaline. The taste of water improves with time. Some manufacturers recommend the new pot be immersed in clean water and left in the sun for 12 hours to remove this taste. It can also be removed by flushing the pot a number of times with clean water before use.

The best systems I have seen incorporate a plastic drum with a spigot tap as a storage system and the clay pot fits snugly into the top. The filter has been found to remove virtually all impurities and 96.4 to 99.7% of E. coli bacteria but it does not remove viruses, so in most cases the pots are coated with colloidal silver, otherwise boiling the filtered water may still be necessary in some circumstances. It is
still a great improvement over drinking contaminated water and can save lives. Areas where the clay pot filters have been distributed are reporting 50% reductions in dyssentry and diarrohea cases.
(The water from these filters meats WHO standards for safe drinking water.) The pots can be scrubbed clean occasionally when filtration rates slow, giving these filters simple durability.

There are many aid agencies working to introduce these simple water filters to third world countries and get local potters interested in manufacturing them. I am not sure about availability of these filters in first world countries but I would like to see them available everywhere if possible. These are a perfect low-tech solution to a major problem. To find out more, go to

Rainwater Collection
Nature does a very good job of cleansing water for us and it falls from the sky for free all we need is a catchment and a storage system. The average suburban house roof can provide enough clean water for the whole household and garden, including clean drinking water, if the catchment is large enough and the storage tanks have enough capacity to last through dry periods. I intend to write a full article on rainwater harvesting and storage soon But I will look at some of the concerns some people might have here.

Air pollution may affect the water quality or alter the pH (acid rain). This can be mitigated by using a first-flush bypass system that diverts the polluted water away from the storage tank before collecting the pure water that falls afterwards. Most airborne pollutants will be gone in minutes, leaving clean water that is safe to drink. The first flush diverters have a spigot attached and a drip release system so that the polluted water will drain out between rain events or can be used on the garden, which resets the system for the next rain shower. These systems are so simple that a home handy-person could put one together quite easilly.

A first-flush system will get rid of almost all airborne and rooftop pollutants from collected rainwater.

In many places there is also a problem with leaves and other material on the roof getting into and blocking gutters and causing some problems with rainwater, as well as creating a . There are a number of different gutter-guard systems around but many can cause more problems than they solve. After doing some research, I have decided the best possible system is a fine metal mesh that covers the gutter but must follow the same angle of pitch as the roof. This will reduce dramatically the amount of leaf build-up on roofs and may even help reduce snow build-up as well in those areas where snow can be an issue. Fitting these micro-mesh systems is easy enough but getting the slope or pitch to match the roof pitch may require re-fitting or replacing existing gutters. This may be expensive but will save on maintenance for many years. I would combine this with a simple down-pipe mesh cover that operates in a similar manner and that should keep most impurities from entering the tank.

Micromesh guards will help to keep impurities out of rainwater and minimise maintenance

Rainwater storage tanks come in all shapes and sizes to suit almost every application these days. The traditional tank in Australia was made from galvanised steel but the newer plastic tanks are far more durable and will not rust out. There are modular units that can run along a wall or fence-line if space is an issue. I would suggest that the more water you can store, the better off you will be, so choose you tanks wisely and go for the bigger ones wherever possible. Water is vital for all life. Water is also becoming a commodity. If we can harvest our water on our own property we reduce the stress on municipal water supplies as well as reducing our water bills and at the same time, we can ensure that we have a source of safe drinking water, no matter what happens.

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  1. When I lived in the North-West WA we often had to use water from Aboriginal wells or mine bores. The standard operating procedure was to filter the water through a sugar sack, boil a quart in a billy, then pour that through a hat into a bucket. That way the water tended to taste no worse than the top of your head smelled. If you are really nervous: put some water into a clear bottle and leave it, on its side, in the sun for an hour or so. The UV will get some things that the boiling doesn't - apparently.

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  4. I do agree with you that perhaps water is one of the necessities in life that we often take for granted. These are definitely great suggestions and alternatives in procuring and filtering from different sources of water to turn them into potable water. Thank you very much!

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  5. There is no question that a proper amount of water consumption will detoxify your body and add years to your life. Studies have shown that those drinking at least five glasses of water per day were associated with an approximately 50% decreased rate of heart attacks and stroke, compared with those who drank only two glasses of water per day.

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