Food Storage 101 – Part II: Water and Buckets (More to Come)

Sharon March 5th, 2008

There will be more on this later today – I’m trying to break this into manageable bits, so that there aren’t too many freak outs ;-)


Ok, so I told you that everyone (and this means you!) needs to have a 2 week emergency supply of food, water and medications, plus stuff like extra warm clothes and blankets in case you don’t have heat and a way to cook the food.  And you are thinking – ok, she’s probably right, but she’s *INSANE* if she thinks I have any way to store 85 freakin’ gallons of water.

And that’s fair – the problem is that we all were watching the people in the Superdome, and have some idea what the stakes of having water in a crisis are.  I couldn’t find statistics on how many deaths were due to dehydration, but it is certainly listed as a factor in many of them.  The reality is that the odds are good you can go a long time without a water crisis, but when you need it, you need it.  The truth is that this is a huge, PITA – and you should suck it up and do it if you can.

Now my figures double the stored water requirements.  1 gallon per day will get most people through a day, with maybe a moist washcloth to wipe off and enough to drink.  The problem is that this isn’t enough to let you work hard in hot weather (you can require a quart an hour for that), and it isn’t enough to allow you to cook, or wash your hands regularly.  But you can halve my figures, and allow 1 gallon per person per day.   If you do, store a lot of alcohol based hand sanitizer as well.  I prefer water, and would recommend 2 gallons per person per day, particularly if you live where it gets hot. 

There are a couple of ways to handle water.  The first is to make sure you have a reliable way of getting it out of the ground if you need to get it – a hand pump, a bucket for your well, a spring.  This works fairly well in the country, where there aren’t sewer overflows to contaminate water supplies, but urban and large town water supplies are likely to be contaminated in a crisis, so it won’t help you there.  Still, if you live in a rural or exurban area, you might consider, instead of storing water, putting a manual pump on your well (if your well is under 200 feet deep) or some other mechanism of getting water. If you live in a small or midsized town, consider campaigning to put hand-pumps or solar pumps at schools and in parks so that in a crisis, townsmembers can get their water.  But remember, if you’ve had flooding or sewage contamination, you may not be able to rely on this.

So what do you do if you have to store water?  Well, first of all, *DON’T* store it in the plastic jugs you get at the supermarket if you are storing for the long term.  These last only a matter of months, and have a tendency to decompensate in storage (that is, burst all over the place).  If you want to rotate your supply, purchase water every six months, use it up, and buy new ones.

If you don’t want to spend that money, use heavier duty, food grade plastic – soda bottles, juice jugs – don’t buy them, take them out of your neighbor’s recycling ;-) .  One place you can put them is in your freezer, if you have space.  Since freezers run best when full, keeping water in there will both preserve it and help you reduce your energy usage.  Just don’t fill the bottles all the way – leave room for the water to expand when it freezes.

FEMA instructions are to add 1 tsp of bleach (nothing scented, only plain bleach!!!) to a quart of water.  I think that’s excessive – according to Matthew Stein’s exhaustively researched _When Technology Fails_, 2-4 drops per quart are sufficient to prevent algae growth. 

You can purchase 7 or 5 gallon heavy duty water jugs on the internet. They are not cheap, but you can reuse them forever.  7 gallons is as much as most people will want to lift, and they come in square water containers, which can be stacked to save space.  So 50 gallons of water can be stacked in a comparatively small space, or slid under a bed.   If you have a garage, you can get 50 gallon barrels and fill them with your hose and keep them there. 

If you have some kind of rainwater cachement, you can drink that water, as long as you *Filter* it.  In fact, a filter is a really good idea no matter where your water is coming from.  Even if it keeps coming out of the tap, municipal water can be contaminated by flooding, sewer leaks, chemical leaks, etc…  And stored water has to be stored with bleach, which you might also want to filter out. 

I use a British Berkefeld, which has been known to claim that you can pour raw sewage in the top and drink what comes out the bottom.  I have not experimented with this feature ;-) .  But I do love mine – it takes the sulphur and iron out of our water and gets rid of bacteria.  PUR Scout and Katadyn Combi portable filters are also good, and much cheaper.  I have no connection with any of these companies.  But it is worth having a camping filter or a heavy gravity fed one in your house – the camping filter is probably sufficient if you don’t expect to use it often, but the gravity fed ones will deal with water issues now, without power.


Ok, from water to buckets.  What are the buckets for, you ask?  Well, when you start buying 50lb sacks of food, that food can’t stay in its bag forever.  If it does, you will get buggies, and it will get damp from humidity, and you will be sorry.  Ask me how I know this ;-) .

So when you buy bulk food, you should decant it. If you have a ton of mason jars, you can just put it into that, but that takes a lot of jars, and most of us don’t have that much shelf space.  So the magical powers of the 5 gallon food-grade plastic bucket arise. 

Personally, I don’t think it is possible to have too many of these if you are growing, preserving and storing food.  And the great thing is that for most people, they are completely free – get them from any restaurant or store that has a deli, bakery, etc….  They will be getting rid of them.  I don’t think you can have too many – when you have all you want to store your food, you can use them to haul zucchini in from the garden, to bring feed out to your chickens, to ferment pickles, as a drum for subway busking – you name it! 

The only problem with storing things in them is getting the lids on and off – that stinks if you have to do it often.  It takes a lot of work, and can be made easier with a lid lifter tool (cheap).  So if you can afford it, it is worth acquiring the magic lid – Gamma Seals – for the buckets you use most often.  Here’s a link (again, I have no link to this company other than having bought some gamma seals from them, and I don’t claim that their prices are the best – I honestly haven’t researched prices).  That way, you can get oatmeal or rice or flour out easily. You only need these for the buckets that you open regularly.  That is, let’s say you keep oatmeal in a jar on your counter.  You refill the jar from one bucket, but maybe you have two or three other buckets of oatmeal – the only one that you have to open regularly is the one you might want to have a gamma seal for.  Again, it is perfectly possible to use the lids that come with them, merely a pain if you are doing it often.  But you don’t have to have Gamma seals, and shouldn’t worry about it if money is an issue. 

The other issue is the air inside the buckets.  If there’s air, your food won’t last as long.  There are a couple of ways of dealing with this. One would be to buy oxygen absorbers, another is to buy dry ice and pack with it according to the instructions here: or you can use a tea light (carefully) and put the lid on – when the candle burns out, the oxygen is gone.  I have not tried the latter technique, so be cautious.

 This all applies only to dry foods – beans, grains, etc…  We’ll talk more about root cellaring, storing canned goods and other issues coming up.  And later today – Recipes!


27 Responses to “Food Storage 101 – Part II: Water and Buckets (More to Come)”

  1. Sarah says:

    I just got my tax refund…I think part of that is going to buy a good filter! We have about 8 gallons stored in the fridge, and should put some more in the basement, but we also have the whole Charles river a quite reasonable distance from the apartment. Of course, that’s less helpful in December…

  2. Sharon says:

    Sarah, if you are going to drink out of the Charles, buy a really good filter!!! I know a little more than I’d like about what gets dumped in there. That Dirty Water song wasn’t a joke!


  3. Ailsa Ek says:

    If one wants to buy a bunch of Gamma Seals, this place ( has a good deal on them.

    They sound like an excellent idea, too. I love freebie five-gallon buckets, but the lids are really painful on the fingertips. On payday (the 15th), I am going to order some of those and some water storage containers. I know the soda bottles are free and all, but it’s going to take me close to forever to amass enough of them.

    *sigh* I wish DH put a higher priority on preparedness. The only preparedness-related thing I’ve convinced him to buy so far is a backup battery for my CPAP. Oh well, at least I continue to be able to keep him from replacing our clothes dryer.

  4. Rosa says:

    Sharon, you have finally caused my boyfriend to decide I’m being led into craziness by the internet. He thinks water storage is for crazy Y2K freakout people.

    But we don’t need that much right now – we have 2 feet of snow we could melt if we had to, so I figure the gallons filling up the fridge & freezer for elecricity savings are probably plenty.

    We have a katahdin filter we bought for back-country hiking but have also used for nasty-tasting water when traveling. It’s supposed to filter out waterborne bacteria and viruses, but I doubt it does much for chemical spills. That worries me. I lived in a town in Indiana that had a no-tap-water warning out for a week after a fire at a GE chemical plant – and aside from the warning, you could see for yourself that the streams looked like ectoplasm.

  5. Emily says:

    We have a private well; if we can get the water out of it (e.g., with a well bucket), would our usual Britta pitcher filter suffice?

  6. Greenpa says:

    There’s another need here that I haven’t seen you address yet- I’ll bet you intend to, but I’d like to raise it now, so people can start thinking.

    Maintenance. And Information management.

    Stuff goes bad. All stuff. And faster, if nobody is paying attention.

    I got educated here in grad school, when my spouse and I launched a co-op house, with about 6-8 people in it. One of our rules- dinner was “sit-down”, everybody expected; cooking rotated. Chores carefully assigned. Worked pretty good.

    One place we had trouble though, was in MANAGING the supplies in the cellar. It was easy to get everyone to understand that we were way ahead of the game by buying rice and flour in 50# bags, and canned goods by the case.

    But managing the supply of stuff- was a problem. SO many things to keep track of.

    One of the things we found- some people did a good job of management; some people REALLY sucked at it. This was 1976- way before personal computers. Getting the info into a home database – would help but I think it would still not be enough.

    Quantity; storage method, storage site- expiration date… All really necessary, if you’re not going to just buy/store it- and then throw it away.

    Even so; you need a HUMAN who is good at it; making sure this stuff winds up on the table at the right time- all of it. That’s hard.

    Time after time, we’d find – half a pail of rice- that had to be tossed out. Or 4 jars of tomatoes- 5 years old, gone bad (back behind the newer stuff…)

    Can we have a good discussion on this aspect? :-)

  7. Helga says:

    My dad keeps reminding me that hot water heaters are a good emergency source of water. Most hold 30-50 gallons and have a spout at the bottom.

  8. Yes to the hot water heater – it’s in every Californian’s earthquake info list to empty the hot water heater into the bathtub (using buckets?) ASAP.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The linked FEMA page reads “If the water you are using comes from a well or water source that is not treated with chlorine, add two drops of non-scented liquid household chlorine bleach to the water.” (for two-liter).

  10. Robyn M. says:

    Thank you for the info on adding bleach to storage water. I’d already started to store some water, but I had never heard of this. Better to find out now… oh boy, I think this series of posts is going to be very useful for me.

    BTW, what about milk gallon containers? The water dispenser at our grocery store has both the big, 5-gallon bottles and 1-gallon jugs, so I wasn’t sure which you meant.

  11. Helen says:

    I found myself racing to the computer this morning to see what you had to say today Sharon. :-) We are in Australia and have plenty of water stored in metal rainwater tanks to irrigate our vegetable garden and fruit trees. We would filter that water for our personal use if need be but it has only just occurred to me that these tanks may not fair well during a bush fire and a bushfire is our most likely disaster. I’d better look into that.

  12. Sharon says:

    Apparently I’m extremely ignorant about the ways bottled water now comes. I’m told the 5 gallon jugs are sturdier than the 1 gallon ones – I haven’t been to an actual grocery store in so long that I don’t think I knew there were 5 gallon ones! You do not have to add bleach to professionally bottled water, only home bottled.

    And thank you for adding the hot water heaters – I meant to include them. Yes, if you have a private hot water heater, you can use that as your reserve.

    Rosa, on some level your boyfriend is right – the odds are good you may never need this water, and it is a bit of a pain to deal with. But it is one of those things that if you don’t have it, you’ll really miss it.

    Greenpa, management of stores will come along next week – you are right on all counts, but can we defer until then?


  13. Re: tea light use in storing food — I wonder if there’s a smoke smell at all after using one of these. But it’s a great idea, I wouldn’t have considered it.

  14. kethry says:

    would you consider taking photos or providing links to some of the things you write about? I don’t mean specific commercial things now, i mean more generic things, where you write about things that might mean one thing for people in the US, but another for people in other countries.

    for example: what you talk about with “plastic buckets”.. this is the kind of thing that springs to my mind, but its obviously not what you mean because you wrote about the difficulty of getting the lids off and so on. In addition, things are different in different countries – I’ve never heard of being able to get plastic buckets from delis here (here being the UK).

    that would be a big help.

    many thanks


  15. Greenpa says:

    Sharon- oh, I SUPPOSE.

    Don’t you just hate it, when you’re zipping along teaching, and some smart-alec interrupts with “yeah, but THEN what?” – when it’s the next thing you were going to address?

    So WHEN are you going to get around to talking about the slithy toves, anyway??

  16. Sharon says:

    Greenpa, the slithy toves are right on the list ;-) (Isaiah went through an obsessive period with that poem when he was three and used to run around with sticks yelling, “snicker snack, Mome raths!”

    No, I really do appreciate the reminder – I agree with you, management is a big thing. I never see on the career list “chatelaine” but I think that may be a bigger job than anyone thinks – I used to pu that on my tax return.

    Keth, sorry for the confusion – I don’t have a digital camera, and I’m probably not going to have time to hunt down images for everything I write that might be confusing. But I’m glad to clarify if someone asks – what I’m talking about are food grade plastic buckets, which in the US are used to transport many foods for commercial use.


  17. Leila says:

    Keith, for food grade bucket pix, look here:

    the ones at top left are what I see around restaurants and what I think we’re talking about. Such plastic is probably shaped differently in the UK? Or restaurants and markets don’t use “disposable” plastic tubs? Or they reuse them and wouldn’t give them away?

    This link:

    explains all about the qualities of food-grade plastic and includes more helpful pictures.

  18. Heather Gray says:

    Did a quick search (since I know what to look for, which helps) and found this page with a great photo of a food bucket:
    Bucket with lid

    Sharon, on the water situation in places after something like hurricane Katrina, I’m not sure where you’d look for numbers, but lack of water wouldn’t be just about dehydration. People could suffer from “just” illness as well as death from dehydration, also dysentery from drinking/exposure to bad water, diarrhea, and other fun stuff.

    I confess we put off getting a water filter once we moved up into the hilltowns, especially since we have both spring and well water. But it is possible for floods to happen even up here, so I should look into getting one this year…. at least we have the Brita, which helps with the basic stuff that can be in water.

  19. Amelia says:

    Heather, here’s a link to a site dealing with oral rehydration solutions and how often to administer it when treating someone for diarrhea. You might check their facts page for numbers.

  20. Lisa Z says:

    Here’s a thought for water storage: use about 10 or so of the 5-gallon food storage buckets to store your water. This way you can move the buckets of water more easily than if you have a 50-gal. tank.

  21. Janet says:

    Around here most resturaunts now charge for their plastic buckets. About the only place I can get them for free is from the hospital. I also try to get all the glass gallon jars that I can. The hospital throws a lot of stuff like that away.

  22. Emily says:

    Chain bakeries (or bakeries within grocery stores) are a good source for buckets with lids – frosting and donut filling come in them.

  23. kethry says:

    Heather, Leila, many thanks for the pictures of the food buckets. I don’t know enough about the food industry in the uk to know if they use anything similar but i have to say, i’ve not really seen anything like it.. I’ve seen 5 gallon buckets though, i think, since some fats are transported that way (catering size packs). I’ll keep a look out for them :)

    I’m finding the whole series absolutely fascinating.. thanks!!


  24. Amy says:

    Regarding water storage containers.

    The blue Aquatainers that hold 7 gallons and can be had at a big box store in the sporting goods department (also online) cannot be stacked once they are filled.

    We use them and they work great. I hear that they make a nice coffee table too!

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