The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Purifying drinking water by distilling

Stovetop distilling

CondensationThe November volume of Weekend Homesteader is going to have a section about stocking up on drinking water for short term emergencies.  As I wrote, I started thinking about how people could deal with unsafe water if their stores ran low and they had to pull water out of a creek or lake.  One government website suggested distilling as the safest solution, and provided a relatively painless method of distilling small amounts of drinking water for home use.

Distilled waterFind a pot with a domed lid that ends in a knob handle.  Fill the pot partway full of water, place a mug in the middle, then put the lid on upside down.  When you bring the water to a boil, condensation gathers on the bottom of the lid, then drips down the handle and into the mug.  I tested the method on our electric stove, but the same theory would work on the wood stove if the power was out.

What do you think --- would you try distilling water in an emergency situation if the only liquid available seemed too gunky to simply boil or add bleach to?  I had fun experimenting, but have to admit that the mug and lid jiggled around like crazy and I only ended up with a couple of tablespoons of water in the five minutes I allotted to the project.  I'd be curious to hear what your long term backup water plans entail (assuming you don't already drink out of a spring or well.)

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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The lid will heat up over time because it absorbs the heat from the condensating water vapour.

You might get more condensation if you filled the lid with cold water.

Comment by Roland_Smith Sat Oct 22 10:07:18 2011

Would you really add bleach to your slightly gunkey water before drinking it? We always have a couple of gallons of water in the freezer for all sorts of reasons, so that might get us through the day...

Comment by Christian Sat Oct 22 15:21:33 2011

Roland --- Excellent tip about filling the lid with cold water! I'll have to try that next time.

Christian --- I'm not sure I'd add bleach to slightly gunky water except in an extreme emergency, but FEMA suggests adding a quarter of a teaspoon of bleach to a gallon of water and letting it stand for 30 minutes before use.  Be sure to use plain bleach, not the fancy versions labeled "scented", "color-safe", or "with added cleaners."  The water should smell a bit bleachy (like swimming pool water) after standing --- if not, add some more bleach and let stand again.

Comment by anna Sat Oct 22 18:22:55 2011

Boiling will only kill micro-organisms and maybe remove some volatiles. Distilling will remove pretty much everything from the water.

But our bodies need the minerals dissolved in normal drinking water. When you're drinking nothing but distilled water for long periods your body will loose essential salts and minerals.

I've heard from colleagues about a guy working at a nearby chemical etching plant where he drank demineralized water every day (in the mistaken belief that it was very healthy) and eventually got sick enough to require hospital treatment.

Comment by Roland_Smith Sat Oct 22 18:51:28 2011
It's fascinating you should say that because Mark told me he'd had the exact same experience. He went through a phase where he only drank distilled water, and ended up getting sick. On the other hand, I suspect that if you're faced with drinking flood water or distilled flood water for a week until environmental conditions calm back down, you'd be better off with the latter. Do you know how long you'd have to drink distilled water before it made you sick?
Comment by anna Sat Oct 22 19:14:35 2011

After the big quake, we had no running water at our house for 4 days. But down in the city, they were dry for weeks. We got our emergency water from the neighbor's spring fed creek. He has a tank and a filter attached. But after the second day, the filter plugged up, and we had to boil the water. We could probably drink it from the creek, and have indeed sometimes. But boiling it was a safer option.

Safe water is indeed a very important thing, and thanks for bringing the subject up! We should all think about this!

Comment by Eric in Japan Sat Oct 22 19:20:03 2011

It's amazing how we take water for granted...until it's gone. We've been very lucky during our extended power outages because I tend to have gallon jugs of drinking water around in case our water line freezes in the winter. Sure, that water tastes pretty stale a year or two later, but it's definitely appreciated!

You've got an excellent point about knowing neighbors with safe springs. That's our real backup plan since a friend just a mile or so down the road has a copiously flowing spring that he doesn't mind us filling up at.

Comment by anna Sat Oct 22 19:51:13 2011

Anecdotes are not data. So I couldn't tell you how fast symptoms occur atfer switching to distilled water. It would certainly depend on your condition and diet. From what I've read on wikipedia food and not water is our main source of minerals. But as soon as you start drinking distilled water, the concentration of minerals in your body fluids will go down almost by definition. Unless you're getting plenty of minerals from your food.

Have you ever had the water from your creek tested for non-biological contaminants and dangerous mineral content? (since you can pretty much do away with biological contaminations by boiling, AFAIK)

Comment by Roland_Smith Sun Oct 23 04:24:08 2011

My gut reaction was the same as yours when Mark told me that --- that we get a lot more of our minerals from food than water. On the other hand, I could see how lack of minerals in distilled water could change the osmotic potential in such a way that we would be excreting a lot more minerals. Unfortunately, my understanding of the chemistry of our digestive system is so vague, I have no clue if that makes sense. :-)

We haven't tested the creek because we don't use it for anything except washing and irrigation. It would probably be worth testing, though, to know what we'd be working with if we ever needed to use it as a backup.

Comment by anna Sun Oct 23 11:45:29 2011

I was thinking along the same path.

But there are other ways of thinking about it that give the same result. Consider the systems approach. Think of the total volume of your body's water, Now add a pint of distilled water. By definition the overall concentration of minerals will decrease. Now assume you lose a pint of urine. This will contain some minerals (presumably in some sort of equilibrium with the amount of minerals in your bloodstream, depending how good the interface between bloodstream and bladder is at retaining minerals). Assuming that your dietery intake doesn't change, you'll start losing minerals. How much that is indeed depends on a lot of unknown factors.

Comment by Roland_Smith Sun Oct 23 14:19:45 2011

I never thought about flipping the lid upside down. But it would work in an emergency.

My short term plan is to make use of our well. I have an emergency generator to run that in case of emergency.

Long term plans are to put a hand pump on that well so I can use either the well pump or the hand pump. I don't have all the details worked out yet. I also plan on getting a Berkey water filter. From my research, they are the best solution for my homestead.

Comment by Fritz Mon Oct 24 08:10:29 2011

Roland --- Both points make sense, but we also have to keep in mind that biological systems can work to counteract loss of minerals in various ways. (For example, "pumps" in cell membranes.) Still, it probably makes sense not to risk it by drinking distilled water for too long.

Fritz --- Mark bought a hand pump for our well last year for that same reason, but we haven't gotten around to hooking it up yet. We've been pondering building a sand filter --- it would take a bit of doing, but would be a very long term solution to filtering the water just using gravity.

Comment by anna Mon Oct 24 10:49:34 2011

Thanks for the pointer! After some reading and searching I found active transport. Just goes to show that one can learn something new every day. :-)

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Oct 24 11:28:50 2011
Roland --- I remember just enough about cellular biology to be dangerous...
Comment by anna Mon Oct 24 14:44:14 2011

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