How To Purify Water On Your Off Grid Homestead
Whatever your water source, it's important to know how pure it is. And if the water quality is not acceptable, you'll need to sanitize it before using as drinking water, cooking water, etc.
In this article, we'll look at non-electric options for purifying your drinking and cooking water. Since most people's water source is a well or city water, we are assuming it is clean enough to bathe and wash dishes in without purification. In a future post, we plan to explore other household (inline) water purification options.
Quality of the Water Source
One huge factor is the original quality of your water source. There's a big difference between ground water (wells/springs) and surface water (creeks).
Ground water (as in wells and springs)
Ground water is much more protected since you are capturing the water before it leaves the protection of the ground. And deep wells are typically more protected than shallow wells or springs.
Deep Water - The reason why is that a properly constructed deep well should block the less protected shallow water. It only collects the more protected deep water that has had to filter through a larger amount of ground.
However, notice that I didn't refer to the "purer" deep water. Even though deep water may be more protected from surface contamination than a spring or shallow well, that doesn't mean it is immune from other issues. Although it's less likely A deep well can contain substances such as heavy metals, microorganisms (like bacteria, viruses and parasite), nitrates (from fertilizers), or even fluoride (source). So it's important to get your well (or spring) water tested so you know what you are dealing with.
Chances are that you won't have to do any purifying, but you never know. The most common form of well water treatment is when folks want to "soften" hard water or lower the level of iron in the water. Usually these types are issues are harmless but taste bad or leave marks on your toilets and sinks.
Shallow Water - A spring or shallow well is more protected than surface water, but you'll definitely want it tested and you need to be very picky about what takes place in the vicinity of the spring/well. In other words, the water is not protected by hundreds of feet of earth, so anything that goes into the ground near your spring or shallow well can potentially have a greater impact on water quality. So I don't recommend having stock animals, chemicals of any kind, or even a garden or orchard (with associated manure or sprays) anywhere near your shallow water source.
Surface water is an entirely different animal, since it is completely unprotected. So even if it tested our perfectly pure, there is nothing to prevent an animal or human from coming along and contaminating the water upstream.
Also, there is a big difference between a pristine mountain creek and the chemical-laden contaminated water downstream (even if it is in the country). The further upstream you are, the better! Downstream water will likely require more aggressive measures to clean it up. But be aware that it's even possible for a mountain creek to be heavily contaminated if a mining operation is/was upstream.
For numerous reasons, I really don't recommend using surface water as your domestic water source. There is just too much that can go wrong. But if you choose to do so, you'll definitely want to thoroughly purify any water used for drinking or cooking (at a minimum). If it isn't a pristine mountain creek, then please don't even go there. Maybe use it for irrigation that that's all. But if it's polluted, I wouldn't even use it for irrigation.
There are a number of ways to clean water up. But before we look at them, remember: the fewer chemicals that are put in your body, the better! There are many good solutions which are free from chemicals. Below you will find a number of options along with links of where to find them on Amazon (which helps support this blog without costing you a penny).
Countertop Gravity Filters (non-electric)
These filters are an excellent, energy-free means of sanitizing your drinking water. The "raw" water is poured in the top compartment which has a number of filters (usually 2-5). Gravity then pushes the water through the filters and it drips down to the bottom compartment as clean, drinkable water. These units remove pathogenic bacteria and cysts and some are even able to remove most chemicals. Larger units are capable of filtering as much as 15-25 gal. per day.
Two of the best filters made are by Katadyn and by British Berkefield. I have used them both, so here is what I think...
Katadyn TRK Drip Filter
This model uses 3 ceramic filters that, when combined, are rated to last tens of thousands of gallons. We successfully used one of these for years with good success. You'll need to periodically use the included sandpaper to "clean" the filters (which basically removes a layer of ceramic). You'll know that the filters need to be cleaned when the flow slows down. Rated flow is 1 gallon per hour for the entire filter (which would be .33 gal/hour/filter). Eventually after enough cleanings, you'll need to replace the filters, but you are looking at up to 40,000 gallons (depending on water quality).
Be aware that there are 2 versions of the TRK, but the main difference is the type of filters used.
Katadyn TRK Ceradyn - This uses a ceramic filter that is impregnated with silver (to protect against bacterial growth in the filter). It is effective for filtering microorganisms like bacteria and protozoa. This is the type of filter that we used for years on a mountain creek where chemical contamination was not as issue.
Katadyn TRK Gravidyn - This drip filter is the same as the above except that the ceramic filters also have carbon added to them to help lower the level of chemicals. Bear in mind, though, that this filter cannot work miracles and I wouldn't suggest using it with water that is heavily contaminated or that has hazardous chemicals in it. There are no guarantees of how much of the chemicals are removed...it just helps to reduce them.
Berkey Water Filters
This is my personal favorite countertop gravity filter. We used it for a couple years with a well (that had bad water) and then we passed it on to family that currently uses it to filter creek water. Berkey uses a proprietary filter (Black Berkey) that each filter works very fast (1.75 Gal/Hour/filter, which is much faster than Katadyn) and claims to remove MUCH more bad stuff than the Katadyn. You can have a look at the lab tests for heavy metals/VOCs/pharmaceuticals/petrol or the lead report or the virus/bacteria report. Exhaustive details here. The downside to the Berkey is that the filters don't last as long as the Katadyn claims to. The Berkey lasts roughly 3,ooo gallons per filter (so a model with 4 filters should handle 12,000 gallons). Still pretty impressive and will last a LONG time. Filters can be cleaned by scrubbing with a ScotchBrite pad or similar.
There are a number of options for Berkeys. Just make sure you get one with the Black Berkey filters. They make a ceramic filter, and while it's probably fine, I'd go with Katadyn if I wanted a ceramic filter. Berkey also makes add-on fluoride elements that attach to your filters if you are needing to remove fluoride (i.e. city water).
The Big Berkey - This is the Berkey that we have used and really liked. It is a 2.25 gallon base made out of stainless steel and is compact enough to fit great in small homes while still delivering a good amount of water. It can hold up to 4 filters (4 filter model here), and that is what we had. But you could save some money with a 2 filter model and see if that keeps up with your needs. If not, you can always order 2 additional filters).
The Berkey Light - This is their clear plastic model that holds 2.5 to 2.75 gallons. The plastic may be a positive or negative to you. The advantage is that you can see the water levels at a glance. The negative is that it is plastic and we personally try to limit our exposure to plastics when possible, for health reasons. The Berkey Light is also less expensive and has a little led light inside that serves as a cool night light. Other than than, the Black Berkey filters are the same and it holds up to 4 of them.
The Crown Berkey - If you need a TON of water capacity and speed, this is your filter. It is a stainless steel model that holds 6 gallons and can utilize up to 8 filters (max. of 14 Gal/Hour)!!!
Distillation is a widely respected form or purification. My understanding is that it is the most effective water purification option, and it's the only one I would be comfortable with using for very contaminated water. The downside about distillers is that they require energy to heat and distill the water. Almost every option is electric, except for one.
The Survival Still
The Survival Still is the only non-electric water distiller that I'm aware of. As long as you can come up with a heat source (propane stove, wood stove, fire, etc) then you can have clean water. It's a great option to tuck away for emergency use, but I think it's too much of a hassle for most folks to use day-to-day. That's why I typically recommend countertop gravity filters for day to day use. If you want a distiller for everyday use, then get an electric model. But for emergency water purification that you can really count on, this is a great choice!
Testing Your water
It is necessary to test your water source before using it. Handy water test kits may be purchased, or preferably I'd rather you get a comprehensive test from a local lab. If unsafe amounts of anything are found, contact the manufacturer of your water filter or check documentation to see if it will remove them.
As stated above, the quality of the water to begin with is very important. Don't expect to miraculously transform chemical filled, contaminated, muddy water into pristine drinking water without a lot of expense and hassle, if you can do it at all. Water is so important. Look as far upstream and away from possible contaminates as possible.