When I give seminars to school age children on solar cooking I usually see a student with a clear bottle of water and I ask them, "did you have to get that water out of a river running behind your house? Did you have to dig a hole in your yard to find that water?" They laugh. Millions around the world have to get their drinking water every day that way.

Safer Water With Solar

Michael Little | Vegas Trailer Supply

EarthToys Article - Safer Water with Solar

When I give seminars to school age children on solar cooking I usually see a student with a clear bottle of water and I ask them, "did you have to get that water out of a river running behind your house? Did you have to dig a hole in your yard to find that water?" They laugh. Millions around the world have to get their drinking water every day that way.

As NASA looks for signs of water on Mars, people on planet earth are polluting fresh water sources at an alarming rate. Disease is rampant in third world countries because of polluted drinking water. Half of the world's population has little or no sanitation systems to prevent contaminated drinking water and they lack any means to purify their water.

Recently on national television Bill Gates stated that 10 million children die every year due to contaminated drinking water. His foundation "The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation" is spearheading world efforts to provide medicine to these children in order to prevent their deaths. The diseases transmitted through water affects countless adults as well.

Those of us with clean drinking water plumbed into our homes are a minority in the world scene. Most of us don't consider that our inexhaustible supply of clean water can be halted immediately if there is a natural disaster or if terrorists should happen to sabotage our water sources.

Simple inexpensive devices can utilize the Sun to pasteurize polluted drinking water in third world countries, thereby helping to eliminate rampant disease. These same devices can help us pasteurize water when camping or during emergencies. More sophisticated devices that utilize the power of the sun can provide clean distilled drinking water from any water source if our water utility is interrupted.

What is in the water?

While doing research for this article I soon realized that the topic of water was too large to review in a few paragraphs. It is hoped that you will continue your own research about the many pollutants that find its way into our drinking water.

Germs: Microbes exist in our drinking water but usually are not harmful. Other disease-producing bacteria, viruses and protozoan cysts, that are also found in water, are harmful. Utility water companies add Chlorine and chloramine as a treatment to kill germs. Protozoan cysts (cryptosporidium and Giardia) are hard to kill with disinfectant chemicals, so they have to be filtered. Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a coliform bacteria that can cause food-borne and waterborne outbreaks of disease with loss of life primarily among senior citizens and young children.

Boiling water rids the water of germs but can concentrate nitrates and pesticides in the water. Not all commercially available filters will filter out cryptosporidium and giardia.

Chemicals: Many chemicals that occur in nature can be harmful to your health (arsenic, radium, radon, selenium). Utilities test for 78 chemicals as regulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA regulates 90 different contaminants, with 60 additional contaminants being studied. Many are caused by human activity: Dangerous organic chemicals are found in gasoline, cleaning fluid, pesticides, paint thinners and radiator fluid.

Rainwater seeps through hazardous waste dumps polluting groundwater. Pesticides, heavy metals, and dangerous chemicals are washed into water sources from many man-made sources (farms, lawns, golf courses, de-icing roads, industrial plants, neighborhood streets, etc.). A visit to any city dump will scare the begeezus out of you. Look for a sump or low spot where run-off collects. Not pretty. That stuff is getting into the ground water!

As mentioned above, utility companies add chemicals to our water for disinfection purposes, mostly Chlorine and Chloramine. Many water utilities add the debated chemical Flouride to drinking water. Lead that leaches into water running through old pipes has proven to be harmful to people.

With all this talk about germs and chemicals, we haven't even touched on other aspects of drinking water like dissolved solids that find their way into our water, and important factors like taste, odor and clarity.

Federal laws limit the amount of germs and chemicals that are allowed to pass through the water system, but it is acknowledged that we do get small quantities of these pollutants through our normal water delivery. Water utility companies do a great job treating our water so it is relatively safe, but it is advised that you develop a rapport with your local water district to find out more about your own local situation.

Flood of '72

When I was in Upstate New York in 1972 I witnessed the terrible flood that ravaged many areas as a result of Hurricane Estes. Entire communities were devastated. The flood waters carried every known bacteria and chemical from garages, shops, septic systems, sewer plants, stores and factories. It contaminated everything it touched. All food supplies, including can goods, had to be piled high in front of grocery stores so that front end loaders could scoop them into large dump trucks headed for the county dump. All power, sewer, phone and drinking water utilities were down. A distant brewery that was not affected by the flood waters stopped production of beer and started bottling water (in beer bottles) to keep people alive during the aftermath.

It is said that each person needs a minimum of a ½ gallon of water a day to sustain life. One gallon in desert regions. Three days without water and life is threatened.

Water Storage

Many families have opted to store water for emergencies. The amounts stored and the containers vary. We have an advantage over the folks of 1972. We now have a wide variety of bottled water we can purchase at the store. No matter what we store, it may not be enough and we may have to resort to other means of obtaining drinking water. Natural or man-made disasters (even local emergencies) can be very stressful, with diseases being easily transmitted. We don't need to add to the stress by consuming contaminated water.

In an emergency we've heard that we can tap other common sources of water like our water heater, toilet tank, water bed, pools, etc. These may be sources, but don't count on them. They may be damaged in an earthquake or contaminated. Water beds are a very bad source of drinking water as they contain harmful toxic chemicals designed to keep out algae. Swimming pool water, unless distilled of all chemicals, will probably make you sick.

You've probably read information in survival books that describe various contraptions like digging a hole in the ground and covering it with plastic to collect water. This information is interesting, but you must exercise caution as building them may use up more water in your body than they produce. Also, they may not produce enough water to sustain life. Storage is more practical, especially in desert communities.

If one must resort to using what ever water is available, there are ways of making that water more drinkable.

Chemical Additives

As a Boy or Girl Scout, you have probably tried the nasty tasting iodine tablets available in camping sections of the store. These are to be used to sustain life when no other source of fresh water is available, and then in only small quantities. Chlorine and hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals can be used, but you have to know how to use them. A safer product, not readily available in everyday stores, is Ion (or similar product) that is a non-toxic, stabilized oxygen liquid that is added to stored water and reportedly kills pathogenic bacteria.


Filters that come in a wide variety are helpful while hiking, camping or in emergency situations. Y2k helped us learn about many different types, and many of us have these filters in our "72 hour kits" or "mobility bags" as recommended by FEMA and The American Red Cross. There are many to pick from; hand pumps, gravity fed filters and "under pressure" designs. You would need a 12 volt pump and batteries to operate the pressure kind if utility water pressure was not available. Most campers regard the Katadyn brand as the best for small hand pump units, while the larger AquaRain (and new Katadyn unit) gravity filters are said to filter out most harmful bacteria. The type you buy in the store to add to your kitchen faucet or drip in a container in the refrigerator takes away taste and odor, but does little to filter out harmful bacteria, heavy metals and chemicals.

How the Sun can help

Solar cookers of all types will safely pasteurize water of all harmful bacteria. Thousands are in use in third world countries to help eliminate rampant disease. Millions more are needed in poorer areas of the world.

Through the ages we have been told that we need to boil water for five or ten minutes to make questionable water safe to drink. This is OK if you have the fuel. Millions of families in the third world do not have enough fuel, and in an emergency you may not either.

By heating water the "slow method" in a solar cooking device (home-made or commercial unit) you accomplish the same thing as boiling, only it takes longer. A simple inexpensive device called a Water Purification Indicator (WAPI) can be used to see when the water is safe to drink. When a small amount of soy wax is melted in the small plastic tube, the water has reached 160 F and the water is safe to drink. You can learn more about the WAPI at the Solar Cooking Archive web site operated by Solar Cookers International

When I give seminars to school age children on solar cooking I usually see a student with a clear bottle of water and I ask them, "did you have to get that water out of a river running behind your house? Did you have to dig a hole in your yard to find that water?" They laugh. Millions around the world have to get their drinking water every day that way.

While pasteurizing will solve a lot of disease problems, it does not address other things found in the water such as chemicals, pesticides and heavy metals. These need to be eradicated by distillation, and there is an effective way of using the sun to distill water from any water source.

During Horace McCracken's life, he became renown throughout the world as "the solar water distilling expert". He spent decades perfecting a device that would use sunlight as a power source for making clean drinking water. Most other devices that have been invented in the last thirty years have been patterned after principles that McCracken brought to light. One of his units has been in use for over twenty years on the coast of Baja where potable water is not readily available. Salt water from the ocean is daily poured into the distiller, and by the end of the day up to three gallons of clear, clean, sweet tasting drinking water is produced using no other power source, except the sun.

Solar distillers can be home-made, but could be difficult because we would probably use the wrong materials for construction. Little information is available about "how to do it" because Mr. McCracken passed away before he could publish his exhaustive research. Commercial units are available. Popular ones include McCrackens, "SunWater" line, and another up and coming product made by Sol Aqua. Many large solar distilling systems are in operation in sunny climates throughout the world.

There are pros and cons about using distilled water for drinking water, but the fact remains that distilled water gets out all of the impurities that is found in almost all water sources. This includes all germs, viruses, chemicals, organic chemicals, pesticides, heavy metals, diluted minerals, and taste and odor causing contaminates.

Deep water wells usually produce germ free water, but should be tested yearly. Most wells require large 220 VAC pumps, but these can be converted to a reliable solar system thus eliminating the need for grid power and back-up generators.

These effective devices can be used for every day use, and in emergencies as well. They certainly will be more important as the world finds its water supply getting more and more polluted with a myriad of contaminates found to be dangerous to people and animals.

This is the fourth in a series of six articles concerning solar power and emergency preparedness. Mr. Little has sold solar energy products for 20 years. He is the manager of Vegas Trailer Supply in Las Vegas Nevada, and conducts free solar living and preparedness seminars at his store. He can be contacted by email at: michael@vegastrailer.com. More information on using solar for emergency preparedness, mitigation and recovery is available at: http://solarprepared.com. You can also visit a blog about using Solar for Emergencies at: http://solarguy.blogspot.com

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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