Emergency distillation can also save your life in a coastal or maritime emergency when all you have is undrinkable salt water. Ready to survive?
Massive natural disasters can destroy the plumbing in our homes, as well as the pipes and facilities that make the modern day water and sewer delivery and disposal possible. Woven underneath neighborhoods, and cities, and towns is a massive network of plumbing that makes it possible for water to be poured from our taps and waste to be flushed down our toilets.
A massive disaster can turn that all upside down. Cracks and twisted pipes may still work as intended, but be contaminated with sewer from broken or damaged underground pipes that in extreme circumstances can make tap water dangerous to drink without treating or purifying it first.
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In a survival situation, where the only source of water you might have would be a broken pipe or puddle of muddy water outside a city that has been destroyed in a disaster, distillation could be a process separating you from life and death. Even when going on a simple hiking trip, distillation is a skill that means you don't need to rely on water filters alone for purifying water.
We'll get to distillation in a moment...
Unless you're in a hurry. That is when you would reach for a portable water filter, though, in the end, a portable water filter has a limited lifespan, before it's filtration properties have been exhausted. Thankfully, portable water filters in the modern day have a lot more lifespan -- can last a person several weeks of use in fact. So, in an optimal situation, boil water first, before you choose to use a water filter or emergency distiller.
Consider distillation as a short term (10 - 14 days for example) means to purify water in an emergency where your initial water supply has little risk of environmental pollutants from cities, agriculture, and industry (for example, most mountains and wilderness areas, though not all wilderness areas, pay attention to which directions rivers flow on your maps). Though distillation will leave behind heavy metals like lead, it will not remove toxins that evaporate at low temperatures, because, remember, these toxins will condense along with the H20, and now be even more concentrated in the water you have just distilled.
This is where emergency distillation can be a life saver. You see, ocean water is a prime candidate for emergency distillation, allowing you to produce clean drinking water and leaving the salt behind.
For example, in a disaster when sewage has possibly been let loose into the local ground water supply, or rotting carcasses in the region are possibly polluting water sources, or a dangerous disease is killing tens of thousands of people in the local population; relying on a portable water filter in an extreme scenario such as any of these is a risky gamble. In this case, leave your portable water filter for the high country, for higher elevation water sources that are not contaminated by the death and disease down in the valley below.
So, unless you are in the high country, boiling or distillation are the only ways to produce drinking water in these circumstances.
No worries! Developing nations continue to use the process to make their water sources safer to drink. Distillation is indeed effective at boiling away bacteria, though it also removes soluble minerals like calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium from the water supply (which must be re-added further in the process to make water suitable for long term consumption; more on this below).
Products like Trace Minerals contain essential healthy minerals and a long list of healthy trace minerals that are needed to make reverse osmosis a smart choice in the end. (Some people add "Trace Minerals" to bottled water, either way, for the health properties. It is a product with broad use, when it comes to health, and not a product only intended for water filtration systems.)
What you will need:
• A clean plastic tarp, sheet, or in a worst case scenario, a plastic bag • Paracord or twine
In order to obtain distilled water from trees or plants, you need to first be in an area where there is plenty of foliage. Trying this in the desert will not yield the same results as a more temperate or humid climate will due to the moisture content in the air. Locate a bough or frond that is directly in the sunlight.
Take your tarp or plastic bag and drape it over the bough. The more you can cover, the more water you get in less time. Position the tarp or bag in such a way that when the condensation drips down, it has someplace to collect.
Now, take your paracord or twine. You can simply tightly tie the top of the bag to the limb of the bough to seal off air flow. With a tarp, be sure to gather all four ends that are securing the sheet to the tree. Keep an eye on the position of your tarp as water collects -- you do not want it to get so heavy that it slips off.
Once you have your "sweat bag" made, all you need to do is leave it on the plant or tree for a few hours in the sun.
• A container to catch water (plastic bottle cut in half, glass jar, or a bowl; as long as it can catch water, you are good to go)
• 6 x 6 foot sheet of clear plastic (examples include Saran wrap, camping ground cloth, or a clear shower curtain; since there is no natural substitute for this, consider keeping clear plastic with you when out in the wilderness -- pack it up and keep it sealed in a Zip Loc freezer bag for this purpose)
• Optional: Shovel or trowel
• Optional: plastic tubing (this becomes a long straw, allowing you to drink the collected water without breaking down the still)
• A small stone
Note: These instructions have been adapted from a how-to by Gregory T. Jones on DesertUSA .
To build the solar still, begin by digging a pit that is about 4 feet wide and 3 feet dip. It is critical to find a place that looks like rainwater would collect, because this sand will be easier to dig through.
At the center of the hole you just dug, make another small indentation about the size of your water container. Place the container inside the hole. If you have tubing, be sure to place one end in the container now.
Cover the 4 x 3 foot hole with your plastic sheet. Make sure there is a little give. Anchor the edges with dirt or rocks. Make sure there is no spaces left open where moisture can escape.
Take your small rock in the center of sheet (this is why you needed give). Weighing down the center means any gathered condensation will pull to that point. Gravity will cause it to drip. This is also useful during windy days and keeps the sheet from flapping.
Within a few hours, the air inside the still will become saturated. If you have tubing, you can begin drinking as soon as enough water has accumulated in the collector. Depending on the environment, you can gather succulents (like cacti) or other plant life to also place around the container to speed up the release of moisture. Just make sure that the plants you add are not poisonous!.
A word of caution with this version: Never use a plastic bottle to collect the purified water, as the water gets very hot and can melt the plastic or cause it to release BPA fumes. Use a glass jar or bottle.
YouTube video: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=00kKPOs_FA4
What you will need:
• Copper piping
• Glass jar
• Tea kettle
• Insulated plumbing coupler (to attach to the tea kettle)
• Two pipe connectors
All you have to do is connect the coupler to the tea kettle and copper piping. Arc the piping slightly higher than both the tea kettle and glass jar. Do not seal the end of the copper pipe that goes into the jar, as this will build up pressure and could cause the jar to crack. After that, all you do is heat the water in the teapot, let the vapors move through the copper pipe, and drip into the glass jar. Depending on the size of the tea kettle, distillation could take anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours.
Why the copping piping? Copper is not only an effective heat conductor, which is essential in the distillation process of water, but it absorbs certain compounds, like sulfur, from the liquid.
Do not want to use copper? The other way to construct a homemade device for ongoing distillation is similar to the one mentioned above but requires a bit more handywork.
You will need:
• A pressure cooker
• A drill
• Silicone high temperature tubing
• Brass fitting begin enough to accommodate the silicone tubing
• A plastic container with a small bottleneck and mouth
• A hot plate or stove top
Remove the knob from the top of the pressure cooker so that the pressure valve is visible. Remove that as well then drill a slightly bigger hole for you to attach the brass fitting that will allow the steam in the pressure cooker to be fed into the high temperature silicone.
Caution: Make sure the hole is wide enough to keep a constant stream moving. Otherwise, too much pressure could build up and make a small explosion.
Like the above version, this works in the same fashion of feeding the steam into the collection chamber. The only difference is that the silicone tubing is a bit more portable.
The main obstacle is removing salt from the solution. The setup for a desalinating emergency distillation device is really no different than the three designs mentioned in this article, especially the third design. The trick is making sure you get the water hot enough for it to boil off the salt. Keep in mind that the temperature of boiling water does not change as it distils. Do not get upset if the water is not a raging boil. A gentle frothing is more than enough to turn the water to vapor, separating it from the salt.
The easiest is to buy an alkaline pitcher, but for survivalists, that is not always going to work. Another purchase could be Mineral Drops to add to your drinking water, mentioned earlier. Keep a small bottle in a first aid kit or survival pack. Optionally, add a couple granules of Himalayan sea salt. No, this is not counterintuitive. Pink Himalayan salt has 84 different minerals in it, not just salt (if you're salt sensitive or on a low sodium diet, then the mineral drops well likely be a safer choice).
And for those times when your only option is the plant life around you, try gathering herbs, vegetables, seaweed, or fruit to infuse into the water -- just be sure you are collecting only plants and vegetables you know and not something that is poisonous.
Although distilled water loses minerals, it is not where we get most of our minerals from. Most of the minerals come from the food we eat. In a survival situation, you're probably not going to consume a lot of food and therefore might lack minerals.
There are quite a few ways to make an emergency distiller, from wrapping trees with a plastic tarp to digging holes in the ground to fashioning up a reusable version out of a teakettle and plastic bottles. Whenever you find yourself without fresh drinking water, remember these helpful, lifesaving tips, and be sure to add those minerals to whatever water you have distilled, if you ever have to use emergency distillation for longer than a few days.
Tom Brown is the chief editor at Thrifty Outdoors Man, where he shares his survival skills and outdoor experiences.