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Water Filtration

Water filtration is going to be your biggest concern if civilization as we know it breaks down.  It is likely that you will be able to find sources of water, but how clean is that water going to be?  You survived the end of the world, now you need some way to make sure that the water you drink doesn’t kill you.

You can go weeks without food, but only a few days without water.  Water is required for your body to digest food, so if you don’t have a water supply, there is no point in eating.  Drinking water can also keep hunger at bay, for a time.

If you have some base set up, the first thing you’re going to want to do is set out some container to catch rain or snow.  This is going to be your best source for relatively clean water.  Our ancestors did it for millennia.  The rain barrel is a fixture of American farm life. 

Still you’ll need some way to treat other sources of water.  You can drink water (not anti-freeze) out of a car radiator, as long as it’s treated properly.  That may not be the most preferred source for water, but other sources can be worse.

If you are on the move, and don’t yet have a base camp set up, finding or making drinkable water is imperative.  A portable water filtration system can be made using this same basic method as is shown here. 

If you have a base camp set up, you can make a water filtration system big enough to meet the needs of many people.  Remember, clean drinking water can be used as currency to get other things that you will need or want.

In order to make your water filtration system, you are going to need two containers, sand, and charcoal.  The basic setup is very easy and straight forward.  You just make alternating layers of sand and charcoal in one of the containers, and pour the water on top. You catch the water that comes out the bottom of the filter container in the second container.  It really is that simple.


You will need two containers, one for the filter container, and one for the storage container.  If you can’t find two containers the same size, you’ll want to make the bigger one the storage container.  The more water you can store, the better off you’ll be.

Take the designated filter container and poke holes in the bottom of it.  A standard plastic trashcan works very well for this.  It also has the advantage of being able to poke holes in it using heat.  You can heat a rod on a fire, and melt the holes in the bottom. 

You’ll want to use the cleanest trashcans you can find, or better yet, have buy them now, and set them aside for just this purpose.  It’s always better to have what you need before you need it, than to have to scrounge around for things later.  

Even if you have to scrounge, it’s likely that you’ll be able to find new trashcans at the local hardware store.  Most people are going to be looking for what they consider useful.  That means if you can’t eat it, drink it, shoot it, or trade with it, it’s not going to be useful to them.  Fortunately, you’re thinking ahead, and planning, instead of reacting.

Bottom of Water FilterBe sure to make plenty of holes, and keep them fairly small.  When you are done poking holes in the bottom of the filter container, it should resemble a shower head.  If you are using a trash can for your water filtration, be sure that you poke holes in the lowest points of the bottom, otherwise you’ll collect water there that you can’t get to.

You’ll want to place the filter container where you plan to keep it.  Once the filter is made, it will be far too heavy to lift without equipment, or even move easily.  Place the filter up high enough to slide the storage container under it.

Once you’ve got plenty of holes punched in the filter, you’ll need to create some sort of screen to keep the sand from pouring out the holes.  You can use cloth in the bottom, the advantage is that the cloth will also act as a filter.  You can take an old shirt and lay it in the bottom of the filter container.  If you’re using a t-shirt, cut the seams and remove the sleeves so that you have two pieces. This will allow you to cover a larger area of the bottom of the filter with the cloth.  A bed sheet can be cut or torn, and works great.

If you don’t have any cloth, you can use gravel and pebbles.  Just be sure that the gravel or pebble are bigger than the holes you’ve punched in the filter container, so they don’t drop out.  This screening material is just to keep your filter material in the filter container.  It doesn’t need to be anything fancy.  If you’re using gravel or pebbles as your screen, you’ll want about a 2 inch layer of the material at the bottom of the filter.

Now pour a layer of sand over the screen material.  You can find sand all over the country.  If you live near the coast, you’ll have beaches.  Anywhere else, you’ll want to raid a construction site where they are mixing concrete, or if you know where to find one, a concrete mixing plant.  Every larger city should have several.

The sand needs to be clean, you don’t want it if it’s been mixed with anything else.  For a trashcan filter, you’ll want to pour about a three inch layer of sand in the bottom.  Smooth out the layer of sand, then add a layer of charcoal, also about three inches deep.

Water FilterYou will continue to add layers of sand and charcoal until you have the filter almost full.  You’ll want to leave a few inches at the top of the filter, so that when you pour water onto it, the water doesn’t over flow the filter.  A good solid filter won’t allow water to pass easily through it, so the water will stand on top at first, before it soaks into the filter.

Do not compact the sand or charcoal!  You need airspace in the filter for the water to run through.  When you add your first batch of water, the filter material may settle, that’s ok.  Between adding water, and its own weight, the sand and charcoal will compact on its own.

Make sure the filter container is above the storage container, and pour your water into the filter.  It will take quite a while for the water to percolate through the filter.  The longer it takes the better the filter. 

The water that comes out of your water filtration system at this stage can be used for bathing and washing things, but not drinking.  In order to make it drinkable, you’ll need to boil it.  Heating the water to a good steady rolling boil, will kill off any bacteria or other organic contaminants that made it through the filter.

If you have the capacity, you can always distill the water by boiling it, and catching the steam.  Let the steam condense back into water and collect it in a third container.  The distilled water should be free of all contaminants such as salt, heavy metals or anything with a boiling point higher than water.  This is more advanced, and takes more time, but you end up with pure drinking water.  If the only water source you have is salt water, you will have to distill your drinking water.

Where to get charcoal

The one part of this water filtration system that is going to be tricky to get, is the charcoal.  Activated charcoal works best, since it has more surface area than regular charcoal.  That’s what makes it activated charcoal, it’s been treated to create pits and holes, giving it more surface area than normal charcoal. 

You can’t make activated charcoal, that requires at least 1000 degrees and a controlled atmosphere, so you’ll have to find it.  One good source will be any pet shop that sells aquarium supplies.  This can also be a good source for gravel for the bottom of your water filtration container.  You probably won’t find all the charcoal you’ll need at one pet store, unless it’s some sort of super store.

It’s likely that any looting will have completely bypassed these materials as useless, so they should be easy enough to come by.  The problem will be quantity.  Pool and spa supply stores, may also have activated charcoal, and in larger quantities.  You’re going to need a lot of charcoal for a large water filtration system.

Again, it’s better to have your supply already in hand before you need it, than to scrounge around and hope to find it.

Make your own charcoal

If you can’t find enough activated charcoal for your water filtration system, you may have to resort to using regular charcoal.  It’s doubtful that you’ll be able to find anything left at your local supermarket, as far as charcoal briquettes, so you need to be able to make your own.

The easiest way to make charcoal is to make a fire.  The fire is going to create ash.  The ash can’t be used for water filtration, but it will have its uses, one of them is making charcoal.  When you have a good quantity of ash, take the larger hot coals from the fire, and smother them in the ash. 

It’s going to take a lot of ash to do this, that means a lot of fires.  Sand, or other granular material will work.  You just need to smother the coals, keeping air from them.

Just take a metal bucket or other container, and pour a thick layer of ash in the bottom.  Take your hot coals out of the fire, and place them on the bed of ash.  The bigger the container, the more charcoal you can make, but the more ash you’ll need before you can create charcoal.  Pour more ash on top of the hot coals, enough to completely smother them.

The ash keeps air out, but conducts heat, it will allow the coals to slowly cool, creating charcoal.  You are going to need a lot of charcoal for a larger water filtration system, so it may take a lot of fires to create enough charcoal.  That’s ok, you’re going to need fire anyway, so you might as well get dual use out of it.

Before you add the new charcoal to your filter, you need to rinse it with water to get any ash out of it.  If rinsing the charcoal causes it to disintegrate, air is getting to it, and it’s turning to ash.  Use more ash on top to keep the air out, when you make your charcoal.  Once the charcoal has been cleaned, you’ll need to pulverize it into as small pieces as you can.  The smaller the chunks the more surface area is exposed, and the better it will filter your water.

Water Storage TankYou may be lucky enough to find a water buffalo with a spout and valve, for your storage container.  If not, you can make a spout with a shut off valve, if you have access to a hardware store.  PVC pipe, valves and fittings can come in handy for many things.  You’ll want to get as much as you can carry.

Eventually, the filter will clog with the impurities, but as long as you’re getting water out the bottom, your filter is good.  It could take months, or even years for the filter to clog.  When the filter clogs, throw out the sand and charcoal, and start a new filter.  You can use the old filter material for creating more charcoal.

You can make a portable water filtration system using 2 liter soda bottles, or food cans.  Cutting the bottom off a 2 liter bottle, and using it as your filter gives you a nice funnel with a thread that you can use to be sure and collect all the filtered water.

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