You may have heard a friend or family member say, “I don’t need to worry about storing water for an emergency, I have a swimming pool!” Are they right? Well, here you’ll learn if it’s really safe to drink pool water in an emergency, what you can do to make sure it’s safe, and if you should rely on it as an emergency water source. Let’s dive in!
Drinking Pool Water in an Emergency
Is it Safe to Drink Swimming Pool Water in an Emergency?
While a mouthful of pool water probably won’t hurt you, it’s not generally considered safe to consume large quantities of it. This is primarily due to the chemicals that are present in the water. It’s best to consider the water in your pool as “non-potable” water and only use it for washing or cleaning purposes, not for consumption.
The chemicals used to keep pool water clean and safe to swim in can be dangerous inside a human body. These chemicals become more concentrated inside the body the more of it you consume. There’s also biological dangers associated with drinking the water of a pool when its filtering system may not have run, or its chemicals balanced, recently.
A 12′ X 24′ pool usually contains between 8,500 gallons and 13,000 gallons of water depending on the depth. That would be a hell of a windfall for survivors searching for water after a disaster. But it’s not as simple as filling your jugs and taking it home. Raw pool water can make you extremely sick in a short amount of time.
That said, there are ways to make pool water safe to drink. You just need to know what you’re dealing with first.
What’s in Your Pool Water
Knowing what’s in pool water can help you decide how best to make it safe for drinking. While it’s impossible to know everything that’s in every pool, here’s a list of common chemicals you may find in a pool and some possible contaminants you might find after a disaster.
- Chlorine. If a pool has been properly maintained, you’re going to find a plethora of harsh chemicals in the water. Be prepared for chlorine, which is supplied in solid form (calcium hypochlorite) and liquid form (sodium hypochlorite). Once the compounds are released into the pool, the chlorine reacts with water to create hypochlorous acid. This chemical attacks pathogens by destroying the lipids and enzymes in their cells. It can’t tell the difference between a pathogen’s cells and yours, so don’t drink straight pool water.
- Bromide. This is an alternative cleaning and sanitizing agent for pools, but it works in much the same way as chlorine.
- Cyanuric acid. Also referred to as “pool conditioner.” This is a stabilizing agent used in conjunction with sanitizing chemicals. It helps the hypochlorous acid resist the destabilizing effects of ultraviolet light. It’s not dangerous by itself beyond some skin and eye irritation, but you don’t want to consume it in large quantities.
- Ammonia. Ammonia in swimming pools comes from bodily fluids of people (urine and sweat), decaying organic matter (such as leaves), fertilizers that may have accidentally made their way in from nearby landscaping, or hygiene products (body lotions, sunscreens etc). Ammonia is a known irritant.
- Chloramines. These are produced when hypochlorous acid combines with ammonia. Chloramines not only smell bad, but they can cause irritation to the mucous membranes and skin.
- Saltwater. Saltwater pools have been gaining in popularity for those who don’t want to have the typical “chemical” pool. Aside from the dangers of drinking salt water (don’t do it), those pools still need chemicals to help maintain them. In fact, they use the salt and a salt chlorine generator to make—you guessed it—chlorine. They’re about 1/10 the salinity of the ocean, but it’s still more salt than you need to be consuming.
- Bacteria and other pathogens. Any pool that hasn’t been meticulously maintained will undoubtedly have bacteria, viruses, parasites, and a variety of pathogens. Pools that have been maintained can still contain tough pathogens such as giardia. The problem with pools is that you can’t tell if the water has been treated just by looking at it until it starts to grow algae. By that time, you’ve already swallowed enough of the bad stuff to make you violently ill.
- Human skin cells and other contaminants. I call hot tubs “people soup” and you couldn’t pay me enough to step into one. That’s because every time a human gets into the water, they are shedding skin cells, mucous, sweat, and other bits I really don’t want to soak in. Now, imagine a pool in the neighborhood that’s been used by dozens of families. Still want to take a sip?
- Animal waste. Even before a disaster, animal waste will be in every pool. It comes in on human feet, blown in on a summer wind, plopped down from the heavens when a flock of birds flies overhead, and hitching a ride on Fido when he takes a dip. Animal feces, fur, saliva, and whatever else they stepped in or carried in on their fur is stewing in that pool water. Yummy! It’s cute right now, but I’m not about to drink that water after Fido’s been in there.
- Debris. Realistically, after a disaster, pool maintenance is going to be the last thing on anyone’s to-do list. That means there will be a lot of filthy pools out there. Branches, dirt, exhaust, and anything else that happens to blow in will end up in your water. While you’ll be able to see the obvious stuff, it’s the things you can’t see that you should be most concerned about. Asbestos from the disintegrated walls of your neighbor’s old house or microscopic flecks of lead paint could end up in your next pot of campfire coffee if you’re not careful.
- Algae and insects. Any pool water left long enough without maintenance is going to begin growing algae. After a while, mosquitoes will move in, too. At this point, I wouldn’t touch that water. Your best bet is to get to it before the bugs do.
“Only consider drinking your pool water in an absolute emergency and as a last resort due to the risks involved. It’s much better used as non-potable water for things like flushing toilets or washing dishes.”– John Watler (SuperPrepper.com)
Making Pool Water Safe to Drink
As you can see, pool water isn’t safe to drink right from the pool. However, it is possible to make it safe to drink if you’re willing to put in a little bit of work to treat it.
Using a Water Filter
Even if it’s your pool you’re about to guzzle, you should filter the water first. You won’t be able to see bacteria, parasites, cysts, and chemicals, but a good water filter makes it so you don’t have to.
Berkey Countertop Water Filter
This is currently the absolute best water filter on the market and a prepper favorite due to its amazing filtration capabilities. It can filter up to 6,000 gallons of water before you need to change the filters. I would certainly not recommend relying on pool water as a drinking water source. But this water filter is good enough though to let you turn to some pretty less-than-ideal water sources for drinking water (although I would personally still avoid drinking pool water). When it comes to something as important as drinking water, you really should have the best available filter on the market on your side, and in many prepper’s opinions, this is it!
This specific model comes with two of the black activated carbon filter elements which are needed for removing even more contaminants from water than the traditional white elements, including harmful chemicals. Chemical contamination is certainly the biggest concern in pool water. It’s also easily powerful enough to filter out those biological contaminants that grow if your pool filter is turned off for a while due to a power failure. How about that nasty creek behind your house? Not a problem with this filter. Seriously. That’s why most serious preppers have one of these.
In recent months, Amazon has this model of this Berkey Countertop Water Filter at one of the best prices I’ve ever seen and it comes with the black activated carbon filter elements that you’ll need.
Lifestraw Water Filter
The Lifestraw is another great filter. Not as powerful and capable as the Berkey, but it’s incredibly small. It’s easy to carry around in a backpack or the glove box of your car. It won’t help much with your swimming pool, but being able to easily and quickly filter water from a lake, stream, or creek anywhere has huge benefits!
It can filter down to one micron, which will get rid of cryptosporidium and giardia. This filter also utilizes carbon so it will also be fairly effective at filtering out many of the chemicals present in swimming pools.
It’s a personal filter, so don’t expect to get water for the whole neighborhood this way, but it’s definitely a useful item to have around in a pinch. Here’s where you can get the Lifestraw filter on Amazon.
“Filtering pool water is just the first step. To get truly pure water, you need distillation.”
– Syren Wolfe (SuperPrepper.com)
Tip: If you don’t have a filter on hand, you can use several layers of tightly-woven fabric to get the largest particles out. Simply stack shirts, jeans, or other clothing over a clean container and run questionable water over the top. By the time the water filters through the clothing, all of the big stuff will be out. That won’t help you with chemicals and bacteria, but at least you won’t be drinking lead paint flecks.
UV Rays Will Dechlorinate Pools
UV rays will eventually get rid of the chlorine in a pool. On a very sunny day, it may take just a few hours for the chlorine to disappear, assuming no stabilizers were used. Most pool cleaning services use stabilizers though, so you’d have to wait weeks for the chlorine to fully dissipate from a large pool. To speed up the process, scoop out the water into a smaller (open mouth) container and leaving it out for a few days in the sunlight.
You can also use chlorine level testing strips to find out what the chlorine level is. Anything less than 4 ppm (parts per million) is considered safe to drink. Be cautious though, just because the chlorine levels are within an acceptable range doesn’t mean there aren’t other harmful chemicals present.
Bonus: The sun can also kill bacteria. Bacteria can be a serious issue in a pool when the filter has not run in a few days. To make use of UV rays for killing bacteria, scoop some of the water into a small clear water bottle. Place the bottle flat on the ground, in a sunny location, and let the sun do the work for you. This is called the “SODIS” method. Check out this article for details on performing this method.
Distilling Water is Still the Best
There’s a joke in that title. . . But I digress. The number one way to purify water is by distilling it. Distillation is the process of separating clean water from contaminates using evaporation. You can wait for nature to do its thing or you can build a still to speed it up. It doesn’t matter how it’s done, though. They both result in clean, pure water that’s safe to drink.
A still is a simple contraption that captures water vapors. When water evaporates, it leaves behind bacteria, parasites, particulates, and chemicals. As long as your collection container is clean, the evaporated water will condense into clean water droplets and collect in your container.
If you have a heat source, boiling the water and collecting the evaporation will get you a drink a lot faster. However, if all you have is sunlight and time, a solar still works great, too.
How to Build a Simple Still to Purify Pool Water
Here’s a set of instructions for constructing a basic water still for distilling swimming pool water and making it safe to drink. This version of water still relies on a fuel source to heat the water. This is a good alternative for cloudy days or colder climates.
What You’ll Need:
- An open-top pot to hold the pool water.
- A flat, smooth sheet of metal, glass, or plastic.
- Find one more container—a bowl, cup, or bottle—to collect your clean water.
- A heat source. This can be a small fire, stove, or even canned Sterno fuel.
- Fill your open-top pot with water from the swimming pool and support it off the ground so you can heat it from underneath.
- Place the sheet over the pot at an angle. About 45 degrees works well, but it doesn’t have to be precise. You may need to find a way to support this sheet so that it’s not touching the bowl.
- Place the low end of the sheet in a clean, empty collection container. Ideally, the corner of the sheet will fit nicely into the container to be sure no water is lost.
- Begin heating the pool water. You should see steam begin to rise, touch the sheet, then slowly condense back into water droplets. If your sheet is at the proper angle, the water will roll down the sheet and collect in your collection container.
Tip: This water still relies on the sheet you suspend above the pot being colder than the steam that’s rising into it (this helps the steam condense into water droplets onto the sheet). Usually just suspending this above the bowl will be effective at keeping it cooler than the steam. Play with different heights above the bowl to find the ideal level for the sheet. Also, make sure it’s kept as cool as possible (i.e. don’t use a metal sheet in direct sunlight).
Video: How to Make a Solar Distiller out of a Plastic Bottle
Check out this simple and cool solar still design using only an aluminum can and a large plastic bottle. The aluminum can in this example can be replaced with a smaller plastic container as long as it has a wide open top to it like these cans do.
Of course, this method relies on heat from the sun and won’t work as well in cold regions, but I’ve covered some other great ways you can get water in colder areas right here.
Can You Use Chemicals to Make Pool Water Safe to Drink?
I wouldn’t. Think about it for a moment. You’re talking about drinking water that’s already been treated with a number of chemicals to make it safe to swim in. Do you really want to add more chemicals to try to make it safe to drink? Don’t add chemicals to already overly chemically treated water in an attempt to make it safe to drink.
I would not suggest relying on your pool as the first option for survival. Ideally, you’ll have a nice stock of fresh, clean water on hand for drinking already and can use your pool water for other things such as washing, flushing toilets, or hygiene purposes.
Relying on your pool as a source of emergency water is also not a good idea because it can become easily contaminated or turn stagnant. This is especially true when the grid is down and your pool filter is not running. Also, the slew of chemicals your Poolman may be using can be difficult (or impossible) to remove. In an earthquake scenario, pool plaster and piping can become easily cracked causing it to drain completely.
However, I understand that most survival situations aren’t exactly ideal. So if you have to rely on your pool, the only sure way to make the water safe for consumption is to filter and distill it. Filtering gets the big stuff out and even many chemicals (if you’re using a carbon-based filter) and distilling it will remove everything else. Drink up!
Now I want to hear from you! What are your thoughts when it comes to using your pool as a source of water? Share in the comments below!