How to Store Tap Water for Emergencies

Storing Tap Water for an Emergency

By now I don’t need to tell you the importance of storing water for an EMP, hurricane, earthquake, financial collapse, civil unrest, or any other major disaster. Water is extremely important (humans are made up of at least 70% water) and going without can cause death in a matter of three days. If you don’t want to buy your emergency water from a store, learn how to treat tap water for long term survival situations.

Summary of Steps

Description Notes
Step 1 Choose a Container Pick a container made of food grade plastics (HDPE 2).
Step 2 Fill Container from the Tap Minimum amount of water: 1 gallon per person per day. Recommended: 2 gallons per person per day.
Step 3 Test the Chlorine Levels and Adjust if Necessary Use water test strips to make sure chlorine content is between 2 and 4 ppm. Use a water treatment if necessary to raise chlorine levels.
Step 4 Find a Place to Store the Water Store your water out of direct sunlight in a cool, dark area.

This is a brief summary of the steps needed to prepare and store tap water for emergencies. Please see the following sections for additional information.

Preparing Tap Water for Long Term Storage

Everyone should have some professionally manufactured water bottles stored away. You never know when you might have to grab these and leave in a hurry. Small water bottles are extremely portable.

However, it is not very practical to store enough small water bottles to supply you and your family with the water you need to survive a long term disaster that could cause a disruption in basic utilities. Bottled water can also cost a considerable amount if you are attempting to store enough to last a year or more. Tap water isn’t free, but it’s definitely the cheapest water you can probably get your hands on.

That’s why most preppers will store large quantities of tap water in large containers.

Here I will discuss some of what’s involved in putting away your own tap water for the long term. Keep in mind there are many different opinions about the best methods to accomplish this. I will cover the most widely accepted and used method.

Step 1 – Choose a Container for Long Term Storage of Tap Water

There are about as many different container choices for water storage as you can imagine. You could use anything from five-gallon water containers all the way up to thousand gallon (or more) commercially available storage tanks.

What you choose is entirely up to you. Remember that you never want to store 100% of your emergency water in one large tank. Having a large tank is fine, and actually a great way to store a significant quantity of water, but if it leaks or gets contaminated you don’t want your entire water supply compromised. Always diversify your water stores.

Here are some of the most popular choices:

Container Type

Typical Size


5 Gallon

5 Gallon

55 Gallon

275 – 330 Gallon

250 – 400 Gallon

500 – 10,000 Gallon

  • Stackable Storage Containers: These containers are manufactured specifically for long term water storage and typically come in two different sizes: 5 or 7 gallons. These will cost a bit of money, but if you want your water to remain portable and still be in a quality container, this is the way to do it. The plastics used in the construction of these containers will not leach chemicals into your water and these products quite durable. They are also made of an opaque colored plastic, keeping light inside to a minimum and therefore inhibiting bacterial growth.
  • Collapsible Storage Containers: These containers most commonly come in the 5 gallon size. The container itself is made from flexible food grade plastics which makes it easy to store it in a small space when it’s empty. These are great for short term storage of water (for a vacation, camping, etc) but not ideal for long term storage. Although the plastic is generally thick high quality plastic, they can be prone to leaks or punctures when stored full of water for years on end. Also, they are not stackable, making it difficult to store large quantities of these containers when full.
  • Office Water Cooler Bottles: These 5 gallon containers are what you generally see at your office upside down in a water cooler. They are fairly inexpensive and use quality plastics that will also not leach chemicals into your water. These are generally made of fairly clear plastic which means you will have to be extra careful to store them in a dark area as light will encourage bacteria growth in the water. They are available online or even often times at local stores (such as Walmart). Being only 5 gallons makes them fairly portable if you need to leave your house in a hurry. Get the type that have handles built into the plastic for added mobility.


We at are not doctors or scientists. We are merely a group of passionate preppers sharing what we learn as we go. Never drink water from a questionable source. Always consult with a professional first.

  • Water Barrels or Drums: These containers are used in the commercial world to store foods, syrups, industrial solvents, chemicals, petroleum, and more. The plus side is that these are widely available as they are used in so many applications. This keeps their prices low and also means you have many options to get great deals on used 55 gallon containers. The down side is you have to be extremely careful if you buy a used one to store your water supplies in. If they have been used previously for anything except food grade storage, you could have seriously dangerous contaminants in your water. For this reason, I strongly suggest you buy these new and not used. These are also heavy and difficult to move.
  • IBC Totes: IBC stands for “Intermediate Bulk Container.” These are generally larger containers that usually come in 275 or 330 gallon in sizes. You can store more water in these than the previous examples while still being confident that it will be safe to drink when disaster strikes. These are definitely not mobile once they are filled (they weigh a minimum of 2,200 lbs when full) but they hold a lot of water and can be found fairly cheaply. They are used in the food and restaurant business quite a bit. They are often either thrown away once they are empty, or sold on second hand markets (such as on Craigslist). They can usually be found for between $80-$120 used. Just like with used water barrels or drums, please be extremely careful that you do not use one that ever contained anything besides consumable products (such as syrups, sauces etc). If it ever contained any chemicals in the past, it can contaminate your water making it unsafe to drink.
  • Family Sized Water Storage Tanks: These are generally over 100 gallons in capacity and made to be stored at home. Most preppers will put something like this in their garage as they are often a similar size to a water heater. If they are specifically constructed for water storage then they are safe for long term storage and you need not worry about chemicals leaching in the water over time from the plastics used during construction. These are not considered portable and are only fitting for someone who is preparing to stay in place during a long term disaster.
  • High Capacity Water Storage Tanks: High capacity tanks are generally 500 gallons or more and are meant to be installed in place and not moved. These are a great way to store lots of water at home or at your bug out location. If possible, installing one of these on a hill or raised above ground level is best to ensure constant water pressure. Before you buy one of these, make sure it is FDA approved for drinking water.
Running water
Having water during a disaster is not just critical for drinking purposes, but also for sanitation purposes.

Can I Just Store Water in Used Milk Jugs?

Using old milk jugs as a container to keep emergency water in is not a good idea. The plastics used in milk jugs is biodegradable and tends to easily break down with time.

This isn’t a big deal on the refrigerated shelf in your local supermarket, or for a few weeks inside your own refrigerator. But storing them in your basement for a few years will be a big problem. They’ll likely start leaking water after two years or so.

Also, the plastic in milk jugs is permeable so smells from the outside world will leach slowly into the water making it taste a bit off when you do finally use it.

Lastly, the milk that was in the plastic can cause cultures to grow in your water no matter how well you clean it since the plastic is permeable. That’s why I never recommend preppers store their emergency water in used plastic milk jugs.

Best Types of Plastics to use for Long Term Water Storage

If you plan to store water in a plastic container for the next EMP, hurricane, earthquake, or any other crisis, you need to make sure you choose the right type of container. Some plastic containers are not made for this purpose and therefore will leach harmful chemicals into your drinking water over time.

To ensure the container you choose is safe for long term water storage, make sure it is “food grade.” Most of these containers will also have a “HDPE 2” (which stands for high density polyurethane type 2).

NOTE: Not all “HDPE 2” labeled plastics are safe for water storage. They also have to be “food grade” to be considered safe.

HDPE 2 plastics are best for water storage.

The Best Type of Plastic to Use

Always store your water supply in high density polyurethane type 2 plastics. These containers will have an imprint, usually on the bottom, that says “HDPE 2” (pictured above). It is also important that it be “food grade” plastic that was never used to store dangerous chemicals.

Step 2 – Fill Your Water Container from the Tap

This is a pretty simple step, just fill it up. Make sure to keep the inside of whatever container you are using clean while filling. If you are filling a storage tank with a garden hose, make sure to keep the end of the hose out of the water as it may not be sanitary.

Step 3 – Test the Water’s Chlorine Levels and Adjust if Needed

One of the most common questions preppers have when it comes to storing water is:

Can I store water long-term straight from the tap, or does it need to be treated first?

The answer to this question isn’t exactly as straight forward as one might think. Tap water does vary between municipalities which means in some areas you may be fine to store it right from the tap and in other areas you might need to treat it first.

What determines whether it is safe to store straight from the tap or not is the chlorine content of the water. All municipal water supplies have chlorine added to the water to improve taste and ensure the water does not contain harmful bacteria. The level of chlorine that is in the water determines whether or not it will be safe to store without treatment.

The reason for this is because water that sits for a long period of time has a higher risk of growing harmful bacteria. You want the water you store to be at the high end of the safe range for chlorine. Per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), drinking water can have a chlorine content of up to 4 ppm (parts per million) and still be very safe to drink. Most municipal water supplies have a chlorine content of between 1 to 4 ppm. You should store the water with a chlorine content near the top of that range (2 to 3 ppm would be ideal).

Tap water flowing freely.
Not all tap water needs to be treated before being stored. You should check its chlorine content to know for sure.

How to Tell If You Need to Treat Your Tap Water for Storage

There are a few ways to tell if you have the correct amount of chlorine for storage in your tap water already.

Method 1 – Use Your Sense of Smell: When the chlorine level is high enough that you can detect it by smell (i.e. the water has an extremely faint chlorine smell to it) then you are at about the top of the ideal range for storage. This method, however, is not as reliable as others as it is based on the human sense of smell which can vary from person to person. The best way is to check the chlorine levels with a test kit.

Method 2 – Use a Chlorine Test Kit: A standard swimming pool test kit can be used or you can get these test strips specifically made for testing a water supply (amazon link) relatively inexpensively. These test kits are easy to use and will measure the chlorine content of the water in ppm’s. With most of these kits, you take a sample of the water and dip the test strip into the water for a few seconds. The test strip will then turn a certain color. You then compare the color of the test strip with a provided color shade chart, match up the color, and the chart will tell you the chlorine content of the water.

Adjusting the Chlorine Content of Your Water

Once you have determined the chlorine content of your water, you will need to make adjustments as necessary to obtain a chlorine content of between 2-3 ppm. If your municipal water supply isn’t within the ideal chlorine content range for long term storage (many supplies aren’t) then you will need to treat it prior to storage.

Raising the Chlorine Levels: Raising the chlorine levels is relatively easy and can be done with regular store-bought unscented concentrated liquid bleach. When you buy bleach for this purpose make sure that the active ingredient is sodium hypochlorite (NaOCI) with a concentration of between 5.25% and 6%. It is also critical to ensure that it is standard bleach with absolutely no additives (such as scented bleach). Some manufacturers add Sodium Hydroxide as an active ingredient as well. This additional active ingredient is safe and will not pose any health risk when purifying water.

Water Preserver Concentrate

If you would prefer, you can get this Emergency Water Preserver Concentrate to raise chlorine levels for convenience of use, but keep in mind that this product is merely regular household unscented concentrated liquid bleach. However it is in a convenient dropper bottle.

See Price on Amazon

Start by adding of 3 drops of bleach per gallon,
then recheck chlorine levels. 

If you are treating five gallons of tap water at a time, start by adding about 16 drops (or 1/8 teaspoon) of bleach and then recheck the chlorine levels. Repeat this until you have the desired amount of chlorine in the water. Remember, 2 to 3 ppm is ideal but up to 4 ppm is considered safe. When you reach the desired levels of chlorine, write down how much bleach it took so you will know how much bleach to add in the future to your specific type of tap water.

Lowering the Chlorine Levels: Lowering the chlorine level in your water supplies is fairly difficult. Most people need to raise the levels of chlorine in their municipal water supplies prior to storage. If you make a mistake by adding too much chlorine it is best to dump out the water and start over. If you must remove chlorine from a supply of water, these are the most common ways of accomplishing this:

  1. Evaporation – Chlorine evaporates, and you can speed this process up by aerating the water. A popular method is to dump the water back and fourth between two containers which will introduce air bubbles to the water. You can also use an air pump from a fish tank to do this as well.
  2. Filtration – Run the water through a carbon based water filter. Carbon very effectively removes chlorine and other chemical particles from water.
  3. Dilution – Add distilled water or any other type of water with a lower chlorine level. Adding water with a lower chlorine level will dilute the water causing lower levels of chlorine.
A water tower perched high in the air.
The higher you can get your emergency water supply, the more pressure you will get when you need to use it.

Step 4 – Find a Place to Store the Water

Now you should have your water treated, sealed in a suitable container, it’s time to find a place to store it. So where should you store your emergency water preps? In order to accomplish the indefinite shelf life you need to ensure no light is getting into the water and that it is stored at a constant temperature.

Room temperature is fine (65°F – 72°F), but cooler is better as it will help to inhibit microbial growth. Usually a garage will stay at a fairly constant temperature level especially if it is on the lower level of a two story house. Other good options are basements, crawl spaces, or cellars.

What is the shelf life of stored tap water?

If your water is properly treated and stored, it should have and indefinite shelf life. The only thing that may degrade over time is the taste of the water. This is because the small particles of air in the water will work their way out over time and the water becomes less aerated (creating a flat taste). Luckily this is easy to fix, just aerate the water by dumping it back and forth a few times between two containers. This will get fresh air mixed back into the water and restore the taste.


Take the precautions outlined here and it should be almost impossible for bacteria to grow in your water, ensuring your water will be ready when you need it. When the next major disaster hits, you don’t want to be worrying if you water preparations are good to go. You’ll have plenty of other things to worry about!

Go to the Next Step – Learn About Water Purification

John Walter

John Walter is an emergency preparedness consultant with eight years of experience and training in related fields. He is a passionate prepper living in the Sacramento area of California.

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