Friday, January 24, 2014

Resource Management: Water

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One of the reasons that I love watching movies and reading books, particularly those of the apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic variety, is because I *may* learn a little tid-bit of useful knowledge that may one day benefit me.

One of my favorite movies and novels of this genre is "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. While it is a fantastically bleak and powerful work, it still provided me a teaching moment that has been invaluable. In one of the opening scenes of the movie, we see that something has dire has happened. Though we are never told what it is, we assume that it is either the precursor to, or is the extinction event itself, that drives the plot of this movie. The dad, whom we are never told his name, immediately fills any basin in the house with water. He stops up the sinks and tubs. He fills any and all containers with water.

Additionally, we learn that he keeps his family inside his home, blocking up windows, locking doors, but most importantly, keeping an extremely low profile as to avoid any attention from the outside. We aren't told if he and his wife and child stay inside 100% of the time but we do know that the wife is slowly driven crazy with such a meager existence. What we also learn is that it is understood that life outside is death, for whatever reason, as she eventually departs and is never seen again.

What I find interesting is the relationship between the man's actions early in the movie and his ability to outlast most everyone else, though it's obvious its because of his ability to avoid confrontation as well as make quick decisions that will provide great dividends in the future. Simply said, his willingness to stay in his house, bunkered down, despite being well equipped, served him greatly. While there may have been many other ancillary reasons, it can me safely assumed that riding out the storm was the most important and intelligent thing he could have done. Yet, without the proper resources, it would have led to death just as the outside world promised. However, he was able to take stock of what he had, maximize it, and realize that he didn't have to survive forever on these items. He just had to survive everyone else.

How was he able to do this when it was obvious that he hadn't taken any great pains to prep, as we have so discussed? How would I be able to apply this to my own situation, would it arrive at my doorstep as it did in this movie? Going back to the single action that I identified earlier. He immediately stopped what he was doing and maximized the single most important resource he would need to survive and outlast. He stockpiled water.

Ever since I saw this movie, almost a decade ago, that one moment has stuck with me. This was before I even considered myself a casual prepper. But, I saw what he did and I applied it to my checklist of things to do in the event of any emergency. But, to be fair, I had some experience with this exact problem back when I was a teenager. My area was devastated by a large F4 tornado that went right through my homestead. We lived on top of a hill surrounded by woodland. The downed trees trapped us on top of the mountain for several weeks. It became evident what resource was truly precious after about 3 days. Sure, we were down to eating things for meals that we would never have considered "dinner", potted meat and canned tomatoes, for instance, but we were fed. What we didn't have was water. See, living on top of a hill, we had a booster pump to supply us water. With no electricity, we had no water. It took 2 days to drink all the sodas and juices. After two days of profuse sweating and hard work, it was hard to be around each other due to a lack of hygiene. Not to mention how the hard work and sweating was affecting the hydration of our bodies without pure water around. That isn't to say we were in any trouble of dying or anything. We weren't. We had friends come help us after a day or two. But it has always stuck with me how quickly the water was gone, how precious it is, and just how much a human needs to function.

It doesn't take much time in researching other common natural and unnatural disasters to see what the number 1 supply brought in by aid programs really is. Additionally, after disasters, the most common cause of sickness and death other than trauma is diseases through contaminated water supplies or dehydration itself. According to some quick research, the human man needs around 3 liters a day just to function. A woman needs a little less at 2.2. And, as everyone knows, it only takes around 48 hours to die of dehydration. And, that doesn't cover the needs if humans are in a situation where they are under physical duress. Additionally, water is needed for more than drinking. It's needed for waste control, hygiene, and other things. But, it's easier to concentrate on the human need to consume in order to function.It doesn't take a genius to do some simple math and come up with the needs for your family on a day or month basis. For my family of 5, which is my wife and 3 children, let's say we need 12 liters or a little over 3 gallons a day, or say around 90. But, 100 is a nice round number so let's use that. We need 100 gallons a month for consumption alone. Additionally, I started thinking about how much time a family might need to buy themselves, hunkered down, to wait it out. As we have seen in many disasters and based upon the numbers I have seen researchers put out, when supplies dry up, there is a high death rate right at 30 days. Sounds good to me. Let's go with it. We want to stay bunkered for 30 days in typical urban America. Our critical resource is water, of which we need a minimum of 100 gallons for consumption alone.

So, with that in mind, I started wondering about all the different ways that you could meet this demand. Keep in mind that I am considering only people living in urban areas where you have people living next door and across the street. You don't have a water supply such as a stream or river that you can easily get to, and if you could, you wouldn't because you don't want to expose yourself to the outside. So, I thought of several ways to bunker up and meet your water quota. You could store it last minute using available containers. You could go out and buy a supply of water. You could source water from the rain. You could try and recover the water with a "closed loop" approach. Immediately I (and I know you') identify potential problems with each of these. And, all you smart people are already thinking "you will need a combination of these". Well, for those that aren't so savvy, let's talk it out.

Storing Water from the Tap in Available Basins
Ironically, I was in the shower the other day when this topic came up. I called my wife into the bathroom and asked her how much water we could possibly have on hand, in the event of an emergency. Make the assumption that we wanted to turn the lights off, lock the doors, and pretend no one was home in order to avoid any conflict. What was our capacity? What would we have on hand? How long would that buy us. Lastly, how would the compare to the people around us, who ultimately may become the most dangerous of adversaries. Now, I understand that your neighbors that you have known for 10 years aren't going to turn into crazies over night. Nor do I believe in zombies. But, let's make the assumption that whatever is outside is bad and you wouldn't prefer to stay indoors at all times. So, we added it up quickly.

  • We have two bath tubs, each holds approx 30 gallons, so 60 gallons
  • We have 3 sinks, one of them a double sink. Each holds an average of 1 gallon. So, let's assume 4 gallons.
  • Around the house, we have several pots and pans, buckets, and other containers. If I were to use these, I would guess I could have another 50 gallons. This includes coolers, water coolers, buckets, etc
  • I have 2.5 cases of bottled water, each about 0.125 gallons. Each case has 24 bottles. Let's round that to 7.5 gallons of water
That gives us a total of 120 gallons or 450 liters, give or take. So, at absolute best case, with no losses do to leakage, evaporation, or use for other purposes such as cleaning or sanitation, my family of 5 could stay indoors for 37 days. Let that sink in. A little over a month on your internal supplies alone, and that's assuming that you are above average, given that you jumped on the water savings immediately, you had containers, and some stock of bottles water. 

Now, I know many of you are saying that this is an over simplified example, and you would be correct. I will address some of the holes in my logic, but ultimately that 37 day estimate is fairly accurate, if actually on the high side. While I can't speak on every town and city in America, it can safely be assumed that you will still have line pressure from your city supply (or whatever utilities you have) for several days. But, so will everyone else. That could be a good or a bad thing, really. Sure, you could store more water by going out and getting more containers, but that would defeating the purpose of avoiding danger. 

Additionally, we discount the ability to source outside sources. Even if at some point, things will slow down and you would have the ability to seek an outside water supply, you wouldn't want to attempt this. Not only does it go against the purpose of the exercise, but consider that the further into this apocalyptic event we go, the more desperate people will be for nearly anything of value. You may live next to a perfectly good water supply. But so do everyone else around you. Again, the name of the game is to wait it out.

Yet, when reviewing this 37 day estimate and how it would fair in waiting out the storm, all I could think of was "the average household has the same capability." That doesn't mean the average household would approach our own "lockdown" approach, but it does certainly mean that "waiting them out" for an appreciable amount of time isn't going to happen. We would need a lot more water to buy us a lot more time. Additionally, these would be open air containers that would be severely susceptible to leakage, contamination, and evaporation.

Buying an Appreciable Water Supply
Obviously the easiest way to fix this problem would be to supplement my stores of bottles water. While you can't put a price on safety and your welfare, the fact remains that bottled water is incredibly expensive. Ok, so I know everyone was raising their eyebrows at me. It's just bottled water, right! Are you that cheap? Well, we aren't talking about needing a case or two. We are talking about needing 100 gallons. Just a quick internet search shows that you can buy a gallon of water for $5.70. So, you could spend $570 dollars and buy yourself a months worth of water. But where are you going to store it? I sure don't have a place for that much water. Maybe you do. And, if you do, you either have no kids or a lot bigger home than I. I know these people exist, and good for them. We have seen them on those TV shows and you have probably read about Doomsday Bunker Dwellers on my blog. When money isn't an issue, you can do these things. But I can't. Money and space aside, this is a fantastic option for many reasons. Perhaps the best reason is that the water is sealed and impervious to becoming contaminated. Additionally, you will not have any losses from evaporation or leakage. 

Rainwater Collection
What about rainwater collection. Ah. Now we are getting somewhere! Again, let's make the assumption that you can safely collect water without exposing yourself to others. What do you have to collect water in? We added all the collection devices we had above. Even if we used every cup and bowl we had, we might double that total available collection to 100 gallons, but the amount of rainfall is the true driver. And, it has less to do with available volume of your containers than the surface area.  In my state of Alabama, the average rainfall averages around 65 inches a year. Let's say that's 5.5 inches a month, since we are talking in terms of days and months. Additionally, the heaviest rain we might ever see is around 5 inches in a period of 3 days. Again, another nice number when we contemplate the time of dehydration, being around 3 days. 5 inches is about 1/6 the height of the average 5-gallon bucket. We said that we had 100 gallons total, or 20 5 gallon buckets. That gives us around another 20 gallons total. That's not even good enough for another 2 days.

Again, rainwater collection is a complicated formula of available basins and rainfall. The other potential answer is the application of cisterns. For example, for under $500 you can add a water water collection system to your house which will collect all the water from your roof into a collection tank via a T added into your drain spouts. While you can add as big of a basin as you like, the average system uses a 40 to 50 gallon drum. My father uses one of these for his garden and it took 1 large rain to fill completely up, though it is a function of the surface area of your roof. Going back to our math we used in the above paragraph, if the weather averaged 3 rains a month, that would provide you with 150 gallons a month, provided you quickly and efficiently maximized the storage.

Which means, without taking into consideration losses in the system, in an average year, you would be able to sustain yourself with a rainwater collection system indefinitely. If you lived where I love, in soggy Alabama. There are some assumptions to be made, even then. The first assumption being that you experienced AVERAGE rainfall and that the water was usable or in other words, not tainted. Alabama is a very moist climate. In fact, Alabama led the nation in rainfall. Even here we can go through severe dry spells, sometimes in terms of a month. In much of the country, the rainfall for the year is nearly nonexistent. Arizona, for example, has a 24 inch per year average. Ohio has a 47 inch average. Maryland checks in at 50. In fact, most of the nation experiences an average of 30 inches of rainfall per year. So, our use of Alabama is best case. On the average, you would be lucky to experience half of the rainfall, meaning that you would still have to supplement your rainwater collection with a minimum of 15 gallons of water sourced from somewhere, or you would have to expand the capacity expected from a single rainwater collection system. Again, not really a problem to expand. You just need another roof and another rainwater collection system and luck that you don't go through a dry spell. Additionally, if you already had this system set up, you would possibly have an instant 50 gallon surplus in addition to anything else you had on hand.

Water Recovery
Obviously, the best answer in a "closed loop" system, or as near to it as you could reasonably achieve. That is, recovering used water from urine, sweat, and other by products. And, by "best" I speak in terms of efficiency. You could buy or design such a tool and it would be used to do all the work for you. But, unless you have developed "still suit" technology a la Herbert's "Dune" there is virtually no way to close the system entirely. The best you could hope for is to recover water from urine and a fraction at that. While this is certainly achievable, it departs from the more simplistic methods listed above. You either have to have a filtration system on hand, which can be quite expensive, or you have to build your own. Again, you have understand that even this isn't a closed loop system. You will still loose a significant amount of water per day to unavoidable losses such as respiration and sweat, just as you would lose much of your water to evaporation. A quick search shows that a human produces around 0.8 liters of urine. Meaning that you would, at absolute max, recover 40% per day of your water intake, not taking into account other minerals in the urine itself which would be filtered out. That's not much, but it is more than the average person would be able to recover. And, we said from the beginning that weren't trying to survive forever on what we had in our home, we just wanted to survive LONG ENOUGH. After all, when the traffic dies down, procuring supplies such as water will be easy. And, you wouldn't have subjected yourself to the dangers outside. Of course the downside is, you are drinking your own urine. Ok, so I can get around that. But, with a homemade system (even with off the shelf systems) you run the risk of poisoning yourself because of some filtering error.

Conclusion
So, where does that leave us? Hopefully you have at least identified which of this techniques would work for you. At a minimum, I hope we have learned that having guns and dehydrated food is great, but it isn't the resource we need every other day and in great supply. Just as reading a book taught me one small thing, hopeful reading this and my other Last Man on Earth Studies will get you thinking on how best to prepare yourself.

Ok. Back to where we were, saving water in terms of waiting the outside would out, it would ultimately be nice to have enough water stored to not have to worry about it. There are people out there that already have already done that. Chances are, if you are reading this you have either done this or at least considered it. Many have thousands of gallons stored away. But, I don't have the money for it nor the space to store it. But, what we can do is to maximize our in home capacity as much as we can. After reviewing the prospective techniques and tactics above, it seems fairly intuitive that the average person would have to rely on multiple, if not all, of the techniques. To be successful, a person would have to immediately identify the problem at hand and set in motion a plan to stock up and sustain the one most basic and essential commodity that humans need, and need in vast quantities. Like we noted, my family alone would need 12 liters or 3 gallons a day just for consumption in normal operating environments. That doesn't take into account the needs for sanitation and hygiene which really are extensive, especially with 3 kids. Perhaps most importantly, this doesn't take into consideration the potential losses to evaporation and stagnation. It's hard to put a number on that for every locale, but you can reasonably take the 100 gallon need for consumption and add a 20% buffer to account for losses. Add in another 50 gallons for miscellaneous sanitation and other uses and you would need 170 gallons a month. Which means that my home would need to essentially do everything listed. We would need to immediately store as much water as we could in bathtubs, sinks, bottles, and buckets. We would need at least 1 rainwater collection device capable of collecting 50 gallons per month. Additionally, we would also need to be able to recover 20% of our urine water. And that would be just to break even on an average month. The easiest solution to that would be to stockpile more sealed containers of water.

So, that's a pretty razor thin edge. When you have a family, the edge is not where you would prefer to be. Ideally, you want a nice cushion when it comes to consumables, particularly water. So, the logical answer is that you would need the combination of at least 2 of the proposed techniques.  I don't know about you, but even though I am engineer, I really don't want to drink my or my kids pee. And, it's relative efficiency is low. To me, it's a great long term solution, but not in the timeline we are talking about. That doesn't mean I wouldn't do it. I would, without any trouble. But it wouldn't be my choice. In  terms of buying a water supply, I don't have the room or the cash to go out and buy 100 gallons of water, but I do have some on hand and I have no problem buying a little at a time and storing it as I have room. I have the option, as does everyone, of storing water in available open air containers, but I don't necessarily like this technique because it isn't efficient due to leaks, evaporation, and the general ability to keep the water viable. That doesn't mean it isn't a great last ditch effort OR a way to supplement your own supply. In particular, this is probably the best way to provide yourself a "general use" supply of water. A rainwater collection device is almost a necessity. It does cost a little money, but it easily collects and stores water with no effort from you. It is renewable in the since that you will have a supply as long as it rains. But the downfalls are that it is unreliable in terms of dependable rainfall. And, in terms of what you are bunkering down from, the water could be useless, though that is probably a stretch. After all, if radiation or chemical warfare is the concern, you're probably dead anyway.

There are many combinations of these 4 different process and they can be used in any situation. I realize that everyone's situation is different. We really only considered one particular situation: The typical urban American home. But considering that's where the vast majority of American's life, I believe the example is pertinent. But it's important to understand what your situation is. In mine, rainfall usually isn't a problem. With the combination of 50 gallons of bottled water and a rainwater collection system, I would get by for a month. The point is, you have to realize that water is ultimately the most valuable resource. It's the only resource you must have in great supply and one you can't go very long without. In a situation where you have identified that you want to wait out the storm, as we covered on McCarthy's "The Road"  you have to take steps that you have enough of this resource or a way to collect and use it without exposing yourself to the outside world.


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