Dora pointed at the damp and bloated sheetrock on her little sun
and declared, “It’s your fault, you know.”


You said I should store emergency water in old plastic milk
cartons. I did — and they leaked! Now I learn they biodegrade.”

I glanced around at the sunny, unheated porch. Yep, the wall was a
mess, and a dark stain marred the wooden floor. Several milk cartons sat
there, suspiciously collapsed in on themselves. My fault, indeed. But
this being the Clinton era, I’ll make excuses; my advice wasn’t bad; it
just … uh … gave the appearance of badness.

Seems lots of people are storing emergency water, both as a
precaution against short-term disruptions and as a Y2K preparation.
Surprisingly, this age-old act isn’t always easy for us modern sorts.
You can store emergency water in milk cartons. You’ve just got to
be careful how. And maybe, for you, there are better methods.

“Dora,” I said, “I owe you a piece of sheetrock. But come have some
tea. As people keep telling me, there are ways to do this storage thing,
and then there are ways. …”

At our house, we do successfully store emergency water in milk
Been doing it for at least five years, and have had only one leak.
However, here’s how we accomplish that. After washing the empty cartons
with hot, soapy water and giving them a swish with a light bleach
solution, we fill them with purified water from Pickle’s Groce Mart.
(Hardyville tap water won’t kill you, but tastes like it should.) Then
comes the important part:

  • We use these as our regular drinking water supply, rotating
    both the water and the cartons.
  • Most important — we store them in a spot that has a constant medium
    temperature and never gets blasted by the sun.
  • We inspect them each time we refill them and toss any carton that
    shows signs of becoming brittle, especially around the seams.

Almost none of them do become brittle simply because we keep them
from the main trigger of biodegradation — sunlight — and that other
enemy of plastic — freezing.

Because we constantly rotate our bottled supply, we don’t use any
additives to retard growy stuff. If you put water away for months
instead of rotating it, just remember 1) add a drop of unscented
liquid chlorine bleach (“Drop” will be defined … sort of … later);
and 2) refill and re-treat your supply at least once a year.

Okay, but what if you don’t have a cool, dark spot, or you had a bad
experience, or you don’t buy milk in plastic cartons?

B.J., a former emergency medical technician who knows something about
safe and sterile storage, wrote to say that “hurricane people” store
water in chlorine bleach bottles:

After you drain the bleach, do not rinse the bottle. If you
fill it with water, you already have your purifier (the few drops of
bleach) in the bottle. They are impervious to outside weather and
chemicals — because if they weren’t the bleach would make a mess on the
store shelves. And they last forever.

Yep, this works. Watch out, though! You can do this only with
plain, pure chlorine bleach bottles. You must never, never use
bottles that have contained scented bleach, or bleach with any other
additives. Those may be poisonous.

I also asked B.J. how a non-expert could tell whether the bleach left
in an “empty” bottle was the right amount — because another thing we
learned early on is that you don’t want to be over-generous with

“Guess it’s a learned process,” she answered. “I’ve always wondered
anyway — how big is ‘a drop’? Is it bigger than a pinch but smaller
than a smidge?”

A drop — the right size drop — is what you arrive at by practice.
It’s enough to keep your stored water from getting slimy and
unwholesome, but so little that you don’t taste chemicals when you drink
it. One expert recommended ten drops, but I tried that and — ACK!
Ptooey! Maybe I had a different idea of a “drop” than she did. I’m sure
glad I discovered the problem before I had to live on the stuff.
Experiment! Remember, an expert is merely someone (like me) who can
string two sentences together and send them through a modem. Expertise
doesn’t count for much if it doesn’t work for you.

But what if you don’t accumulate many bleach bottles or you prefer to
heed the “DO NOT REFILL” advice from the manufacturers, what else?

You can buy multi-gallon
bottles, barrels
or bladders designed for longer-term storage. Some
of these are quite clever, like the five-gallon mylar
designed to store inside your future emergency porta-potty, or
nice cube-shaped containers that stack. But it goes against my grain to
buy containers when the world is already so full of free, recyclable

Reader Brian Welch writes to say that he, too, “… would hesitate
making [milk cartons] my sole storage source or keeping them near my
other stores just in case. We use the one-quart Gatorade-style bottles,
too, since they’re a little handier size.”

Juice and soft drink bottles, now there’s a thought. And thanks for
the reminder, Brian: It’s definitely a good idea to keep any
water storage well away from, say, your sacks of flour (unless your
emergency plans include a potential need for a large, impromptu supply
of Play-Doh)!

We’ve tried juice and soda bottles at our house, but with mixed
results. Mainly, we’ve never completely gotten out the aroma or taste of
whatever was in there. To deodorize them, we fill the empties with
generous mixtures of baking soda and water and let them sit for several
days. Still, there’s always a ghost of a flavor. If you’ve found a way
to get rid of it, let me know. As is, we use those only to store water
for our pets. (You wouldn’t forget your critters, would you?)

B.J. points out that any plastic containers sold with
“non-chemically reactive fluids” are required by Your Helpful Government
to be biodegradable. She’s right and I wouldn’t want to bet my life on a
cracking carton. But we’ve had apple juice bottles banging around in the
back of a truck up to two years, constantly refilled with travel water
for the dogs, and they haven’t suffered a crack. With more careful
storage, you can make containers last a much longer time than theory and
the government say they should.

By the way, in case you don’t already know, you should store at least
one gallon per person per day for cooking and drinking, and another
gallon per person for sanitation. If you’re planning for a weekend or a
week, no problem. If you’re storing for a longer emergency, that’s a
whole ‘nother question. Then you’ll require a lot more than milk
cartons, soda jugs or bleach bottles.

In a future column we’ll look at cheap and easy methods of bulk water
storage. (Ideas welcome!) In the meantime, I have to go help Dora
rebuild her wall. Even if there isn’t … er … any controlling legal
authority that says I really have to.

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