Emergency Preparedness Tip: The best $25 you can spend

Almost every person we talk to about enduring an extended power outage says it: "The first thing we ran out of was water."

A lack of water can quickly escalate from thirst to a laundry list of physical discomforts. And severe dehydration can lead to a serious medical emergency, especially for children and older adults. Plus, water is needed for food preparation and is critical to maintaining hygiene.

How much water?

The American Red Cross recommends stocking an emergency pantry with a minimum of three gallons of water per person - that is, one gallon per person, each day for three days.

For a family of four, that's twelve gallons minimum. Plus, many experts say you should stock another two gallons of water per person for three days of cooking, cleaning up and personal hygiene. That's another eight gallons for a family of four - a total of 20 gallons for just three days. More if you have pets.

Other sources recommend storing enough water for a week, or even two weeks, especially if you live in remote areas! Well, that makes some sense: after all more water is better and some power outages from recent storms have lasted a full week, sometimes two.

The practical solution.

So a family of four needs to stock a good 20 gallons of water, or perhaps double or triple more for protection against a long outage. That may make you think "big," but unless we're talking about off-the-grid living, suggestions about 55-gallon drums of treated water are generally overkill. Even those five-gallon jugs of water like those in an office water cooler are fairly impractical - they weigh about 40 pounds each!

Being prepared is simpler than that. The practical approach to buying and storing water for an emergency is as close as your grocery store and those one-gallon jugs that take up a whole aisle. Let's say you've decided that you want to stock enough water for drinking, cooking and cleaning to support your family of four for three days - about 20 gallons. If the outage is longer than that, you'll restock water or visit relatives until power is restored.

What will 20 gallons of water cost you? Not much - prices vary widely, but water is cheap. My local grocery store sells a gallon jug of drinking water for between 89¢ and $1.69. So twenty gallons of water will cost just $18-$34. If I bring my own empty jug, they'll refill it for 39¢ - or less than $8 for 20 gallons.

Is stored water safe?

Yes. And actually, all the discussion about frequently rotating stored water is, arguably, overthinking things. The Department of Homeland Security suggests rotating stored water every six to twelve months. But for all practical purposes, commercially bottled water should remain safe for years. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that unopened, commercially bottled water stored in a dark, dry, cool place like a basement or closet will remain safe indefinitely. Source

Some bottled waters will display an expiration or best-if-used-by date. Those are actually the byproduct of a 1997 New Jersey state law requiring all food products to display an expiration date on the label of not more than two years from the date of manufacture. To avoid different labels and distribution just for New Jersey, many regional and national water producers started giving all water a two-year expiration date.

Can you just store your own tap water in plastic jugs? Many do, but the savings are minimal and the safety of your water will hinge on the obvious: is your jug clean at the bacterial level? It's safer to buy commercially bottled jugs and leave them unopened.

While stored water is safe, that's not to say that water that's been sitting in a plastic jug for a year is necessarily going to taste great. For quality purposes, it's best to rotate your water by simply replacing a jug or two every month. What to do with the water? Drink it!

With hurricane season now officially "open," consider Tropical Storm Andrea's recent bruising of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas as fair warning: the time to stockpile water (and your emergency pantry) and safeguard your family is now!