Is distillation a viable water purification option during SHTF?
Guest Post by Angel D. Uberto
Whether you are new to prepping, or have camped in the great outdoors, you most likely are aware of boiling water as a means to minimize issues with bacteriological contaminants, often called “purification”. Although boiling water (roaring for minimum of 20 minutes) the solid particulates/contaminants are not addressed. Oh sure, you will kill the critters but who wants chunky water? For that matter, chemical treatments give you the same results, i.e., chunky water.
Filtration is always an option but of course, requires a filter and will address the “chunky water” syndrome but you still have to tend with the “critters”. What to do, what to do!
Distillation is an option often overlooked in our modern day world of gadgets (filters, packaged water, chemicals, etc.). What is distillation? Aside from being the most common way of making consumable alcohol (you have heard of moonshine), for water, it is way to purify by employing water’s physics, i.e., being able to go from solid, to liquid, to gas, and back to liquid. For our discussion, we will focus on liquid->gas->liquid. Of course, solid->liquid is an option for winter’s snow/ice conditions but do consider water quality…Don’t eat yellow snow!
Since the intent of distillation is to change water from liquid to gas (vapor) and back to liquid, the obvious need is heat. But, do you really need “fire”? Well not really; heat can be obtained from multiple radiation sources. RADIATION??? Yes but not what you may be thinking. The Sun energy that arrives to Earth is radiation and we all know what happens to an ice cube in the Sun. So, if not Sun radiation, what other heat sources can I use? If you have seen fog, you have also seen the Earth’s absorbed Sun radiation at work in an inversion method. As the Earth cools, vapor in the air is condensed into droplets, a.k.a. fog. Even in the most arid areas, there is moisture in the air, even if fog does not form.
So, how do I distill water?
So, how do I distill water? Employing fire as the heat source is relatively straight forward and there multitude YouTube videos on the subject. So, for this article, we will focus on methods that do not require fire. Keep in mind, and open “wood” fire creates smoke and smoke is a sure sign of human activity. Even if the fire produces little to no smoke, we all have noses and again, smell is a sign.
Note – although not distillation, the Sun’s UV wavelength can be used to purify under certain conditions. Calling this out as another potential way to kill the little critters and you can look into that.
Now, back to distillation – as pool of water naturally absorbs sun energy and, although you may not see it, turns into gas. Every day, this happens via our Oceans and the gas condenses into vapor as it cools, a.k.a., Clouds. When vapor laden clouds interacts with a solid particle and the air is cool enough, you get rain. So, a solar distiller reproduces the same concept within an enclosure. There are multiple YouTube videos on how to construct a “Solar Distiller” so we will not do that here. The basic concept, a clear (preferably glass) lid over a pool of water and a collection method. If you have seen water run down the inside of a window, you have seen the exact thing we are trying recreate in a controlled environment.
The more water you need, the larger distillation surface (the glass lid) are you need. So this is not a viable concept for bugging out. But fear not, you can still use solar energy to distill water and all you will need is a plastic bag. Say what? Yup, a plastic bag I said.
Previously, we discussed fog so the goal in this alternate solar distillation is to copy that naturally occurring process. No, no, does not mean you running around in the fog trying to catch the droplets. Although that would give you some exercise, not very efficient. The distillation method we are about to discuss is a perfect bug out back up to your filtration, particularly if fire is not an option.
Here is what to do. Get a baggie (quart or gallon), put inside it a polyethylene sheet of plastic. Look in your closet, do you have a Dry Cleaning bag? Well, there you go and I’ll use that for instructions. Take the bag and cut it along the edge to create a larger sheet. Of course, you can keep it as is and use it “doubled up”. The idea is to have as large an area as possible. Fold or stuff into the baggie then stuff that in your BOB, EDC, or keep with your preps if desired.
When you get to the location you are going to honker down overnight, first thing to do:
1 – If available, collect some bio matter like leaves, weeds, grass, small bark, etc. Try to avoid large pieces and including insects or mollusks (snails, slugs, etc.). Does not have to be a large quantity of bio and they will contain moisture even if not wet.
2 – Dig a relatively shallow hole. The depth depends on the amount of bio matter you collected. The goal is to have the floor of hole or top of bio matter be ~4” from the surface. The area should be as level as possible and as large as possible but smaller than the poly sheet you have.
3 – Put the bio matter in the hole and spread it around to create the most surface area staying below the hole’s edge. If insufficient bio matter available or is very dry, urinate on the bio matter, best pee along the perimeter of the pit and don’t waste a drop! Women, you may find it easier to urinate in a container and then pour onto bio mater in the pit.
4 – Depending on how level the pit edges, place your drinking or water collection “cup” in the center after moving enough bio mater aside to make room.
5 – Place the poly sheet over the tip and hold in place with rocks, branches, and/or other weights available. It should be solidly held down but not “trampoline” taught, i.e., should be a little lose.
6 – Put a small pebble or weight on the poly sheet directly over the cup. What you should see is the poly dip down creating a shallow cone shape with apex directly over the cup. If the pebble/weight is not over the cup, lift the sheet, adjust cup’s position to align. You can try adjusting the poly but the pebble will always seek the lowest point based on the level of the overall pit. Thus, moving the cup is more effective.
Now, settle in for the night and let temperature inversion do its magic. In the morning, you will find water that collected on the underside of the poly, ran down to the lowest point (the weight) and drip into the cup. Depending on how much moisture is in the bio matter and the ambient temperature, the amount of water will vary. So, make sure you use a large enough container not to waste collection capability.
Remember the urine/pee? Well, not to worry. Just like other contaminants in the bio matter and in the soil, it has been distilled. The water collected on the underside of the poly was condensed water droplets from the vapor (gas) in the air. Essentially, it has been distilled by the Earth, captured by the plastic, and collected in you cup.
Yes, if you are using this method, you are in survival mode. But, remember, you are bugging out and unless you have reached your alternate (prepared) location, YOU ARE in survival mode. Even if you don’t have to use it, it is good to have the knowledge. BTW, this is method taught in military survival classes.
One additional point, the poly sheet can also be used to capture and keep clean rain water. Just line an indentation with the poly and keep it as clean as you can.