Water Disinfection and Boiling

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Is boiling the safest and best practice with regard to disinfecting your water?

I have seen this topic and question for many years now, and the answers always vary, depending on who is giving it. Though most people agree that it is in fact the best practice, there are some that argue the fact and give reasons stating otherwise. There are also some other considerations that are brought up, even some best practice techniques from the CDC that are commonly discussed. So what’s the real deal? And what is the context in which we are talking about this?

So the main context in which this is discussed and brought up, is in the Survival community. Some folks think boiling is the best way to disinfect water and some disagree, stating (insert latest gadget, or chemical here) is the best way. I have always been a believer of boiling myself, but too each their own I say. With that said, let’s discuss boiling some more. People have quoted the CDC (Center for Disease Control) saying that water should be brought to a rolling boil for at least a minute (at or around sea level). On the contrary, also stating that water should be brought to a rolling boil for up to 3 minutes (at elevation, above 2000ft). The reason given for this is that water boils at a lower temperature at elevation, than at sea level. I’m not sure exactly what that means to be honest, and this confuses the heck out of me. It is human nature to make things complicated I guess. When I hear this, all I can think about is the old saying, what weighs more, a pound of bricks or a pound of feathers? There’s obviously no difference, and I believe the same to be true with regard to how long your water should be boiled. If it’s boiled, it is boiled. The time frame and air thickness is, and should be, irrelevant (my opinion). I like to keep things simple if I can. Boiling water gives the advantage of killing 100% of all water-born pathogens. Examples of that are giardia, cryptosporidium, Hepatitis-A and the likes. Truth is, most of these are killed at a much lower temperature, and in some cases, can be killed with pasteurization.

So then there is the chemical factors that may be in the water you intend on using. This usually takes place around agricultural fields and such. Depending on the chemical, pasteurization/boiling here can actually enhance the chemical, or make it more potent and dangerous. Obviously, being more harmful if consumed. My thought on that is, if you are around such a place or water source, you are most likely not lost or in a Survival situation, at least not one where water is a concern. In this case, you should be packing your water in with you if you are concerned about it. Again, keep it simple and use common sense, that is typically a best practice. Speaking on the chemical aspects of water disinfection, there are some who bring this up regularly as well, and for good reason I suppose. On the flip side however, there are some of the same people who would defer to using other chemicals over boiling to disinfect.  I find that to be sort of hypocritical, but again, too each their own I guess. I was never a big fan of using chemicals, and never will be. I have a huge problem with ingesting them needlessly. Some of the chemicals used, or advocated for use, say right on the bottles or packaging, “do not ingest”. But this is safe? Or a safer way than boiling? I would beg to differ, but again, that is just me.

I’m an advocate of boiling myself and have never had an issue. I have done this in different states around the country and do it regularly on trips and such. This technique has been used for a long time now with great success, and is the one I will continue to practice. Humans make errors, so the latest gadget to filter water may not work as advertised, and typically doesn’t remove 100% of the bad stuff anyhow. Just a little food for thought, to go with your water ; )

At the end of the day, the choice is yours. Believe what you may, but if in a “Survival” situation, use whatever technique you wish. But don’t die of dehydration because you couldn’t disinfect the water, just drink it! You may be sick after the fact, but you will be alive and sick.

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5 thoughts on “Water Disinfection and Boiling

  1. Changes is ambient atmospheric pressure. Water boils at sea level with 14.7 pounds per square inch (PSI) of atmospheric pressure. Altitude, causes a reduction of atmospheric pressure and molecules spread out a bit. As boiling at 212F degrees at sea level, the same water will boil anywhere below that mark as alititude increases and boiling point decreases, due to loss of atmospheric pressure from 14.7 PSI. It stands to reason, and I have done such, as drink boiling water that was considerably less tha 212F degrees. To disinfect, time would need to be increased to augnment the reduced time that it takes to boil water. For instance, at sea level, it take a given volume of water 3 minutes to boil. At 2,000 feet, maybe the same given volume may take 2.25 minutes to boil. Less tension on the surface as atmospheric pressure is reduced.

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    1. Right on bud. I understand the time being different in boiling at the different elevations, but my point I guess, is that the water is still “boiled”, regardless of the time it took to do so. So why longer depending on atmospheric pressure after the fact that it is boiled?

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      1. Technical stuff, because you can also heat quicker with coals or move it closer into the fire. A few times, I had lukewarm tea or weak coffee as the water was not fully boiled. Remedied that by boiling with a lid on, to increase pressure.
        I use a coffee boiler here for years. It is a 2 qt. boiler and I fill to the bottom hole of the “V” at the spout. A rolling boil. Three monsterous heaping tablespoons of espresso coffee into the water. Fold the grinds in. Twelve minutes later on reduced flame, coffee. If at altitude, maybe pick it up to 15 minutes. I have had coffee boiled to 45 minutes and 0ne hour, but had to cut it with a little water. Guess when in the woods or so, the only thing is trying it and seeing if it works or fails. Next time, I know better.
        After the flooding here in 2012 SuperStorm Sandy, I was boiling water in a kettle as the sewers backed up and I was concerned about bacteria and germs. Southeast Asia, we boiled coffee so that we knew it was made with boiled water and safe to drink. After the flood the same, but I found one of my “bricks” (soft packaging of coffee compressed) of espresso, and instinctively made coffee boiling 30 minutes. Ladle the high oil from the top for great flavor. Fire was primitive I made from wood floating with tide and current that I set verticle and the wind dried the tops so that became “the cross” of the fire. It took time, but all of it felt like only a few minutes to do. I kind of enjoyed the loss of all modern things. Wife started to become unglued, some people were basket-cases. I boiled-up some freshly caught fish with a couple potatoes I got, no clue about time to do all, but, the fire, was my timer. If I were at say 5,000 feet, I would have done the same only with a lid (and a big rock over the lid to keep pressure high) on the pots. Everything else would have been exactly the same, and with the same results.

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  2. Interesting article Sarge. My view has always been…do it all. If the safety of the water in question is a major concern, strain and filter (say through a coffee filter, grass, bandanna if available) to get the particles out, boil and then use your fancy filter or tablets or bleach or UV lights,etc… Filters that clean out heavy metals and chemicals exist as well but you can never be sure what they actually get out. The label may say it can remove lead but you cant see what you have to filter out really in the first place. Whichever way you decide to process your water, don’t get so wrapped up in the water’s safety that you pass on drinking it. In a true survival situation, based on your climate and overall health, you may be too dead from dehydration to get poisoned in the first place 🙂

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