Slow sand water filter system

This guest post by Thomas T. Tinker and entry in our non-fiction writing contest.

Just stirring the pot of ideas for the pack at large and those that have simply missed the possibilities. Thomas T. Tinker

While in a third world country with light arms and air support, I first noticed this style.. type.. of water ‘filter’ systems. Clay boxes and cement pipes, used drums and barrels, pots and 5 gallon buckets. Each had some form of cobbled up hose or pipe out of the top or the side. I got mine out of a ‘Buffalo’ or a 2 liter bottle and I never enjoyed the effects of the third worlds revenge.

Now folks this posting is not unlike the one I did on “TARPS” not too long ago. Short on plans and hoping to instigate a dialogue on the subject. Gawd knows I donwanna spend too much time on this cause it’s a Tuesday and I don’t wanna run into NatGeos Doomsday Preppers. Next to Storage Wars or Snapped…. Who’d wanna miss it!!! THAT LAST LINE WAS FOR THE FEDERALIES READING THE BLOG TODAY… I’M REALLY GOING TO SPEND THE NIGHT IN THE ATTIC WATCHING THE ENTIRE ‘LORD OF THE RINGS’ BOXED SET… YEEE HAWW.

I was going to do this a couple of years back but thought I had better put a couple together myself before I started blowing my horn. I started with a simple 5 gallon food grade bucket model I found on YouTube. One bucket and assorted cheap pvc pipe fittings and spigot. 2 bags of pool filter sand. A couple of shovels full of small gravel from the Cities ‘pot hole crew’ truck.. Thank You to the City of Toledo! One yard of coated window screen and one yard of swamp cooler filter.

Made a small two pronged forky looking thing with a pvc T and two 90s. Drilled out the bottoms of the tines with an 8th in drill. Ran a vertical pvc up the inside and 90ed out the side to a spigot just below the series of rings around the bucket.

Laid in the the ‘fork’ in the bottom and glued on the top 90 and spigot out the side. Laid in a cut piece of screen over the fork. Laid in 3 inches of gravel over the screen. Poured in the sand and tamped it down until it was about 4 inches from the top of the bucket. Added an inch or so of gravel and a piece of screen on top of the sand and topped it off with a layer of Swamp cooler filter. Viola! Settled the media down with the garden hose. Swept off the deck and dumped it in a bucket of tap water. Poured same into filter and waited. Go figure… it came out clear and clean enough not to ruin lunch or dinner… or eggs and taters the next morning.

The 5 gallon model is sitting in the back of the garage. Took about two weeks for the bio-active layer to form on the top. Ah… yeah. Last summer I repeated the same receipt with a 30 gallon gray pvc barrel. This time I used two 6 inch round lawn sprinkler heads and garden hose instead of pvc pipe. Screwed the sprinklers on to a hose Y and cut a section of hose to run up the inside of the barrel and through a notch in the lip of the barrel. I added another hose Y with shut off valves to the end of the cut section of hose outside the barrel and two more 2 foot sections of hose on the hose Y. Each of these two run into a hole in a 5 gallon bucket lid. Screen/gravel/sand/screen/gravel/swamp cooler element. Viola! I figure it at about 26ish gallons cause of the hose notch. Again…. Clear.. clean.. water. HOWEVER!

I use this as a pre-filter for my ceramic filter system cuzz I can! I use the 5 gal. buckets loads to feed my ceramic system. In the bottom of my secondary filtered collection bucket I leave a 1 ounce pure silver round. I have not taken the time to have this end product tested. In any nasty event, I would expect the ‘surface’ water to be rather ‘turbid’. When I have my 55 gal. system up, I’m not going to worry as much as I do now about H2O. Until I need it, the components for the 55gal. will rest inside the barrel.

Here are a few sites that will supply the pack with far more detailed plans and nearly an endless variety of filter styles to consider. Slow Sand Water Filters*** (Center for Disease Control) Safe water systems (Bio sand Water Filter)****
AND my favorite…. If you cannot find a design on this page… consider another layer of personal sanitation preps and storage of several regiments of Ciproflozacin (Keflex) 500Mg. tablets. One by mouth every 8 to 12 hours for general bacterial, intestinal issues with bowel upset. Not that I am giving medical advice cuzz that is the last thing I am qualified to do… Just Saying! slow sand water filter systems.*****
These sand filters are truly ‘plug and play’ items. They are used around the world in major and minor supply systems. !OPINION ALERT! A slow sand filter system coupled with a secondary ceramic or media filter system can supply a preppers answer to one, if not the greatest, problems faced… H2o.

Again, if there are any comments, suggestions, sources or simple death threats… I am.. your humble servant: Thomas T. Tinker

This contest will end on February 16 2013  – prizes include:

Well what are you waiting for – email your entries today. But please read the rules that are listed below first… Yes

About M.D. Creekmore

M.D. Creekmore is the owner and editor of He is the author of four prepper related books and is regarded as one of the nations top survival and emergency preparedness experts. Read more about him here.


  1. Slow sand filters are fantastic small water systems. The reason they are not used today is that they require a large volume per unit of water to filter. As well as the maintenance and know how of a larger filter, you really have to know how thick the bio active layer is on top and when and how much to scrape it down.

    One note – filtration can cut down on the potential pathogens in the water, as filtration reduces turbidity or ‘dirt’ in the water and most bacteria tend to like to stick to dirt. The real benefit of filtration is making your disinfection process much more effective.

    What I’m saying is for direct drinking of the water, you should still disinfect it or boil it before you drink it to make the most of the filtration system and ensure you don’t get a bad case of the trots – or worse.

  2. The effects of running contaminated water through six feet of sand and gravel and then allowing it floe over a series of riffles to re oxygenate have long been known and used in various places in the world. That said, I personally would still test it and treat if necessary. I was always told as a child that the presence of the little white water worm in the well water was a guarantee of purity since the worms could not exixt in contaminated water. Even though the state water board confirmed this fact,m we still assiduously strained them out before using the water and submitted a yearly sample for testing.

  3. Thomas T. Tinker says:

    Mike… yaolde Redneck you…. Thats what I love about this site…. The Pot is Stired! Thanks! I spent an internship at the VA hospital, Sepulveda, Calif. Path/ID lab. Two years of dipping wands and sticks in peoples spitel, poop, and assorted body fluids and wiping them on this dish or that and learned there are many a way to check your own work. These would add some rather select preps to everyones list O stuff and more than a few hours of book work and practice.

    Would anyone care to post on diognostics and the like?

  4. A good supplement to this is activated charcoal. Basically you just take biochar, which is partially burned wood (NOT briquettes, these have chemicals added and can be made from coal) and rinse all the lye and ash out of it to get activated charcoal. (The best biochar for this is made by heating the wood to 400 to 500 degrees F until no flammable gasses are emitted, but in a survival situation however you do it is fine.) You can then use this on the bottom of your filter to collect chemical pollutants.

    I definitely would want to treat the water afterwards still, like by boiling or a ceramic filter, before drinking it. Potters For Peace has an excellent low tech design for making ceramic filters. (They had a good web site but it seems to be down now.) I did make one of their filters in a free workshop, but I didn’t get to keep it, so I can’t report firsthand how well it works.

    • JW,
      I regularly make charcloth for my fire starting kits and have in the past made charcoal with the same process. Cut your wood (hard wood may be better) into 1.5-3.0 inch cubes and place them in a sealed steel drum with a small hole in the top. Build an external fire around the drum and watch for smoke/gas coming out of the hole. Light the gas and keep the external fire burning until no more gas is escaping. Put out the fire and allow everything to cool. What is left is pure charcoal, which I think will serve your purpose.
      You do the same thing on a much smaller scale using cotton or linen cloth to make charcloth for the ignition system for a fire piston or flint and steel.
      BTW, the gas you are burning is wood gas, and can actually be cooled and filtered and used to run an internal combustion engine.

    • Thomas T. Tinker says:

      I find ‘activated charcoal’ in bulk at a huge freash/salt water aquarium shop.

  5. Have a question for the pack.

    I live in a double wide and I’m looking at my water storage options. Because the trailer is up on blocks I thought about pouring a slab outside and putting a building around it for my water stores… but then I thought about all those plastic drums and containers freezing and busting.

    Yesterday I bought the materials to build a 5gal bucket filter that works like the Berkey.

    I know I can store some water in the house without overloading the floors because I’ve had 55gal fish tanks before. I’m just not sure I can store enough. In your opinion…. what are my options for water storage?

    • georgeislearning says:

      just a thought here but would it be possible to store it under the home via a opening in the floor. you could then build a small insulated box under the home and store water there? maybe dunno just an idea. would be hidden pretty well also. best of luck

    • SW,
      A little more information on your situation might be useful. Do you have any property or do you rent space? If it’s your property and there are no choking regulations to stop you, you might place some tanks partially buried in the ground, perhaps under the home. Does it already have a crawl space? If so, you could perhaps expand and insulate that space. The space doesn’t need to be kept at 70 degrees, just something above freezing. You could then use either a small electric or hand powered lift pump to get the water up where you need it.

      • It’s family land and I can do pretty much whatever I want to. Im also out in the country so I don’t have those pesky city restrictions on what we can do.

        It’s a trailer up on blocks… and I live on a hill. One corner sits around 1 foot off the ground and the diagonal corner is 4 foot off the ground.

        • SW,
          Sounds like you could easily wall in a section under the 4 foot area and super insulate it. Build the walls with 2×6 or 2×8 and use fiberglass or foam to fill the walls. But the top of the space up against the trailer floor and you would get some natural heating to keep the space above freezine.
          Just a thought.

    • charlie (NC) says:

      I don’t think freezing water would rupture a plastic drum but I guess it’s possible in the right circumstance. Actually it’s not the ice or the water that breaks glass and engine blocks. It is just an instant at the point of phase shift from ice to water that does the damage.
      I can’t remember if it’s as it freezes or as it thaws but I think as it thaws.

      Second point. I don’t know where you live but the chances of a whole drum freezing solid are very slim. The outter edges will freeze but it would take a long cold winter to freeze it solid. A piece of PVC pipe with a closed spigot on the outlet end, lowed into the tank (with the spigot closed and kept closed) with the open end in the center of the tank should create an air filled tube that would reach down into liquid water at all times.

      Use black drums or paint the black and place them where the sun will shine on them. They will store heat in the drums during sunlight. It will take a lot of cloudy, cold days to freeze the drum.
      You cold also consider insulating the outside of the drums or wrapping them with heat tape and insulating over that.

      Also a recirculation pump to keep the water moving would help.

      Just random thoughts on the subject.

      The water filter ideas described are very much the same as used in your municipal water plant just on a smaller scale.

      Someone mentioned making charcoal and the fact that the gas given off is wood gas and can be burned. This is very true and we should all be working on our own gasifier designs. I’ve tried to get that discussion started here a few times but no one has picked it up. I’ve watched a lot of you tube videos on the subject and toyed with some plans but I’d really like to hear the ideas of others.

  6. SW, I live in an old single wide and I knew my floors would not support alot of water. So I used clean 55 gallon drums outside. I filled them added the bleach, capped them and then covered them with heavy black plactic. It hasn’t frozen yet. It may not be ideal but it’s the best I could do with limited funds.

    • georgeislearning says:

      anything is bett then nothing. leave enough room for expansion, worst that could happen is you would need to melt it if you happened to need it in winter . maybe life them off the groung and wrap some insulation around them on top and under them as well. covered in that black plastic may do the trick. best of luck

    • Thomas T. Tinker says:

      Consider a water bladder. All sizes from 30 gallons and up. Thing is you’ed could roll it out ‘under’ the single wide, but only if you had enough ‘warning’ of it’s need. I have limited room too. We just do what we can with what we have to work with.

    • Sw't Tater says:

      How about rolling those plastic barrels on their side,under the trailer?, the underpinning will keep temps up enuf in most places to prevent freezing. Another alternate is one of water storage tanks from tractor supply…under the house, out of sight if possible…

      • I thought about maybe trying to get the largest one I could find and burry it as a cistern… and hook up a hand pump on it. Never thought of maybe seeing if I could get anything under the house.

        • SW,
          I recently purchased an underground cistern that I have been saving for. It is a 1200 gallon with two lids. I paid $900 on craigslist. It has only been used once.
          We will put it underground to collect rain and snow melt.
          Something else….We live where it is very cold at night -5 to -15 right now. Actually -18 a week ago.
          We built a well insulated pantry with a cement floor. It gets the bulk of the mid day and afternoon sun in the winter. We put a wood stove in it, but it has not frozen the water or canned goods yet without heat. THERMAL MASS is the key. I am sure it is the floor that is keeping it warm enough not to freeze. Well, and the walls to hold the heat in.
          I have a large greenhouse that I do not heat this time of year. The 55 gal water drums will freeze even though it will get 70 degrees when the sun is shining.
          There ar LOTS of ways to store water in the house! Stash it everywhere until you are able to get the outside water figured out. I use the 5 gallon containers that I can move.
          A 55 gal barrel of water should not weigh more than a frig. OR position the barrels on top of the steel griders that are running under the house if possible. For support.

          • Our “basement” has a dirt floor. It stays between 55 and 62 degrees year round. There is no direct heat source although the boiler and the water heater are down there.

            • I would LOVE to have a basement or a cellar.
              One day when we finish the hundred and three projects we already have started!

        • John Robb’s new blog,, had a post last week about a buried caged water tank. Here is the link he followed:

  7. I have a similar question to SW. I live in an upstairs apartment in an older wood-frame house and I don’t want to bust through the floor. How much (approximately) would those units weigh, as well?

  8. Another option…excellent.

  9. The link below is from FMG publications (American Handgunner, Guns) ans is from their new Survival magizine. Have not read this as an Email address is requested. Will read latter from a public wifi. FYI FWIW etc.

  10. livinglife says:

    Good call to pre filter with a cheaper set up than clog up the expensive filter with general purpose muck that is cheaply and easily taken out of the equation.

  11. One of these would be good out at my spring before the water gets diverted into the cistern tank I’m planning. Just gotta figure out how to place it so I can still have room to build the spring house.

  12. Tactical G-Ma says:

    You did stir the pot! And a good post about a useful and inexpensive water filter.
    Learning about drinking water was a painful process for me. It was difficult for me to comprehend the process for making water potable. The first and probably most important step being filtration, then purification, distillation, or desalination. My head still spins when I consider all the information and misinformation that is available.

    For long term storage of water, well, we require so much that I don’t see how anyone can possibly store enough. I think it is wise to consider a method of replenishing your water supply whether it be a cistern, stream, well, or long haul. That’s my 2 cents worth (pre ’82)!

  13. Tactical G-Ma says:

    I found that a rolled up woolen sock stuffed tightly into a 16 or 20 oz soda bottle what’s bottom has been cut off makes a terrific and washable and reusable prefilter. But I’m sure there are other good ways to.

  14. MountainSurvivor says:

    An absolutely interesting setup, Thomas T. Tinker.

    • Thomas T. Tinker says:

      Not my Idea really. Cut a pasted parts form the websites. Tweeked some of the details……. They work.

  15. Thanks Thomas!

  16. An old T-shirt can filter out muck. Just tie it to the top of a 5 gallon bucket or whatever other container, and pour your mucky water in through it. You can also let muck settle out, if you have time. Best to do the filter, then let what gets through settle, then pour or siphon the clear stuff off thru another filter. You can also filter more than once. At the very least you can rough-filter then boil or bleach the water, but some things aren’t eliminated by that method, like heavy metals. Another thing you can do if fuel is scarce is leave clear bottles of water out in the sun a few days for the UV to kill germs. Or, you can tap a maple or birch tree and just get sap, if you live in deciduous woods. I read that pine sap is also drinkable.

    You can add a rough filter to your rain barrel setup, so that leaves don’t get in there to start with. Like a bag or screen you tie on over the part that shunts the water into the barrel. You would have to clean out the filter from time to time.

    Keep in mind that you can make a temporary/small rain barrel out of a 5 gallon bucket, and/or collect rain off a tarp or something. Rain barrels don’t need to be this humongous affair, and something you can leave out in the rain and then take inside after might be stealthier.

    Potassium permanganate is good at killing things in water (you don’t need much), and you can also mix it with glycerine to start a fire. It makes quite the reaction. A handy thing for a survivalist to store. They sell it with pool supplies.

    You can get glycerine in a pharmacy, I think, or if you make your own soap, you can precipitate it out of the soap with ethanol.

  17. Interesting article. There are so many alternatives to filtering water. I think everyone should have some type of Katadyn water filter if they can. However filter replacements may not be available and then we preppers might be stuck. This is a great alternative.

  18. Very informative article thanks for writing it.

  19. Thanks for the information. Everyone needs some type of water storage. I recommend filling empty 2 liter pop bottles first. There is enough chlorine in tap water that nothing needs to be added. When you have that accomplished then get creative in new ways to store water. I recommend a katadyn water filter. It takes up very little space and can filter hundreds of gallons of any kind of dirty water.

    • Debbie,
      By “tap water” I assume you mean what we call “city water”. My water is supplied by a well and comes out of the “tap” in the kitchen, but has nothing in the way of chemicals (chlorine or florine) added to it.

  20. I much prefer well water over tap water. I don’t know everything the city I live in uses to filter the water but it’s so filled with chlorine that you can taste it in the tap water. It even turns my wife’s hair green! I wish the municipalities would take note of some alternatives to water filtration that don’t rely so much on chlorine.

  21. Bob re; filtration and chemical treatment, the first is to remove particles the second is to kill pathogens. The amount of chlorine needed to kill the bad bugs can vary greatly depending on the quality of the water to begin with. To insure that all disease causing bacteria are always dead the highest level needed must be maintained even if the demand drops temporarily this can lead to a higher than optimum level of residual chlorine. Leftover active pathogens is always bad, leftover active chlorine is inconvenient. Carbon filters either at the tap or in a dispenser can reduce this. Aeration will also work as simple as pouring back and forth between two glasses or an aquarium air pump and air stone in a bucket. The air removes the excess chlorine quite well and still abundant and fairly cheap

  22. We’ve been using biological slow sand filters here for 5 years. They filter shallow well water, and roof water from our 2 composition roofs. They take out petroleum residuals and pathogens quite efficiently. We’ve used them during power outages when there is no power to run the big well pump. In an emergency situation we are really glad to have water. Our website has 5 and a half years of documentation, epa certified test records, and flow measurements on the filters that are running here.
    Dave T
    located in the foothills of the Cascade mountians

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