Water is one of life’s essentials, so it should certainly be part of your emergency stockpile, as well as your daily habit of staying hydrated.
But, just how long can you store water for before it becomes dangerous? Purified water that’s stored in a properly sanitized container in cool, dry, and dark conditions can be kept for about 6 months. However, commercial plastic water bottles usually have an expiration date of about 1-2 years, while some purpose-built emergency water cans can last up to 50 years without going bad.
Everyone should have a good stockpile of water for when disaster strikes. But, you never want to be in a situation where your water stores can make you stick in the midst of a SHTF scenario.
To ensure that you’re ready for any emergency, up next, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know about how long you can store water for in your home.
How Long Can Water Be Stored?
According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) water that’s bottled at home can be stored for up to 6 months before it should be dumped out and replaced.
You can’t store water in jugs that you’ve filled at home indefinitely because it’s extremely difficult to ensure that your water doesn’t get contaminated during the filling process.
In theory, sterilized water could be stored indefinitely without getting you sick because the water itself doesn’t “go bad.”
But, harmful bacteria love to grow in water and it’s nearly impossible to ensure that your water will stay pathogen-free unless you happen to have machinery that can create a completely sterile environment in your home.
This guidance from the DHS is relevant for anyone that’s trying to store water in plastic containers, 55-gallon drums, glass jars, or any other DIY method.
That being said, the most important thing is to ensure that you’re taking all the necessary precautions to sanitize your water and your water containers before filling them up.
If you do take these precautions, you can feel confident that your stockpile will last for a full six months before it needs to be replaced.
How Long Does Bottled Water Last In Storage?
The 6-month rule refers only to water jugs that you’ve filled up at home, not any commercial water containers that you can buy at the store.
In fact, bottled water usually has an expiration date between 1-2 years after it was first bottled, thanks to the strict standards that companies have to follow during the manufacturing process.
Technically speaking, while the water in water bottles doesn’t “expire,” the plastic in the bottle does. While bottled water can grow pathogens that give it a stale or “off” taste after the expiration date, these can be killed by boiling it before drinking.
The main concern, however, is not these pathogens which aren’t likely in bottled water, but chemicals that can leach from the plastic bottle. In the past, studies have demonstrated that plastic bottles, even those that are BPA-free, can leach chemicals into our water when stored for too long.
However, we’re still not sure what these chemicals can do to our long-term health, so people should be cautious when it comes to drinking water bottles that are past their expiration date.
In fact, according to the National Sanitation Foundation, how you store water bottles is more important than what the expiration date is.
When it comes to long-term water bottle storage, the general guidance is that if it tastes off, don’t drink it. But, if stored in a cool, dark room, most water bottles can sit for years past their expiration date with no ill effect.
How Long Does Emergency Drinking Water Last?
If you want to take your water stockpile a step further to ensure that you’re never without one of life’s essentials during a disaster, emergency drinking water might be a good idea. Unlike water bottles or home-filled containers, emergency drinking water is specifically designed to last decades without going bad.
There are a few different kinds of emergency drinking water out there, but Puravai and Blue Can are some of the most popular. Puravai can last up to 20 years in its triple-sealed and durable HDPE #2 plastic bottles. Alternatively, Blue Can water can be stored for up to 50 years in its aluminum plastic can.
Emergency water is quite expensive, though, especially when compared to the cost of buying regular water bottles or filling up jugs at home. So, if you want to keep costs low, it’s a good idea to have a small amount of emergency water as a back-up for your constantly rotating supply of plastic bottles or home-filled water jugs.
Dos & Don’ts For Long Term Water Storage
As I’ve mentioned, how you store your water is of the utmost importance when trying to maximize its shelf life. Here are some dos and don’ts of long-term water storage to get you started:
✅ Do: Use Food-Grade Containers For Water Storage
Any container that you use to store your water should be rated for food use. When it comes to plastic containers, only plastics #1, 2, 4, and 5 are food-safe.
The container will also likely say “freezer, fridge, or pantry safe” or it might have a small symbol with a cup and a fork on the bottom, telling you that the plastic is suitable for food use.
❌ Don’t: Use Metal Containers For Long-Term Water Storage
Although some emergency water products do come in metal containers, these are specifically made to hold water for decades.
Most other metal containers, though, can rust and can lead to dangerous levels of lead and copper that can hurt your health. So, it’s best to steer clear of metal containers for long-term water storage whenever possible.
✅ Do: Properly Clean Your Water Containers Before Filling
Once you have a food-grade container that is suitable for use for storing water, it’s time to clean it out properly to prevent any harmful bacteria from infecting your emergency stockpile.
The Missouri Department of Health recommends that people hand wash their containers in hot soap and water. Then, be sure to rinse the containers off in hot water before dipping them in a sanitizing bath.
This sanitizing bath should have 2-4 tablespoons of liquid unscented bleach per gallon of water. After the jug is sanitized, it should be left to drain and dry before filling.
Be sure to repeat this process every time you refill your jugs with water to kill any pathogens that may have grown in the last batch of water.
✅ Do: Be Cautious When Using Old Milk Jugs
Old one-gallon milk containers are a popular choice for storing water because they are convenient to fill and easy to reseal. However, the handles of these plastic containers are very difficult to clean, which means you could accidentally trap dangerous bacteria inside your new water container.
Therefore, if you do want to use old milk jugs, be extra cautious with the sanitizing process. Repeat the entire cleaning process twice to ensure that you get your jugs as clean as possible.
❌ Don’t: Forget To Use Disinfected Water
If your home gets municipal water, you can go ahead and fill your jugs up straight from the tap. Be sure to close up the jug as soon as it’s filled to limit the chances that any harmful bacteria can sneak inside.
Anyone who lives off the grid, though, should consider purifying their drinking water before filling their containers.
Although you might drink your water every day, to no ill effect, the small amounts of pathogens that exist in well water, lakes, streams, or other non-treated water sources can easily multiply to harmful levels when trapped inside a container for many months.
Thus, it’s a good idea to boil your water before filling your containers so that you can minimize the chances of getting sick from your emergency stockpile should you ever have to use it.
✅ Do: Keep Water Treatment Supplies In Your Stockpile
Even if you have a nice stockpile of water in your home, you should still have some water purifying and treatment options on hand.
These supplies are a must-have because you may need to treat your stored water or find additional water supplies if you need to bug in for an extended period of time.
Boiling is a great way to kill any bacteria, viruses, or other pathogens that might’ve grown in your water supply during a long-term survival scenario. But, pump filters, chemical treatments, and even UV sterilizers are a good back-up for boiling should SHTF.
❌ Don’t: Forget To Rotate Your Water Supply
Home-filled water jugs can be stored for up to half a year, but it’s important that you regularly rotate your water supply to avoid any issues down the line.
A good way to stay on top of your water stockpile needs is to label every container with the date it was filled so that you know precisely when it needs to be replaced.
Gaby is a wilderness survival expert, mountaineering guide, and professional outdoor educator, with specialties that include firearms handling and wilderness medicine. She is also a freelance writer for a variety of outdoor and survival publications.