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3 Ways to Build an Emergency Distiller - Water Distillation

3 Ways to Build an Emergency Distiller - Survival Water Distillation

Massive disasters can contaminate the water supply, making your tap water immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH). Emergency water distillation can treat contaminated water, purifying it completely, making it safe to drink.

Emergency distillation can also save your life in a coastal or maritime emergency when all you have is undrinkable salt water. Ready to survive?

by Tom Brown, Copyright ©
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Without water, the human body quickly begins to shut down.
Intense dehydration drastically decreases chances for survival. The mind becomes irrational, and as the blood vessels begin to detract, this causes nausea, fatigue, muscle cramping, and eventually death. Therefore, anyone with a survivalist mindset needs to know how to create an emergency water distiller for the most desperate of circumstances in a severe water shortage or for treating water that has been contaminated with sewage or biological matter such as dead carcasses, whether animal or human or both.

Massive natural disasters can destroy the plumbing in our homes, as well as the pipes and facilities that make the modern day water and sewer delivery and disposal possible. Woven underneath neighborhoods, and cities, and towns is a massive network of plumbing that makes it possible for water to be poured from our taps and waste to be flushed down our toilets.

A massive disaster can turn that all upside down. Cracks and twisted pipes may still work as intended, but be contaminated with sewer from broken or damaged underground pipes that in extreme circumstances can make tap water dangerous to drink without treating or purifying it first.

Welcome to emergency water distillation

While your neighbors are attempting to pack up and evacuate, seeking help, food, and water from a distant FEMA camp or Red Cross tent city for disaster refugees, you can be on your way to rebuilding and providing for your family right where you are presently (if no other secondary dangers exist that would make evacuation the safest choice; in other words, sometimes it may be foolish to stay at your home and evacuation may be the best course of action that day.)

What is Water Distillation?

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In science, distilled water is defined as "water purified by boiling the water and collected steam." The steam you get from the rising vapors is cleaner than the original source, due to the heat boiling off any contaminants.

In a survival situation, where the only source of water you might have would be a broken pipe or puddle of muddy water outside a city that has been destroyed in a disaster, distillation could be a process separating you from life and death. Even when going on a simple hiking trip, distillation is a skill that means you don't need to rely on water filters alone for purifying water.

Glacial water isn't always safe to drink

Is glacial water at higher elevations safe to drink? Just because you find sparkling spring or river water does not mean that it is pristine enough to drink. Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, or even a previous hiker could have contaminated the water source further up the mountain, and if you drink it without boiling, filtration, or distillation (the three most common methods for purifying water), you now risk a serious stomach illness that can that have you puking and or pouring out diarrhea and stopped dead in your tracks in just hours.

Distillation is for dirty water

If you have three methods to choose from in the backcountry, when do you choose distillation? Well, if the water looks clean, smells clean, and comes from a stream or lake, you can simply boil it for at least one minute (boil longer at high elevations) in a small pot over a fire or fuel-based camp stove to kill off any natural sources of bacteria or viruses. Because you can boil a large amount of water, and refill any empty water jugs you have, this is the best and first choice.

We'll get to distillation in a moment...

Unless you're in a hurry. That is when you would reach for a portable water filter, though, in the end, a portable water filter has a limited lifespan, before it's filtration properties have been exhausted. Thankfully, portable water filters in the modern day have a lot more lifespan -- can last a person several weeks of use in fact. So, in an optimal situation, boil water first, before you choose to use a water filter or emergency distiller.

When should you use distillation to purify water for drinking?

When a steam or lake is nowhere near a major city or major area of agriculture or industry. Cities, agriculture, industries can all pollute local streams, lakes and aquifers with environmental toxins, some that will evaporate at the same low temperature (boiling point) as the two elements (hydrogen and oxygen, H20) evaporate at. Those toxins will then condense, just like the H20, and can now be even more concentrated in that pot of distilled water you've just created.

Consider distillation as a short term (10 - 14 days for example) means to purify water in an emergency where your initial water supply has little risk of environmental pollutants from cities, agriculture, and industry (for example, most mountains and wilderness areas, though not all wilderness areas, pay attention to which directions rivers flow on your maps). Though distillation will leave behind heavy metals like lead, it will not remove toxins that evaporate at low temperatures, because, remember, these toxins will condense along with the H20, and now be even more concentrated in the water you have just distilled.

Salt water distillation

Emergency distillation is most useful in a coastal or salt water environment, where you are surrounded by water that you simply can't drink due to it's salt content. If you drink ocean water, the salt content will only increase your thirst, put a severe load on your kidneys, and eventually kill you through speeding up the process of dehydration.

This is where emergency distillation can be a life saver. You see, ocean water is a prime candidate for emergency distillation, allowing you to produce clean drinking water and leaving the salt behind.

When distillation beats a portable water filter

Distillation's secondary use is when you have no portable water filter for filtering extremely dirty or muddy water (which can clog your filter and be hard to clean out) and or are concerned about really dangerous organisms or bacteria that a portable water filter could possibly miss. Water filters get most bacteria and viruses -- though not all.

For example, in a disaster when sewage has possibly been let loose into the local ground water supply, or rotting carcasses in the region are possibly polluting water sources, or a dangerous disease is killing tens of thousands of people in the local population; relying on a portable water filter in an extreme scenario such as any of these is a risky gamble. In this case, leave your portable water filter for the high country, for higher elevation water sources that are not contaminated by the death and disease down in the valley below.

So, unless you are in the high country, boiling or distillation are the only ways to produce drinking water in these circumstances.

Distillation of contaminated water

A question that goes through everyone's mind when they begin to think about how to distil dirty water is exactly how effective the process is and what kinds of water can actually be distilled so it is drinkable the first time around.

No worries! Developing nations continue to use the process to make their water sources safer to drink. Distillation is indeed effective at boiling away bacteria, though it also removes soluble minerals like calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium from the water supply (which must be re-added further in the process to make water suitable for long term consumption; more on this below).

Distillation has similar results as reverse osmosis

Like reverse osmosis, distillation removes salt, metals, and bacteria.

Reverse osmosis

Reverse osmosis is a popular method for purifying drinking water in the modern day (with portable units that install quickly at your kitchen sink), and can save a lot of money vs purchasing bottled water on a regular basis. Unfortunately, like distillation, reverse osmosis removes natural minerals that may be found in tap water (it removes contaminants and minerals both), making it essential to add your own minerals to your drinking water supply after it has gone through your reverse osmosis system.

Products like Trace Minerals contain essential healthy minerals and a long list of healthy trace minerals that are needed to make reverse osmosis a smart choice in the end. (Some people add "Trace Minerals" to bottled water, either way, for the health properties. It is a product with broad use, when it comes to health, and not a product only intended for water filtration systems.)

Distillation comes at a price

As a word of warning, a tiny percentage of synthetic materials, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), may pass into the storage container being used to collect steam from water distillation. VOCs have a low boiling point of a temperature close to that of water, allowing VOCs to move with the distilled water. Examples of VOCs include pesticides, herbicides, and chemical solvents.

3 Ways to Build a Distiller

1) Tree Sweat Sounds a bit odd at first, but let me explain. When trees and other plant life, especially those with broad leaves, like oak and maples, give off moisture when exposed to sun; that tree sweat -- the evaporating water -- can be collected. And since that water has been heated by the sun's rays and turned to vapor, it is distilled.

What you will need:

• A clean plastic tarp, sheet, or in a worst case scenario, a plastic bag • Paracord or twine

In order to obtain distilled water from trees or plants, you need to first be in an area where there is plenty of foliage. Trying this in the desert will not yield the same results as a more temperate or humid climate will due to the moisture content in the air. Locate a bough or frond that is directly in the sunlight.

Take your tarp or plastic bag and drape it over the bough. The more you can cover, the more water you get in less time. Position the tarp or bag in such a way that when the condensation drips down, it has someplace to collect.

Now, take your paracord or twine. You can simply tightly tie the top of the bag to the limb of the bough to seal off air flow. With a tarp, be sure to gather all four ends that are securing the sheet to the tree. Keep an eye on the position of your tarp as water collects -- you do not want it to get so heavy that it slips off.

Once you have your "sweat bag" made, all you need to do is leave it on the plant or tree for a few hours in the sun.

2) True Survivalist - Creating a Solar Still

For when you have absolutely nothing but the crude essentials for making water in the middle of a desert wasteland. It is called a "solar still," and there are two methods that can save your life when there is no hope of water anywhere that day. The solar still has been put into practice by the army for years now. It is founded on the "greenhouse effect" principle. What you will need:

• A container to catch water (plastic bottle cut in half, glass jar, or a bowl; as long as it can catch water, you are good to go)

• 6 x 6 foot sheet of clear plastic (examples include Saran wrap, camping ground cloth, or a clear shower curtain; since there is no natural substitute for this, consider keeping clear plastic with you when out in the wilderness -- pack it up and keep it sealed in a Zip Loc freezer bag for this purpose)

• Optional: Shovel or trowel

• Optional: plastic tubing (this becomes a long straw, allowing you to drink the collected water without breaking down the still)

• A small stone

Note: These instructions have been adapted from a how-to by Gregory T. Jones on DesertUSA [2].

To build the solar still, begin by digging a pit that is about 4 feet wide and 3 feet dip. It is critical to find a place that looks like rainwater would collect, because this sand will be easier to dig through.

At the center of the hole you just dug, make another small indentation about the size of your water container. Place the container inside the hole. If you have tubing, be sure to place one end in the container now.

Cover the 4 x 3 foot hole with your plastic sheet. Make sure there is a little give. Anchor the edges with dirt or rocks. Make sure there is no spaces left open where moisture can escape.

Take your small rock in the center of sheet (this is why you needed give). Weighing down the center means any gathered condensation will pull to that point. Gravity will cause it to drip. This is also useful during windy days and keeps the sheet from flapping.

Within a few hours, the air inside the still will become saturated. If you have tubing, you can begin drinking as soon as enough water has accumulated in the collector. Depending on the environment, you can gather succulents (like cacti) or other plant life to also place around the container to speed up the release of moisture. Just make sure that the plants you add are not poisonous!.

3) Ongoing Distillation (2 versions)

If you have certain amenities, such as an operating gas oven, a hot plate, grill, campfire, or a homemade parabolic dish at the ready, this version is very easy to make and can be stored for potential future disaster situations.

A word of caution with this version: Never use a plastic bottle to collect the purified water, as the water gets very hot and can melt the plastic or cause it to release BPA fumes. Use a glass jar or bottle.

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What you will need:

• Copper piping

• Glass jar

• Tea kettle

• Insulated plumbing coupler (to attach to the tea kettle)

• Two pipe connectors

All you have to do is connect the coupler to the tea kettle and copper piping. Arc the piping slightly higher than both the tea kettle and glass jar. Do not seal the end of the copper pipe that goes into the jar, as this will build up pressure and could cause the jar to crack. After that, all you do is heat the water in the teapot, let the vapors move through the copper pipe, and drip into the glass jar. Depending on the size of the tea kettle, distillation could take anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours.

Why the copping piping? Copper is not only an effective heat conductor, which is essential in the distillation process of water, but it absorbs certain compounds, like sulfur, from the liquid.

Do not want to use copper? The other way to construct a homemade device for ongoing distillation is similar to the one mentioned above but requires a bit more handywork.

You will need:

• A pressure cooker

• A drill

• Silicone high temperature tubing

• Brass fitting begin enough to accommodate the silicone tubing

• A plastic container with a small bottleneck and mouth

• A hot plate or stove top

Remove the knob from the top of the pressure cooker so that the pressure valve is visible. Remove that as well then drill a slightly bigger hole for you to attach the brass fitting that will allow the steam in the pressure cooker to be fed into the high temperature silicone.

Caution: Make sure the hole is wide enough to keep a constant stream moving. Otherwise, too much pressure could build up and make a small explosion.

Like the above version, this works in the same fashion of feeding the steam into the collection chamber. The only difference is that the silicone tubing is a bit more portable.


Gulping down saline water has never been a wise decision. Yet, on the chance that you find yourself stuck on a deserted island, surrounded by the endless ocean, knowing how to desalinate and distil salt water becomes a crucial skill. The process of desalinating salt water is becoming a popular practice throughout the world due to restrictions in fresh water supply. For instance, take a look at the desalination stations throughout the Middle East.

The main obstacle is removing salt from the solution. The setup for a desalinating emergency distillation device is really no different than the three designs mentioned in this article, especially the third design. The trick is making sure you get the water hot enough for it to boil off the salt. Keep in mind that the temperature of boiling water does not change as it distils. Do not get upset if the water is not a raging boil. A gentle frothing is more than enough to turn the water to vapor, separating it from the salt.

Replacing Minerals

As mentioned previously, distillation removes valuable minerals from water that people need in order to survive. The World Health Organization (WHO) published a report online called, Nutrients in Drinking Water, which outlines some simple tips for replacing those lost minerals or supplementing in your diet.

The easiest is to buy an alkaline pitcher, but for survivalists, that is not always going to work. Another purchase could be Mineral Drops to add to your drinking water, mentioned earlier. Keep a small bottle in a first aid kit or survival pack. Optionally, add a couple granules of Himalayan sea salt. No, this is not counterintuitive. Pink Himalayan salt has 84 different minerals in it, not just salt (if you're salt sensitive or on a low sodium diet, then the mineral drops well likely be a safer choice).

And for those times when your only option is the plant life around you, try gathering herbs, vegetables, seaweed, or fruit to infuse into the water -- just be sure you are collecting only plants and vegetables you know and not something that is poisonous.

Although distilled water loses minerals, it is not where we get most of our minerals from. Most of the minerals come from the food we eat. In a survival situation, you're probably not going to consume a lot of food and therefore might lack minerals.

Final Thoughts

Distillation has become more common in recent years, especially for countries located near oceans, as a means of procuring drinkable water for the local population.

There are quite a few ways to make an emergency distiller, from wrapping trees with a plastic tarp to digging holes in the ground to fashioning up a reusable version out of a teakettle and plastic bottles. Whenever you find yourself without fresh drinking water, remember these helpful, lifesaving tips, and be sure to add those minerals to whatever water you have distilled, if you ever have to use emergency distillation for longer than a few days.


Tom Brown is the chief editor at Thrifty Outdoors Man, where he shares his survival skills and outdoor experiences.

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