What Is a Boil Water Advisory?
Here's what you need to know, including how to boil water without power.
With Texas in the throes of a "once in a generation" winter freeze, the state's isolated power grid has been thrown into disarray. In addition to widespread power outages and subsequent issues keeping homes heated, incidences of burst pipes and low water pressure mean that untreated, potentially contaminated ground water is at risk of seeping into the water supply.
When that happens, states and municipalities often issue boil water notices out of an abundance of caution. Though the order is pretty self-explanatory, it's worth taking a closer look into why it actually matters — not to mention how to go about actually boiling water even if your power situation leaves you in a tough spot.
Why does boiling water make it safer to drink?
While it's not a perfect solution for stripping away every type of potential pollutant, boiling water is one of the easiest, safest ways to purify your water to ensure it's potable.
The reason? Super-hot water kills harmful bacteria and microorganisms. While no such organism can survive in water of 160ºF for longer than 30 minutes, getting your water all the way up to 212ºF makes sure that any viruses, bacteria, or parasites are well and truly dead by the time it cools down.
How do you properly boil water?
You probably don't need too much help figuring it out how to bring water to a boil under normal circumstances, but there's no sense in leaving anything to chance where safe drinking water is concerned.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the goal is to heat up a pot of water to a full rolling boil for one minute. If you're living 6,500 feet or more above sea level, you'll want to up that rolling boil time to three minutes given that water's relative boiling point decreases from 212ºF as altitude above sea level increases.
Once that rolling boil period is completed, you should (obviously) wait for the water to cool down before using. The good news is that once water's been properly boiled, you can safely refrigerate and drink it later as long as it doesn't come into contact with other contaminants, such as ice made from water that hasn't been boiled.
What do you need boiled water for during an advisory?
Long story short: If the water's going to end up in your mouth, boil it. Beyond drinking, any water used to brush your teeth or make coffee should be boiled first. Water that automatically comes out of appliances, like the ice maker in your fridge, shouldn't be considered safe to use during a boil water advisory.
On a related note, filtered tap water isn't inherently safe for consumption either. Even if you have the fanciest activated charcoal water filter available on the market, you're still going to need to boil that water in order to kill off any of the nastiness that can potentially make you sick.
Dishwashing is where things can get a little iffy. Should you have a dishwasher with a sanitizing cycle, or a final rinse temperature that reaches at least 150ºF, you should be good to go. While hardly environmentally friendly, the CDC advises that using disposable plates, cups, and utensils is a safer alternative to dishwashing during a boil water advisory. When it comes to cleaning various surfaces, use boiled water, bottled water, or water that has been disinfected with bleach.
Which kitchen gadgets can boil water?
If you don't have easy access to a stove, but have the ability to plug in certain kitchen gadgets to a working power source like a generator, you may be in luck. An Instant Pot, for example, can boil water if you seal it in there and let it run on the saute setting. Likewise, an electric kettle will do the trick as well, given that that's pretty much what these things are designed to do. If you're the kind of chef with a portable stove at home, you're in luck as well.
How can you make water safe to drink if you don't have power?
If a power outage means your stove won't turn on (whether it's an electric range or the breaker isn't working), there are thankfully workable alternatives.
As the San Antonio Water System advises in its recent citywide boil water advisory, you can boil water with the help from a camp stove, fish fryer, or a barbecue grill. If all else fails, you can make a fire and boil water that way, proving that those survival skills you learned in the Boy/Girl Scouts are actually good for something.
Believe it or not, it's also possible to disinfect water without boiling it by using very, very small amounts of household bleach — about eight drops or less than 1/8 of a teaspoon per gallon of water, doubling that to just under a quarter teaspoon if the water is cloudy. It's important to measure extremely carefully and make sure that your unscented household liquid chlorine bleach contains between five and nine percent sodium hypochlorite. After putting in that trace amount of bleach, stir the mixture well and let it sit for at least half an hour before drinking. It's important to be careful if pursuing this method, and you'll find more detailed information about the process from the CDC here.
The caveat to all of this is that you definitely DO NOT want to use any method that involves an open flame in the home, your garage, or any other enclosed space — no matter how cold it gets outside. Given reports of tragic deaths attributable to carbon monoxide poisoning during the current crisis in Texas, it's simply not worth the risk.
So if you find yourself the subject of a boil water advisory for whatever reason, heed the warning. Thankfully, it isn't too hard to comply, and there are a handful of safe options at your disposal whether or not you have power. And if all else fails, bottled water will do the trick.
As with any type of emergency situation like this, the smartest thing you can do is plan ahead and prepare for the worst. Because if we've learned anything since the beginning of 2020, it's that unexpected chaos is a bit more likely than we may like to admit.