When Tap Water Can Kill: How to Survive a Boil Water Notice

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It’s a scenario that’s becoming all too common. U.S. cities under boil water notices.

In Jackson, the capital city of the U.S. state of Mississippi, residents suffer from what The Washington Post calls “a water crisis of unparalleled scale.” And even as the most pressing issues are fixed, a domino chain of lingering issues threatens to return them to their present circumstances yet again.

And who can forget Flint, Michigan?

In fact, as of August 17, 2022, there are 58 records of boil notices issued around the country just for the month of August. That’s just over half the month.


Friends, it can happen to you. It can happen to me. We must be ready for undrinkable tap water BEFORE we’re faced with it.

This article aims to do just that, help you better prepare for if your community receives a boil alert.

image: brown water flowing from tap into a sink necessitating a boil water notice

What is a boil notice?

When a municipal water provider or a health agency detects pathogens in the water, they issue a boil notice. Those pathogens might include E. coli, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and others. Lead in water is another red flag. Water main breaks, flooding, and even contractor error resulting in cross-contamination between pipes can all necessitate a boil notice.

How long does a boil water advisory last?

A boil notice can last anywhere from just an hour or two to months.

Jennifer, a friend in Puerto Rico, told me that her town was on a boil notice for 5 1/2 MONTHS following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Yep, you read that right. Five and a half months. That’s almost 170 days without clean running water. She could probably teach a college course on how to survive a boil notice!

Is there a boil water notice near me?

The best way to find out if a boil notice has been issued for your community is to visit your local municipal water company’s website and find out their procedure for issuing and rescinding the notice.

These might be issued via email, text message, local media, and/or the company’s website. The safest and quickest method will be either email or text. Don’t rely on the 6 o’clock news to get this information!

What it means to a household like yours

  • The water that comes out of your tap, if it does, isn’t drinkable.
  • When someone is thirsty, the only safe water is bottled or has been purified in some way by you.
  • A recipe calls for water; again, you must be careful to use only what is safe to drink.
  • The refrigerator ice maker has to be turned off because tainted water results in tainted ice cubes. If you want ice, you either have to buy it or make it in ice cube trays with purified water.
  • Showering and bathing cannot be done in contaminated water, so what do you do day after day? (Perhaps you shower with your mouth closed, as Jackson, Mississippi residents are advised.)
  • Brushing teeth requires bottled or boiled water.
  • Washing dishes isn’t safe anymore unless you’re certain the water in your dishwasher heats up to at least 170 degrees.
  • Is it safe to even do laundry? With certain contaminants, it is not!
  • What about water for your pets? Is it safe for them to consume?
  • The water filter on your refrigerator or the reverse osmosis system you rely on is insufficient to remove most pathogens from water.

Can you imagine this nightmare continuing, week after week? Dirty dishes, laundry, smelly kids, and the hassle of having to boil every ounce of water consumed would get old in hours. The only way to survive is to be prepared and know exactly what to do.

In Jennifer’s case, her town had to share a large generator with another town. This generator was all they had to pump large amounts of water through a filtering system. The water had to be shared with every household, and then they had to wait until it was their turn for more clean water!

If this sounds crazy to you, well, that’s life following a major natural disaster, but it’s also life for residents of many U.S. cities today.

Preparations BEFORE a Notice to Boil Water

The best way to survive anything at all is to prepare for it. Now that you know a bit about boil notices and why they’re issued, let’s get your own household ready.

Here are a few things to do BEFORE:

Track your water usage

Over the next week, keep a running list of how your household uses water.

  • Does everyone take a shower or bath daily, or more often?
  • Do you need water for how many pets?
  • Is your home regularly filled with additional people — family, friends, or anyone else who you might need to include in your water plans?

If your water is too contaminated to even touch, you’ll need a backup plan for doing laundry, cooking, staying hydrated, refilling humidifiers, and providing water for animals.

After seven days of tracking your water usage, you may be shocked by how much water you use (the average American family uses 300 gallons per day), but at least now, you have a starting point for your plan to survive a boil notice.

Identify areas to cut back

Your next step is to go through the list and see where you might cut corners and use less water.

If everyone bathes daily, that’s a quick way to use hundreds of gallons less each week. A sponge bath is an obvious substitute, especially when a no-rinse soap is used. No-rinse bathing wipes are a godsend during a time of water scarcity (handy to keep in the car, too). Baby wipes work also.

Since the most important use of water, by far, is to remain hydrated, try to find ways to either eliminate completely or greatly reduce the water needed for all other uses.

survive boil notice
Take this online course to equip your family for any water emergency.

Lay in a Supply of Water

Stock up on bottled water and use that water for drinking, brushing teeth, and cooking. Bottled water has an indefinite shelf life if the water comes from a pure source (city water, water that is boiled then cooled, and/or water treated with bleach) and is stored in a cool and dark location.

My personal recommendation for bottled water is Dasani. If you compare the plastic used for Dasani bottles with the bottles of most other brands, you’ll notice a huge difference in quality.

You can also store water in super useful water bricks or clean 2-liter plastic bottles.

It’s possible to use the water from your water heater. However, you’ll need to determine if water was going through it prior to learning about the warning to boil. If it was, then you’ll need to consider it contaminated and treat it per the boil advisory.

How do you survive a boil notice?

Now that you’ve prepared your household let’s talk about what to do when you get the advisory about contaminated water.

Know the degree of contamination

When you receive a boil water notice, you probably won’t be told exactly what’s in the tainted water. So pay careful attention to exactly what you are told to do and not do with tap water. This guidance is critical.

The advisories are typically one of three types:

  • Boil water. Boil water before use.
  • Don’t drink. Use another source of water for drinking and cooking. There may be limited safe uses, but read the notice carefully to understand what those are.
  • Don’t use. Don’t use tap water AT ALL. This includes laundry and bathing. The water isn’t even safe to touch.

Some boil notices will specify “do not use for drinking, cooking, or ice making.” Okay, don’t ingest the water, but do use it for laundry and bathing. However, when a boil notice takes this a bit farther and includes laundry and bathing, you can bet the water isn’t even safe to touch.

Boil the water

Proper boiling kills viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Follow these steps:

  1. Before boiling cloudy water, first filter it through a coffee filter, paper towel, or clean cloth.
  2. Clear water should maintain a rolling boil for one minute (three minutes if you’re 6,500 feet or higher).
  3. Allow the water to cool.
  4. Store in clean, sterilized containers.

Improve the taste of boiled water by pouring it back and forth between containers to aerate it and then letting it sit for a while, or adding salt, a pinch per quart.

Set household rules for boil notice days

If you have kids or grandkids in the house, your life under a boil notice is going to become far more complicated. Kids are used to water being available anywhere, at any time, for drinking, recreation, water balloons, you name it! Now, in a moment, that water isn’t safe for them to ingest or, possibly, to even touch.

Here are a few easy-to-remember household rules for boil notice days:

  • Only drink water from a bottle.
  • Do not use water from any faucet.
  • Brush your teeth and wash your face using only bottled water.
  • Use hand sanitizer in place of soap and water.

Tips for making these days a little easier

  1. Use masking or packing tape secure bags around faucets and handles, disabling them. Make sure these are kid-proof! Despite the seriousness of the contaminated water, we are creatures of habit and easily forget, especially if the water coming from the faucet isn’t discolored.
  2. Pour bottled water into familiar containers, like pitchers or a countertop water dispenser. If you have kids, this is an easy way for them to drink safe water from already familiar sources.
  3. Stock up on those no-rinse bathing wipes.
  4. Keep bottles of water by each sink in the house.
  5. Store one case of water bottles per day for each day of a possible boil notice. A case of 40 half-liter bottles will provide a little over 5 gallons of water. This is barely enough to provide 1 gallon per person per day, but if you store 7 cases of these, you’ll have the minimum amount of water for four people for seven days.
  6. When a bottle of bleach is empty, refill it with water for an emergency water source. Be sure to label the bottle as “Drinking Water.”
  7. Fill an empty container of laundry soap (the large containers with a spigot) with water and use that as a water source for hand-washing.
  8. Learn how to use water from your water heater in a dire emergency. Know whether to treat it as safe or contaminated!
  9. If necessary, turn off the water coming into your house.
  10. Have a plan to stay with friends or family outside the boil notice area.

Most people aren’t sure what to do in case of a water emergency or how to survive a boil notice. You don’t have to be that person!

Check out this Survival Mom class, Survival Begins with Water, for a complete education. During a 54-minute video lesson, I’ll walk you through preparing for any type of water emergency. You’ll learn exactly how much water to store and create your own water survival kit. Plus, you’ll receive printables and downloads! It’s the course that ensures your family has drinkable water, no matter what, and you don’t need to be a survival expert to do it! Check out Survival Begins with Water today!

What preparations have you made for a boil water notice?

Originally published February 19, 2018; updated by The Survival Mom editors.

17 thoughts on “When Tap Water Can Kill: How to Survive a Boil Water Notice”

  1. If you do not have or want to use baby wipes or shower towelettes, a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a 16 oz. bottle can be put on a washcloth or even a paper towel, and used to wipe yourself clean. We do this when camping. Start with the least dirty places, like your face and work toward dirtier places. If using a cloth, you can use a quarter of it and have four sections to wash with. This is surprisingly refreshing and while not a hot shower, really helps me feel better when out in the wild!!!

  2. Here in Sweden were I live there are towns that had those situations for a month. And I am pretty sure that a while ago there were a town were they had it for a few months. Couldn’t find it now though.
    And then we are talking about a “high standard” western society…

    1. The Survival Mom

      That’s a very good question. The simplest way is to check your water bill for usage. However, that doesn’t give you a detailed picture of where and how you can conserve. In that case, keep a tally of the loads of laundry you do, the number of times you run the dishwasher, the number of toilet flushes, and how many showers/baths take place. The water you use for drinking and cooking will be much smaller amounts than these and almost negligible in the big scheme of things.

      Once you have numbers for laundry/dishwasher/bathing, you can estimate 45 gallons of water for each laundry load (if you have a high-efficiency washer, it could be anywhere from 15-30 gallons, so check the manufacturer’s website), 6 gallons per dishwasher load, and 5 gallons (approximately) per flush. As far as showers and baths are concerned, you’ll have to do a little research about what type of shower head you have and how long the average shower is in your household. Shower heads can use anywhere from 2-10 gallons of water per minute depending on whether or not they are water-conserving or not. That’s a big difference, so get that figured out for each shower head in your home. The average shower is about 12-15 minutes long, so once you have an idea of how much water the shower head puts out per minute, you can do some calculating for a rough guess.

      Hope that helps!

  3. High end water filters like the Berkey systems with the Berkey Black filters are practically a must have for long duration boil water orders. I can’t imaging living for over 5 months actually boiling every drop of water I need to use…
    Love the link to the no-rinse body wipes, and especially the bottles of no-rinse body wash. I’ve had bad luck with pre-moistened towelettes drying out when I buy them in quantity, and will be getting the bottles to use in an emergency.
    Thanks for the great ideas!

  4. Pingback: How To Survive A Boil Notice – Olduvai.ca

  5. This comes as an addition to a recent report where Coca Cola admitted that the water they’ve been selling – Dasani is in fact only a “purified tap water that is ”.

  6. Bill Robertson

    I wonder if they’ve tried using solar UV to purify water in Puerto Rico. It seems like long term, that would be a good option.
    In Africa, they use the clear water bottles (like the ones we buy in 24 bottle cases) to purify water. It only takes 6 hours in direct sunlight or a couple of days if cloudy to treat the water. The sun’s UV rays kill the organisms.

  7. I like to drink non-carbonated flavored water in 1 liter bottles. since these have no return deposit on them I was them out and refill them with tap water and store them in my deep freeze and fridge freezer. I also store them in closets and under the cabinets. I have over of 100 of these bottle’s stored around the house. When I move the clocks in the spring and fall I use the water to wash clothing and refill the bottle’s. I am always adding to my store of bottles. The frozen bottles do not get cycled and will help keep the freezer’s cold in a power outage. It also help make the freezer’s run more efficiently. And I will have a supply of “ice” for the coolers if needed. you can do this with any type of “pop bottle” and juice jugs. The current water bottles are so thin and seem to break down quickly too. This will not work with milk jugs for 2 reasons. 1st you can never truly clean them out well enough and 2nd the type of plastic they are made of breaks done quickly. Good tip on using bleach jugs.

  8. WATER: Though our Australian Water is completely clean for all purposes, we still filter it for drinking. But in case of water pollution, we collect rain water in a few 1000 gallons tank, via a special device that rejects the first hour of a rain storm water into a dirty water tank so that both the air & roof will be thoroughly cleaned. Our use of water is micro-conservative like fine sprinkle showers with us both in same shower, used water on new food plants, no toilet flush because toilet = deep hole in the ground with a nice seat on top. Only a cup of water for teeth cleaning. Urine goes around fruit trees. Laundry we gently stamp on whilst showering; or put the laundry in an esky of water & drive or cycle for a few minutes, as one girl does here. To dish-wash, simply use glass bowl to cut food in, cook in same dish & wash it + other items & dishes in same bowl; better alternative is turn preferably hot tap on to light sprinkle dish being scrubbed with a hard brush – water goes straight to garden or for cooking water. Do Laundry, rinse & wash car in rain! We sometimes bathe in our dam, in a creek or in the ocean with several layers of our CLOTHES ON to launder them & our bodies. We never water grass.

  9. We really like the Scepter brand 2.5 and 5 gallon drinking water jugs. We rotate clean tap water through them and add 1/2 tsp bleach for storage. The handle makes them easier to move. We then pour them into either a drinking water dispenser with spigot and a hand washing container with spigot as necessary. Started doing that for dry camping and outdoor activities. Works well for emergency preparedness. We have enough stored water on hand to get us through at least 5 days before we MUST figure out if a longer solution is necessary.

  10. Could the vinegar mixture be poured into the towelettes container to dampen them? I’ve been wetting the last few ones with water and using them immediately. Here in south Louisiana we also have mold and mildew running rampant, no matter what you do to try and stop it. Thank you for this awesome article, Mom!

  11. Not all water emergencies involve boil notices. I live near Salem, Oregon, and a couple years ago there was a Cyanobacteria alert. Boiling the water actually concentrated the toxins from the bacteria-it was definitely a filtration situation! Boiling water to make it safe is so ingrained in people it was hard for the city to educate everyone about how to cope. Definitely opened my eyes to the importance of knowing what issue is present, and knowing multiple ways to purify water!

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