Pro Tip: Hauling and Treating Questionable Water

There are lot of photos of my left hand and arm in this post. But if you look closely, you’ll see a couple of bikes.

Some bicyclists do need to carry water — a few yards, or even miles from where the water will be consumed. It’s the way of the world, but maybe not your world.I have in mind people in a situation similar to my own; people who have to live every day with an unsafe (or unpalatable) water source. And that water source might not be right inside your domicile — your house, your tent, your dumpster, etc. And sometimes the water you carry isn’t ready to drink just yet.

Water Well, Ampefy, Madagascar
This community well in Madagascar is right next to a pit latrine — and hopefully the well is much much deeper.
Photo: Ted Johnson

If you will be commuting, touring or Peace-Corps-ing somewhere where the water may contain disease-causing organisms, this pro tip is for you.Back in 2013 I was hauling filtered water in Tucson in an Ortlieb 10 Liter Water Bag. (See Exhibit 3.)The tap water in Tucson is safe to drink, but as I wrote at the time, it “tastes like a weak tea made from a hobo’s pocket change.” (If I’m not going to remind you of my literary gems, who will?)

Montague Bike with Thule Tour Rack and Commuter Pannier
In Tucson: The first world version of the community well. Coins, bills, and credit cards accepted.
Photo: Ted Johnson

Back when I was hauling filtered water from a fake windmill in Tucson, I had no idea I would be living in Madagascar in less than two years. But the Tucson experience was instructive. A good water bag, a roomy pannier, and a sturdy bike rack made hauling water easy.Now, here in Antananarivo, Madagascar, the municipal water is…Well, let me put it this way: For several weeks after I arrived here, I would go into my bathroom, look into the toilet bowl and wonder, Did I forget to flush again?I eventually realized it wasn’t that I needed a potty training refresher. What I was seeing is just the color of the city water as it is delivered to my apartment.

Antananarivo Water -- before and after.
Were you hoping for photos of my toilet? Sicko.
Photo: Ted Johnson

So I treat my drinking water at home using both filtration and a water purification solution. And that’s where the Ortlieb 10 Liter Water Bag comes in again, along with a water purification product and a portable luggage scale.I purchased this luggage scale, and I’ve been satisfied with it. (It’s the only luggage scale I’ve ever owned, so I don’t know any better.)The purification solution that I use is called Sûr’Eau, which is a product developed by USAID and is distributed at subsidized prices in many developing countries.

Thank you, American taxpayers. Seriously: Thank you.
Photo: Ted Johnson

For those of you not living in a developing country, you may find yourself needing a product such as Aquamira Water Treatment Drops, or perhaps good old bleach.The luggage scale comes in when I add the water to my 10-liter Ortlieb water bag. How do I know how many drops of the water treatment solution to add to the water?I remembered from grade school that one liter of water weighs one kilogram. (What do you say now, Mrs. Berg, who had me transferred to a different school in fourth grade?)So I take my portable luggage scale and weigh the water bag before I add water.

Weighing the Ortlieb 10L Water Bag
I write this number down because I can’t keep three digits in my working memory for more than a few seconds.
Photo: Ted Johnson

Then I add water.I have a nifty trick where I rest the bag in a kitchen drawer so I don’t have to support it the entire time it is filling up.

Ortlieb 10L Water Bag in a Kitchen Drawer
It happens to be my knife drawer. What could go wrong?
Photo: Ted Johnson

Then I weigh it again after the bag is full. I subtract the beginning weight in kilograms from the end weight in kilograms.For example: If my water bag weighs 2.69 Kg before I add more water, and 8.57 Kg afterwards, that means I’ve added 5.88 Kg of water — which is also 5.88 liters of water. I would round that up to an even 6. The recommended number of drops of Sûr’Eau is 3 per liter.

6 liters

x 3 drops/liter


= 18 drops

Adding water treatment to Ortlieb 10L Water Bag
Or maybe only 17 drops–if I feel like living on the edge.
Photo: Ted Johnson

Whatever water purification drops or tablets you use will have its own units-per-liter instructions. Knowing the weight of the water in kilograms makes the math easy.If you find yourself with nothing around but pla
in old household bleach (unscented, if possible), here’s the ratio:

Purifying Water During an Emergency -- Washington State Dept. of Health
If you want to make the math more complicated, with gallons, quarts, and teaspoons, you’re on your own.
Source: Washington State Dept. of Health

If I had approximately 6 liters of water to purify, I’d use 30 drops of bleach (rather than 18 drops of Sûr’Eau as in the previous example).If you find this math hard, then you might not be smart enough to live or travel abroad.After I put the cap back on, I can flip the bag over so the nozzle is pointed down.

Ortlieb 10L Water Bag
Upsy Daisy… Dispensing position.
Photo: Ted Johnson

Then, before I dispense the water, I wait the recommended period of 30 minutes while the germs die a horrific death, their tiny bodies burning in chlorine.

The whole set up.
Your water station may vary.
Photo: Ted Johnson

The only problem I’ve had with this system is that sometimes the gasket around the lid pops out partially. I just need to pop it back in with my finger tip.

Ortlieb Water Bag Cap
Now I check this before I flood my kitchen floor.
Photo: Ted Johnson

Pampered priss that I am, I actually have hot water and a shower in my apartment to deliver that warm yellow liquid all over my body. However, you might not be so lucky. Consider getting an Ortlieb Shower Valve which will allow you to use this same water bag for bathing.

Ortlieb Shower Valve
Ortlieb Shower Valve
Photo: Bike Bag Shop

And you probably want to get a black water bag so it will heat up faster in the sun. I haven’t tested this scenario.I have to give credit to Josh Lipton for introducing me to portable luggage scales. When I bought mine, I had no idea I’d be using it to weigh anything but luggage, to say nothing of keeping it in my kitchen for weekly use.

Ted Johnson is a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Follow his hardly-ever-about-bikes blogging at Half-Hearted Fanatic, and tweeting at @TedJohnsonIII.Note that the opinions expressed here by Ted Johnson are solely his own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

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