In my recent article on water filtration and purification options I alluded to a DIY water distiller that my husband and son made for me this past Christmas. Read on for the how-to, considerations, and test results!
Camp Water Distiller Kit:
2 Klean Kanteen jugs (or similar brand), any size (we used a 64 oz. jug for the clean distilled water and a 27 oz. jug for the dirty water)
144 inches of 1/4" diameter copper tubing
Push-to-connect coupling, female 1/2” connection
1/2” by 4” pipe with male connections at each end
1/2" end cap
Step 1 – Drill a hole in the dirty water Klean Kanteen lid, to fit the 1/2” by 4” pipe. Screw one end of the pipe into this hole.
Step 2 – Screw the end cap onto the other end of the pipe. This closes your dirty water jug, in case you want to transport dirty water (such as from a water source, back to camp).
Step 3 – Bend the copper tubing. One way to do this without flattening the copper is to fill the tube with sand and then bend it around the 27 oz. jug. Another way (this is what we did) is to fill the copper tube with water and place it in the freezer until it’s partially frozen. Then bend it around the 27 oz. jug. The idea is to make a coil for storage around the jug. If using the water option you’ll want to work quickly, before the ice inside melts. Once formed, the copper tubing will keep the coiled shape and can then be stretched out for use when needed.
Step 4 – Push the coupling onto one end of the coiled copper tubing. When the distiller is set up for use, the female connection on this coupling will be attached to the male connection on the pipe piece protruding from the dirty water jug (remove the end cap from the pipe).
Step 5 – To use the distiller, once the tubing is attached to the dirty water jug with the coupling and pipe (Step 4), stretch out the tubing to the desired length. The dirty water jug should be placed in your fire pit at a higher level than the clean water jug, and the copper tubing coil should end over the [lower] clean water jug to ensure you get clean condensation. The video below shows this setup.
Don’t fill the dirty water jug more than halfway full. You don’t want your dirty water boiling up and into the tube! All you want is the clean condensation in the tube.
As stated in Step 5 above, make sure the dirty water jug is placed at a higher level in the fire than the clean water jug.
Ideally the clean water jug should not be heated at all, and even better should be kept cool in some way to allow for maximum retention of the condensation. This would be difficult in outdoors situations, however.
During our distiller test, we used the smaller (27 oz.) jug for dirty water and the larger (64 oz.) jug for catching the clean condensation. In hindsight the ratio of dirty water to clean condensation is pretty large, so you might want to use the bigger jug to collect dirty water instead.
Our test resulted in a half a cup clean distilled water. This took 30 minutes at a hard boil and this time did not include felling wood, starting the fire, getting the snow to melt and then boil, and so forth. Bottom line is that distillation takes a long time, and a constant fire, to work.
Here’s a recap video of our DIY Camp Water Distiller test!
Afterwards, I tested both the dirty (but boiled) water and the clean distilled water using an at-home water test kit from a home supply store. Since I used snow (albeit dirty snow), the “dirty” water was probably much ‘cleaner’ than water from a river or lake, for example. But at any rate, here are the results!
Keep in mind this was one test of one distilled water sample, and one dirty water sample, one time. Certainly it wouldn’t pass muster with “double blind” studies and such, but the results were nonetheless interesting.
Total Hardness – appeared to increase slightly in the distilled water. I expected no hardness in the dirty sample since all I used was snow. I’d guess that the slight increase in hardness in the distilled sample was due to using both stainless steel water jugs, and copper tubing.
Total Chlorine – zero for both samples, which I expected since I used snow for the test.
Alkalinity – the distilled sample was slightly higher than the dirty, but still within normal range.
pH – the distilled sample was within normal range, while the dirty sample was not. (Score 1 for the distiller!)
Nitrite and Nitrate – for both of these, the distilled sample was slightly higher than the dirty sample. I’m not sure why this would be, although the test strip colors were perhaps not 100% accurate.
Copper – both samples tested the same
Iron – this was the one category I was most interested in, because distillation is known to remove all minerals, metals, and so forth from water in addition to impurities. The distilled sample strip was most definitely less pink in color than the dirty sample strip, which means this distillation test did remove iron from the sample water! (Score 2 for the distiller!)
The benefit of distillation is that it removes ALL impurities from your water. This is useful in a survival situation where you want to make sure all bacteria, protozoa, viruses, and even minerals are removed. However, keeping water at a boil for extended periods of time, especially at altitude, might prove difficult. Therefore, make sure you carry several water filtration and purification options with you when you head into the woods. And better yet, carry lots of clean water!