A Portable Water Distiller- Part 1, by JMD

Water is arguably one of the, if not the, most critical element to survival. Recent history has shown us that clean water is almost always one of the first items to become unavailable after a disaster.

A Water Distiller To Handle Salt Water As Well Fresh Water

Since I live within a day’s walk of the Atlantic Ocean and occasionally camp near the shore, I wanted to make a water distiller that could handle salt water as well as some of the more contaminated fresh water sources. My requirements were:

Portable

It should be portable. So that means that it must be something that I could carry inside of or strapped to a backpack and used in the field.

Rugged and Reliable

A lot of the designs I have seen require flexing of the copper coil to set it up and take it down. This coiling and uncoiling would eventually lead to failure and so could not be part of my design. I needed something more rugged and reliable.

Self Contained

It must be self contained. I did not want to rely on having to find rocks or logs or scrounge anything to set it up.

Easy to Set Up

I wanted to be able to easily set it up and take it down. This should be done within a minute or two.

Efficient

It should be efficient. I wanted to be able to fill my 32 oz. water bottle with a single session.

99.99% Effective For Some Contaminants

I realize that this type of distillation may not be 100% effective for some contaminants. It may not remove all volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with a boiling point higher than water; contaminant particles may get carried by the steam, et cetera. However, my experience is that it’s 99.99% effective, which is about as good as your going to get with a portable, self-contained solution in a SHTF situation without either stocking a ton of activated charcoal or finding a fully functional water treatment plant. Common sense applies.

Try to avoid standing water sources from around chemical plants, airports, tank farms, et cetera. I would recommend trying it out on water sources that you will most likely use in your post-SHTF operating area and testing the output to make sure it is drinkable. For me, the big use case is that it makes salt water and other questionable sources drinkable. If you are really worried about it, you can distill the water multiple times, or run it through an activated charcoal filter after distilling. Note that by distilling the water first, this should make your filter last a lot longer since it will not have to handle as many contaminants.

Materials Used

Here are the materials I used. I had many of them on hand from previous projects, but I have tried to provide equivalents that can be found online or at your local home center. If you have to buy everything, it is my guess that it will probably cost around $75 or so.

Single-Walled Stainless Steel Bottle Boiler

I chose a 55 oz. single-walled stainless steel bottle as a boiler, since these things are never 100% efficient, and you need to discard the first few minutes of output to allow VOCs with lower boiling points and such to drain out. I figured the final result should just about fill up my 32 oz. water bottle. Note that you need to use a single-walled steel bottle, because a double-walled insulated bottle will take a long time to heat the water.

To Start, Wrap Coils of Copper

To start making the distiller, I wrapped coils of copper. I carefully spiral-wrapped the copper tubing around the water bottle, leaving the top pointing straight up (cooling tower input) and the bottom pointing perpendicular to the side of the coil (cooling tower output). If your package of copper tubing comes with protective rubber end caps, save them. I’ve made a couple of iterations of this, and I’ve found that 10-12 coils of copper tubing seem to be enough to condense most of the steam when using reasonably cool water in the cooling tower.

Barbed Adapter

I pried off the carrying ring that was spot-welded on the top of the 55 oz. water bottle cap, cut open the bottom, and drilled a hole through the top to fit the threaded part of the barbed adapter. Use a couple of large washers (one on top and one on bottom) for strength and to improve sealing, Then,  screw the barbed adapter through the hole (barb pointing up). I also applied some silicone sealant to the washers before tightening. Here’s a side view with that done:

And here’s a view of the bottom with the metal cut away:

Combo Cooling Tower/Carrying Case

Next, I built the combo cooling tower/carrying case. To make this, I carefully cleaned all of the galvanized metal with a weak solution of water and ammonia, followed by soap and warm water. This is necessary so the paint sticks later. I cut the duct length down to 13″, sealed the side seam with silicone, and used JB Weld to glue one of the end caps on. I also added some silicone sealant to help seal the end cap and make it water tight.

Then, I drilled a 1/4″ hole on the side at the bottom for the cooling coil output. I cut a “V” notch in the top edge on the opposite side from the output hole so that I would be able to pour more cool water into the cooling tower while I am distilling and the overflow will not spill down over the clean water output.

Raise the Cooling Tower Off the Ground

I wanted to raise the cooling tower up off the ground so the steam would go upwards from the boiler to the cooling tower and the distilled output would flow down into my water bottle. Because I did not want to rely on finding rocks or logs to set it on, I made some legs for it. For legs, I cut the aluminum rod into 12″ lengths, threaded the ends (1/4″ x 20), and bent them slightly about 2″ from the threaded end.

I glued the three coupling nuts (also 1/4″ x 20 threads) evenly spaced around the base of the cooling tower using JB Weld. To make sure the JB Weld holds, I roughed up the gluing surface of each nut and the gluing location on the cooling tower with some sandpaper.

Tomorrow, I will go over painting, why paint is important as well as how to plug leaks, my test results, packing your distiller, setting it up, storing it, and more. I will also go over some very important notes that include practical use tips and some items that will make using it safer and easier.

See also:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

This has been part one of a two part entry for Round 77 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest. The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:

First Prize:

  1. A $3000 gift certificate towards a Sol-Ark Solar Generator from Veteran owned Portable Solar LLC. The only EMP Hardened Solar Generator System available to the public.
  2. A Gunsite Academy Three Day Course Certificate. This can be used for any one, two, or three day course (a $1,095 value),
  3. A course certificate from onPoint Tactical for the prize winner’s choice of three-day civilian courses, excluding those restricted for military or government teams. Three day onPoint courses normally cost $795,
  4. DRD Tactical is providing a 5.56 NATO QD Billet upper. These have hammer forged, chrome-lined barrels and a hard case, to go with your own AR lower. It will allow any standard AR-type rifle to have a quick change barrel. This can be assembled in less than one minute without the use of any tools. It also provides a compact carry capability in a hard case or in 3-day pack (an $1,100 value),
  5. Two cases of Mountain House freeze-dried assorted entrees in #10 cans, courtesy of Ready Made Resources (a $350 value),
  6. A $250 gift certificate good for any product from Sunflower Ammo,
  7. Two cases of meals, Ready to Eat (MREs), courtesy of CampingSurvival.com (a $180 value), and
  8. American Gunsmithing Institute (AGI) is providing a $300 certificate good towards any of their DVD training courses.

Second Prize:

  1. A Model 175 Series Solar Generator provided by Quantum Harvest LLC (a $439 value),
  2. A Glock form factor SIRT laser training pistol and a SIRT AR-15/M4 Laser Training Bolt, courtesy of Next Level Training, which have a combined retail value of $589,
  3. A gift certificate for any two or three-day class from Max Velocity Tactical (a $600 value),
  4. A transferable certificate for a two-day Ultimate Bug Out Course from Florida Firearms Training (a $400 value),
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  6. A $200 gift certificate good towards any books published by PrepperPress.com,
  7. RepackBox is providing a $300 gift certificate to their site.

Third Prize:

  1. A Royal Berkey water filter, courtesy of Directive 21 (a $275 value),
  2. A large handmade clothes drying rack, a washboard, and a Homesteading for Beginners DVD, all courtesy of The Homestead Store, with a combined value of $206,
  3. Expanded sets of both washable feminine pads and liners, donated by Naturally Cozy (a $185 retail value),
  4. Two Super Survival Pack seed collections, a $150 value, courtesy of Seed for Security, LLC,
  5. Mayflower Trading is donating a $200 gift certificate for homesteading appliances, and
  6. Two 1,000-foot spools of full mil-spec U.S.-made 750 paracord (in-stock colors only) from www.TOUGHGRID.com (a $240 value).

Round 77 ends on July 31st, so get busy writing and e-mail us your entry. Remember that there is a 1,500-word minimum, and that articles on practical “how to” skills for survival have an advantage in the judging.




18 Comments

    1. @TexasScout,
      Actually, that isn’t a factor at all. Very few, if any, of your minerals come from your water. Your food supplies them. Distilled water is basically the same as Reverse Osmosis for the end product. That is where water is forced under pressure through a membrane that strips out the minerals, among other things. It requires pressure in order for this to work. The process that occurs naturally is just osmosis. That is where the water with lots of minerals draws the water with few minerals through the membrane. Normal osmosis is what occurs in your body, not reverse osmosis. It is impossible for distilled water (or reverse osmosis water) to strip minerals from your body. If anything, it would cause water retention, but a properly functioning kidney easily deals with this.
      As long as you have sufficient mineral intake through your food, you will see no difference with distilled water.

    2. it’s not a great idea to drink nothing but distilled water for a long time, but in a shtf situation, distilled water thats reasonably clean is a lot better than contaminated water. Also, in places where people have to collect rainwater to survive, traditional cultures have sometimes developed the habit of mixing in clean clay to muddy the water and then settle it out, to help re-dissolve some minerals into the water. Also storing the water in unglazed clar jars where the water gets into the pores of the clay and dissolves some minerals, helps with this too.
      long term it is not the best plan to depend only on distilled water or rainwater, one will end up mineral deficient. but for a few days or weeks an otherwise healthy person should be just fine. and, as some other have said, if the minerals are supplied from elsewhere one should be ok. again, we’re talking about temporary shtf solutions. long term if your only water is from such a gadget, youre a guerilla or nomad on the move in very questionable territory, and relocating might be worth thinking about!

      1. Actually, there is no scientific evidence supporting that data. While this is certainly a marketing claim used by water filter companies that compete with RO or distillation systems, even the WHO recognizes that it is only dangerous in a situation that has very specific parameters. If you do not eat any food and you only consume distilled water, you will run into an electrolyte imbalance which will cause issues with your body’s ability to function. Do that very long with normal water and you have the same issue. You don’t get near enough electrolytes trhough plain water to make a difference here. The WHO recommends against using distilled or RO water because in the third world countries, malnourishment is a significant problem.
        If you are a normal person eating a normal diet, you will have absolutely no residual side effects. Your body will replenish all the minerals and salts that it needs from the food you eat. In most modern American’s diets, there will be an excess of minerals and salts that will simply be flushed out in the urine.
        Even if you sweat profusely and are fasting, it will be a noticeable amount of time before you begin to have any ill effects. Distilled and RO water does tend to have no taste at all which is disturbing to many people. You can add a very light pinch of salt or clay to alleviate that problem, but there are no real health effects. We have been consuming RO water for many years, even working outside and seating profusely with no ill effects at all.

  1. Thanks for this wonderful article, JMD. I am really excited and looking forward to the next installment. The disastrous extension of dangerous water contamination across this nation is one of the greatest tragedies to humans in my lifetime.

    As a young lad we used to hike, climb, and ski through the Cascade ranges and carry a flat, collapsible rubber envelope in our back pocket. When coming to a waterfall, we would take it out, squeeze the sides to open it, and hold it under waterfalls to drink the sweet mountain snowmelt runoff water. Now you are almost guaranteed to get disease that way, let alone drinking from creeks, ponds, or lakes directly.

    I hope I can emulate your design, but if you could like to additional photos or designs, that would help us do it correctly.

    And note everyone, during bugout or disaster, make sure you do not try to consume anything from along the roads or highways, from ditches or ‘borrow pits’. Years of fuel use, the lead from emissions for the 50 years of use prior to unleaded gas, microscopic pieces of rubber or brake linings, leakage from any types of fluid, etc., could be waiting for you to slurp it down. Same thing in cities- one episode of Doomsday Preppers showed a guy using campfire charcoal and a hanky with plastic water bottle to filter pond water and drink it direct. Don’t if you have a better choice, such as distilling.

  2. cvmuleman,

    I heard a recent lecture by a water treatment expert in which he cautioned against using stainless water bottles for hot liquids as most of them are made in China and contain lead in the stainless. May be something for the EPA to investigate, and actually earn their keep.

  3. If you start with water that has ground corn, sugar, and yeast and has been left to ferment for a few days, it will produce white lightning. (Also known as ethyl alcohol) This will run your car, cause your brain to go crazy, and get you in jail if the government catches you. Some of the old Tennessee boys made this in 50 gallon batches and used spring water to cool the condensing coils!! In an emergency situation when clean water is not available the ethyl alcohol will dehydrate your body and you will need a lot of water to get it out of your system.

  4. re:
    Stainless steel

    Most stainless steel alloys use nickel.

    The Weston Price folks recommend against stainless steel in cooking. The electric pressure cookers == ‘Insta-Pot’ == are a big issue.

    Nickel poisoning symptoms include brain fog and fatigue and ‘allergies’. Generalized dumbness.

    And forgetting how to spell ‘symptoms’.

  5. Much obliged for this post. My locale has extremely limited fresh water sources, and the ground water is decidedly brackish. One blessing – the water table is very high, within 10 feet of grade level, making it easier to gather. Distallation will definitely be required if rain is not in the forecast., likely several units for the family group.

  6. “not quite backpack portable” I bought a Survival Still back in 2012, a year before moving to the Redoubt (this is my 6th July in Idaho tnx to Jim)…(see Amazon for the survival still) I even got the matching pots, for the boiler below, and the condenser above the “still”

    As Gomer Pyle said “surprise surprise!” = = The amount of FUEL to boil the water and the amount of TIME required to produce the first quart of distilled water is HUGE. The biggest surprise to me (I did get an A in engineering thermodynamics) was how much cooling resources are needed to sustain the condensation process with the upper pot full of cool water. “Reasonably Cool” water for cooling the condensation tube gets hot really quickly.

    So I await the author’ next installment to show me how to overcome using dirty fuel: wood smoke can contaminate the heat exchanger tubing with carbon-black, insulating the heat transfer. Or at least, report how long it takes to create the first and only quart.

    One suggestion is to look at the Kelley Kettle design as the boiler. Their clever design has the water surrounding the central exhaust flue. Those dirty smoky gases pass thru the center of the bottle and go into free air! The Kelley Kettle mounted on a Rocket Stove really works well. I’ve boiled water with a few pine cones. There is a larger “made in India” Kelley Kettle knockoff (1 gal) that sits on top of the rocket stove. I have various model rocket stoves, with the simplest bulletproof one the “DeadWood Stove” from Texas. The challenge is that my catfish pond water would make that item pretty disgusting pretty quickly and impossible to clean. Offsetting the condenser column from the exhaust flue would be necessary, and thus, kills the super portable concept.

    oops: Using stainless steel for the boiler for SALT WATER: Look for marine grade 316 stainless, which has molybdenum added to resist chloride reaction. 304 grade is going to corrode quickly.

    As for comments about the Berkey being so awesome…I have used one of those since 2008, and have been shocked at how easily the filters lose their seal, letting dirty water pass into the clean retort! The eventual failure embedded in the design: Trying to make a waterproof join between plastic and carbon using RTV/hot glue/mystery stuff, and make that be safe insurance when the chips are down. Filter seal failure is an invitation to grid down disaster.. “vinyl ain’t final”…..Boil the Berkey Water with the Kelley Kettle!

    There is an inexpensive electric distiller from China that has a Celsius thermostat on Amazon. It extracts tincture material co-located inside the cider very efficiently. If I was to use that to create “1 gallon” of distilled water from the catfish pond, it would require about 1.5 quarts of gasoline for the 4 hour run using the E2000i generator. Why use distilled water in the CPAP???? You are distilling the water (evaporating) it, duh! Oh, right, it would smell fishy.

    ‘pologize for being wordy and flighty. Its a lot easier to submit a comment, rather than write an article 😉
    73’ de ene

  7. I agree with E-N-E near Cataldo. It IS time consuming. Quite a bit of cool /cold water will be needed to produce an adequate amount of potable water. I’m still gonna hold on to my Sawyer Mini.

  8. JMD
    Congratulations on your design, prototype, and demo!

    (I checked, the survivalstill uses 304 grade stainless, which is susceptible to chlorides) Good thing there is not much salt water in N.Idaho 😉

    1. What is the stove you used in your picture?
    2. How much fuel did you consume? (thinking of picking up flammables on the beach)
    Would you pls use one of those single burner camp stoves with say, a tare-weighed 1lb propane cylinder, run the test, and let us know how many oz wt propane was consumed? That will help calculate efficiency of the system since we will know the BTU in best of conditions. ……yes yes, there are still lots of variables (how much cold water is used to cool the evap coil, coupling of the stove heat to the boiler, etc…but if you are at a remote site and need distilled water to top off batteries, those details don’t matter!

    3. How much time from fire start, to bottle of full water is accomplished?

    4. If you have problems with removing the boiler fill cap, may I suggest a high temp anti galling lubricant: boron hex nitride (HBN) found at lowerfriction.com)? It’s good to 1000C. I use it to coat copper pots exterior before re-tinning the interiors. The HBN cleans off easily, and solder will not stick to it. It sprays on a pretty white & is sterile.

    squirrel:
    If you also look at the tungsten disulphide (WS2) on the lowerfriction.com website……I took some with me to Afghanistan in 2011 and the gunny at a FOB in Kandahar asked if I would leave it all with him. Burnish the bolt carrier group etc with it and you have the best dry lube going. It makes molybdenum disulphide, graphite, teflon obsolete (NASA lubes gearing, shafts etc for space probes with WS2 (am I right Hugh?) I took it with me for lubing connectors on the radio/jammer gear on the MRAPs.

    In March of this year I tested WS2 on coax connectors to verify if it increased passive intermodulation products. It does not. (intermod test equipment for cell site maintenance)

    Last week I tested coating the load resistors in my 3-wire dipole design with HBN (boron hex nitride). It works, but appears not necessary. hmm, now that would be an article to write 😉
    _…_

    73′
    ENE in Cataldo

  9. Something I’ve been curious about but haven’t had the chance to try yet is if you have a double wall insulated SS container, can you puncture the outer wall several times (probably around the lip) and defeat the insulation properties of the vacuum?

    Would this modification work to help boil water, etc?

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