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Solar power emergency - how to make clean water with solar energy and distillation

Updated on October 20, 2011


Solar power can be used in many different ways. This article looks at some ad hoc ways of using solar energy in survival situations - specifically, to produce clean water.

It's not just the case that these stills and purification techniques can be used in the aftermath of a hurricane or civil emergency, though.

They are also useful in survival situations, and knowing how to build one is a Good Thing.

They are also a fun thing to do. I learned how to do this on a Girl Guide camp when I was bout 10 years old, and we all enjoyed it immensely.

Building a solar still is a fantastic family project, and teaches children a great deal about how energy, water, distillation, water vapour and condensation work.

Solar still

A solar still is a device which distills water using solar energy in order to turn dirty or suspect water into undoubtedly clean water.

They can be useful in areas which lose power as a result of extreme weather such as hurricanes.

They are also extremely useful to demonstrate to children, in an interesting and practical fashion, concepts of evaporation, condensation, and conductivity.

A diagram of how a solar still is constructed
A diagram of how a solar still is constructed

Building a solar still

There are several different ways to do this, but this is one way I was taught to do it at, of all places, a Girl Guides Camp!

It does work - we built several, and they did indeed produce distilled water.

You need:

  • A sheet of plastic or tarpaulin (must be water-proof), approx. 5 ft by 5ft, or bigger;
  • Something to catch your water, such as a cup, bottle or (small) bucket;
  • A stone, large pebble size;
  • Something to dig with, such as a spade or shovel, or anything in an emergency, such as a big stick or sharp stone or even a knife.

Firstly, dig a hole, about 3 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet deep. Choose the place which gets the most sun per day in the immediate area. You get more water if the soil at the bottom of your hole is damp.

Put your cup / empty tin can / other water catcher at the bottom and centre of your hole.

Put any dirty or doubtful water at the bottom of your hole, so it is thoroughly damp. You can also use seawater. If you don't have any seawater or dirty water, put juicy green plants there, or urine (which will produce clean, distilled water only, don't worry....)

Put the plastic over the hole you've dug, and make sure it's sagging a bit in the middle, over your water catcher.

The use stones, wood and the soil you dug out of your hole to anchor the plastic to the ground. Try to make it sealed, so water vapour doesn't escape around the edges of your plastic sheet.

Lastly, put the stone on the secured plastic, directly over the water catcher.

The still works by causing the damp, dirty water, seawater, urine or succulent plants to produce water vapour. This is prevented from escaping the hole by the plastic.

The stone on the plastic encourages the water vapour to condense, and drop into your water catcher.

Solar distillation

If enough water is not produced by a solar still, an alternative method to clean water safely is to fill a clean P.E.T. (type of plastic bottle, commonly used for household drinks) and seal the bottle, and leave it in the sunshine.

Although the water does not boil, it reaches a temperature that together with the effect of direct sunshine makes the water safe to drink.

6 hours of Northern European mid-day summer sunshine is required in order to make the water safe to be consumed, and up to 2 days if its very cloudy.

Glass bottles are not as good, as the sun UV rays are blocked by glass and the benefits of ultraviolet light are therefore lost.

Studies have shown that in countries and areas where there is not clean water, a solar water disinfection method reduces stomach upsets by between 30 and 80%.

Worldwide use of solar water treatment in bottles, in 2008
Worldwide use of solar water treatment in bottles, in 2008


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    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      Thanks for some cool tips on getting to some drinkable water in an emergency.

    • profile image

      Tim 8 years ago

      Great article. I am definitely a fan of this type of knowledge. Whether it be

    • Tim Blackstone profile image

      Tim Blackstone 8 years ago

      Helpful advice and you never know when it might be useful. I just have to remember to carry a waterproof sheet with me everywhere I go now :o)

    • upal19 profile image

      Ashraf Mir 8 years ago from Dhaka

      A nice page. in my country energy defficiency is a big problem. I don't know why we are ignoring solar power. I think the whole world should use solar energy. thanks for this nice write up. all your write ups on solar power are very beneficial to mankind.

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      Glad you've enjoyed my solar hubs!

    • profile image

      Build Your Own Solar panel 8 years ago

      Wow. This is the third hub I found that you worte on Solar stuff. I must admit, you have educated me. I did not realize that distilling water via solar was quite so simple... involved, but simple.


    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      Thanks, glad you liked it! Steph, I've enjoyed your writings on the subject a lot, too.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 8 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Solar power is one of my favorite topics! You covered some of the best tips as to why it is necessary in the case of emergency! Thumbs up (and dugg!)

    • cashmere profile image

      cashmere 8 years ago from India

      I dugg it London girl. Great hub!

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Great solar survival tips:-)

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      thanks - glad you liked it.

    • packerpack profile image

      Om Prakash Singh 8 years ago from India, Calcutta

      Good concept and good Hub! Liked it stubmbled and twitted it. Good one!

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      Israel has taken to solar distillation of sea water as well, I think - lots of sun, not much water!

    • Mary Fellows profile image

      Mary Fellows 8 years ago from Australia

      This concept is being looked at for some large scale installations in parts of drought affected Australia. The other thing that is popular are major desalination plants - Perth gets a lot of its water that way

    • Lgali profile image

      Lgali 8 years ago

      thnaks for this nice hub you really know how to write good hubs

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      Thanks, both!

      Rochelle, I'm a big city girl with a Girl Guide background (-:

    • shamelabboush profile image

      shamelabboush 8 years ago

      I once used the bottle trick to drink water. I placed the bottle under direct and hot sun for about 4 hours and it worked. Actually, solar power should be used widely to lessen the harmful effects of chemicals emissions bcz I think this is the last resort to put an end tho the global warming. Great hub like usual Londongirl.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks for this , I have bookmarked it. I love this stuff. Who would think that a big city girl would come up with this one?