Friday, October 4, 2019

Water Bottles: Material, Construction, Purpose

Not actually Erin.
& is used with permission.
A few days ago, David talked about getting a new water bottle for his Every Day Carry gear. What he said, and the comments that arose from it, have spurred me to talk about what to look for in a water bottle for your preps.

The biggest criteria is "How do you intend to use it?", followed by what it's made from and how it's constructed.

When looking for water bottles for your preps, the three biggest contenders are plastic, aluminum, and steel.

Unless you're like David and have actually managed to break a Nalgene bottle, this is probably your best bet. Nalgene is a brand name, but much like "kleenex" or "xerox" we now use it as a generic noun to indicate a type of durable plastic used in sports bottles. This kind of plastic is almost indestructible, lightweight, comes in a variety of sizes and colors and spouts, and is affordable by anyone. There is some concern about the long-term health risks of drinking from a plastic bottle made with BPA, so manufacturers such as Nalgene advertise that their products are BPA-free.

Aluminum is cheaper than plastic (unless you get a fancy insulated version -- see Construction, below) and weighs slightly less than Nalgene. It also scratches and dents more easily, which is a legitimate concern if you're using it every day; the daily bumps, drops and other oopses of daily life can do more damage to a bottle over the long term than taking one hiking or camping will.

There's also some concern about the long-term health effects of drinking from an aluminum container. This is because aluminium in solution is toxic, and there is concern that aluminum poisoning could be a contributing cause of Alzheimer's syndrome. In truth, this is outside of my field of expertise and I will ask Chaplain Tim, who was a professional water chemist, to explain this in greater detail. However, I wish to point out two things:
  1. Aluminum oxidizes when exposed to the air. Aluminum Oxide is both insoluble (doesn't dissolve in water) and very tough (fun fact: sapphires are composed of oxidized aluminum), but that coating can be damaged in a variety of ways:
    • Physical Deformation of the container, which exposes un-oxidized aluminum to whatever is inside. Remember, aluminum dents easily!
    • Chemical degradation of the oxide. All fruit juices and most soft drinks are acidic, which will strip off the oxidized layer, as will washing your bottle in the alkaline soap of a dishwasher. 
  2. The amount of aluminum needed to be a health hazard would require you to drink regularly from that bottle for years before any ill effects could potentially manifest. 
In other words, so long as you only put water in your water bottle, don't bang it to pieces, and don't drink from it and only it for years and years, you will be all right. 

Steel is non-toxic and tough. Steel is also more expensive than aluminum and slightly heavier, which may be an issue in a Bug Out or Get Home Bag. It's also less conductive than aluminum, which is why insulated thermoses are made from it. 

Some water bottles are insulated and some are not. While there are different types of insulation (double wall, vacuum insulated, etc) for our purposes today we only care if they're insulated or not.

Insulated bottles keep your cold drinks cold and your hot drinks hot, and in a neat side-effect, prevent condensation from forming. I have never seen an insulated plastic water bottle and I don't think it's possible to make one; instead, you have to put an insulating sleeve over the bottles.

Both steel and aluminum bottles can be insulated, but this increases both price and weight, sometimes dramatically depending upon the type of insulation and size of the bottle. Given that aluminum is a good thermal conductor, it will reach room temperature faster than a steel bottle of similar construction.

Given the advantages of an insulated bottle, some may ask why any prepper would want an un-insulated one. The answer to that is simple: You cannot boil water in an insulated bottle. The insulation will prevent the water inside from heating, and attempting to do so will result in damage to the bottle's insulation as you burn it away, as well as wasted time and fuel for the fire.

It is possible to boil water inside a plastic bottle, as the water itself absorbs the heat which would otherwise melt the plastic, but over the long term this will destroy your bottle.

Ironically, aluminum's heat conduction makes it an excellent candidate for purification in the field by boiling, as it will heat up quickly and also cool down quickly. Steel will take longer to heat and will also retain it for longer.

This brings us to our main criteria, "What will you use it for?" These are my opinions.

Every Day Use
Unless your name is David Blackard, use a Nalgene style bottle for water. If the water becomes tepid before you finish it, top it off with cold water from a faucet. 

If you want to drink a non-water substance, get a steel bottle. If you want to keep it hot or cold, get an insulated version. I prefer vacuum-insulated bottles, also known as thermoses.

Hiking or Camping
I suggest un-insulated aluminum for this because it is cheap (so that if you damage it or lose it you won't be out a lot of money), it is lightweight, and if your outing turns into a survival situation you can purify water in it easily (because, as prepper, we always have on our persons multiple ways to start fires, don't we?).

BOBs or GHBs
I actually don't recommend bottles at all for BOBs; I think you are better served by boiling water using cooking equipment (such as a pot over the fire) and then being poured into a hydration bladder for drinking on the go.

For GHBs, I suggest both a Nalgene and a simple aluminum bottle. Boil water in the aluminum, then pour it into your plastic bottle for drinking while you Get Home. Not only will this allow you to benefit from the qualities of both bottles, it will increase your carrying capacity:
  1. Boil the water in the aluminum bottle.
  2. When you can touch the bottle, pour the water into your Nalgene.
  3. Repeat until Nalgene is full. 
  4. Boil another aluminum bottle's worth of water and seal it when it has cooled.
  5. Refill your Nalgene from the aluminum when you are running low. When the aluminum is low, start looking for another water source. 

As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to each material and design. To find which is right for you, first determine how you intend to use the bottle and work from there.

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