Potable versus Non-potable Water

Understanding the difference between potable water and nonpotable water could literally save your life.

Potable water
Potable water, also known as drinking water, comes from surface and ground sources, and is treated for microorganisms, bacteria, toxic chemicals, viruses, and fecal matter, so that it is safe for consumption. Potable water normally flows out of your tap, including your kitchen and bathroom sinks. This water is clean and safe because it has been treated at your local municipal water treatment plant; or if you live in a rural area, it is water from your well that is treated before it reaches your tap. Portable water is suitable for drinking, cooking, hand washing, and personal bathing.

An easy way to remember the difference between potable and non-potable is to break the word “potable“ into two parts — “pot” and “able”. What is safe to put into a pot to make your coffee or cook your dinner is able to be used for drinking and consumption.

Non-potable water
Non-potable water refers to any water that is not safe to drink, cook with or bathe in. It should never be used for drinking, cooking, washing foods, preparing drinks, cleaning surfaces, bathing, washing, or rinsing food containers. Dishes made of plastic, wood, and other porous materials, like clay, should not be washed with non-potable water because bacteria can remain in these surfaces if they do not dry properly.

Non-potable water sources include ground water, stagnant bodies of water, lakes, rivers, streams, natural springs, and rainwater collected and stored in a barrel or cistern. Non-potable water is also water that has been used.This includes greywater we have used in our homes or campers when washing dishes or taking showers. Once water is used, it is no longer safe for human consumption.

When you digest non-potable water or eat off contaminated surfaces, you swallow organisms harmful to your body and expose yourself to a number of water-borne diseases. Common waterborne diseases include cholera, typhoid, flukes, dysentery, cryptosporidium, and giardia.

Deaths due to water-related diseases exceed a shocking 5 million annually throughout the world. Those who get medical help and survive often have to go through a prolonged recovery period. The long-term effect of a waterborne infection can be a weakened immune system, which leaves the individual vulnerable to other diseases and illnesses.

Used water should be poured or allowed to flow down your drain line so that it can be treated at the water treatment plant; or if in your RV or camper’s grey water tank, the water should be dumped in a dump station. While you might think it would be safe to dump the grey water from your trailer onto the ground or in a ditch, it isn’t. Doing so can be harmful because untreated water releases chemicals, bacteria, and microorganisms into the groundwater, which will eventually seep into wells and other water sources, contaminating it and making it unsafe for others.

Non-potable water can be used for other purposes at home and in industrial applications, such as flushing toilets, watering non-edible houseplants, car washing, cooling water for power plants, fire suppression, hot water heating, and carpet dying. If recycled and filtered, non-potable water can also be used for irrigating landscaped areas and watering gardens.

It’s very important that you make the distinction between potable and non-potable water. Whenever you come across water that is not from a tap, bottle, or filtration system, you must treat it as non-potable.

If you will be hiking or traveling to a remote location where you won’t have access to potable water, it is recommended that you prepare by bringing a portable filtration device. These can include special filtration bottles, straws or water sacks.

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