Distillation is a valuable skill for any person to have. You can also use water distillers for other types of distillation.
This article will show you how to distill water with basic equipment.
Just how basic are we talking?
You can distill water with fire and a tarp if you have to or, during an SHTF situation, just a few scavenged water bottles.
Let’s start with homemade or emergency water distillers, and then we’ll move on to more elaborate and professional-grade equipment. Don’t worry, even nice water distillers cost less than some basic water filters people buy every day.
Size and Output
Water distillers vary greatly in size. The bigger they are, the more water you can distill and the faster the process. Most people stick to a size that fits on a standard stove burner.
My husband and I have been making beer for 16 years. We have learned that electric stove burners can only handle so much weight. A 5-gallon pot of water or beer wort weighs 40 pounds. That is a lot of weight concentrated on a heating element. Gas stoves are better at holding a lot of weight because they have metal stands over the burners that distribute the weight and keep it off the heating apparatus.
You will ruin a stove’s heating element if you put too much weight on it. Electric heating elements are fairly inexpensive to replace, but it is better to avoid the whole situation.
Cast iron element hot plates work, but they are not designed to be used for extended periods unless you have a professional-grade one.
So, what are your options?
- Separate gas propane burner such as the type you get with a turkey fryer
- Heavy-duty hot plate
- Size your still based on the type of stove or heat source you have
Some distillers do not need a heat source like a burner or even electricity, but most do. Here are some distillation options from the very basic and crude to nice store bought systems.
Plastic Sheet Solar Still
It is debatable how much water you can get from using a few basic items and the sun. The videos below show how basic solar stills are made. I think that something like this could help keep you alive during a major situation, but you would still need more water, especially if you had to use very basic materials.
D-Still Emergency Water Distillation System
This small distiller set up is designed strictly for emergency use. It is compact and designed to be used with a pot you already own. The idea is that you can still use the pot for other things when you’re not using it for distillation. The beauty of this distiller is that an outside heat source is not required because you can use an outside fire with this model.
Although this is a neat item made with high-quality materials, the price is enough to buy a still that comes with a pot and that can be used for other distillation projects. The D-Still is still worth considering for those short on space and who like versatility.
This basic 3-gallon still is great to have for “just in case” times. It is small enough to work on basically any stovetop or even a hot plate. Three gallons is not hard to empty either. If you are distilling anything besides water, there are often leftovers that you have to dump, and that means carrying it somewhere for disposal or scooping it out.
For those who want to go big right away, this water distiller is a bargain for the money. I guarantee that you will need to use it on a dedicated heat source. You will need a large outside propane burner or a firepit that you can feed wood into.
This still is made from stainless steel and copper and weighs 25 lbs pounds. To give you some perspective, if you fill it with 10 gallons of water, you’ll have more than 100 pounds on your burner.
The temperature gauge gives an accurate reading of the temperature inside the still, so you can operate it safely and efficiently with no guesswork.
At 7.9 gallons, this is a larger still yet still small enough that most stoves could manage it. I would not put anything larger than this on most stovetops, and you may still want to avoid it if you have an electric stove.
This is just a smaller version of the 18.5-gallon still featured above. In total, it weighs in at 20.8 pounds, but remember that all stills break down into several pieces so you don’t have to carry it all at once.
Copper vs. Stainless
Copper stills are considered top quality. They are beautiful and produce a quality distilled product, but they are also very expensive compared to stainless steel water distillers with a copper coil. Copper is also a lot softer than stainless, so it punctures more easily if treated roughly or hit. Copper also turns green over time unless you keep it polished. If it does turn a bit green, it is not a big problem. You’ll just have to polish it with a non-scratch cloth and copper cleaner. Brasso works well.
This still is a functional piece of art. This is the still for those that swear by copper for providing the best flavor for distilled liquids. The shape gives it its name. Many people buy these because they are a lot more attractive than a stainless steel pot still. If you are on a budget and want something that doesn’t require polishing to keep it looking good, then this is not the still for you. This still is 100% handmade by artisans and features an easy-to-read temperature gauge. All you need is a heat source and something to go in the still to get started. At 10 pounds, it’s easy to move around even though it’s made of heavy gauge copper.
This small still combines copper and stainless to provide the flavor and purity of copper without the cost. Its size means you can use it on any stove without worrying about the weight. If you want something small, you could buy this and a small pump to circulate water. A small still like this will be a bit slow, but once it’s started, you can just let it work in the background after you have a little experience. This still would also be suitable for those who want a second, smaller still.
Making your own water distiller
People have been making stills for a long time because they haven’t always been something you could just go online and buy. The parts to make a still are usually easy to find. You will need a few stainless steel pots and some parts from a hardware store. Most Wal-Mart stores have everything you need.
But why bother when you can buy one that is ready to go for so little?
Unless you happen to find some inexpensive stainless pots or have some lying around, I advise just buying a still. This is especially true if you are a beginner in the art of distillation.
That being said, knowing how to make a still is a valuable skill to have during a long emergency.
The videos below can help you learn how.
Important Water Distillers Facts
Distilling water is a great way to purify it, but it is not a perfect solution. Here are some things to keep in mind to stay healthy and get the most out of your water distiller.
Distilled water is pure.
Sounds great, right? For some things, it is exactly what you need. Mineral deposits in water can cause trouble when you use the water to top off lead-acid batteries, for example.
The downside is only an issue if you are using distilled water as your main source of drinking water. When you drink distilled water, you won’t get the trace minerals that are in most drinking water. So, if you drink a lot of distilled water, make sure that you are taking a daily multivitamin with minerals. It is also important to eat a balanced diet that helps maintain trace mineral levels in your body.
Distillation takes time.
Distillation takes time, especially if you don’t have a heat source to speed up the evaporation and condensation processes. It’s a lot faster to use a water filter to clean your water.
You will need extra water storage.
Because distillation takes time and energy, and you need so much water per day to survive, you will need to have reasonably sized water storage containers to meet your needs. Even if you are sick for a few days and don’t feel like it or you cannot run your distiller, you still have to haul water to your water distiller.
You might be able to use your distiller close to your water source, but there will still be some hauling and carrying. Having something wheeled would be helpful, but in rocky or mountainous terrain, that may not work. In some countries, you see people hauling water by attaching bags to a bicycle. A good mountain bike and a rig to support the jugs could help.
Be aware of distillation laws and risks.
Distillation laws typically prohibit using a distiller to make alcoholic beverages, but you can get an ethanol permit to make so much fuel per year. Just don’t get caught using it for other purposes. Distillation laws are weird, considering that you can buy distillers in homebrew shops and online. It is legal to own a still, but it’s not legal to make alcohol with it. Despite how freely people put up pictures of home-distilled spirits on social media, they are technically admitting to doing something illegal in a public forum.
That being said, owning a water distiller in an SHTF situation or long emergency allows you to distill alcohol that could be used for tinctures, antiseptics, and drinking. Many distilleries briefly switched to making hand sanitizer during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is always a demand for alcohol because of the many uses it has. During hard times, people use alcohol to prevent infection in cuts and wounds and as a painkiller during procedures. It is not a perfect solution, but it has saved many lives in extreme times.
Always pay attention to a water distiller in operation.
Distillation is dangerous if not done properly. While distilling water is fairly safe, hot temperatures and steam are involved. Plus, it uses a heat source. Stills build up a lot of pressure. Never leave a still unattended, especially if you have no experience with them. Over time, you will learn what heat setting or other factors to look for so you can step away briefly. I am not saying you have to stand there and stare at your distiller the whole time, but you must pay attention and not leave it for long periods.
Watch for steam leaks.
If steam is coming out of cracks, your still cannot work properly and could yield very little of whatever you’re distilling. If needed, some flour and a little water can be mixed into a paste that can be applied to seal cracks while the still is hot. Self-rising flour puffs up more, but any flour will do in a pinch.
A still requires cold water to keep the coil cool. This is often accomplished by using a pump that recirculates the water. You may want to also add cold water or use ice packs to keep the temperature low. When distilling a large volume of something, the water around the coil can get very hot. Circulation and cooling are essential. This is not something that you can skimp on or forget.
Countertop Electric Water Distillers
These water distillers are designed for those who want to make up to a gallon of distilled water each day and have a source of electricity. They burn a lot of electricity, so they are not practical for an off-grid or grid down situation. Seven hundred fifty watts is the equivalent of a space heater or hot plate on low. Unless you buy a lot of distilled water and want to cut your costs during good times, I do not recommend buying a countertop electric model. Here is an example of a distiller that offers convenience during good times.
This distiller produces up to 1 liter per hour of distilled water. The price is affordable, and the distiller itself is stainless steel rather than plastic. This is a budget-friendly distiller for those who want to get started but do not want to invest $250 or more in a high-end countertop model that still requires a lot of electricity.
Essential Oil Distillation
It takes quite a bit of plant material to make a small amount of essential oil. This is one reason why oils can seem expensive. Combine that with how hard some plants are to get, and you can understand why a small bottle of myrrh costs so much. On the other hand, peppermint oil is very inexpensive because it is easy to grow and plentiful.
A water distiller can be used to distill some essential oils. Not all oils are extracted the same way. You will have to do considerable research and learn the method that is best for the plants you can grow or get in your area.
Distilling essential oils with water distillers is another concept that is really only practical during a long emergency when there are no other options or medical services are limited.
Books on Distillation
There are countless books on distillation available. Here are a few that are popular and provide some basic and safe guidance to get you started on your distillation path.
Water distillers can be handy to have. You can make basically any water drinkable including salt water.
You can make alcohol to sterilize and clean things during a TEOTWAWKI situation when no factory-made disinfectants are available. This means a still could literally save lives.
Essential oils and extracts play a role in natural medicine. Some essential oils such as Oregano, are known to be as effective as some antibiotics for certain infections. Check out my article, “53 Natural Antibiotics for TEOTWAWKI” for even more oils with amazing properties.