Water Jacket Moonshine Still
All “moonshine stills” on Ebay (including coil type)
You know the funniest thing? When someone posts a comment on one of these articles that starts with “You can just..”. One hundred percent of the time it is someone who read a tip on a survival board or something and they are here to parrot an idea that may or may not be true. But what I have found in working on this column, every single time, is that while knowledge may be power, experience is survival. My experience with distilling water was not easy using fuel and means that would be available in a post collapse world. Oh my goodness it is slow going, about 1/2 gallon an hour using the distiller yous see here. “You can just…” distill dirty water was a comment that I got very early on in this series, and it just isn’t as easy as you would think it would be. Check out the pictures below, using a 3 gallon still from the Ebay seller linked above, and my Rocket Stove. I did get good, clean, drinkable water from yellow sulfur water, but it was not fun.
Water is of course the core of any survival plan. You can live for weeks without food, but without water you’ll be gone in a couple of days generally. Your water has to be clean. Bad water kills you quicker and meaner than no water, and water can have any number of potentially deadly pathogens and chemicals. You can filter your water, and I covered a number of good filters in the early days of this series, but eventually filters clog and no longer work. If you can’t replace filters, and all you have is dirty, dangerous water, you may have to think about distillation.
To start, not all water has to be distilled just to be drinkable. Most harmful bacteria, cysts and all viruses die long before water even gets to boiling, and if you boil water for ten minutes you can be sure that there will be no diseases or bacteria that will harm you. Distillation is for when there are chemicals in the water, or, as you can see from my tests here, the water has minerals dissolved in it that make it undrinkable for humans in any quantity. That includes salt water. A “desalination plant” is just a giant water distillation machine. My drainage pond was originally a brilliant idea for a source of backup water, but there must have been a sulfur deposit exactly where the hole is because it is yellow and disgusting. Supposedly livestock are able to drink that stuff, but it would have to be livestock you really don’t like. It is yucky water and I wouldn’t want to have to drink it as is.
The still you see here was one I bought on Ebay for $90, and it is of course made for distilling moonshine. This seller has several sizes, for as little as $55 currently in a 6 quart size (though I suspect they will be sold out by early on Monday when the Digest flies). This is a 3 gallon size here in the pics. The Federal Government does not prohibit the sale of stills to the general public, but they do require that all of the larger still makers give them a list of their customers. I firmly doubt that these guys on Ebay are giving anyone a list, and in general if you Google around you’ll find that there is pretty much no enforcement of the moonshining laws for people who don’t sell the moonshine. Some states have even passed their own moonshine laws allowing small production of alcohol for personal use, and these days you can even get a Federal permit to produce Ethanol. So, to make a short story long, running a still to purify water shouldn’t spook you.
The physics of distillation are simple. Boil water in a sealed system with a vent tube at the top. The vent tube passes through some sort of cooling system, either a water cooled jacket, or it winds into a coil that passes through cool water. Steam builds in the pot and eventually it is forced into the vent tube. Then, when the steam passes through the cooling system, it condenses into water, which drips out of the tube, pure and drinkable. The yucky stuff is left in the pot for you to scrape out later.
Of the two types of cooling systems, the one you see here is more complex, but it is very portable and compact. The vent tube is made of 1/2″ copper pipe soldered onto a 3/4″ threaded end, and that threaded end is screwed into a knockout hole cut in the lid of a regular old soup pot. The lid has a ring of silicone around the rim, and it is held tight to the pot by small sized office clippy paper clips. This is not a high pressure system so you don’t need a pressure cooker or canner as your boiling chamber. The silicone and clamps work fine. I was also suprised that his system of just screwing the fitting into the knockout hole with a tightened nut against it was sufficient to hold up the vent pipe without it being floppy.
The 1/2″ pipe bends at an elbow and turns down. After that is soldered on a 3/4″ copper jacket, and in that jacket are the water send and return for cooling. This kit actually comes with a fishtank water pump, and I used a separate 6 gallon bucket of water as my send and return water, which has to be changed over time as it heats up from cooling the steam. This system has a thermometer in it which you need for the production of alcohol, but if you are duplicating this design for survival water purification only, it would not be required. You could make this in an hour, if you have the knockout tool and you know how to cut copper pipe and solder.
Copper is also not really required, but you’ll find it in a lot of moonshine stills because there is a reaction between alcohol and copper that is thought to be pleasing to the taste. If you just do a search on Ebay for “moonshine still” you’ll see over 1,400 listings right now, and many of them from China use stainless steel bendy pipe instead of copper, which I suggest if you can afford them.
The other type of cooling system is a coil that winds through a bucket or pot of cooling liquid. In a non-survival situation, most people prefer the coil system and put ice in the bucket, but even for survival the coil system may be better because it doesn’t require a pump. You would have to change the water a lot, and dirty water is fine, but at least you wouldn’t have to worry about reliable electric stored in batteries. I have both types, but this is the only one I have tried so far.
What surprised me was just how much time and fuel it takes to distill any quantity of water. You could make a larger system that would produce more water, but it will also require more fuel. As you can see, I wanted to run this on just my StoveTec Rocket Stove, and it did work, but I had to constantly put more fuel into the fire to maintain a hard boil, and even at that I got all of a half gallon per hour. If I was making moonshine that would be fine, but for water it is kind of lame for he effort. Thankfully with the Rocket Stove, your fuel is made up of sticks that you can pick up off the ground. I got drinkable water, enough to survive, but over months and years I would have to bring fuel from further way, or bring the stove to where the fuel is still easy to find. Absolute survival? Yes. Comfortable survival? No.
I also then tried the same system using a propane burner under the pot, just to see if it made more water, but it did not. The propane boiled the pot harder, enough that steam escaped the lid, and enough that the condensation did not work fast enough so some steam came out of the vent tube end. But more usable water in less time not from what I could tell. I had to change the water in the cooling system quicker.
It is pretty nifty to put in dirty water and get clean water out. That much I can say. But from a survival perspective, while it is certainly not a bad idea to have a distillation system available, I would not count on it for long term survival unless you have to. The quantity of water for the effort was really disappointing, and not what you would think at all. I will be working on a new system to get water out of my well instead of dealing with the nasty pond water. If anyone has any valid input to get more out of such a device, please chime in, but don’t start with “You can just…”.