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What Does Potable Water Mean?

Often, when at an RV campground, you’ll see signs for either potable water or non-potable water. Does this mean what you think it does? It’s a good thing to know because a safe water supply is vital for a good camping experience. Consuming the wrong kind could be a risk to your health.

Let’s learn more about this camping term.

What Is Potable Water? 

You might think potable water literally means the water you can put into a pot. But that’s true of any water, right?

The word is actually pronounced with a “long o” sound so that it rhymes with towable. It means water treated with chemicals so that it’s safe to drink. In simpler terms, it’s drinking water like what flows from the tap at home or a city water supply. 

RV Faucets and Filters That Will Effortlessly Save & Purify Water - RV Touch Faucet

It comes through the pipes from either surface water or groundwater sources and has already been chemically treated. In other words, you can use it for bathing, drinking, or cooking. You don’t need to boil it before you use it to neutralize harmful bacteria.

Why Is It Called Potable Water?

In Latin, the verb “potare” means “to drink.” That’s how we get the word potable. Experts believe the term has been in constant use since the times that the Romans built the aqueducts. We wonder if there has always been confusion over its meaning in the hundreds of years since.

But even if you have mastered other languages, the word potable may be confusing, so let’s look into it further.

What Is the Difference Between Water and Potable Water?

Here’s another way to break it down. Think of the word “potable” as an assurance that the water is safe. On the other hand, consider “non-potable” to be a warning – it may as well have a red flag attached to the sign.

Non-Potable Water Danger Sign
Look for signs that indicate whether or not a spigot dispenses potable water. When in doubt, don’t drink!

If a faucet, fountain, spigot, or hose is labeled simply as “water,” that leaves some doubt. And we all should know that it’s better to be safe than sorry. You can’t drink all water available at campsites. 

Water directly from lakes, streams, rivers, or storm drains isn’t treated, and therefore would not be potable water. Some “non-potable” water sources may pump directly from a source like this for watering non-edible plants or rinsing equipment. Often you’ll find a non-potable water supply at an RV dump station for rinsing out your sewer hose.

Drinking straight from these sources without treatment is highly discouraged, and can result in illness.

How Do You Make Safe Drinking Water?  

If you stay at a campsite that only has non-potable water, you’re not completely out of luck. Bottled water has its place, but they quickly get expensive. And it’s a shame to use so much plastic.

Additionally, bottled water also takes up a lot of space and weight in an RV. For those reasons, it’s a good idea to know how to treat non-potable water to make it safe to use.

You can treat the water with a few drops of chlorine bleach or iodine. Others prefer to use calcium hypochlorite in a granular form. In addition, a few different companies produce water purification tablets to disinfect non-potable water.

Home and RV water filtration systems have also come a long way in availability, accessibility, and technology. Depending on your setup, you may be able to simply run non-potable water through your RV water system without concern. Sediment and carbon filters can filter down to the size of bacteria, viruses, and chemicals like lead or chlorine.

Under-counter UV light treatments are the most effective at killing organisms in your water. It also sanitizes without chemicals, so your water is left tasting great.

Get $100 off your Acuva Eco NX-Silver UV Water Treatment purchase with discount code “MORTONS”.

But the simplest and most popular way to make water safe to drink is to boil it. To sanitize this way, the water must be at a full rolling boil for at least one minute.

Does Boiling Water Purify It?

Heating water to the boiling point of 212 degrees Fahrenheit is one of the most common ways of removing potentially harmful contaminants. It’s effective and doesn’t require any additional chemicals.

Man using kettle in camper van with potable water
Always have safe drinking water on hand when RVing.

That’s why communities issue notices to boil water in the event of emergencies or burst pipes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends bringing it to a rolling boil for at least a minute. Let it cool to a safe temperature before you use it.

Pro Tip: Boiling water isn’t the only way to purify it. Check out these 5 Ways to Purify Water for Survival in the Wilderness.

Boil Water Notices

Sometimes, water utilities or health agencies will issue boil water notices if the public potable water supply is potentially compromised with pathogens. This can be caused by a number of things, including loss of pressure in the distribution system, loss of disinfection, and unexpected events such as water line breaks, treatment disruptions, power outages, and floods.

If your city or campground issues a boil water notice, it is best to heed it! This is one reason why we recommend filling your RV’s fresh water tank, even if you have water hookups. The water you filled with before the boil water notice will remain potable, and you can skip the inconvenience task of boiling by simply turning off the water hook-up and turning on your RV water pump.

Boys filling up water bottles in faucet
Make sure the water you’re drinking is safe by only using potable water sources.

Pro Tip: Make sure to have one of these 6 Top-Rated Water Purification Tablets on hand next time you can’t find potable water.

Where Can You Get Potable Water?

If you’re lucky, the campground you’ll stay at already has safe drinking water. If it has no water or only non-potable water, you have many options. Plan for this and make sure you arrive fully stocked with water. You can obtain potable water at many places, either for free or for a fee.

Many grocery stores and big-box discount stores sell it, of course. We have also gotten our fill at places like gas stations, dump stations, rest stops, and parks. Some folks like to fill their freshwater tanks at churches. It never hurts to ask. More times than not, people will often give you some water as long as it’s a reasonable amount.

Is Rainwater Non-Potable Water? 

In a perfect world, we could satisfy all of our water needs by collecting what falls from the sky. Unfortunately, rainwater sometimes contains harmful pollutants, so you shouldn’t consume it without treatment first. Because it’s not completely safe, rainwater is considered non-potable water.

Fortunately, water filtration and purification systems can help turn this heavenly water source into drinkable water.

RV parked hooked up to water source
Fill up your RV tanks with potable water whenever you’re traveling or camping.

Can You Shower With Non-Potable Water? 

Again, non-potable water is not safe for human consumption, and that can mean bathing as well. It ultimately depends on the source of the non-potable water.

For instance, swimming in a lake is technically non-potable water. Typically after a swim, you’ll likely take a shower though. If that non-potable water is from a storm drain, you’re definitely not going to want to bathe in it.

→ Find out more: Is It Okay to Bathe In A Lake While Camping?

For daily hygiene, we’d recommend trying to find a potable water source. The reason is that non-potable water may contain harmful bacteria or other contaminants or even a virus. When you take a shower, some of it can seep into your mouth, nose, or private areas. It also can remain on the skin or in your hair as residue.

For these same reasons, you probably shouldn’t wash dishes with it either. That doesn’t mean that non-potable water is useless, of course. You can use it as-is for flushing toilets or watering plants, or you can purify it for other uses.

Know the Difference Between Potable and Non-Potable Water for Your Safety

It might be a bit dramatic to call this an issue of life and death, but why take a chance? Depending on the source, non-potable water can pose no health problems whatsoever. But you run the risk of having an upset stomach, diarrhea, vomiting, or worse.

GCSE Chemistry - Potable Water #56

Hopefully, this article will help you seek out good water sources and avoid (or treat) those that are questionable. Many travelers have found out the hard way that consuming polluted water is an unpleasant way to ruin a trip.

Looking for a high-quality water filter for your RV? Check out How to Choose the Best RV Water Filter System and find out which one we use.

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About Tom Morton

Tom, a Pacific Northwest native, is our technical genius. Born in Washington and raised in Alaska before settling in Michigan. He's the man who keeps our operation running, both figuratively and literally.

With a background in Electrical Engineering, Tom specializes in RV solar systems and lithium batteries. He made history as the first documented individual to use a Tesla battery module as an RV battery. Tom has personally assisted countless RVers with system installations and has educated thousands more through his videos and articles.

Cinematography is another of Tom's passions, showcased in his work on the Go North series. You can see his camera skills on display in The RVers TV show on Discovery Channel and PBS where he also stars as a co-host.

Tom's mechanical expertise extends beyond RVs to boats, planes, and all things mechanical. He's renowned for taking on maintenance and repair projects single-handedly and is often spotted underneath RVs, making him the technical backbone of our endeavors.

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