Low-budget water distillation: Mistakes were made.

I have an old pressure cooker that, as you can see, I haven’t used in quite a long time.

I intended to buy some copper tubing and a compression fitting at the hardware store during yesterday’s water run: Imagine my shock when the only hardware store in the crappy little town nearest where I live didn’t carry any copper tubing. I came home quite disgruntled but not entirely out of business: In the absence of the right tubing, I’d try it with the wrong tubing.


I’m not an idiot: I completely expected it to fail. But I really do need that distilled water.

For logistical reasons I moved the whole operation to Ian’s Cave, starting as simple as possible…



It swiftly became clear that my biggest problem wasn’t the tubing, which actually worked adequately, if just barely, through the whole thing. My biggest problem was getting the water in the tubing to condense. I was dealing with some very hot steam.

I went from no cooling to a water bath to as cold a water bath as I could possibly manage…


…submerging the tube’s outlet into already-liquid water and surrounding the jug with cool water as well. My efforts did some good…



…more liquid water came out of the water bath than went in. But I think more ice would have helped.

I ran the experiment from 10:30 to noon, and in the end…


…finished up with enough distilled water to meet the needs of Battery Day. It took a long time and a lot of propane. Time I have, but at current prices I begrudge the fuel.

People have suggested I try a solar oven, and I’d be willing to give one a try. I’ll research whether building one with found materials is practical: Kind of doubt it, to be honest. My efforts with improvised solar heating have not gone very well.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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15 Responses to Low-budget water distillation: Mistakes were made.

  1. czechsix says:

    Do a simple solar oven – can be as easy as a box lined with a trash bag, filled with water, and a sheet of glass or transparent plastic at an appropriate angle, draining into a catchment basin. You’re in a perfect place for it. Look up some of the county ag sites that are out there, they usually have some solar DIY info.

  2. B says:

    Yeah, the plastic doesn’t give you the air cooling.
    But that is what I had in mind when I commented in the previous thread.

  3. Tennessee Budd says:

    Joel, do you have enough spare trash wood around, stuff you wouldn’t want to use in your stove, to heat the water outside?

  4. Robert says:

    But, but, these desperate lash-ups always work so well in post-apocalypse stories!

    I know you can get enough energy to boil water using Mr. Sun. The trick is getting low-enough temperatures to condense the steam. I’m sure there is some Rube Goldberg way to do it. Lessee, the ancient Egyptians had air conditioning and we have had steam power for a while. Engineering be hard…

  5. B says:

    BTW, it takes about 3200 watts for an hour to boil a gallon of water. (2500 watts plus losses) for most pans. his works out to about 0.13 gallon of propane or a little more than a half pound.
    Per Gallon.
    If you can find it it should be cheaper to buy distilled water.

    But I am glad you took my advice and found a use for that old pressure cooker.

    You’ll find that copper or steel tubing (or aluminum, if you can find it) works better than plastic. It cools much better. If there is an auto parts store, you might try brake lines if you can’t get copper tubing.

  6. Alvin McDonald says:

    Try taking a short section of 3/4 copper pipe, 4-5 feet, install verticals run the steam into it. Steam rises and will condense drip out the bottom.

  7. Terrapod says:

    Joel – I will scrounge around here, I know I have a coil or two of old copper tubing, that came from old work or just sitting around. Should not cost much to ship it. However – I don’t recall seeing your new drop point address. I will email you a reminder so you can reply that way/

  8. Joel says:

    Muttipie, I would be very concerned about that 750 watts business. I definitely could not use it at the Lair, the oven’s heating element pulls 360 watts max and is all my system can handle. I never use it at night.

    A review says it takes 4 hours to distill one gallon, and even though Ian’s power system is bigger than mine I would not be comfortable drawing that much power for that long. So I think an electric distiller is probably not a good idea in my application. The exception might be if I ran it on the generator, but then I’m burning fuel for extended periods again.

  9. Stefan v. says:

    Have you considered dew harvesting? You don’t need much, and your propane is too valuable. Can you scrounge shadecloth?

    https://timtyler.org/dew_harvesting/
    https://ecofriend.com/fog-harvesting.html

  10. Mike says:

    Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to make a tripod from some iron pipe and hang the pot with some chain over a fire to boil the water. Then run the copper pipe from the pot through some cold water with ice-packs to condense the steam?

    It has the advantage of not using any propane or electricity.

  11. czechsix says:

    Here’s another thought – you’re on a well, or at least Ian is, right? What’s the water temp coming out of the well? Is it cold enough to support condensation?

  12. Goober says:

    All I know is the old boys down south running shine use wood fires to make their stills for a reason. I’d suggest that, honestly. Make you a fire pit, set the pressure cooker out there, swing by to feed the fire every so often. You could burn bigger, gnarlier wood that you can’t realistically cut up for use inside. Heck, you could burn sagebrush and duff, for that matter

  13. RCPete says:

    I have the WaterWise version of that 1 gallon distiller. It’s a hair under a gallon, but almost dead on 4 hours. (At 4300′ elevation. MMV). They also sell high-temp silicone hose for $4 a foot. This is for their stove-top distillers,

    I’m using the home-distilled water for my CPAP machine, and am hoarding the store bought distilled water for the solar systems. I figure I go through a gallon a month on the various systems. If we lose power for good, I’d have to dig out a pressure cooker. My wife has an old one, and I also have an antique canner that I’ve used for small scale canning. (Very small scale; it takes 3-4 pints at a time.)

    Ice maker kits might still be available. The ones I’ve used work on 1/4″ copper tubing. I’d hate to have to work with brake line, but it should work. O’Reilly sold 10′ lengths some years ago. That ran 5/16″.

To the stake with the heretic!