What is a Boil Water Advisory: Guidelines to Protect Yourself

Defining what a boil water advisory is, why it’s issued, what you need to know to protect yourself and your family. Also, the critical link between failing infrastructure and boil water advisories in the US.

Updated: July 25, 2023
Jeremiah Zac


Most westerners who benefit from modern infrastructure usually consider the thought of water contamination to be a problem of the developing world.

However, there are instances where the water supply in a highly modernized city may become contaminated. Floods, broken water mains, and industrial accidents all have the potential to contaminate a clean water supply, putting the city's residents at risk.

If you've never heard of a boil water advisory, you may be one of the few lucky ones. But if a boil water advisory is issued in your city, it would be wise to know what to do ahead of time.

In this article, we'll discuss what a boil water advisory is as well as what to do if one is issued.

What is a Boil Water Advisory?

construction manhole repair

A boil water advisory, also known as a boil water order, is a public health advisory or directive administered by government or health authorities to inform residents when a community’s water supply is, or could likely be, contaminated by pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

Boil water advisories help protect the public from exposure to these waterborne pathogenic microorganisms which can give rise to symptoms including nausea, cramps, diarrhea, and headaches and may eventually lead to waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery. The advisory alerts residents that the water from their tap may be safe for washing and bathing but should not be ingested without heating to a rolling boil.

Boil water advisories are usually issued when Escherichia coli or other microbiological indicators of sewage contamination are detected in the water supply. A boil water advisory may also be issued when there is a failure of the distribution system integrity due to a loss of system pressure, which may allow pathogens to enter the piped-water system. There are two types of boil water advisories, namely precautionary advisories and mandatory advisories.

Precautionary advisories are the most common type of advisory. These advisories are issued after the occurrence of an event that could contaminate the water supply, such as a loss in positive water pressure, which is typically due to a serious main break or low storage tank levels. A loss of positive water pressure gives rise to conditions that could allow contamination to enter the distribution system. These advisories are issued by local water authorities as a precaution while water samples are collected and analyzed to confirm whether the water quality has been affected.

Mandatory advisories are less common in comparison. These advisories are issued to indicate that the water supply has tested positive for contaminants. So, consumers are instructed to boil the water before ingestion to kill bacteria and other microorganisms. Once the issue has been resolved, the local water authority will lift the notice.

What to Do During a Boil Water Advisory

Water pot boiling on stove

During a boil water advisory, there are certain precautions and measures you will have to take to ensure that the you use the water safely.  To make the water safe for ingestion, you can either boil or disinfect it.

Boiling Potentially Contaminated Water

  1. Fill a pot with water
  2. Heat the pot and bring the water to a rolling boil for 1 minute
  3. Turn off the heat and let the water cool
  4. To store, pour the water into a sanitized container with a cover

Disinfecting Potentially Contaminated Water

If the Water is Clear
  1. Add 1/8 teaspoon of unscented household liquid bleach that does not have an added scent (like lemon) to 1 gallon of water
  2. Mix well, then wait for 30 minutes or more before drinking
  3. Store the disinfected water in a sanitized container with a cover

If the Water is Cloudy
  1. Filter the water using clean cloth
  2. Add ¼ teaspoon of unscented household liquid bleach that does not have an added scent (like lemon) to 1 gallon of water
  3. Mix well, then wait for 30 minutes or more before drinking
  4. Store the disinfected water in a sanitized container with a cover

Useful Tips to Keep in Mind When Using Water from the Tap

washing hands in sink

Water Filters

Make sure to boil water even if it is filtered as most domestic water filters do not remove bacteria and viruses.


  • Only use cool boiled water or bottled water to wash your fruits and vegetables, and to prepare drinks
  • Bring the water to a rolling boil for 1 minute before adding your food to cook
  • Make sure to wash your food preparation surfaces with boiled water

Feeding Babies

Breastfeeding is best. However, if breastfeeding is not an option:

  • Prepare powdered or concentrated baby formula (ready-to-use, if possible) with bottled water. You may use boiled water or disinfected water as an alternative.
  • Wash and sterilize the bottle and nipples before use, or try to use single-serve, ready-to-feed bottles


  • Don’t use ice from ice trays, ice dispensers, or ice makers
  • Throw out all ice made with tap water and make new ice with boiled or bottled water


  • Make sure to not swallow any water when bathing
  • You may give babies and young children a sponge bath to reduce the chances of them swallowing water

Washing Dishes

A dishwasher is generally safe to use if the water reaches a final rinse temperature of at least 150 degrees or if the dishwasher has a sanitizing cycle. You may alternatively wash by hand using these steps

  • Wash and rinse the dishes using hot water
  • Add 1 teaspoon of unscented household liquid bleach for each gallon of warm water into a separate basin
  • Soak the rinsed dishes in the basin for at least 1 minute, then let the dishes air dry

Sanitizing Your Containers

steel cooking pots

To sanitize your containers before using them to store water, follow these steps:

  1. Make a sanitizing solution with one teaspoon of unscented household liquid bleach that does not have an added scent (like lemon) in 1 quart of water
  2. Pour the solution into a clean storage container and shake well. Make sure that the solution coats the entire inside of the container
  3. Let the container sit for at least 30 seconds, then pour out the solution
  4. Let the container air dry or rinse with clean water that has been disinfected

Remember to avoid mixing bleach with ammonia or other cleaners, and keep the windows and doors open to get fresh air whenever you use bleach.

How Long Does a Boil Water Advisory Last For?

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), water samples must be collected and tested for contaminants during a boil water advisory. Two sets of samples are usually taken at first – the first set of samples are taken on the day of the boil water advisory issue, and the second set of samples are taken in the next 24 hours. The DEP will allow the advisory to be lifted only when two consecutive days of clean test results have been achieved. However, as the test results generally take 24 hours to return from the laboratory, the final lab results to lift a boil water advisory may take several days.

What to Do Once the Boil Water Advisory is Lifted

Upon the rescinding of a boil water advisory, follow these steps before resuming your usual usage of water:

  1. Flush the household pipes and faucets by running the cold-water faucets for 3 minutes each
  2. Flush home automatic ice makers by making three batches of ice cubes and discarding all three batches
  3. Drain and refill your hot water heater
  4. Run your water softeners through a regeneration cycle
  5. Flush water coolers by running the coolers with direct water connections for 5 minutes

Boil Water Advisories and Their Relation to Failing Infrastructure

Yuma Main Street Water Treatment Plant

The failing infrastructure is one of the major contributors to the issuing of boil water advisories. A report by Bipartisan Policy Center in 2017 outlined that the nation’s water infrastructure is in dire condition. In 2016, the EPA reported that the deteriorating infrastructure causes an estimated 240,000 water main breaks each year, which results in a loss of about 1.7 trillion gallons of treated drinking water, amounts to $2.6 billion. A recent study has also shown that an estimated 19 million Americans become ill each year due to the intake of contaminated water.

The EPA reported an increase of almost 70 percent in the need for water infrastructure investment, including replacement and water treatment, between 1995 and 2011. However, according to a paper recently published by the University of North Carolina’s Environmental Finance Center, federal spending on water and wastewater utilities has stagnated since the 1980s. The AWWA has estimated that expanding and repairing the nation’s water infrastructure would cost $1 trillion, which includes the cost of replacing and updating existing pipe networks and excludes funding new technology that could make the systems more efficient. There is, however, a lack of the required funds. The ASCE forecasted that the difference between the work needed to be done and the available funds could be $105 billion over the next nine years, which could grow to $152 billion by 2040 if the issue remains unaddressed.

Weather events like heavy rain or snowfall can contribute to main breaks and subsequent boil water orders, as well as having more people than usual in an area which can strain a water system, leading to increased water breakage rates. Nevertheless, the issuing of boil water advisories could become more and more common without increased investment in the country’s infrastructure.


While boil water advisories aren't very common, being ignorant of its implications could be dangerous to one's health. If a boil water advisory is issued, don't consume any water from the tap unless purified first. Continue to treat the water as if contaminated until the advisory is lifted and not a second sooner.

Thank you for taking the time to read our article on boil water advisory guidelines. We'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section below. If you've found this article to be useful and are interested in learning more, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.

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American Water Works. (n.d.). Pennsylvania > Water Quality > What is a Boil Water Advisory? Retrieved from https://amwater.com/paaw/water-quality/what-is-a-boil-water-advisory

BiPartisan Policy. (2018, July 13). Explaining Boil Water Advisories. Retrieved from https://bipartisanpolicy.org/blog/explaining-boil-water-advisories/

FDA. (2018, September 20). Guidance for Industry: Use of Water by Food Manufacturers in Areas Subject to a Boil-Water Advisory. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/RegulatoryInformation/Guidances/ucm211373.htm

Food Safety. (n.d.). What to do during a boil water advisory. Retrieved from https://foodsafety.ces.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/CDC-What-to-Do-During-a-Boil-Water-Advisory-3.pdf?fwd=no

Huffington Post. (2017, August 14). It's Disturbingly Common For Americans To Go Days Without Safe Drinking Water. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/water-systems-health-boil-orders_us_57363feee4b060aa781a6244

Hunterdon County. (n.d.). Boil Water Advisory Guidelines. Retrieved from http://co.hunterdon.nj.us/health/FLOODING/boilwater_guidelines.pdf

Southwest Water Company. (n.d.). How To Understand A Boil Water Notice. Retrieved from https://www.swwc.com/water-101/learning-center/how-to-understand-a-boil-water-notice/

I'm Jeremiah, the owner of World Water Reserve. I'm a writer and researcher with a particular interest in sustainability and rural living, water scarcity, and innovative water purification methods. I utilize my multimedia and communication experience in the NGO and humanitarian fields to bring light to important topics. My passion is to educate others on the reality of the global water crisis and on ways to sustain themselves and their families in the midst of it.
Jeremiah Zac