Bag Water for Operation Joint Endeavor

by Captain Jinoo V. Choi, USAR

Reverse osmosis water purification units (ROWPU's) have been in use in the U.S. military logistics system for approximately 15 years, and they have performed indisputably well in producing potable water. ROWPU's can transform water from a fire hydrant, river, lake, or stream into purified water that is ready for human consumption. However, distribution of the potable water produced by this magical machine can be a logistician's nightmare. As an interim alternative to ROWPU-produced water, commercially purchased bottled water has become a part of operational ration supply.

Bottled water is very expensive, as is the cost of commercial transportation to distribute it. In addition, the U.S. military cannot continuously monitor the quality of the water. These facts led the Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) to search for an innovative, cost-competitive water supply source for use in U.S. military operations, military operations other than war, and disaster relief.

Researchers wanted a system that was easily transported and maintained, dependable, and quick to produce quality drinking water. Their quest led them to the General Packaging and Equipment (GPE) Company of Houston, Texas. GPE developed a vertical form, fill, and seal machine that can package the water produced by ROWPU's in plastic bags. FORSCOM purchased three of the GPE water-packaging systems and deployed one of them to Hungary in support of Operation Joint Endeavor. From March 1996 to January 1997, it was the main supply of potable water in the intermediate staging base (ISB) in Taszar and Kaposvar, Hungary. It proved to be highly cost competitive and convenient to use. Further, the U.S. military had full control of water quality and production in the area of operations. In spite of tough competition from bottled water, bag water slowly but surely became the soldier's preference and now is claiming its place in the operational ration supply system.

About the Machine

The machines that FORSCOM purchased are model 70CLM, which is specially designed according to military specifications. It is configured compactly on a frame that is approximately 6 feet by 6 feet by 10 feet. The machine fits easily into an expando van (shelter, tactical, expandable, one-sided), with ample work space left for an operator. The expando van is mounted on an M872 semitrailer for increased mobility. Other components of this water-packaging system are a 30-kilowatt generator; a 125-gallon-per-minute, self-priming, centrifugal pump; three 3,000-gallon, fabric, collapsible water-storage tanks; two 5,000-gallon stainless steel tanks; a 600-gallon-per-minute ROWPU; a chlorination unit; a dechlorination unit; and filters. Other supplies, such as chemicals for testing the water, film material for making bags, fittings for capping the bags, and distribution boxes for delivering the bag water, are required. The machine complies with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's regulations for food- and beverage-packaging equipment. It produces approximately 25 one-liter bags of water per minute. Also, it has the capability to produce 5-liter and 15-liter bags of water. The system is highly mobile; it can be packed up and ready to move within a matter of hours. It can run 24 hours a day, including an average of 2 hours for maintenance, and is simple to operate.

About the Bag

The water bag is made of five layers of tough, polylaminated material that, together, are 4.5 micrometers thick. The inner layer of the bag is specially designed to prevent the taste and smell of plastic from contaminating the water and keep the chlorine from evaporating. Unlike rigid plastic bottles, the bag reduces the refuse problem significantly.

With a little imagination, the water bag can be used in a number of ways. For example, it can be used to fill a canteen if a rigid container is preferred. For field expediency, a 1-quart bag fits nicely in a battledress uniform trouser cargo pocket. A filled bag works well as a field-expedient pillow. The water bag will not crack or burst when it is frozen or heated, so it can be used as a convenient ice pack to cool off in the summer or provide first-aid for an injury. A hot pack can be made by tossing a water bag into a microwave oven and pressing the button, thus creating a hot pack as quickly as the microwave oven can "nuke" the bag!

Water Taste and Quality

The soldiers' chief complaint about the water produced by the ROWPU is its taste. The water takes on a rubbery taste from the collapsible tank that serves as a reservoir for the purified water, and there is also a lingering chlorine taste from chlorination. To ensure that the water in bags is safe for human consumption, the Army Preventive Medicine Service (PMS) recommends that a certain amount of chlorine be added to prevent bacteria growth in the packages during storage, so the taste of chlorine cannot be eliminated altogether.

Bag water served initially in Operation Joint Endeavor contained two parts chlorine per million parts water and had a shelf life of 14 days. After 14 days, the Army PMS tested the water again and, if residual chlorine still remained, extended the shelf life for another 30 days. Chlorine in the bag water dissipated after a while, and many soldiers then commented on how good the water tasted! For some reason, keeping the bag water in a refrigerator seems to get rid of the chlorine taste faster than storing it at room temperature. Also, in fiscal year 1996, the chlorine level was reduced to one part per million, which further improved the taste of the water.

The Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine has tested the water to see how long it will remain potable on the shelf with and without chlorine. The results of the study demonstrated the importance of adding chlorine during packaging to prevent bacteria growth in bags during storage. Fortunately, the water source for Operation Joint Endeavor was a well 300 meters deep. The water from the well was treated at the city treatment plant in Kaposvar before it reached the ROWPU. As a result, the purity of the bag water served in Operation Joint Endeavor may have been the best anywhere in Europe.

Cost Competitiveness

Since Operation Joint Endeavor began, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on bottled water for soldiers in Hungary, Croatia, and Bosnia. Initially, bottled water was purchased from commercial vendors in Italy and France at prices ranging from 30 to 70 cents per liter and shipped to Germershiem, Germany, and then on to locations in Hungary, Croatia, and Bosnia. The bottled water was delivered by commercial trucks in leased containers. Truck delivery costs ran from $1,000 to $4,000 per container, and the containers were leased at approximately $750 each.

By contrast, bag water costs a meager 30 cents per bag. In addition, since the bag water is produced in the area of operation, it is transported by military vehicles, which eliminates the commercial transportation costs.

Throughout Operation Joint Endeavor, the water packaging systems have proven their quality and dependability. Any mechanical problems that have developed in the systems have been corrected within a day or two. The quality of bag water is purer than any packaged water on the commercial market. The taste of the water is constantly improving; water is tested by reliable authorities, and rules and regulations are adjusted accordingly. The cost of supplying the bag water is substantially more economical than any commercial product. The system allows the military organization in charge of an operation to take full control of water quality and quantity. Together, bag water and the water-packaging system are an innovative solution to both the distribution problem and the high cost of bottled water. Furthermore, it is an optimal supply initiative that is in step with the tenets of Force XXI, the Army's vision of America's 21st century Army. ALOG

Captain Jinoo V. Choi, USAR, is a mathematics and science teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He drills with the 311th Corps Support Command in West Los Angeles. When he wrote this article, Captain Choi was on active duty in support of Operation Joint Endeavor and served as the Chief, Troop Support Branch, Task Force 21. He has a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics from the University of California at Los Angeles and is a graduate of the Quartermaster Officer Basic Course.


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