Insulin Storage for Disasters: 5 Refrigeration Options

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How to Make a Refrigerator and Survive Diabetes in a Disaster

Refrigerator on a roof

House and refrigerator in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

So many of my readers with diabetes worry how they can ever survive a long-term disaster, especially if they require insulin to live. As they know, there’s no substitute for it, and insulin doesn’t store forever.

With a good expiration date, though, insulin can keep a good year or two. The key is proper storage. To last more than a month, it must be refrigerated.

Fortunately, this is possible even without electricity.

5 Options for Insulin Storage During Disasters

  1. Get a generator. Just have lots of gas and oil to keep it running.
  2. Get a refrigerator that runs on propane. Just have plenty of propane.
  3. Get a solar-powered refrigerator, such as one of SunDanzer’s. But get ready for sticker shock. A tiny one costs $699. (For the only one that’s battery-free, you’ll still need to have your own solar panel.)
  4. This one’s so cool :) but you have to live in an area where the humidity doesn’t get to seventy-five percent or it doesn’t work. It’s called a zeer pot, or a pot-in-pot. All you need are a couple of different-sized clay pots, sand, a cloth to cover it, and water. The water doesn’t even have to be drinkable. At the bottom of this post is a video I found on how to make it. I haven’t used or made one, so you may want to try it out in advance with a thermometer inside, to see how well it works. The problem I see with this is you never know what the exact temperature in it will be, and it might fluctuate, but in a desperate situation, it could be worth a try.
  5. Store your insulin in a hole in the ground. Just be sure it’s four feet or more deep, and the insulin is in a watertight container. That’ll keep the bottles at around fifty degrees Fahrenheit.

The package insert usually says to keep the insulin below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and to never freeze it, so the first three options are the best. But, if we’re talking about life-or-death survival here, and no other cold-storage options, I think the last two are certainly worth a try. In fact, there’s a study from India, where it’s hot and electricity-limited, that shows keeping the bottles below 77 degrees Fahrenheit. may work as well as keeping them colder. (Sorry, the link is a PDF file.)

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How to Get Enough Extra Insulin to Store

Your health-care provider may balk at prescribing two years of insulin in one fell swoop, but not a few extra bottles for backup. Next time, request a few more. Ask your pharmacist for the ones with the longest expiration—one, two years.

Keep alternating your stockpile, using up the ones with the earliest expiration date and replacing them with your newest bottles.

The stress, exercise changes, and diet changes in a disaster will play havoc on a diabetic’s blood sugar, so be sure to store extra glucose monitors, batteries, and test strips with long expiration dates. After opened, the strips should last three months in cool, dry storage. And don’t forget some glucagon. Show someone how to use it in case your sugar drops too low.

Islets of Hope, a website for people with diabetes, has insulin-storage specifics, though the article was written in 2006. Double-check the information with the current manufacturer’s instructions for your medicine.

Next post is for non-insulin-dependent diabetics.

Does anyone have insulin-storage tips, comments? Has anyone ever built a zeer pot?


Photo (of flood-devastated Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina) by Infrogmation on Wikimedia Commons.

Links disclaimer: I receive no compensation from any of the external sites linked to. They are not affiliate links, and I don’t vouch for them. I only provide the links for your information.

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  • aby smith

    We need to come up with an alternative source for insulin. Is it possible to get insulin from another person much like when you get a blood transfusion. Did they not originally get insulin from pigs?

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      No, I don’ think it’s possible with our present technology for one person to give insulin to another. Back before 1980, most insulin used for humans came from purifying it from the pancreas of cows and pigs. Certainly they could do it again. However, someone doing it on their own has multiple problems. First, it takes many pancreases to make much insulin. Then, it has to be purified and, somehow, measured to see what the strength is.

  • Julia

    You can keep insulin cool with an item called a FRIO pouch. You can buy large ones. I only have one large, will get another so I can alternate. Also have a pump sized FRIO. You take the FRIO pack that’s velcroed to the outside of the FRIO container and activate the crytals by soaking it in water for five to ten minutes. You put your insulin in the FRIO envelope and velcro the new FRIO ice pack to outside of the FRIO envelope. This should keep insulin cold for 8 hours. Then repeat as needed.

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Thanks, Julia

  • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

    Thanks, 1836eig.

  • 1836eig

    My father-in-law used to keep his beer fairly cool with the hole in the ground method. He would dig the hole and place a 5 gallon bucket in it, then fill it about 3/4 full of water and then put the beer in it to cool off.
    I don’t know if this would work well for insulin or not as the beer would only get down to about 50 degrees. I can see though that this method of refrigeration might have other useful applications as well if you’re in need.

  • Survivor Boy

    Do any of the Docs here know about the Eleotin that was suggested?

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Eleotin is a food supplement. There’s some preliminary suggestions it can lower blood sugar. No large study has been done and the jury is still out on its overall effectiveness.

  • TexasScout

    Of those five, the ONLY viable option for South Texas is the propane fidge. Down here in the summer with the humidity at 98% and the day time temps averaging 95-98 degrees (today it’s 102!)from may till late November, even FOUR FEET below ground, the temps will be in the 80’s and that won’t keep insulin for more than a month. Propane is the ONLY way to go, a small fridge out of an old RV or camper with a 100 gallon propane tank will last years. The Zeer pots only work when the humidity is low enough to evaporate the water.

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Thanks, TexasScout. Propane sounds like the way to go, then.

  • Keith Shippy

    Thanks for the article, my daughter is type-1 and I live in the desert southwest so finding a way to keep our insulin stockpile protected in a power failure is critical for me. I want to make a comment about the linked article suggesting that insulin can be kept at or below 77F. If I read it correctly, the study was only to determine the efficacy of the insulin at the end of a 28 day period and didn’t say anything about extended storage at or below 77F. I want to make sure I understand that correctly because your comments in the article above seem to suggest that the study demonstrated successful extended (more than 28 days) storage of insulin at or below 77F and I don’t believe that is correct.

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Keith, you’re correct. The study only lasted 28 days and all the insulin bottles were open. The insulin stored at less than 77 F degrees didn’t lose potency to any significant degree. Unfortunately they didn’t test how long before it actually started losing potency. We know it’s recommended to store unopened insulin between 35 and 38 degrees and it should last until it’s expiration date. That’s ideal. I know it’s not a good idea to extrapolate from a study but, I think, in a worst case situation, storing unopened insulin below 77 degrees until its expiration date would be worth a try. The closer to 40 degrees the better. Does that make sense or do you disagree?

      • Keith Shippy

        Yes, I agree that in a worst case situation it sounds like keeping it at 77 or below will certainly prolong efficacy but without further study we won’t know if it prolongs it as long as keeping it at 40F. My goal will be to keep it at 40 but certain at 77 if 40 is unattainable. Thanks again for this good info!

  • http:[email protected] Melanie Steffler

    This is my nightmare- what will I do when I don’t have a supply of usuable insulin. I have about a 6 month supply past my prescription use and rotate out the oldest. I have freezer packs on hand to pack the vials in a power outage(which we have had several, some as long as 2 weeks) After that, I have no other ideas.

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Melanie. Seems like you’re pretty well prepared. That’s all you can do. No one knows what the future will bring for any of us.

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