It’s c-c-cold out there! Winter weather is no joke. People freeze to death every year even in the desert. Power outages may be infrequent in a first-world country like ours, but they still happen. Are you ready for the freezing weather? I started buying backup heaters years ago and over time I’ve learned quite a bit about them through research and a bit of trial and error.
When your power goes out because of a, hopefully temporary, power problem this winter you need a safe indoor heat source. If society collapses into a chaotic state during your lifetime your backup plan may become your only choice. Regardless, you’ll still almost certainly need an extra heater at some point. The good news is that there are several options.
Homeowners should strongly consider putting in fireplaces or wood stoves for the long term. Unfortunately, it may be a little late in the game for that this year. Especially if you live in the north, things get cold fast and early.
Assuming you don’t have a fireplace or woodstove with proper ventilation and a stockpile of easy-to-reach cured firewood, there are three other choices. First, battery-powered heaters require new power sources or a way to recharge regularly, so they aren’t always practical. Secondly, a good propane heater can be a safe indoor choice. Third and finally, kerosene is also a great alternative heat source for winter.
What Do You Need: Doing the Math
When you plan to store any fuel for an emergency heater, you need to know a few basic facts to store enough. To calculate how many BTUs you need from your heater you first need the cubic footage of the space. To get this number you multiply the length, width and height of the space you plan to heat.
Your desired temperature increase is up to you. For example, if the temperature outside is twenty-five degrees and you want it to be fifty indoors you just subtract the outdoor temp from what you want. In this case, the answer is twenty-five (50-25=25). Your answer will vary depending on your needs.
Once you have your measurement the math is simple:
Cubic Feet x Temperature Increase x .133 = Required BTUs
What is a BTU?
A BTU or British Thermal Unit is the standard measurement of heat you’ll see indicated on fuels. A single BTU is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of a pound of water by one degree. Because heat is a form of energy, you could also say that a BTU is about 1055 joules.
Propane burns at a lower temperature than Kerosene, but it’s also more accessible. The clean burn of a good propane-based heater like the Big Buddy Indoor/Outdoor Portable Propane Heater from Amazon is priceless in cold weather. I like this model because of the options. You can connect it to either two smaller one-pound propane tanks or a larger twenty-pound model and heat up to four hundred square feet indoors.
The only downside for a Big Buddy is that the fan is electric. However, it will still heat without the fan blowing. When shopping for a portable propane heater make sure to look for an automatic low oxygen cutoff. You also want a good tip-over switch to keep it from burning your floor in case of a minor accident during the night or while you’re occupied elsewhere.
Cost & Convenience
Convenience and cost efficiency makes propane heaters a wise choice. Sadly, propane is more expensive because you pay for cleaner-burning fuel. Most gas stations and even grocery stores carry small propane tanks. Until recently propane was less expensive than kerosene, but things have changed in the last few years. Beware of outdated information and always check your local prices before making a decision.
If you’re looking to heat a tent or workshop you might not need quite as much power. The Mr. Heater F215100 MH4B Little Buddy is a great smaller alternative from Amazon. It requires no electricity and heats about ninety-five square feet for five to six hours on a disposable one-pound propane bottle.
The advantages of Kerosene are obvious. Most importantly it’s inexpensive and puts out more BTUs per gallon than propane. Unfortunately, the downside to kerosene is that it’s harder to find in bulk. There are a few gas stations that still have pumps. You can search the internet to find the nearest location and stock up when you’re in the area.
Kerosene comes in two forms called K-1 and K-2. The second variety has a higher sulfur content and should not be used in an emergency heater. Always use K-1, and only K-1 in your heater unless it specifies otherwise.
I use a Dura Heat DH2304S from Amazon at home. It runs eight to twelve hours on one tank of fuel and only needs a couple of D batteries for the ignition.
Same Family, Different Fuels
Both diesel fuel and paraffin lamp oil are from the same family as kerosene. Diesel is the least refined version of the three. Kerosene falls in the middle of the spectrum while paraffin lamp oil is ultra-purified.
You can get heaters that burn either diesel and kerosene or kerosene and paraffin lamp oil. Having options like that are nice, but I don’t know of any that are strictly non-electric.
One of the most important aspects of using portable heaters is how you store the fuel. There are some vital differences between propane and kerosene storage. You have to make your own choice about the tradeoffs. For example, propane is fairly flammable while you could drop a lit match into kerosene and it wouldn’t burn. (*Please don’t try this at home.)
Propane, which is sometimes labeled LPG, is stored in tanks that can last up to thirty years. The fuel itself almost never goes bad, but the tanks you store it in are a little less durable than their contents. Never store propane indoors and when possible always choose a galvanized steel container over the aluminum or other options.
Kerosene is safer to store because it’s less explosive than most fuels. That major benefit comes with a serious downside, however. It’s recommended that you replace your kerosene every twelve months. The culprits responsible for this problem are moisture and impurities.
Any dirt or debris that gets into kerosene can cause problems. Some preparedness experts claim the properly stored kerosene will keep for years or decades, but it is much more delicate. Make certain your storage containers are spotless, sterile, and incredibly well sealed.
If you’re prepared to put in a little work, and you live somewhere with lots of sunshine, you can heat for free in the daytime. A passive solar heater is inexpensive to create. The downside is that it doesn’t work at night or on cloudy days.
You need a window to place it in that gets sun exposure or a length of dryer vent tubing that you can secure inside your window without gaps. The tubing needs to be long enough to stretch from wherever the sun shines on your passive heater to the window. The further you have to go, the more heat will be lost in the process.
In essence, you construct a box frame with a clear pane. Inside this box, you will make rows of connected ‘tubes’ from soda cans. Spray paint the cans black to hold heat. The tubes must have an opening at both ends. Attach a small solar fan to one end. This moves the air into your home. On the other end, you either leave an opening that vents into your home or attach the tube I mentioned earlier to get the heated air where it needs to go.
Don’t fall for the myth of candle heaters made from clay pots. They don’t heat enough space to be of much use. A candle produces a very small amount of heat that disburses quickly in a space larger than a storage trunk. Sitting directly beside a candle heater might keep you a little warmer in a small space, but it’s incredibly expensive compared to a modern portable heater in the long run. Plus a candle doesn’t put out many BTUs of heat.
A properly designed and safely placed terracotta pot heater that uses camp stove fuel might be a very short-term option in a small space. Alternately you can opt for a small alcohol heater that uses denatured alcohol as a fuel source. Sadly, these are neither the most efficient nor the least expensive of your options. It’s better to be prepared with a better heater.
Always double-check your calculations to make certain you have enough fuel stored. Keep an eye on your fuel expiration dates and properly store the heater when not in use. Also, remember that most or all space heaters need a fair amount of clearance in front or around them so check the specs before you turn it on.
Choosing a safe indoor heater isn’t just a ‘good idea,’ it’s a life-saving necessity. While the end of the world as we know it might or might not happen in your lifetime, a power outage is almost as certain as death and taxes.