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3 Emergency Heat Sources When The Power’s Out

emergency heat power goes out

Image source: SacBee.com

Today’s homes are all heated as a requirement of the Universal Building Code. While air conditioning isn’t a regulatory requirement, heating is. The heating must be adequate to maintain the home in the “comfort zone” even in the most-extreme temperatures for that part of the country. There’s only one problem, though: Nearly all home heating systems depend upon electricity to function. When the grid goes down, that expensive hardware doesn’t do us the least bit of good.

Unfortunately, the power grid is the most vulnerable part of our infrastructure. Every severe weather event causes the grid to go down, albeit temporarily. Cyber-attacks have already been committed, showing that the grid can be taken down artificially. Almost anything can cause a power outage.

You’ve probably heard about it yourself. Some city or other has a power outage in the dead of winter and as a result of it, a few people freeze to death. The victims are almost always older people who can’t get out, can’t create heat by alternate methods, and can’t move enough to create enough body heat to keep themselves warm.

The question is, what will you do when the grid goes down where you live? How will you heat your home and take care of your family? Regardless of what type of heating system you have, at an absolute minimum it uses electricity for the control circuits. If you have a forced-air system (like most homes do), you also face the problem of no electricity to run the blower motor.

Don’t think you’re better off if you have a hot-water heating system. These systems still need electricity to run the pump that circulates the water. They won’t work any better in a grid down situation than forced-air systems will.

When that time comes, the best you can probably do is return to the old ways of heating your home. That means a fireplace or wood-burning stove.

Many homes still have fireplaces, although they are more decorative than anything else. Gas fireplaces are purely decorative, but a wood-burning one will produce some heat. A fireplace really isn’t a very efficient heater, as most of the heat goes right up the chimney. To be efficient, some means to capture the heat and distribute it into the room are necessary.

You can buy inserts to put in a fireplace which draw cool air in from the floor and return it to the room as hot air. Essentially, the insert is a series of metal tubes, which surround the fire. These either work by a blower motor or by convection. The best ones for an emergency situation are the ones which work by convection, as you won’t need electricity to run the blower. However, the convection models don’t move as much air as the ones with blowers do.

Benjamin Franklin vastly improved the efficiency of the fireplace by the invention of the Franklin Stove. This is a metal fireplace which allows the fire to be placed closer to the center of the room. The metal stove radiates heat from all sides, as well as from all sides of the metal tube chimney, making it much more efficient than a fireplace.

The wood-burning stove we know of today is a descendant of the Franklin Stove. While it is not usually as complicated, it does have a metal fire box, which is placed away from the wall, allowing heat to radiate from all sides.

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1. Temporary wood-burning stove

For emergency heat, a wood-burning stove can be installed on a temporary basis. All that is needed is the stove, chimney pipe with an elbow, a piece of plywood and a convenient window. The stove can be placed close to the window and the chimney run out through an opening made in the window by removing one of the glass panes. The extra space in the window can be closed up with plywood.

Modern wood-burning stove chimneys, as well as fireplace chimneys, are triple walled. The smoke travels up the center part of the chimney. The triple walls create two air passages around this central chimney, which are connected at the bottom. Cool air from outside enters the outer passageway, traveling downward. When that cool air reaches the bottom, it is warmed by the fire and travels back up through the second passageway. This ensures that the outer passageway is always cool, preventing the possibility of starting a fire.

If you are using a wood-burning stove for emergencies, you want to be sure that you buy one that uses wood and not wood pellets. The wood pellet ones are more efficient, producing more heat per pound of wood than the others. However, you can’t use them with normal firewood. When you run out of pellets, you freeze.

2. Kerosene heater

Another very effective option is to use a kerosene heater. I heated my uninsulated attic office for years with a kerosene heater, when I lived in New York. These heaters are relatively clean burning and produce quite a bit of heat. Like the wood-burning stove, they will radiate heat from all sides, allowing you to gain the maximum possible heat out of them. There is no chimney, so the heat isn’t lost out the chimney.

The problem with any of these heating methods, whether using wood or kerosene, is that you have to have an adequate supply of fuel on hand. When your fuel runs out, your heat does as well. Fortunately, both wood and kerosene store well for prolonged periods of time, so you can stockpile fuel without a problem.

3. Gas catalytic heater

There is one other option that I’d like to mention; one that doesn’t require stockpiling fuel. That is of using a natural gas “catalytic” heater. These heaters are highly efficient and burn very clean. They use a ceramic element to provide a bed for the gas to burn in. The burning gas heats the ceramic element, which then radiates heat into the room. These heaters are available in a variety of sizes, intended to be used as room heaters in both small and large rooms.

There are two huge advantages to using this type of heater. First of all, they don’t need electricity, and secondly, you don’t have to stockpile natural gas. Natural gas pumping stations provide their own power, so they will probably still be operating even if there is no electricity. About the only way that they can go down is if the gas pipes are damaged.

Insulating a room

In addition to creating heat, you will also need some way of keeping that heat in the area where you want it to be. During normal times, you heat your whole home. However, in an emergency, you will probably only be able to heat a small portion of your home, perhaps only one room. In that case, you want to be sure that you keep as much of that heat in that room as possible.

The internal walls in a home don’t contain any insulation. Of course, if you are building a home, you could add this as part of your emergency planning. Even without insulation, these walls will help retain the heat somewhat, as a bare wall has some insulation value. Doorways that don’t have doors in them can be covered by blankets, making the blanket into a temporary “door.”

Actually, insulation isn’t the issue as much as holding the heat in the room is. While those may sound the same, in reality they aren’t. You can hold the heat in the room, even without insulation by using heat reflectors.

A “space blanket” or “rescue blanket” made of aluminized Mylar is actually a heat reflector. This material was first invented by NASA for use on the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) that landed on the moon. While not insulation, this material reflects heat from both sides, doing an amazing job of helping maintain temperature.

For maximum effectiveness, coat the inside of your survival room with this material. You don’t have to do this ahead of time, as you can easily tape or staple the material in place. Don’t forget the ceiling, either. This will help keep the heat you are producing in the room, reducing overall heat requirements and adding to your family’s survivability.

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23 comments

  1. I have a battery operated Carbon Monoxide detector that I use when tent camping
    with my propane powered space heater. It supposedly has a low oxygen detector that
    should shut it off but I like having that backup safety device. I always have a spare 20lb
    propane tank for my BBQ and have picked up and refilled 10 small 1lb(?) bottles that
    I can use on that ‘Buddy’ space heater. The advantage of the propane heater is that it
    is mobile while a Nat Gas heater is fixed in place by the piping. Disadvantage is the limited
    propane supply I have on hand, but the local landfill has a Haz Mat center where I get
    free partial small bottles of propane that people are disposing. I bought a refill adapter
    on eBay and now can refill the small bottles from my 20lb tank.
    I would use the CO detector when using my kerosene heater indoors also.

    • Thanx Dan. I was wondering about this. But I just also learned something quite interesting. Apparently, you can actually do it in reverse too. So you could collect all the gas from several small bottles into your single large one. Perhaps this ability might depend on the exact adaptor you have?

      • The one I have works by gravity. The propane is liquid in the tank. You connect the 1lb and then turn the 20lb upside down and it flows into the 1lb.

        • Your refill adapter should work both ways. Both myself and my buddy have done it in a pinch when the 20lb tank has run out and you have full 1lb tanks it flow into the 20lb tank.

  2. Thank you so much for the Kerosene heater demo. I’ve had one sitting in my closet for a couple of years, and find the instructions a bit overwhelming. Since there are two feet of snow outside my door, and -1 degrees, I think I’ll dig it out and practice. Thanks, again. Watching someone lighting it is very helpful. Peace.

  3. I would llike to know the name of that kerosene heater you were talking about .

    Thanks !

    Charllie

  4. It’s -11 outside right now with 25 mph winds. Our Buck wood stove has been burning all day. The temperature in the room where it is is 75F, the adjoining room is 67F and the far rooms are 57F. We keep our furnace set at 55F so it hasn’t even come one today. The real test will be when it goes down to -17F tonight.

  5. My house is heated with a propane floor furnace. No electricity required. With 400 gallons of propane out back, I’m good for a normal winter on one fill. I did add a setback thermostat which runs on two AA batteries.
    Watch those kerosene heaters. Some jurisdictions have banned their use in occupied dwellings.
    Heck, some places are even banning wood burning stoves.

  6. I’m confused. The article says that gas fireplaces are purely decorative, but I heat my home with a gas fireplace. It’s a propane ventless fireplace with no blower, needs no electricity, and it does a fine job of heating my house. I love being able to warm up next to the fireplace when I come in from doing chores. I do keep my bedrooms closed off because I see no point in heating them and I prefer sleeping in a room that’s a bit chilly. I have central heating and air, but have yet to use the heating. (I do keep the thermostat set on 55, just in case, but I’ve never had it kick on.)

    • Hi Jan,

      I could not agree with you more, a vent less propane fireplace or vent less propane heater could not be better, they work without electricity and are 99 % efficient, and burn very clean, I have two wall mounted vent less propane wall heaters that are my main heating source, I have two 100 gallon propane tanks that will get me through a winter. I used to use wood, but it is dirty and requires a lot of work, Propane I think is the best all around, I also have a cook top in my kitchen that is propane. It’s the best

  7. I picked up this one from the Natural Cures Not Medicine e-newsletter. You take a candle and light it between 2 clay flower pots (one on top of the other to retain the heat), on top of a tin (aluminum) pie pan. This is supposed to keep a room (probably small) warm for about 25 cents. (Haven’t tried it but I do have the parts). Also I enjoyed the story / video about the man who makes solar panels from painted aluminum cans. Since the earth is abundant with aluminum, sounds like it could spread like wildfire! Thanks for posting this. And how about some tips on keeping your water pipes warm?

  8. Experienced most at childhood farm home which had a floor mounted propane heater, only electric was the thermostat and somehow could operate when electric was out. Was great winter location for the fold-out clothes dryer rack. Only problem was fishing out anything that dropped thru the floor grate.
    A 2’x3’x3′ kerosene heater heated the back rooms on especially cold days. This larger kerosene was replaced with a similar size propane heater and moved to adjacent 600 sq ft cabin which was kept comfortably warm. A small kerosene, about same size as in video, was excellent warmer in the uninsulated workshop/garage (and kept my parents warm in their current electric only home a couple years ago).
    We had a small propane heater in the bathroom, but would have preferred the small ceramic style.
    Later added a wood stove which performed majority of heating. NOTE: you do need the triple walled pipe at penetrations, but you do not want triple wall in areas that will benefit from the radiated heat.
    Reminds me to check if I can light my new natural gas cook stove with a match or will I need to attach an inverter to get it lit for cooking and heat???
    Any suggestion where to obtain an insert for the inefficient fireplace or what materials to build one with?

  9. Would also like to mention the rocket mass heater. Which is a more efficient version of a wood stove. I can see some room in the plans for them for improvement to make them more efficient. They are usually made into a bench. Which would provide you with a warm seating area

  10. great info on heat sources. the kerosene heater demo was especially helpful! there are also the terracotta heaters (homemade, easy but for super small spaces) or propane heaters.

    • Those little terracotta heaters work very well in one of those insulated rooms in the article. Remember those work by a different physics principle than a wood stove. The heat won’t register on a thermometer, it’s heat transfer from one warm item to another. They do work, I have two. Started with 10 inch pot and bought one just smaller, then a smaller one. They help release the heat, it’s the bolts and nuts which hold them together, also hold the heat so the terrracotta can release it. I plan to make more which can be more portable as in camping. I make my own scout buddy burners for them and then I can double the top as a warmer for food or water as needed.

  11. i love the idea of the terra cotta pots and tea candles and aluminum pie tin is easy, takes small amount of space and remember matches or lighter to light tea candles. low cost and effective for complete outage of electric and natural gas.

  12. I have a blue-flame ventless heater I have been using to heat my whole home for over 10 years, it has a thermostat on it from 1- 10 I keep it around 3 for a constant 70+ inside temp, it’s – 12 today. I have a CO2 detector and not once has it even beeped, It doesn’t need electric and all the heat stays in the house. Very economical to run even here in Northern Ohio by Lake Erie. I’m going to build a rocket furnace with a 55 gal drum and lava rocks over the pipes in my basement this year for fun.

  13. Regarding Rich M.s statement that gas fireplaces are just all simply decorative and not good back-up heat sources for the home in a power outage, Rich’s statement is incorrect. There are plenty of gas fireplaces that are purely decorative, but there are also a good number of very efficient gas fireplaces with AFUE efficiency ratings in the 70% range that requite no power to operate and are excellent back-up heat sources. When you factor in the fact that these fireplaces are zone heating with no duct loss, they are actually more efficient than the average furnace at delivering heat to a room.

    see. http://www.valorfireplaces.com as 1 very good example.

    Peter Ross
    HPBAPacific
    Hearth Patio & BBQ Association

  14. A couple of comments:

    My dad has a gas fireplace that he uses as both supplemental heat and a backup heat source. It warms up his place pretty nicely, even when it’s the only thing on, but he has a very open floor plan.

    I have a kerosene heater that’s burning right now in my woodshop. It keeps things fairly toasty, and I even put a pizza stone on top of it so I can keep a pot of hot tea ready when it’s fired up.

  15. I use a ventless Natural Gas wall unit, I have used it as my only heat source for over 10 years with or without power, I have a CO detector and not once has it even chirped. My best investment ever.

  16. Know that lowering your gas heating unit’s temperature just 1º would help you save 3% in your energy bill.

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