Kerosene Heat for the Cold Dark Winter

As a prepper, I try to keep up on news from natural and man-made disasters. I recently read a posting by a survivor of Hurricane Sandy. He described half-mile long lines for fuel, power outages, and fear. He learned like never before how close we civilized people are to the same primal life our ancestors lived. He expressed the fear he and his neighbors had that if the utilities had not been restored before winter, that they would have suffered severely with no way to heat their houses.

Heat Mate Kerosene Heater
Heat Mate HMN-110 kerosene heater

Times are good here in the USA. Currently, preparing for bad times seems nuts. We have a good infrastructure, and good support networks for families that fall on hard times. History shows us that bad things happen, sometimes to entire countries, and often you can’t see them coming until they do. For anyone living in a place with severe winters, a disaster of country-wide scale could be deadly.

Even smaller disasters, like severe earthquakes, or a multi-day ice storm could knock out power, and that means no heat. No heat means frozen pipes and frozen pipes means no culinary water. Even a small heat sources that does not need electricity could save you from thousands of dollars of cold related damage, and in extreme cases a heat source might save you from death.

Being interested in being prepared, I wanted to have a way to heat my house even when the power was off. I grew up with two main alternative heat sources: wood and kerosene.

Unfortunately, burning wood is illegal these days. Not completely illegal, but regulated so much that even if you have everything set up for burning wood and your power goes out, you might be risking a heavy fine or even jail for simply trying to stay warm the same way billions of people have always tried keeping warm, … by burning wood.

Wood really is the ultimate storable heat source, but not usable under current societal and regulatory restrictions. I naturally turned to my second alternative heating source that I grew up with. Kerosene.

Kerosene burns clean. If it is good, new kerosene burned in a modern heater, it can be burned indoors without much if any odor. Most places don’t have regulations preventing you from using it whenever you want to. It won’t keep a big house toasty, but when used properly, it is safe and will keep pipes from freezing. Obviously, nothing is guaranteed, but many people including myself swear it is the best alternative heat source for emergencies.

I looked at several models of kerosene heaters and ended up buying the Heat Mate HMN-110. I’ve owned two of them. I’m pretty happy with the purchase. It isn’t a high end model, but it works and it is easy to take apart when the wick needs replacing.

There are a couple of rules for using kerosene heaters. The first rule is always give your heater plenty of air. If the heater is not getting enough air, it will create carbon monoxide instead of burning properly. (This is true of your regular home furnace too, by the way.)

To give a kerosene furnace enough air, make sure you don’t surround it with boxes or furniture. Find the draftiest place in your room or house to place it. Many people place their kerosene heater near their fireplace with the flue open, or by the fresh air intake for their regular furnace. Even though it might seem counterintuitive, cracking a window slightly open in the room you use it in, might not be a bad idea.

Whatever you do, never burn a kerosene heater in a room with the door closed. For example, more than one person has thought it would be a good idea to keep their bedroom warm by firing up their kerosene heater and closing the bedroom door. They get nice and warm and then die in their sleep.

Second, use new, undyed, K-1 kerosene. Most states have it. However, K-1 kerosene can be used in diesel trucks as an illegal cheap, untaxed alternative to diesel, so some states force a red dye additive to be added to the kerosene. That makes it burn less clean.

Also, kerosene doesn’t store long term. I know this from my own experience. I’ve had poor experience storing kerosene in hot sheds over the summer. Usually metal containers that seal up nice and tight store kerosene the best.

Old kerosene tends to break down and absorb water from the air. Running old kerosene through a good fuel filter helps, but doesn’t fix it up as good as new. The most common way to deal with old fuel is to run it through a fuel filter made for kerosene and then mix it with newer kerosene to freshen it up. With a little trial and error, you can get this to work pretty well for using older fuel.

I like to keep one five-gallon metal kerosene container around and then fill up my empty cans just before the cold season. I can mix the months-old kerosene with the newer kerosene to burn in the winter, then I fill up one can at the end of the season and store it out of the sun and heat until the next winter.

I’ve found that one gallon of kerosene will burn for about 20 hours in my kerosene heater. My goal in having kerosene around is simply to keep the pipes from freezing in the event of a worst-case natural or man-made disaster, so I fill up a few cans of kerosene at the beginning of winter, and then burn it through the colder parts of winter to keep my basement warm.

Kerosene should only be stored in cans designed for fuel. In the USA,  dark blue cans that say the word kerosene on them are available. It is very important to NEVER mixup kerosene with gasoline. If you accidentally fill your kerosene heater with gasoline, the person lighting it will likely burn to death and maybe burn down their house, too.

In addition to extra kerosene, I like to keep an extra wick around. Bad kerosene, or water in your kerosene, can clog up your wick permanently. Wicks aren’t terribly expensive and it’s a good idea to keep an extra one around just in case you need it.

So to sum things up, kerosene is a great alternative heat source for preppers. However, you need to be serious about taking precautions to only fill it with kerosene, and give the heater plenty of air so it burns properly. Also, a carbon monoxide detector wouldn’t be a bad idea, just to be on the safe side. Remember to read your kerosene heater’s instructions and follow them!

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