May 29, 2017

Emergency Heat

Emergency Heat

This is a topic I haven’t covered in a while, and I’ve gotten some questions related to it recently, so I thought it would be a good time to revisit emergency heat. Going without heat is something that hundreds, if not thousands of people face every year. Many of those affected have electric heat and above ground power lines, which can be brought down by storm damage from falling trees or from ice storms and blizzards.

Energy is one of the Five Basic Human Needs, and the rule of three’s tells us that we can only live 3 hours in poor weather without it. Depending on how low the temperature is, that number could be less. Be aware that hypothermia can set in at temperatures less than 50 degrees, so this isn’t just a topic for northern states!
Back Up Electricity

One might think the solution to being without heat due to a power outage would be to provide backup electricity with a generator and that might be the case for short term outages. The catch is making sure you have enough fuel to run the generator. I heard stories after Hurricane Sandy about whole home generators that used an entire 500lb propane tank. If the outage is large enough and long enough, nearby gas stations will, most likely, be without power to operate the pumps.

A small generator would sufficiently run space heaters, but the fuel usage is still prohibitive. I own a generator, but my plan for it is to run the freezer and fridge for an hour in the morning and evening to keep the food inside cold.

I’m not going to go more in depth on generators, but if you’re interested, here is an article I wrote called Portable Generators and an article on storing gasoline and diesel long term.
Scope of the Problem

Before we can really come up with a solution, we need to know the scope of the potential problem. Because of the type of events that are most likely to cause us to need emergency heat, it is safe to say there will be a large portion of the people in our area affected.

A side note; we had a large storm here in Minnesota last year, leaving thousands without power in the summer. It was unbelievable the number of people on the news and social media accusing the power companies of not doing anything. The electric grid is a very complex, interconnected and in many instances outdated beast. In a large scale power outage, it is far more complicated to correct say a fallen tree, than just removing the fallen tree and flipping a switch.

Yes, the tree needs to be removed and lines repaired, but there is also a very good chance that the tree falling caused damage to other components down the line. The line must remain off for utility workers to repair all of it and replace said components.

I digress; in a large scale power outage, it is safe to say that it could take a number of days but will probably not take weeks for power to be restored. Hurricane Sandy saw many people without power for several weeks and some saw months. However, that was an aberration caused by wind damage, water damage, flooding of the underground grid and several other factors. I know of several large scale storms across the country where utility companies have brought in crews from other states to get power back to their customers.

What this means is that we need to be prepared to provide emergency heat for our families for up to a week. If the damage is so significant that it will require you to be without power for longer than one week, you might be best served finding another location to reside in until power is restored.
My Emergency Heat Plan

For me personally, a whole home generator with 500lb+ of fuel stored isn’t feasible. If we lose heat in cooler temperatures, my plan is to have everyone cohabitate in one room. It is far easier to heat and maintain warmth in one room versus the entire house. I own Mr. Heater F232000 Indoor-Safe Heater, and have multiple 20lb propane tanks. To use 20lb or larger tanks, you also need to purchase a propane hose assembly.

Caution does need to be taken to make sure fresh air is allowed to circulate while using the heaters, but modern day indoor rated heaters are a safe and viable option.

I plan on placing blankets over windows to add a layer of insulation to cause heat loss through them to be minimal. Since water lines freezing is a real danger, water would be shut off going to most of the house, and a small trickle of water would be maintained to the rest of the rooms where running water was needed.

If you’re looking for an emergency heat/off grid heat option that is a bit bigger and could heat the entire house, there are several options. It is out of the scope of this article, but you could research wood stoves, pellet/corn stoves and Rocket Mass Heaters from for just three examples.

Candles can provide some heat, and light but we will only use them as a last resort. As I explain in Candle Safety:

“We had a couple different scented candles burning for a few days when Trudee noticed her asthma was acting up. Then she noticed a thin layer of soot on the surface of things here and there. (Note: We don’t have a fireplace.)”

We still have several candles for emergencies and barter if needed, but don’t burn them anymore.

While this article is about heat, there is a good chance that if you don’t have heat, you might not have a means to cook. I personally decided to use propane as my fuel for cooking as well. I have camp stoves and the BBQ that can be used to prepare meals. We also have a fire pit and a small amount of wood that would last us a couple weeks or so for cooking with.
Other Information

I’ve written two other articles that might be of interest. One is called Off Grid Fuels,. In it, I explain the pluses and minuses of various storable fuels. I explore propane in depth in Propane for Fuel Storage.

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  1. Thanks! Great reminder.
    I love Permies. There are so many great ideas there for practical application.

  2. Carl Rooker says:

    Good points Chris. Propane can be an excellent emergency fuel. I heat with propane now, but last year when it was hard to get, we ended up going some time with electric heaters as a back up.

    In a real emergency, blankets and extra clothes can go a very long way. These can also help by needing to heat less, and stretching out fuel

    • Chris Ray says:

      oh yes, blankets are huge. We keep it pretty cold in our house in the winter in part so we can snuggle under blankets. Even a light one can keep the chill away at moderate temps.

    • Jim Moore says:

      And dogs, don’t forget dogs. They snuggle and keep you warm on a cold night. That’s where the name ‘Three Dog Night’ came from… ha ha!

  3. Rev. Dr. Michael E Harris says:

    I agree that a backup generator should be used for essentials such as refrigerator and freezer. To try to use it for the whole house is not cost effective. I costed out generators for a friend who was destitute and needed help. Even with the resources of a few friends, a generator was not a good choice.

    When I was a kid, the blizzard of 1957/1958 left our area without electricity for four days. We lived in a subdivision of 52 houses built in 1953; the development was sold as All Electric. You can imagine how the neighborhood was–cold with no way to heat food. My father had a two-burner Coleman camp stove so we had hot meals. My mother invited one neighbor family over each night to share hot food with us.

    I have friends who have lived in large apartment buildings in cities such as Washington, DC. The apartment managers usually have a fixed day to turn on the central heating and for central air conditioning. Since management is trying to keep down the costs and nature refuses to cooperate, it is usually very cold a week or more Before the heating system is turn on. If the range/oven is gas, one could turn the oven on at 500 degrees and open the oven door. Living in the room closest to the kitchen is often the result.

  4. Nice write up. I was in that power/land phone outage for a week from that super storm in July 2012. I wish I could have bottled that heat for winter. It was hard sawing downed trees in 88 to 90 degree heat and high humidity, but it was a good thing it wasn’t 20 below zero then.

    We have had other emergencies when it was winter and power/phone went out and I used 16 jar candles to heat my home to 60 degrees when it was 20 degrees outside. That prompted me to installing a wood stove; also getting a snowmobile suit, and bringing out my Witney blankets that made my body the furnace to keep me warm and toasty.

    I must say the snowmobile suit is very warm with triple mitts, a heavy wool cap and insulated boots. It was made for arctic conditions in Canada. I tried it out when it was 20 below outside, and laid on the snow for an hour. I fell asleep. The snowmobile suit and the heavy Witney blankets were well worth the investment for emergency heat without starting a fire.

    • Chris Ray says:

      out of the two extremes I think the cold would be more tolerable. though cutting down trees in the cold could get difficult.

  5. In our area in the mountains of the south east, we usually have at least one winter storm that knocks the power out from a few days to up to two weeks. We have a generator and electric heaters, propane heaters, and a kerosene heater. The problem is fuel storage and the fact that sooner or later the fuel runs out and you can’t get fuel until power is restored. I am going to purchase a wood/coal burning stove for heating and cooking. Any suggestions or advice on where to buy one, manufacturers, brands, models etc. Would be appreciated. When I was young my grandparents heated the entire house with coal and it didn’t take a lot of coal per day to keep the house hot. We had to open doors once in a while to cool to rooms down. I have access to a lot of wood, but its a lot of work and burns pretty fast. I wouldn’t have to worry about running out of wood though. The coal is easy to store and works great. For lights we have a ton of different types of solar lights, flashlights, lamps & even the individual sidewalk type solar stake type lights for the kids, as well as yellow and white Chem lights that put out a whole lot of light. Now if I can just figure out how to get Air conditioning in the hot Summer when the power goes off :)

    • Chris Ray says:

      I don’t know a lot about wood stoves, but check the link I added for rocket mass heaters. It is a type of wood burning stove that uses very little wood per day.

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