A winter storm rages outside and the power suddenly flickers off. The temperature in your home is beginning to slowly decline and a chill is settling in the air. Are you prepared with backup heat sources until the power is restored?
What are the best options for alternative heat sources during a power outage? Our top choices for safe emergency heating include:
- Heat Pal 5100—alcohol heater/cook stove that uses denatured alcohol as a fuel source.
- Mr. Heater Propane Buddy Heaters—several different sizes available to fit unique needs.
- Terracotta Pot Heater—homemade heater which uses canned heat for fuel.
- Wood-Burning Stove or Fireplace—classic go-to option whenever circumstances permit.
We have spent hundreds of hours researching and experimenting with alternative heat sources to keep us from freezing in our home during a power outage. We have discovered some great tips for retaining heat and making the heat source you use more efficient.
We intentionally turned off our power in the dead of January to see if we could survive freezing temperatures. Check out our post Surviving a Winter Power Outage – How to Stay Warm to read our story and learn what important principles we discovered by living through the experience.
Alternative Heat Sources
Before firing up your heat source of choice, take a few minutes to secure your home to minimize heat loss. The better you prepare your home to retain heat, the less fuel you will need to use to heat it.
Select one room to heat and isolate it from the rest of the home. Visit our post, Tips for Surviving Winter in Your Home without Electricity to learn exactly how to set up your living space in an emergency.
The Dometic ORIGO Heat Pal 5100 is a non-pressurized alcohol heater and stove combination. It weighs only 5 pounds, making it highly portable. The Heat Pal is fueled by denatured alcohol which burns cleanly and is safe to burn indoors.
This little alcohol heater will put out 5,200 BTUs. One quart of denatured alcohol will provide about 5 hours of burn time on the highest setting.
Denatured alcohol is a very clean fuel to burn indoors. Be sure to always provide adequate ventilation when burning anything to replace oxygen consumed by the flame. Alcohol is a good storage fuel due to its indefinite shelf life. Check out How to Safely Store Fuel for Emergencies to learn more about storing alcohol and other fuels safely.
Portable Propane Heaters
Propane is an ideal fuel source for emergency heating. Be sure that the propane heating device you select is rated for indoor use. Never use a heater inside your home that is not rated for indoor use.
The propane source should always be attached to the heating device outside and brought in to avoid propane leakage inside the home. Propane is heavier than air. When leakage occurs, the gas will pool in the lowest spot and create an explosive hazard. Propane is a great storage fuel with an indefinite shelf life.
Mr. Heater makes several heaters that are rated for indoor use. We really like the Buddy Heater Series as they are an ideal solution for safe heating during a power outage.
Mr. Heater equips all of the Buddy Heaters with an Oxygen Depletion Sensor (ODS) which will shut the unit down if there is inadequate oxygen for complete combustion. They also have an accidental tip-over safety shut-off for additional protection. They are simple to use and maintain.
Let’s explore what Mr. Heater currently has on the market for safe indoor emergency heating:
Little Buddy Heater
This small radiant heater is fueled by a 1 pound propane cylinder and produces 3,800 BTU. It will heat up a small enclosure up to 95 sq. ft. for 5 ½ hours on a 1 pound cylinder.
Little Buddy is perfect for a tent, small room or bathroom. It is quiet and odor-free.
Portable Buddy Heater
The Buddy Heater is the next size up portable propane radiant heater. It can put out 4,000-9,000 BTU and uses a 1 pound propane cylinder for fuel. It will heat up to 225 sq. feet.
A 1 pound propane cylinder will provide 3 hours of run time at on high and 6 hours on the lowest setting. The Buddy Heater is my all-time favorite alternative heat source because it is safe, portable and incredibly easy to use.
The Buddy Heater has been designed with a swivel regulator which enables it to be adapted to a remote supply of propane with a hose and filter. We use ours connected to a 20 pound propane tank which sits outside the window. A hose is run through a small opening in the window to the heater.
The Buddy Heater may shut off at over 7,000 feet due to low oxygen. It has all of the great safety features of the Buddy Heater Series.
Hunting Buddy Portable Heater
The Hunting Buddy is a 6,000-12,000 BTU heater that will heat up to 300 sq. feet. It is fueled by a one pound propane cylinder or can be adapted to use a remote gas supply with a single hose and filter.
Big Buddy Portable Heater
This is the largest heater in the Buddy Series producing a whopping 4,000-18,000 BTU to heat an enclosed space of up to 450 sq. feet. It is fueled by two 1 pound propane cylinders or may be adapted to use a remote gas supply with a single hose and filter.
The Big Buddy has an integrated fan to increase the heating capacity which requires 4-D batteries or an adapter. Remember to store plenty of D batteries if you plan to use this heater when the power is out. Alternatively you might want to use a battery back-up and an adapter.
Mr. Heater Vent Free Radiant Propane Heater – 10,000, 18,000, or 30,000
These vent free indoor safe heaters may be permanently mounted to the wall or securely fastened to the floor. Depending on which size you purchase, it can heat 250, 500 or 750 square feet and is thermostatically controlled. There are altitude restrictions so check specifics before purchasing.
Batteries are required to power the electronic ignition. Be sure to stock up on batteries to ensure the Mr. Heater Vent Free Radiant Propane Heater will function properly in an emergency. Some areas may require a permit to use this heater.
Terracotta Pot Heater
Sometimes a little creativity is required to keep warm in an emergency. Canned heat is one of our favorite indoor fuels. It is inexpensive, burns clean and stores safely. We designed a simple DIY heater you can easily create using a couple of different sized terracotta pots, a portable folding stove and canned heat.
- Set up the folding stove.
- Place the smaller pot upside down on top the stove.
- Cover the hole with something non-flammable to prevent the heat from escaping. A piece of foil works well.
- Place the larger pot on top the same way.
- Remove the lid from the canned heat, place the fuel inside of the stove and light it.
The heat is channeled through the pots and a convection current is created providing a nice localized heat. A Terracotta Pot Heater will not heat up a room. It provides a nice warm heat source that can take the chill off of the immediate area.
A Terracotta Pot Heater is an inexpensive tool for both heating and cooking in an emergency when resources, finances and space are limited. We designed it with our college students and apartment dwellers in mind.
For step-by-step instructions see our post Terracotta Pot Heater/Cooker–How to Heat and Cook without Electricity.
Wood Burning Stove or Fireplace
A wood burning stove is a wonderful way to heat a home during an emergency as well as every day. We saved for several years in order to purchase one. It is quickly paying for itself. We use it all winter long to warm the house, as well as for cooking. I adore my wood burning cook stove.
The heat produced by a wood burning stove is delightful and warms your body all the way through. It does make a bit of a mess and takes serious attending to be safe.
Fireplaces and wood stoves vary significantly in their efficiency. Pellet stoves require electricity and will not work well for emergency heating without back-up power. Research and plan carefully before making a purchase. Are you using it primarily for heating or do you want it to be used for cooking as well?
Wood is a perfect, safe storage fuel. The amount you may need to store depends upon your climate, stove efficiency, and usage. We tend to go through 2 cords during a winter. Our neighbors go through 4-5 cords in an older, but similar sized home.
Store dry, seasoned wood along with kindling, matches or lighters, and fire starters. Chimneys should be cleaned annually to prevent buildup which may cause chimney fires or result in carbon monoxide escaping into the home.
Other Alternative Heating Options Worth Mention
Let the sun help heat your home. Passive solar heating utilizes the sun’s energy to provide warmth. When combined with thermal mass, this energy is stored and helps reduce temperature fluctuations. Thermal mass can be concrete, bricks, tile, rocks, water, and similar dense materials. Six inches of mass is enough to do the job.
To take advantage of solar energy, open blinds and drapes on the south side of the home when the sun is intensely shining. Effectiveness may be increased by placing thermal mass in the path of the sunshine to absorb the heat. Use caution not to place more weight on the floor than the structure can handle.
Be sure to close the blinds or drapes when the sun is not shining to increase the insulation (keep hot air in and cold air out). The warmed thermal mass will radiate the heat back into the room during the night.
Kerosene Heaters – Last Resort
Kerosene heaters are available that are rated for indoor use. We personally do not plan to use an unvented kerosene heater in our home, especially during an emergency.
Kerosene produces deadly carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide (which may cause throat and lung irritation), and sulfur dioxide (which can impair breathing) when burned. Klean Heat, an odorless kerosene alternative, still produces the same byproducts as standard kerosene when burned.
Adequate cross ventilation is required for safety. That means opening a window a few inches on each side of the room to allow the air to move through the room. While kerosene heaters are frequently used in other countries, but why risk it when we have safer options available.
Kerosene heaters can be extremely dangerous when used incorrectly. Michigan State University Extension recommends the following items to reduce the risk of fire when using a portable kerosene heater.
- Use only water-clear 1-K grade kerosene. Never substitute any other fuel in a portable kerosene heater.
- Store kerosene in appropriate container intended to store kerosene.
- Be sure to dispense the correct fuel when purchasing kerosene from a pump.
- Purchase 1-K grade kerosene only from reputable certified dealers.
- Never refuel the heater inside of the home. Do not overfill the tank.
- In the event of a flare-up or uncontrolled flame, do not carry the heater outdoors. Leave house immediately and call for help.
- Be sure to install working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
- Maintain the portable kerosene heater very carefully.
- Ventilate! Keep an outside window open one inch to ensure adequate fresh air infiltration.
That being said, vented kerosene heaters are an option worth exploring. The difference is they are vented to the outside and do not release toxins into your home (similar to a fireplace chimney).
Purchase the best grade of kerosene available. Kerosene is a good storage fuel with a 5 year shelf life that can be extended with fuel stabilizers.
Electric Space Heaters
I know what you are thinking. An electric space heater requires electricity. It absolutely does. Have you considered that not every heating crisis may result from a power outage?
My friend shared a story that her sister begged her to purchase an electric space heater and overnight it to her New Mexico. Natural gas was the primary fuel for heating homes in her sister’s area and it had been disrupted “until further notice.” She had electricity, but no way to heat her home.
Electric heaters were nowhere to be found at local stores. The space heaters on Amazon were back-ordered. Her only hope was to have one purchased by someone outside of the affected area and shipped overnight.
An electric space heater may be a wonderful asset to bridge the gap if your furnace gave out in the middle of a cold night or for an extra bit of warmth for someone who is ill. I have one that sits under my desk to keep me toasty warm while I work, without having to heat up the house when I am isolated in one room.
When considering alternative heat sources, be sure to explore the possibilities and don’t just settle for the obvious answers.
Prepare Your Home
Your home is your best protection against the elements. Take some time to prepare your home to better shelter your family without additional heat sources. Preparing our home before we turned off our electricity in the middle of January made a huge difference in our ability to survive freezing temperatures without additional heat sources.
Winterize your home today. Many utility companies will perform a home energy audit at no charge. That is a great way to have a professional give you a list of things to do for starters. Our home performed well without power, because it was well-insulated.
Install weather stripping around windows and doors. Check the insulation in your attic, basement and exterior walls. Are they up to, or exceed, local building codes?
How about installing storm doors or windows? Can you install energy efficient blinds or curtains? Check for cold air entry ports around exterior wall electrical outlets, switch plates, and gaps around windows or doors.
Regularly maintain your chimney and vents. Keep your roof in good repair. Insulate pipes exposed to the cold in the exterior walls or attic. Do not put off routine maintenance or you may regret it.
Check out the Database of State incentives for Renewables and Efficiency and click on your state to find what financial incentives may be available to help you make your home more energy efficient.
There are grants, rebates, and tax credits to help lessen the financial hit. Low income programs may also be available to improve energy efficiency at little or no cost if you qualify. Take time to investigate what opportunities you may have to make your home more energy efficient.
Make no excuses for not keeping your home ready to protect you from freezing weather.
The Power of Energy Efficient Landscape
One final powerful consideration which is often neglected is landscaping your home for energy efficiency. Strategic landscaping can reduce energy bills now as well as help during challenging times. Convection created by the wind can suck warmth from your home. Plants can be used as insulating blankets for your home.
Trees, fences, or other structures can create windbreaks to shield your home from direct wind. Windbreaks on the west, north and east of homes may cut fuel consumption an average of 40 percent. When you are desperately trying to retain heat, this can make a huge difference.
Plant deciduous trees on the south side of your home to allow for solar heat gain in the winter. As that winter sun shines through the trees, you can capture it through south facing windows in the day. Evergreen trees are ideal for the north side and act as insulating blankets from the north wind.
As you decide which of the alternative methods to use to heat the living area in your home use GREAT CAUTION! It would be a tragedy to survive the earthquake, just to have your family die from carbon monoxide poisoning, or in a house fire, because of a well-intended mistake.
Any flame may produce carbon monoxide as a result of incomplete combustion. Always have a working carbon monoxide detector with a digital readout near when burning anything in your home!
Experiment and Practice
Do not just purchase an alternative heating device and tuck it on a shelf to wait for an emergency. It is critically important that you play with your new toy and learn everything about it. Make sure you have all of the accessories that you may need. Safely store fuel!
Disasters can be quite stressful. Take the time now to become proficient in order to lessen the stress when it counts. Preparation can change a disaster into a grand adventure.
Creating Your Alternative Heating Action Plan
Our goal is to keep warm until life returns to normal. These fantastic alternative heating devices can help make life a bit easier until we can return to our normal temperature-controlled spoiled life. Click here for our personal recommendations for emergency heating devices.
Non-electric space heaters are not intended to keep your home at a toasty 72 degrees. Be realistic in your expectations. Remember, they must have fuel to function. Plan ahead and store the right fuel safely. Visit How to Store Fuel Safely for Emergencies for important guidelines on fuel characteristics and safe storage.
How long could you possibly be without power? Do you need to store fuel for a couple of days, one week, a month or perhaps a year. We have prepared a worksheet that may be helpful to you to help you brainstorm your fuel needs and meet your goals.
You can do this! Just a little bit of time to prepare today will result in a big payoff in the future. After living without heat, I am highly motivated to be sure I have the right device along with enough fuel safely stored to keep me warm.
Thanks for being part of the solution!