Cooking during a power outage can be a bit challenging. In our emergency cooking classes, we present a wide variety of options for powerless cooking, most of which must be used outdoors. It is important to be able to cook both indoors and outdoors.
Think about it, are you going to want to cook using charcoal and a Dutch oven during a snowstorm? Not me! I want to be nice and warm inside. Canned heat is the perfect solution for cooking indoors during a power outage.
Safe Indoor Cooking Option
Canned heat is a great option for indoor cooking and comes in a variety of brand names (Sterno, Safe Heat, etc.), burn times (anywhere from 2-6 hours), and cost ($1-5 a can).
Only varieties of canned heat designed to be used by caterers are designed to be safely burned indoors. Other types of canned heat are only safe to burn indoors with adequate ventilation. The fuel burns quite cleanly but still may produce a little bit of carbon monoxide.
Canned heat produces a very hot, blue flame with very little yellow flame or sparking. Always be sure that the can you intend to use indoors specifies that it is safe to burn indoors. Read the label!
Learn more about how to safely cook indoors during a power outage in these posts:
- Safe Indoor Emergency Cooking Solutions
- Thermal Cookers: Powerful Solution for Efficient Emergency Cooking
- Candles as an Emergency Fuel Source for Warmth, Light, and Cooking
- Terracotta Pot Heater/Cooker – How to Heat and Cook without Electricity
Characteristics of Canned Heat
Canned heat is a disposable version of the alcohol burner. These cans are a popular tool for caterers to keep hot foods at serving temperature in a chafing dish. The intended design is to create a portable steam table with very hot water under the food, which in turn keeps the food hot.
The cans are filled with forms of alcohol or a purplish gel (petroleum product) that is flammable but does not burn quickly. The fuel puts out a visible flame and a good amount of heat. The heat and flame go straight up with little spread. They are safe, lightweight, store nicely, and great for boiling water or heating canned foods.
Canned heat may be purchased in bulk at wholesale warehouses (i.e. Sam’s Club), online, or in smaller quantities in the camping section of other stores.
Safe Heat is my personal favorite. Each can has 6 hours of burn time and is very reasonably priced at about $1.50 a can. That’s a lot of bang for my fuel buck. The shrink-wrapped cases store very nicely for a long time.
Safety Precautions for Using Canned Heat
Canned heat characteristics vary by manufacturer and variety. For our discussion, we are discussing Safe Heat which was designed for indoor use in a catering setting.
The flashpoint (lowest temperature where it will ignite with ignition source) of Safe Heat is 120 degrees and the ignition temperature (the temperature required to spontaneously ignite) is 225 degrees. According to the Safety Data Sheet, Safe Heat does not present an explosion hazard.
I would not ever store canned heat in a hot garage. It deserves to be stored in a cool, dry location.
When Safe Heat is burned, the hazardous decomposition products are carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. The amount of carbon monoxide is small enough to allow for indoor burning with adequate ventilation.
Always be sure that you provide ventilation and have working carbon monoxide detectors with a digital readout nearby.
Use caution as the flame may be almost invisible in some lighting. Do not blow on flames to extinguish. Simply smother the flame with the lid. Allow the can to cool completely before replacing the lid or it will be extremely difficult to remove the next time.
Cooking with Canned Heat
Canned heat may be conveniently used in a small Sterno stove, chafing dish, fondue pot, EcoQue portable grill, or in an EmberLit wood stove. We have even used it in a portable charcoal grill with great success.
Canned heat fuel produces enough heat to boil water. Cover with a lid to help achieve higher temperatures and conserve fuel. The flame is visible and goes straight up along with the heat. Frequent stirring is required to prevent scorching.
Heat may be increased by using additional cans at the same time. Before I go any farther, you need to understand that the manufacturer does not recommend using more than two cans at a time. Proceed at your own risk!
My EcoQue grill can hold 4 cans which makes a hot enough fire to boil pasta. I have a large chafing dish which I place 3-5 cans of canned heat under depending on how much heat I want. If I am boiling a large pot of pasta, I might need all 5 cans. If I’m just simmering I might use 2 or 3.
Three cans fit very nicely in the portable charcoal grill and do a fantastic job of bringing foods to a boil. In this photo, we brought the food to a boil and then placed it in a thermal cooker to finish cooking as part of our fuel conservation strategy. Fuel is only required to bring the food to a rolling boil and then retained heat does the rest. It is like magic!
Controlling the temperature with canned heat can be a bit of a challenge, but the fact that they can safely be used indoors is worth the inconvenience.
It is still important to ensure that you have adequate ventilation when cooking with any open flame. Remember that any flame can produce carbon monoxide when there is not enough oxygen for complete combustion to occur. Be wise and use caution!
Kylene’s Off-Label Uses for Canned Heat
Canned heat really is one of my favorite fuels, so I have spent a little time getting creative and exploring possible off-label uses for this delightful can of fuel. Proceed with any of my crazy ideas at your own risk! I totally recommend that you be very careful, but much to my husband’s horror, I do not always follow my own great advice.
I like to place a can of Safe Heat under my charcoal chimney to start charcoals. It does a fantastic job. One match, no lighter fluid, no newspaper, no blowing … just nice hot charcoals in just a few minutes.
While experimenting to find an inexpensive way to provide a little space heater in an emergency, we discovered another use for Safe Heat. We call it a Terracotta Pot Heater/Cooker. Check out our post: Terracotta Pot Heater/Cooker – How to Heat and Cook without Electricity. Just one more inexpensive possibility for emergency heating on a little budget.
One final application for Safe Heat is roasting marshmallows. Poor Jonathan came home from work one day to find a bunch of kids roasting mini marshmallows over little alcohol burners and canned heat while I was experimenting and learning more about the fuel.
I admit that might not be the safest way to roast a marshmallow, but we sure had a blast until Daddy came home.
Storing Canned Heat
Canned heat is safe to store indoors in reasonable quantities. It stacks nicely and takes up very little space.
The Safety Data Sheet for Safe Heat recommends that the cans be stored in a cool, dry location away from “foodstuffs” in well-sealed receptacles. Do not store near oxidizing, acidic materials, or alkalis (caustic solutions). Keep away from ignition sources. Be sure to store upright, away from heat sources, and dispose of any dented or damaged cans.
Our little stash of canned heat is pictured to the right. We store it on a shelf in our food storage room with our longer-term storage.
I am comfortable that both the canned heat and the alcohol are safe to be near each other in this setting. I personally would not store canned heat next to fresh foods.
Storage life is 10 years to indefinite depending on the manufacturer. The oldest cans we have are 10 years old and they still burn just like the brand new cans.
We store at least 5 flats, of 12 cans each, for a total of 60 cans. Each can burns for 6 hours, giving us 360 hours of burn time. That is amazing, especially when you consider that they are relatively safe to store indoors.
Canned heat is inexpensive, relatively safe to store and burn indoors. While canned heat has its limitations, it is an amazing asset to your emergency preparedness arsenal.
Canned heat is a great option for someone living in a small apartment with limited space and resources. Canned heat is lightweight and portable which opens up all kinds of possibilities for use in an evacuation scenario.
What is your plan to cook indoors during a power outage? Check out our post, Safe Indoor Cooking Solutions for more ideas to cook safely indoors when the power is out. Click here for our best picks on alternative cooking devices.
Thanks for being part of the solution!Jonathan and Kylene Jones