Friday, February 4, 2011

Canned Heat: How to Make an Emergency Heater

It seems that just about every part of the U.S. has been slammed with severe winter weather lately. Just the other I day, I was watching the news and saw the lines of stranded cars buried in snow outside of Chicago. The severe weather stretched over 2,000 miles, leaving a lot of people without power.  No power can mean no heat and that can be a scary thing with the temperatures being as low as they are. So what do you do if you're stranded on the highway in the dead of winter or a severe winter storm knocks out your power for an extended period of time?

I attended a class held at my church a couple days ago where we learned about and made emergency heaters.  They don't cost much to assemble and they could make all the difference in case of an emergency. Since I think emergency preparedness goes hand-in-hand with self-reliance and frugality, I thought I would share what I learned. You never know when something like this could be useful, after all.

To make your emergency heater, you'll need:
  • A new, quart-sized paint can with a lid. These can be purchased at paint stores and home improvement stores like Home Depot for around $2-3.
  • A roll of unscented toilet paper (I say, the cheaper the better. I bought a package of the rough, store brand stuff for around a dollar. It wasn't hard to fit into the can -- others at the class had a difficult time because they were using their nice, multiple-ply stuff.)
  • A bottle of unscented, 70% isopropyl alcohol
  • A box of matches (I just learned that you can waterproof matches by dipping the heads in wax. Pretty cool.)
  • A quarter and some tape (I suggest packaging tape)
Making the heater couldn't be easier. Simply remove the cardboard tube from the center of the toilet paper (that's the hardest part) - don't unroll the toilet paper; just bend the cardboard tube, and pull out. Stuff the tube-free roll of toilet paper into the can. Fill with 2 cups of isopropyl alcohol, leaving 1/2 inch headspace (you want it to have room to expand and contract with temperature fluctuations). This may take a little time since you have to wait for the toilet paper to absorb the alcohol. The toilet paper and alcohol should be below the rim of the can. Seal tightly with lid.  Tape the box of matches and the quarter to the side of the can. That's it.  If you prefer, you can store all the components of the heater in a plastic bag and assemble the heater when you need it. Personally, I like having it ready to go.

When you want to use the heater, pop open the lid, using the quarter as leverage. Place the lit match or lighter carefully against the alcohol-soaked toilet paper.  A small flame will develop.  The flame only uses the alcohol as fuel -- the toilet paper shouldn't burn. If it does start to burn, that means you need more alcohol. To do this, replace the lid to extinguish the flame. Once out, add some more alcohol and light again. Once you've used this heater, the only thing that ever needs replacing is the alcohol since the TP doesn't burn. Assembling the heater is a one-time thing, really.

Important: if you're going to use this heater in a car, crack open the windows for ventilation. Even though the alcohol doesn't produce carbon monoxide, you still want fresh air in such an enclosed space.

The teacher of the class said that she burned her heater (to test it out) in her kitchen and it lasted for five hours. According to one site I checked, you can keep a car heated at 60-70 degrees for 24 hours with 4 pints of alcohol.  These heaters can get hot, so be careful how you handle them and be sure to keep them away from anything that could catch (obviously). Another site I read suggested sliding the passenger seat in the car as far back as it can go and placing the heater on the floor.

You can also use this heater in your home in the event of an emergency.  Since the area isn't as small as that of a car, the instructor of the class said that you should be fine without cracking the windows (if you're in a small room, it couldn't hurt to crack it a little). This small heater, of course, won't keep an entire room at 60-70 degrees, but it will keep the chill off enough.  These heaters are great for 72-hour kits.

For under five bucks, you can create a heat source for you and your family in the event of an emergency -- and five dollars is a small price to pay for a little extra peace of mind.


Heather Dixon said...

Wow, what an awesome idea! This makes me think of all the emergency preparedness stuff I may be not thinking of (like propane tanks for cooking and stuff.)

Tonia said...

Thanks Heather!

Tara said...

My friend gave me one of these YEARS ago as a Christmas present and I LVOE IT!

Trinette Hayslip said...

Two tips. Use a metal washer instead of a quarter and the card board will come right out after soaking in the alcohol.

Heather said...

A washer would work, too, but a quarter was more handy for me since I had plenty of quarters. Plus, I didn't want to go to the hardware store and buy washers (since I made several of these heaters -- one for each member of the family + each car).

As for the cardboard inside the roll, I would still suggest taking it out initially -- it makes getting the T.P. into the can easier. Plus, why fiddle with it when it's all wet when it's pretty easy to get out to begin with?(I was only being facetious in the post when I wrote that taking out the cardboard roll was the hardest part since it's not, really).

Thanks for reading!

dnslambert said...

How many rolls do you put into the can all 4? Do you just keep adding alcohol to it till the can is almost full? Thanks

Heather said...

Just one roll of toilet paper per can. Add the alcohol until it's just below the rim of the can. It takes a little while to fill the can with alcohol because you have to wait for the t.p. to absorb the alcohol.

Emily said...

Great idea! Great blog! And of course, I scroll down and you're LDS too! Shoulda guessed.

Survivor said...

Can you burn more than one in your home at a time? My home is pretty open on the bottom floor.

Anna@stuffedveggies said...

Thanks for a great idea!

I'm wondering - is it possible to use one of these to cook or warm food over?

Heather said...

You're welcome!

I'm not sure if you can use these for cooking. I've sent a message to the lady who taught me how to make these heaters. Once I hear back from her, I'll post it on here.

Heather said...

So you totally can cook over these! Here's what my friend said:

"You take a #10 can. Puncture holes with can opener, place upside down over heater and cook."

Does that make sense?

Heather said...

@Survivor -- I'm pretty sure you could use more than one at a time in your home. Use your best judgment! :)

Munchkin Momma said...

I love this! One of the areas I have been worried about most was heat as power outages happen more often in winter around here and even gas furnaces have electric force air and thermostats. I rent so a wood stove and those options aren't available for me or allowed. I have seen small cans like this that are meant for food cooking (minus the TP) so I imagine you could make this into a rocket type stove idea as well. I recommend if you have a large area and need heat from a source like this put up blankets or sheets to block it off into a smaller area and huddle up all in one room. For us that would be our master bedroom as it has the best use of space and an accessible large bathroom with a huge counter. So if I had to we could hole up in just those 2 rooms and be okay. Not to mention my stockpile is in a big closet in that bathroom.

Unknown said...

Another safety idea is a $1 small cookie sheet for below it!

Beverley Soto said...

Is it completely safe if you were to knock it over by accident in the car? would any alcohol come out and then set on fire in the car? just had to be sure, but it sounds like a great idea thank you.

Darlene said...

Just curious. Have you checked on the alcohol in the can since putting it in there? Alcohol evaporates easily. I had some denatured alcohol I put in 2 4oz squeeze bottles to go into my 72 hr kit. After about 6 months, I went to use it and the bottles were both empty - it had all evaporated.

If it were me, I'd keep the unopened alcohol taped to the side of the can as well.

Thanks for the post!

CurlyMaple42 said...

Darlene, the alcohol should stay fine in a new paint can like this. If you store it in containers not made for the right use, it will evaporate. When I buy Denatured Alcohol for my finishing with shellac and for alcohol stoves, it comes in a metal can. I am assuming this is for a reason. SO, I would think the alcohol would stay fine in a NEW paint can.

LennyWells said...

I wouldn't burn anything without ventilation. The alcohol doesn't really give off CO but it does consume oxygen. 20.9% O2 is normal all it takes is to drop it below 19% and you can start to have problems. But the heater is great, I've used something like this before.

Unknown said...

Darlene, I would think if you melt some wax around the lip of the lid, it would seal in the alcohol.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the advice! I’ll definitely make one of these if I’m ever left with a broken heater in the middle of winter. I can only hope I can keep my kids away from it as they are a bit too curious for anyone’s good!

Roberta @

Unknown said...

Ill' take your advice and follow this DIY procedure. Thanks.

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Unknown said...

We used the same ideal years ago, useing a 3 lb. coffee can, drilled holes about an inch down-around the top for ventilation. Made coffee and cooked on it. Little slower brewing but works fine.

Angie said...

Hi! Great idea. We just moved into a 125-year-old historical home and as you can imagine, keeping it warm in this particularly cold winter has been challenging. My only change would be to tie one of those can keys the paint department gives you for free to the can's handle. The quarter or washer may warp the lid and eventually keep it from closing properly.

Angie said...

Don't use the quarter or washer to open the lid as these may warp the rim and lid and cause evaporation. Instead, use a can key. The paint department gives them away for free. Ask for them when you purchase your cans.

Heather said...

@Angie -- good point on the quarter/washer thing. I kind of forgot about the free can keys...

Unknown said...

OK, with 2 cups of alcohol, that doesn't get you anywhere near 1/2 under the rim. Does it mean pour the alcohol into the center of the toilet paper role just a 1/2 below the rim until it absorbs and then continue to add until you have used your 2 cups?

Heather said...

It's been years since I made these, but I'm pretty sure it took two cups, especially since that the roll of toilet paper takes up a lot of space. I just put the toilet paper in (sans the cardboard in the center), poured as much of that 2 cups into the can that it can fit(it doesn't have to be poured in the center of the roll. Just pour it over the whole thing), let the TP absorb it and then kept adding more until it was a 1/2 inch below the rim.

Unknown said...

Thank you! This is very helpful. With the biting cold that we're having right now, it is still entirely possible that our heaters may give out any day. It takes some time for the heating and ventilation companies to come out and do repairs on everyone, so this would really help in such emergency situations. Thank you!

Jeff Deem

LaFollette Organic Farms said...

I just made 2 of these heaters and they work GREAT, bought the paint cans at Lowes, Toilet paper (SMALL ROLL) at Food Lion and also the isopropyl alcohol. took maybe 3 to 4 minutes to make and seal and of course i had to try it out and it worked :). Puts off great heat also.

Heather said...

Hooray!!! I'm so glad they worked out for you! They are pretty easy to make, huh? :)

Sarah D. said...

Do I have to stuff a roll of tp into a small can or can I use a larger can? We purchased some new paint cans to use for this heater, but I forgot what size can. So, we have some larger paint cans. Would this still work or do I need to use small cans?
Thanks for any help!
(I'm enjoying your blog. =) My dad got us interested in "prepping" and we've been doing a lot of research!)

SuperG said...

Question: We are doing these for a project for church. We purchased the cans, but noticed they are now coated on the inside with something. (The one I did several years ago was not coated.)Could this be a problem?? Example-would the burning cause a reaction with the coating and perhaps give of toxin fumes?? Can you answer this?

Heather said...

@SuperG -- Hmmmm...that's a good question. I'm not entirely sure, to be honest. Personally, I'd be a little nervous about the possibility of fumes (but I also happen to be pretty paranoid about that kind of stuff). Then again, it's only the alcohol that's burning, so maybe it wouldn't be an issue. I wish I could be more helpful.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this awesome post, you never know when you're going to need emergency water heater repair, and often you need to make do until you can get the problem fixed. In the dead of winter, being without heat for even just an hour or so can make for some very uncomfortable times.

Caesar said...

These can be purchased at paint stores and home improvement ...

Unknown said...

A similar idea to a small stove i have had to use in the past. Basically an empty food tin with three individual wicks about an inch wide held in place with folded tin foil. Fill the tin with vegetable oil, light the wicks and you have a stove that will boil water and fry a steak that will last a good week before you need to top up the oil.

Unknown said...

This is a boy scouts stove. You can cook on it also. I made chili on mine when my stove broke in the house lol

Unknown said...

I love this and plan on making several for my SHTF preps. I also thought of a way to improve upon it and produce more heat. Taking from the instructions for a DIY window heater, I'm going to adhere pennies to the side of the can with a spray adhesive, then cover them with a black spray paint (probably a high heat spray like we use for barbeque grills). The pennies should help in producing even more heat. Of course, the cautious placement and handling of this is highly recommended.
I'll be giving this a try today and might even post a video on YouTube if it works. Thank you Heather!

Unknown said...

My husband also thought of this... take heavy duty aluminum foil and fold it up like you would a paper fan. Make several 2-3 inch sections of these "fans" Attach it to the sides with a high heat adhesive or maybe some kind of heat resistant band around the top and bottom to hold them in place. He thinks this would help disburse the heat even further into the room. We're going to give this a try, too.

Erbo said...

These can be purchased at paint stores and home improvement stores ...

Johnson503 said...

Does it have to be 70% alcohol or is 50% ok?

Anonymous said...

I use a small christmas tin with a lid for mine. I also use a roll of streamer paper (aka crepe paper). The package says "flame resistant" which means it doesn't burn as much as the toilet paper and it "wicks" the alcohol liquid better. 1 tin, one roll of streamer and 70% alcohol. The lid extinguishes the flame when done. Just pop the lid on the tin to avoid alcohol evaporation. Just an alternative idea.

Aspenglo said...

In Dec 1976 while on a camping honeymoon we used of these to keep warm. We used a coffee can which of course back then was real metal. It was unusually cold in San Antonio and it kept us toasty warm in my Dad's extra large able to stand up in it canvas tent. Those were some good days!

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Unknown said...

Just came upon this article. Excellent. My suggestion to some trying these. Make one, use it. This way you can tell/smell if it gives off fumes or not. If it does, just put the cover on it to turn it off. Also, once satisfied of the heat you get for the space you have, I would then calculate how many I might want heating up the space more effectively.

Craig @ q said...

Store the smaller can inside a gallon size can for four reasons. 1. More stable base to prevent knocking it over. 2. Creates a buffer from the smaller can if the smaller can gets hot to the touch. 3. Put the lid on the larger can to safely "snuff" out the flame. 4. Store the matches and other small items such as an emergency blanket, and a whistle between the two cans.

Cindy Anderson said...

Did you use a paint can lined with epoxy or not lined at all?

Unknown said...

I made one of these years ago and used it in my deer stand while hunting with my Dad. It worked great. Thanks for reminding me of it.

torinilda said...

These tips are kinda helpful before hiring a technician to keep in mind.Heating and Cooling Mississauga The longevity of the HVAC unit is must.

Unknown said...

What a great idea. I have a friend who is homeless and has been having a hard time staying warm. I have been giving him handwarmers when I can afford to do so, but I think that this might also be helpful, as long as he doesn't set anything else on fire. Thanks.

Patagoniax said...

If you are interested in higher heat density (more heat per unit volume of liquid you carry around) then dilute isopropyl alcohol may not be your best choice. If you can get butanol then that would be a better choice. If not, ethanol.

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