Besides giving us a place to hang our hats, the most important purpose of a house is to protect us from the elements, particularly the cold. Hypothermia, the loss of core body heat, is one of the fastest killers in nature. We heat our homes not only to make us comfortable, but also to protect ourselves from hypothermia.
Unfortunately, all of our modern heating methods require the use of electricity, either to create or to distribute the heat, as well as to control our central heating systems. When we lose electrical power, we also lose the ability to keep our homes warm.
While being in an unheated home is still better than sitting out in the cold, it’s not good enough. An emergency heating method is needed for when all other heating methods are lost. That also means having some stock of fuel on hand to power our heater.
• Fireplace. The fireplace is the most basic heating system for a home. It has been in use for centuries—long enough that we really don’t know when they were first invented. While retrofitting a fireplace into a home is not an easy task, many homes are still built with fireplaces in them for decorative purposes.
The biggest problem with a fireplace is that it isn’t a very efficient source of heat; a lot of what’s produced goes right up the chimney. This can be helped by putting a fireplace insert in, which will transfer more of the heat to the room. Some of these require electricity to operate internal fans, but there are also inserts that work purely by convection, bringing in cold air off the floor and returning the heated air back into the room.
The type of wood you burn in a fireplace is important as well. Although more expensive, hardwood firewood will burn longer and produce more BTUs of heat than softwoods will. The difference is significant enough to justify the extra investment in the hardwood.
• Wood-Burning Stove. Wood-burning stoves were developed to replace the fireplace, increasing efficiency. They are typically made out of cast iron. This allows the stove itself to heat up from the wood burning in it and radiate that heat into the room from all sides. While there is still heat going up the chimney, a higher percentage of it radiates into the home.
Wood burning stoves can be fairly easily retrofitted into a house, much easier than installing a fireplace. The major problem is to find a place to run the chimney. Modern chimneys are triple-walled so that the external part of the chimney remains cool. This allows them to be run up through a closet or other space without any risk of fire.
A wood-burning stove can also be used in a temporary installation for emergencies. The stove needs to be placed on an inflammable surface (metal, brick or stone). The chimney can be routed through a window by the simple expedient of removing one of the upper panes of glass. The excess space in the window opening can be filled with plywood.
• Kerosene Heater. Kerosene heaters are an excellent choice for people who have a ready source of kerosene. Although they produce a slight odor, they burn clean. In a grid-down situation, it would be impossible to purchase kerosene so a good stock would need to be kept on hand.
Like wood-burning stoves, some kerosene heaters radiate from all sides, increasing their efficiency. Kerosene heaters do not require a chimney, although they do require some fresh air. So it is important that the room where the heater is installed isn’t so tightly sealed that air can’t get in.
• Propane Heater. Sometimes referred to as catalytic heaters, this is ideal if you already keep propane tanks at home. The propane (or natural gas, with the change of an orifice) passes through a jet into a perforated ceramic element, where it burns. Like the kerosene heater, the element is hidden behind a wire grating to prevent burns.
From a survival standpoint, the best thing about a propane heater is that they don’t require a lot of fuel and will continue to run as long as you have propane in your tank. Since the average tank is 500 gallons, all it’s best to keep it mostly filled, instead of waiting until it is almost empty to refill.
The Bottom Line
Any of these methods will work well to heat at least one room of your home. It would be extremely difficult to heat your whole home, unless you were to have heaters in each room. That would also require having enough fuel for all of those heaters, which is impractical in a crisis.
The biggest concern when using any alternative heating method is to ensure that you have enough fuel on hand. Calculate how much fuel your system uses, and then multiply that by the longest number of days that you would expect to have to use it. Based upon that, you can determine how much fuel you need to stockpile.
While it may not be as comfortable as having your whole house heated, you can move your family into one or two rooms for the duration of the emergency and keep those rooms heated. If you don’t have doors to close those rooms off from the rest of the house, hang blankets over the doorways to help hold the heat in.