The type of fuel you store for heating, lighting and cooking in an emergency will vary according to your living situation. Gaining knowledge about the various options is helpful in order to make wise choices.
While a family living in a home with a large yard may have room for a good supply of firewood for a wood stove or fireplace, apartment dwellers may have no such option and must find other sources of fuel to heat or cook. If you can store firewood, there are some guidelines to keep in mind. Rotten wood crumbles, smokes, and gives off very little heat. Moisture encourages rot, so you’ll need to keep your woodpile enclosed or covered to the best of your ability. Some people construct woodsheds, store their wood on a covered patio or carport, or at the least, cover it with a tarp or heavy plastic. Be aware that mice, spiders and some snakes are very fond of nesting in woodpiles, so always wear gloves and be alert when collecting an armload of wood! Some firewood needs to dry and age, referred to as seasoning, for about a year to be suitable for burning. Freshly cut wood still has sap in it, so it will burn at a low temperature and give off creosote, a black oily residue, which can clog your chimney. A general rule is that hardwood burns longer than softwood. Hardwood, such as apple, ash, beech, oak, hickory, and maple, is more readily available in the eastern United States, while softwood, such as alder, aspen, elm, cedar, cottonwood, pine, spruce and redwood, are more available in the west. Woods that fall between the two and burn acceptably include white birch, hackberry, larch, and swamp maple
Wood is most often sold by the cord or fraction of a cord. A cord is 128 cubic feet (4’X 4’X 8’). How long would a cord of firewood last? This is completely dependent upon a several variables: Hardwood or softwood? Dry or damp? Seasoned or green? Humid or dry weather? How many hours a day do you need to have a fire? How many fireplaces? Are you cooking on a large wood stove, or a small Volcano stove? The size of the stove will determine the amount and the size of the wood stored. If you are storing wood for frequent, long-term usage or for emergency heat and cooking, you’ll want to order it by the cord or pickup load rather than purchasing the shrink-wrapped bundles from the supermarket. The supermarket option would be prohibitively pricey, as would pressed wood logs. However, if you have a wood burning fireplace with no outdoor storage space for firewood, pressed wood logs are an option. In that case, try to buy your logs by the case at a discount store rather than one package at a time at the corner store.
If you have the time, energy and skill to cut and split firewood you may want to let people in your community know that you’re willing to haul away the wood from trees they’re having removed. You may be able to find someone willing to do this for a portion of the haul. State parks will often allow some dead wood to be harvested for a fee. Check with your state parks commission. Road crews and utility companies sometimes clear roadsides and leave wood to be picked up. Check to see if this is a possibility in your area. In either case, be sure to get permission! You will probably need a couple of strong helpers along with the right equipment to do this type of a project.
If you chance to subscribe to a newspaper, you might want to recycle those papers by turning them into logs for your fireplace. There are many ways people recommend doing this and many who value its worth but there are also those who discount its effectiveness. You may want to search the internet for ideas.
Coal burns hotter than wood, but requires a brick-lined fireplace or a stove specifically designed for coal. In the case of either wood or coal, you must have a way to deal with the ashes that are produced. Ashes must be completely cold before being disposed of, as even a tiny spark, if you are not careful, can cause a fire to flare up. Coal is messy to handle and to clean up after, and if you don’t know just how to load, shake and rake it; your fire will go out. It is more difficult to start burning than wood. Like wood, hard coal is available in the eastern states and softer coal in the west. Also similarly, hard coal burns hotter and longer than soft, and any coal supply needs to be kept dry, preferably in bins, to be useful. Coal can be used in wood stoves, and takes up less space than firewood for the amount of heat produced.
Like regular coal, charcoal must be kept dry to remain useful. One suggestion is to store it in covered metal cans such as trash cans, in a covered place. Never attempt to cook with charcoal in your house because CO (carbon monoxide) can build up in your home and put you and your family at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning. Keep some form of a safe fire-starter on hand as well, as charcoal can sometimes be stubborn about igniting.
This product is a gelled fuel made from petroleum or alcohol. It comes in a small can and is stable to store and use indoors, but remember to use in a well ventilated area. It won’t spill, lights easily with a match, and is a dependable fuel for cooking or warming food. Most brands need to be kept tightly closed when not in use, as the fuel will evaporate quickly when exposed to the air.
You might consider the excellent product "Heat Cell" fuel, which burns clean and odorless up to nine hours as a food warmer or approximately four hours at cooking temperature—much longer than similar products. Easily used with a flat-fold stove, it achieves maximum temperature quicker than other fuels, contains no alcohol, does not evaporate, and is totally biodegradable with no harmful emissions or pollutants. Unlike other canned cooking fuels, it can be shipped by air transportation.
For a cooking method that takes up very little storage space or is easily portable, heat tablets may be the way to go. First used by the military, these are made of three different chemicals—trioxane, hexamine or methenamine (Hexamethylenetetramine). They light readily and can be used as fire-starters or to fuel small stoves to heat water or soup. Two hexamine tablets, for example, will bring a cup of liquid to a boil in minutes, and will continue to burn for twelve to fifteen minutes. They should be used outdoors or in well-ventilated areas (especially Trioxane), and care should be used not to burn yourself by getting too close to the invisible flame as it is extremely hot. Protect your stove from the wind if possible. If you find yourself without a stove, you can create a small one by cleaning a tuna can and punching a few holes in the side of it for an oxygen supply. Set the can on a level, fireproof surface, burn a tablet or two in it, and place your pan on top of the can. These tablets are shelf-stable and will last for a long time. They do not evaporate, except for Trioxane, which will do so if there is even a pin-prick in its packaging.
Propane can be purchased in small 16.4 ounce cylinders about the size of a lunchbox thermos bottle, or in the familiar five-gallon (20 lb-propane weighs about 4 lbs per gallon) tanks typically used with outdoor grills. Like all liquid fuels, do not store propane inside your home. Propane works well to power outdoor cook stoves or barbecue grills. Propane provides about 91,000 BTUs per gallon. A small two burner propane stove in which each unit has a 12,500 BTU burner (25,000 BTUs total) will use up a 16.4 ounce cylinder in almost a half hour at full power using both burners. It will take about 18 hours to deplete a 5 gallon (20# tank) with both burners using the full 25,000 BTUs. Obviously, most people do not use their stoves at full power so a 20# tank would last most people anywhere up to or maybe beyond a hundred hours of cooking.
Also pressurized in canisters, butane is safe to use, burns completely with no residue, smoke or odors, and can be used indoors in a ventilated area. It provides about 84,800 BTUs per gallon so it would be close to the same time usage as propane. Butane’s disadvantage is that it does not work well in cold temperatures, so you will want a back-up plan if you live in a potential cold climate. Some companies have created a mixture of butane, isobutane and propane to help alleviate this concern.
Before you buy a kerosene lantern, stove or space-heater, check with your local building code authorities or fire department to see if their use is permitted in your community. Today’s kerosene appliances for cooking and heating are safe and reliable. Purchase the kind that automatically shuts off if it is tipped over or malfunctions in any way. Be sure that you use clear, certified 1-K grade kerosene. Always keep kerosene in containers specifically designed and dedicated to storing kerosene. DO NOT mix kerosene and gasoline or try to store or use them interchangeably as they are not at all the same thing, and combining even small amounts can greatly increase the risk of fire or explosion. Kerosene is traditionally stored in blue containers. When heating with kerosene (or any fuel), keep a window open an inch or so to dilute the small amount of carbon monoxide emitted by the burning kerosene to a totally safe level.
A clear-burning, smokeless refined liquid paraffin, lamp oil may be stored in the container it came in, or in your lamp to be ready for use. An ounce of lamp oil will last approximately five hours. While it may not provide the ambience of a “hurricane” lamp, the 100-hour Candle also burns liquid paraffin and is an excellent, affordable, safe product for providing dependable light for a long period of time.
Also known as camping fuel or by the familiar brand name Coleman Fuel, white gas is unleaded gasoline that has been cleaned and modified to work well in camping equipment. It is one-third the cost of propane cylinders, but the downside for some people is that you need to pour it into tanks attached to your equipment and then pump up the pressure. It also produces more carbon monoxide emissions than most other fuels, so must be used only outdoors.
Normally gasoline that is kept at home for use in lawnmowers, generators, and other tools or appliances is kept in a red container to distinguish it from any other substance. Gasoline’s shelf life is short, generally only a month or two, so you’ll want to rotate your supply and use it while fresh. For this reason, it’s not reasonable to store more than you’re likely to need in a month or two. One way to do this is to empty your red can of gasoline into your car’s tank and refill the can every month or two. Gasoline is extremely volatile, use it with much caution and only for your automobile or other appropriate unit that was designed to use it.
MATCHES AND LIGHTERS
Wooden matches are much more reliable than small book matches as they are sturdier and don’t absorb moisture as readily. Even better are the fireplace matches with long "stems," which are safer to use for lighting wood fires, charcoal or appliances. Keep them in a tightly-closed container and they will last for years—or purchase a supply of Windproof/Waterproof Matches. These are designed to light in adverse conditions.
Lighters vary in their usefulness. The long-barreled butane lighters are good for igniting most things (other than lanterns with very small openings), and some of them can be refilled, but cigarette lighters are not as useful, as there’s no way of directing the flame downward and it will burn back toward your fingers. Emergency Essentials carries several fire starter devices, including Fired Up emergency fuel and fire starter. Two cups of this granulated product will burn for about half an hour, and the product has a thirty-year shelf-life.
The best advice on storing fuels is to know your substance and how to care for it, and to treat anything flammable with great respect. Anything flammable should be stored in a red container. This lets service authorities know that the contents could be dangerous if exposed to certain conditions such as high temperature, fire, etc.
Fuel is a powerful, essential resource, especially in an emergency. Follow any owners manual instructions and the above precautions and they will help you be both safe and prepared.
Editor's Note: Our original statement in the charcoal section that talks about burning charcoal in a well-ventilated garage has been deleted. You should never burn charcoal in any area of your home. Always burn it outside to reduce the risk of gases entering your home.