Doing Without Heat

I keep hearing reports out of the Rockaway section of NYC that a lot of people there are dealing with this cold snap with little to no heating.  As many as a third of residents are without heat. This seems to happen every winter, with some city getting hit by ice storm or blizzard or hurricane, and the populace has to rebuild during winter. Now, I’m not one to to wait around for government help if I can avoid it. So, like I often do, when hearing about things like this, I think to myself, how would I survive such a situation? No heat. House I currently live in. Gotta keep the babies (and me and hubby) warm in zero degree weather. As safely and cheaply as possible. Some people have been using their electric powered ovens to heat the kitchen, and have everyone (including the dogs) bunk down there at night. This could be an option for me, my oven is electric, and we often vent the excess heat from it into the kitchen after we bake or roast. I think if I was utilizing this strategy, I would insure that kitchen was holding as much of the warmth in as possible.  Keeping what heat you have would be vital. Carpets and rugs on the floor. Drapes or window quilts over windows and doors.  Even the walls (if there are walls without cabinets on them) can be insulated with rugs or drapes. Continuing in the small area heating, I’m reminded of a Japanese table, the kotatsu, that has blankets draped over it and a small heating element in the middle. The area under the table is toasty warm, and anyone sitting there has warm feet/legs, and a table to amuse themselves by reading/writing/painting/crafting.  The Japanese of course use low-to-the-ground tables, and cushions to sit on, but it could easily be adapted to the American preference of high chairs.  If electricity is out, the older versions of this concept used a low small charcoal brazier under the table.  Care should be taken with that version, proper ventilation and fire safety should all be taken into consideration. Kotatsu.svg I would also consider bringing my ammo can stove in and venting it out a window with stove pipe. I think if I put down a couple of sheet pans and was careful about things I could get some heat out of that arrangement for a temporary amount of time. I wouldn’t need to break the window if I did things with a bit of planning, and my rental property could remain largely undamaged. Things would have to be truly desperate before I’d have an open fire in my house. It’s far more likely to burn the house down than provide consistent heat. I would keep the open fire outside and use it to heat water and rocks.  Water for making warm drinks, rocks for taking inside to radiate heat into a bed or covered table perhaps. There are my thoughts. Do YOU have ways to keep your family warm if your usual method is unavailable? Anybody doing a lot of your own heating? – Calamity Jane
43 comments… add one
  • Ray January 31, 2013, 8:58 am

    I grew up with coal stoves and open fireplaces, They ARE dangerous. Sparks pop out, Chimny fires, flume pipes get red hot. You have to have a fire watch day and night. But it beats freezing by a wide margin. If I lived in a cold climate like Iowa, I would have at least one airtight stove like a Yodle or a bear,with a tripple wall flumepipe/stack with a spark arrestor. That and a dry wood pile for emegencys. Flumes are not at all hard to install and fairly safe .Hell I didn’t see my first “central air” system till I was 18 or 19. FYI tin pans work for a while under stoves but you need a backer behind the stove too. Brick/rock is WAY better(it holds heat) Taking a flume out a window don’t work,the heat will just break the other glass and probably set the house on fire. Its way better to cut a hole and brick it in,you need room around the hole for the stovepipe to keep a red hot pipe from catching your wall on fire, (about 24in of brick) both going through the wall and on the outside(you want a stove at least 4-6 feet from the wall, as they WILL get red hot ;ask me how I know). But if you are gonna do all this Its easyer to just go buy the tripple wall stove pipe ans cut/re-buld the wall in the summer. Thats my next-summer project; a second stove in the basement.

    • Cliffystones January 31, 2013, 9:38 am

      I’ve been considering a wood stove in the basement. But I can’t see any way to get the pipe out. The gap between the foundation and the floor is maybe a foot. Any ideas?

      I also wanted to say that I had an airtight stove in our previous home. For a back board I used metal studs mounted to the drywall laying flat. I then covered those with “wonder board” which is a concrete/composite tile backer board, then I put creamic tile on the backer board. The tile would get pretty warm, but not too warm too touch. The air gap between the metal studs acted like a convection heat space and barley ever got luke warm. I used a technician’s thermometer (Fluke) to make sure, and it turned out great.

      • Pineslayer January 31, 2013, 11:43 am

        Cliffystones, I have been looking at building a Rocket Mass Heater downstairs. I use wood now as my main source of heat and love the independence. Check out this website for lots of great ideas on the design..

        The exhaust is very cool and can be vented straight out the wall. You can burn branches that you would normally not bother with.

        As far as alternate sources of heat, I believe in redundancies. Got thermal solar and electric heaters. I gave my kerosene heater away to a desperate friend, wishing that I would have kept it since we no longer speak. A propane heater is better though since it doesn’t smell as bad during start up. Don’t forget to have plenty of fresh air, any combustion gives off carbon monoxide. When the heat goes out, don’t forget to keep your water pipes from bursting too.

        • Cliffystones January 31, 2013, 1:05 pm

          Exactly what I’m researching. I’ve even bought a book (can’t seem to find it right now). We have a full basement, so space isn’t a probem. I suppose a double-walled stainless chimney pipe through the side wall would do the trick. My plan is to gather materials for now. And after I finish a few more “honey-do’s”, to give it a go. There’s not much nearby in the way of free firewood except scrub oak, so efficeincy is important.

          And for those who have concerns with unvented sources of heat, it’s my understanding that blue flames mean complete combustion. An excess of yellow flame, or (heaven forbid) using a charcoal BBQ is where the deadly levels of CO happen. But we have multiple CO alarms that I would make sure of when using unvented heat sources.

        • Rusty February 6, 2013, 3:06 am

          Pineslayer…great website…thanks for the information. Rusty

      • Lumberjok January 31, 2013, 5:43 pm

        Keep in mind that in order for your woodstove to draw properly your chimney or stove pipe must clear the peak of the roof by 4 feet.

  • j.r. guerra in s. tx. January 31, 2013, 8:59 am

    That is very cool. Some years back, one of Tom Brown’s books mentioned making a sleeping cubicle out of your stacked sofa cushions, the foam trapping dead air for insulation. A winter sleeping bag can be formed using TWO summer weight bags (be sure to insulate yourself from cold floor).

  • Charles,,,, January 31, 2013, 9:20 am

    Another interesting post as per your ingeniousness,,,,,again a lighter fare here being I’m in the south where it seems on the coldest of day’s the house maintains an ambient of 50ish degrees “F”,,, I have experimented with candles, using old time RR lanterns to place the 4″ sized candles inside for fire safety, and the spare bedroom that does not contain a window, using three lanterns in there has added heat, keeping the door shut… the family has done the SHTF playtime for a week, keeping the house at ambient temp without turning on the heater, very workable, keeping a watch cap on at night tho since what isn’t bald on my head I shave anyway,,, feather blankets at night are toasty, it may be agreed that the key is isolating one room to cook/heat and camp out in is the better option versus trying to use multiple rooms. I have seen fans that the blades turn as they heat up for fireplaces to blow the hot air into the room, but have never seen any in use real time. I was surprised at how much cool air blows in via the electrical outlets, had to get a package of those insert foamy dealios that block air from traveling this route… any ideas on how to laundry feather blankets?

    • S.Q. Whrill January 31, 2013, 5:30 pm

      A heir bath?

      • S.Q. Whrill January 31, 2013, 5:31 pm

        L mean bird bath. Bad thumbs

    • Jester1525 February 4, 2013, 1:46 am

      Feather blankets – cold or hot water in the machine, tumble dry normally but toss 2 or three tennis balls in with them.

      At least for decent comforters… Cheap ones can quickly start to shed feathers…

  • Alan January 31, 2013, 9:24 am

    I picked up a Mr Heater Big Buddy portable heater and have about a dozen 1lb cans of propane stored in my unattached shed in the cold weather months. With this I could gather the wife and dog and set up a small heated room in our basement bathroom. Close the door, set the heater on the vanity and get the room nice and toasty in a hurry. We would have water to drink, and the facilities to use without freezing our fannies. It’s not as good as a fireplace, but its a modest start. Of course I have lots of small heat packs and thermal wear to bundle up if the small propane heater isn’t up to the task.

    I picked up the heater at a big box home improvement center for just over $100 last fall and tested it in our 2 car garage and it got warm in a hurry! Highly recommend it!

    • Alan January 31, 2013, 9:32 am

      I should add that in case I need to use this indoors I picked up a handheld propane/natural gas sniffer to make sure no fumes build up, and have a co2 detector/smoke detector on stand by to monitor the air as well. The heater itself has a low oxygen shut off mechanism, as well as a tip shut off sensor. 1lb cans burn cleaner than the 20lb grill cans, and don’t require additional line filters or other regulator gizmos. Also, I have read that its risky to run the heater with a 20gal tank hooked up indoors, and cracking a window to run a line outside to a tank seems a little counterproductive if the goal is to create and retain heat.

      • ThatguyinCA January 31, 2013, 11:29 am

        Can’t really read that and say it’s a good idea. Using a propane heater in an enclosed space? With kids? I’ll pass.

        • sam January 31, 2013, 11:36 am

          some propane units are safe inside. others, like grills, are not.

          Can I use my Mr. Heater Indoors?

          If you own a Portable Buddy, you can use it indoors for emergency. The Portable Buddy has a low-oxygen shutoff system and a tip over switch that makes it safe for indoor use.”

          • Alan January 31, 2013, 12:20 pm

            I would only use this heater as a last resort. If the electricity goes out, my furnace fan won’t push hot air. If the gas is out, the furnace won’t make hot air. If the furnace bites the dust (like it did last night! I have a repair scheduled for 3pm today!) then I can rely on electric space heaters for a period of time. If all systems are down, then my first choice is to drive to the inlaws who live about 5 miles away. If they are without gas or electricity, then I am going to cautiously run my Big Buddy at least until I can figure out my next move.

            I would love to be able to put in a wood burning fireplace or some other heat source but right now it’s just not in the cards.

            Hopefully this afternoon I won’t be gut punched with an outrageous repair/replacement bill, but given that our furnace is nearly 20 years old, I doubt my luck will continue to hold out much longer.

          • irishdutchuncle February 1, 2013, 10:48 pm

            I have the Portable (small)Buddy, because of those features. (but I don’t trust my familys lives with “features”) You need to have “air changes”.

        • Cliffystones January 31, 2013, 1:08 pm

          Using a propane heater vs freezing to death is a no-brainer. but we both know that the definition of “freezing to death” in Southern California means any temperature below 55 degrees :).

          • smokechecktim January 31, 2013, 4:39 pm

            wrong cliffy…..65….maybe

      • irishdutchuncle February 1, 2013, 10:35 pm

        actually I hate to nit-pick…

        CO2 is not what you need to detect, it’s CO, that is more of a worry. yes you will smother if the CO2 concentration is high enough but it is CO that is the poison. vigilance is important, because household type CO (or smoke) detectors don’t last forever. you do need to provide ventilation of some sort.

        • Cliffystones February 2, 2013, 1:41 pm

          I worked in the late 1980s on a project involving hemoglobin (just a flunkie). that’s the molecule that makes breathing possible. They act like little containers, picking up oxygen from the lungs and dropping it off at the cells. Then they pivk up the waste carbon “dioxide” and drop it off at the lungs. But when CO or carbon “monoxide” is in your lungs, it fills up the containers instead. Then it acts like quick-setting portland cement, refusing to let go. The hemoglobln can no longer do it’s job, being permanently filled with CO. A person literally suffocates at the cellular level from lack of oxygen.

          On a side note to everyone, look up images of the hemoglobin molecule. Then give me rational proof that it’s not intelligent design.

    • eric January 31, 2013, 3:09 pm

      mr heater big buddy with a 100 lb propane tank and a deep cycle battery {solar power} to power the fan will last you a month. i purchased my set up last summer and can tell you this is the warmest winter i’ve ever had living in a rv.

  • Cliffystones January 31, 2013, 9:45 am

    Two years after moving here, our computerized Carrier system’s thermostat went blank. It happened on (wait for it)……… a holiday weekend! Fortunately I was able to get hold of a Carrier tech who told me how to “reboot” the thing.

    I have since invested in 3 kerosene heaters, 40 gallons of kerosene, 2 radiant propane heaters and 5 small 20lb. propane tanks. I also bought a ductless natrual gas heater and installed it in the basement.

    If the main source goes belly-up again in single-digit weather, at least we have options.

  • Yikes! January 31, 2013, 11:10 am


    When I was growing up in Maine most people relied on the wood stove for primary heat, and if they had money they would install electric or oil for “backup.” If you spent all summer putting away wood, nothing was really going to interfere with your heating through the winter. Of course, most of those people had wood lots and chainsaws and tractors and took care of their own business.

    Now I guess a lot of people use oil with wood for a backup, but they all have to get the wood delivered so it’s just another bill.

    I’ve mainly been in apartments since I left Maine. If I lose heat, I just get 4 pots of water boiling on the gas stove (separate system). It’s not a reasonable solution exactly, but it makes my place into a greenhouse in about 20 minutes.

    Freezing sucks.

  • ORRN on LI January 31, 2013, 12:40 pm

    Last year I had a gas range (LP) installed and the ugly tank out back. I can light the stove top without electricity. I am in the process of trying to talk the other half into a Woodstock Gas Soapstone Stove. The model I’m interested in heats up to 1500 sq ft. The cast iron and soapstone are good radiant heat materials. We have oil for heat on a regular bases, hate relying on it/paying for it. In my 5 year plan, that I’ve had for 18 years now, my dream heat source would be a wood fired Toulikivi soapstone system that could heat my whole neighborhood. In our current life I would have wood delivered, but if SHTF I live on state preserve, and would borrow some of their wood. I also like to quilt, and have filled up the closets with flannel quilts.

  • smokechecktim January 31, 2013, 4:38 pm

    we bought a soapstone wood burning stove and had a professional install the vent pipe up into our fireplace. you can heat stuff on top, enjoy it as a fireplace if you want or keep the door/window closed and the damper at half and get lots of heat with minimal amount of smoke and using little wood. I would recommend not going cheap on a soapstone stove. I’ve seen the cheap ones and all I can say is that sometimes you get what you pay for.

  • riverrider January 31, 2013, 4:46 pm

    you can use your acs in the house by running the flue out the window. open the window as far as you can, cut a piece of sheet metal slightly larger and screw it to the wood with small screws. in a pinch aluminum tape will hold it. cut a hole and run the pipe thru. be sure to use an elbow to turn it upwards so CO won’t get pulled back into the living space.

  • Lumberjok January 31, 2013, 6:11 pm

    I tried an unvented propane heater and threw it out after 2 days. One of the byproducts of burning propane is water….lots of water….eight tenths of a gallon for every gallon of propane burned. All the windows fogged over and everything felt clammy.

    Although this wouldn’t work for you Calamity since it involves boring a hole in the wall…it worked just fine for me at my camp / only residence for 12 years. Empire makes a line of direct vent propane heaters. What direct vent means is that it exhausts the combustion byproducts outside and draws the combustion air from outside. No electricity needed…although they offer an electric circulator fan as an option…I never felt a need for it. They come with something called a milivolt thermostat…don’t ask me how that works without electricity…but it does work….I set it a cozy 73 and forgot about it. They come in wide range of BTU outputs depending on your climate and how big an area you want to heat. Get yourself two or three 100 gallon tanks (100 gallon…not 100 pound) and depending on where you live….you’re maybe good for the winter.

    • Cliffystones February 2, 2013, 1:26 pm

      In Colorado at 6300 feet where I live, that water is a good thing! We risk electrocution every winter every time we touch a lightswitch! But i could see places like the deep south and Hawaii having issues with even more humidity than they already have naturally.

  • Cory January 31, 2013, 7:53 pm

    This topic was our number one concern when we bought our house twelve years ago due to being totally electric. Its a split level entry with half the basement finished, the other half garage. The family room downstairs has a working fireplace that we fitted with vent free gas logs. Two years ago we upgraded our 100 pound tank with a 120 gallon tank, with plans to add a thermostat to the controls. With an output of 35k btu’s we can heat the entire house or close the door to the family room to conserve fuel. We sleep alot easier knowing that if the electric was out we could stay warm for about two months.

  • JL January 31, 2013, 10:29 pm

    We use our wood stove and have a quartz heater. No power no problem, space heaters can be dangerous. I love having a heated blanket, the bed stays nice and warm all night.

  • irishdutchuncle January 31, 2013, 10:30 pm

    wear dry socks, and a “hoodie” to bed.

    • Anonymous February 1, 2013, 6:13 pm

      Funny you say that, the other night I wore a toboggan to bed.

      • irishdutchuncle February 1, 2013, 11:21 pm

        …well I don’t have a hat just for bed, so the hoodie is the next best thing. the zip-up gives you better temperature regulation than a pull-over does. I wear socks to bed from about September through May, otherwise I’d need an extra blanket.

        • Cory February 3, 2013, 1:34 pm

          I would take the extra blanket! The wife can be a bit of a blanket hog. Lol.

          • irishdutchuncle February 3, 2013, 3:10 pm

            I’ve been accused of hogging them myself. my snoring bothered her even more.
            CPAP therapy has reduced the snoring. then I was ordered onto the night shift by my employer…
            problems solved. (I’d send you the extra blanket, but I’m using it)
            j.r. guerra (see above) mentioned about using two summer sleeping bags, together. they can also be used individually under the covers if necessary. (or zipped together, to make a larger “envelope”,
            or used unzipped as a “comforter”)

    • irishdutchuncle February 3, 2013, 2:40 pm

      … and keep a pair of slippers within reach.

      if you get out of bed, put on slippers. they may help with keeping your socks dry.
      I think that a commode/chamber pot in the bedroom is something to consider. (reduces the number of trips you’d need to make to the “outhouse”) the men can keep a quart jar nearby, for similar reasons.

  • Jon Lorisen January 31, 2013, 11:57 pm

    We lost power (which also meant no heat) constantly in the arctic, at temps below -40C. I was in a rental and couldn’t install a woodstove. I had an emergency collapsible one that I could vent out a window if I had to (and a rocket stove for cooking outdoors) but the main back up we used was alcohol stoves. Small camping ones work very well if you build yourself a tent inside a room and the larger ones (often used to heat boats?) can heat a surprisingly large space. You can make decent homemade ones with rubbing alcohol, a roll of toilet paper and a clean paint can for that matter :)

    No fumes of note, work great for heat, safe to store the fuel indoors, can cook on (depend on what type of alcohol you use),etc. My preferred camping stove too.

    • Rusty February 6, 2013, 3:31 am

      Jon…you can warm your car this way in an emergency situation. I don’t think the stove has to be very big…I’m going to make one and try it out…this is a good idea. thanks..Rusty

      • Jon Lorisen February 6, 2013, 6:23 pm

        Yep, they make a good emergency car heater for a breakdown. Hope it works for you :)

  • Steelheart February 2, 2013, 12:55 pm

    An important point that I haven’t seen mentioned yet is that in order to safely use propane or kerosene heaters indoors you NEED VENTILATION. Yes, you need to open a window to let the fumes out and fresh air in. Yes, this will make a cool breeze but it’s better than dieing.

    I’ve got both a convection kerosene heater and a propane Big Buddy (mentioned above). I’ve had the kerosene heater for several years and it’s primary use is to heat my detached garage when I’m working in there. I keep roughly 4 days worth of fuel on hand but I can buy more in town if required.

    I haven’t used the Big Buddy heater and the stuff to run it off the 20lb tanks (which I also use for my grill). I haven’t used this one as much and need to spend more time with it so I’m completely comfortable with it during an emergency. I keep a few tanks of fuel on hand for my grill so this was a no-brainer. I haven’t tested it yet but I should have enough stuff on hand to run my camp stove off the tanks too for cooking.

    Many here need to do some research before just quoting the lawyer-speak about emergency heating.

    People used kerosene heaters for many years day and night for decades without mass die-offs. Here’s an often quoted source for info on kerosene heaters.

    The line of Buddy heaters from Mr. Heater are designed to be safely operated indoors as long as you have ventilation.

    Unless you have a blue sky budget or live where the temps never get to a dangerous level you need to figure how you plan to survive being without central heat. I live in southern Minnesota and can realistically deal with -20 temps every winter (yes, I know that some areas get much, much colder). Do I prefer to just use my gas furnace? Of course I do. But if there isn’t power to run the furnace or if the natural gas service is somehow disrupted I like having a back-up plan. Portable kerosene and/or propane heaters, WHEN USED INTELLIGENTLY are safe and comforting. Plus they are significantly better than freezing to death or even having significantly high home repair bills because all your water pipes froze.

    Anything used foolishly or stupidly can hurt or kill people. That’s how life is. Something as simple as not keeping a window(s) open if you’re using anything with combustion inside your house can kill you. This happens to a few families every year. This can even happen with installed equipment like a furnace that happens to malfunction, just pay attention to the news.


    • Cliffystones February 2, 2013, 1:30 pm

      Thanks for the comments Steelheart. My wife’s aunt and family died of CO poisioning years ago when their central furnace malfunctioned. The only survivor was a son who was away at college.

      And another recommendation for Miles Stair. I was having trouble with one of the used kerosene heaters I had bought. I sent him some pictures and he was very helpful. I’ve purchased new wicks and ignitors from him as well.

      • Steelheart February 3, 2013, 3:07 am

        I re-read over Mile’s site every once in a while. I also check it if I see a used kero heater for sale somewhere to check on it (haven’t gotten any more yet).

        I’ve got 2 CO detectors in my house. The main floor one is battery only but the basement one is 120v with a battery back-up. Plus some of the smoke detector’s also do CO but I consider that to be a bonus, not a primary.

        I forgot to add above (was writing that before I had to leave for work) that I don’t have a wood stove in my house. I wish I did but there isn’t a good place to put one unless it gets dropped into the basement. While that might be fine if the power’s up it’s not going to do the main part of the house much good without a blower (which will require electricity etc).

        I figure by the time I could get all the likely issues sorted out and paid for to handle a basement wood stove I could have gotten a standby natural gas generator installed for the house. Yes, the gene will run a bit more but it can also do much, much more (like run my gas furnace etc).

        Regardless of what type of emergency stove you chose to keep on hand, keep in mind that you need at least a few days worth of stored fuel. You also need a plan to get more if the emergency lasts longer than you planned for. I know that I can get propane tanks filled in town and that there’s a couple more places in town where I can do a tank exchange (I figure I’ll buy my first exchange tank and then swap that one out as all my tanks were bought new). The same place that refills propane also sells kerosene. If they’re not working I’ll have to travel to another town to re-supply. Be thinking about this before you’re on your last days worth of heat because Murphy is not your friend…



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