Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

Are you going to heat that?

The grid is down. News reports that the weather event will last another day or so. The food in the refrigerator is already going bad. You and your family have already eaten all the cold cereal in the house to keep the milk from spoiling, and the Patriot Pantry, Fettuccini Alfredo in the emergency stock is looking more and more inviting. Reading the instructions it says to bring 4 and a half cups of water to a boil! Screeeeech! Looking at the electric range that hasn’t had power for 3 days isn’t going to help. What are you going to do?

Well, what a pickle. That camp stove that you picked up in Walmart would have come handy if you had thought to also buy fuel. That cat food alcohol stove you watched a video on how to make would have worked well, but you are not the property of a cat, therefore no cat food can. There is always the metal trashcan and some wood from the workshop, but your better half vetoes the idea.

Unless you are like my Canadian relatives who cook and heat their house with wood or have uncompromised city gas, you are soundly out of luck (SOL)! Well, not really. But, let us get back to that later. For now let’s look at pre-disaster options.

A two burner camp stove burning propane is small, compact, lightweight and affordable. Propane stores indefinably without deterioration. The small bottles are expensive and would only last for 7 to 10 meals each. The larger Fat Macks will get 15 to 20 meals. An advantage is that with a $10 adapter they can be refilled from a larger 20 gallon BBQ tank.(1) A $25 adapter will let you connect your camp stove to a 20 pound (or larger) propane tank directly.(2) The disadvantage of propane is that if the tank gets to cold it will not feed the fuel into your stove. Another disadvantage is that those cylinders can act as bombs in a fire.

A similar stove is the old “white” gas stove. There are several versions. Some require fuel to be put in a cup below the burner to preheat it and most require the fuel container to be pressurized using a hand pump.  The disadvantage of such a stove is the fact that you must fill the fuel canister by pouring highly volatile gasoline into it. Spills are had to clean and you may be sensitive to the contact with the fuel. Also the chance that you are introducing deadly Carbon Monoxide (CO) into your living space is near 100%.

There are several commercial versions of the cat food can alcohol stove.(3) Almost any low form container can be used to make one of these stoves in under an hour. YouTube is replete with videos on how to make and use them.(4) A field expedient one can be made of a tuna can with cotton balls to wick the alcohol. It is very inefficient but will boil water. (See, I told you I’d get to that later!) Again, the inefficiency of the burn will introduce Carbon Monoxide into your living space. The best fuel to use is the gallon of denatured alcohol sold in the big box hardware stores. It is ethyl alcohol with a denaturing agent (gasoline or methyl alcohol). Methyl alcohol is a second best as it should not be used as a sanitizer whereas denatured ethyl can be. A very poor choice is rubbing or isopropyl alcohol as they don’t contain the BTUs and have very poor combustion characteristics.  Another disadvantage of alcohol is that it absorbs water from the atmosphere causing it to lose some of its ability to burn efficiently. An efficiently burning alcohol stove has very little chance of CO but will still deplete to Oxygen levels in your living space.

OK! Let’s talk wood and charcoal. Aside from the smoke and ash these are to two most deadly ways of heating food. Initially, wood must volatize a lot of water and other chemicals present in the wood to bring it to its charcoal phase. While in its charcoal phase the heat of combustion is producing Carbon Monoxide to burn by converting the CO to CO2. When the flames are no longer yellow but have turned to pale blue the fire has reached its most deadly. It is producing mostly CO to consume and as its heat falls less of the CO will be consumed. An airtight stove (some costing hundreds of dollars) can be set up using existing fireplace flues or simply ducted out of a window using a single layer flue pipe to a point a few feet above the highest point of your residence. If set up with the proper heat shields and protections, they can be a great addition to overall preparedness. “Rocket Stoves” are a very efficient at consuming wood.(5) They are also very efficient at burning food. They cannot be used in the home as they are simply dangerous.

If using wood for cooking, wait until the fire reaches its charcoal phase. At that point, all the volatile compounds in the wood have been consumed and only carbon monoxide is being produced and consumed. The heat is less, and an even distribution of the heat is simpler. It will also leave less soot on the vessel.

Solar generally isn’t a viable option for most of us. It takes too much storage capacity to turn that chemical energy into heat. If you are fortunate enough to have the land and the buildings, it may get you buy for a day or so. But remember, during weather events the amount of energy reaching the solar panels is greatly diminished. 

So when the grid is down what are you going to do to heat food or wash water? The least expensive option is an alcohol stove. It is light-weight and portable. The fuel has dual purposes. And it can be purchased easily or in a longer term survival situation can be manufactured fairly easily. Wood is a long term survival fuel that is a renewable resource but it has many disadvantages. Propane is probably the most viable fuel source for a short term grid down situation. There are attachments that go onto the 20 gallon and larger tanks that have catalysts on them that make a safe and effective space heater.(6) I believe that gasoline stoves should be avoided, at least for indoor use. Candles and wax “buddy burners” are useless.(7) (That is why I did not mention them until now.)

FEMA offers this advice for heating canned food:(8)

1) Wash the can. 

2) Remove the paper label. 

3) OPEN the can.

4) Heat while stirring. (author’s addition)


1 https://www.amazon.com/DozyAnt-Universal-Propane-Throwaway-Disposable/dp/B019CND6J2/

2 https://www.amazon.com/SHINESTAR-Conversion-Fittings-Connector-Appliances/dp/B07FLMX7XP/

3 https://www.amazon.com/Lixada-Camping-Stainless-Folding-Titanium/dp/B01GRMMKKM/



6 https://www.amazon.com/Texsport-Portable-Outdoor-Propane-Heater/dp/B000P9GZSW/


8 https://www.ready.gov/food