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How to Safely Heat Your Home During a Power Outage

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I have a background in home construction and enjoy working on home preparedness projects.

A Mr. Heater Big Buddy in operation.

A Mr. Heater Big Buddy in operation.

Indoor Propane Heaters: A Better Option for Heating During a Power Outage

When choosing an emergency source of heat to use in your home during a power outage, your choices essentially come down to indoor propane heaters and kerosene heaters—that is, unless you own a wood stove or fireplace. Both propane and kerosene emergency heaters may be capable of generating enough heat to keep your home comfortable, or at least livable, during an extended power outage—provided that you have enough fuel for them.

The Downside of Kerosene Heaters

Kerosene heaters have been used for years as a reliable backup heat source during power outages. However, using a kerosene heater does have some downsides, including the odor that they give off, plus the fact that you'll be dealing with smelly liquid fuel. Another problem you may face is the availability of kerosene fuel, which isn't sold in that many places these days.

Our own kerosene heater is stored away in the garage now that we purchased its propane replacement, which is simply easier to operate and maintain.

Propane Emergency Indoor Heaters: Plenty of Heat, Less Hassle

You may find that a propane emergency indoor heater is easier to use than ones powered by kerosene. Often you can run these small heaters with the same 1 lb propane canisters that camping stoves use, or for even longer use, connect them to a standard 20 lb propane tank using an adapter and hose.

Propane is known for being clean burning, and most indoor emergency heaters using this fuel come with safety features that shut down the heater if tipped over, or if oxygen in the room is running low.

Propane Fuel Is Readily Available and Stable

Unlike kerosene heater fuel, 1 lb propane canisters are widely available, and may even found in some grocery store aisles. Propane gas can remain stable in a tank for up to several years, unlike kerosene, which can begin to degrade (and cause damage do your heater) in just a few months.

Mr. Heater models are capable of using standard 1 lb canisters, or operating from a 20 lb canister with a hose and adapter.

Mr. Heater models are capable of using standard 1 lb canisters, or operating from a 20 lb canister with a hose and adapter.

How to Choose a Propane Emergency Heater

When choosing a propane heater for emergency indoor use, you'll first have to determine how large the area is that you want to keep warm. Below is one method of roughly estimating how many BTU's of heat your emergency heater will need to provide:

  • Calculate the volume of the area to be heated by multiplying square footage by height.
  • Multiply that number by four if your insulation is poor, three if it's average, or two if it's very good.

For example, to heat a 16'x20' room with 8' ceilings, you may need a heater capable of producing 7,680 BTU's to keep the room warm during a prolonged cold period.

A Mr. Heater "Big Buddy" model—like the one we used during this past winter's power outage in Texas—is capable of generating up to 18,000 BTU, on high, 9,000 BTU on medium, and 4,000 BTU on low. One of these would have no trouble heating an average sized living room, with some room to spare.

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How Long Do Emergency Indoor Propane Heaters Run on a Tank of Propane?

Our Mr. Heater Big Buddy model is capable of operating up to 12 hours on two 1 lb cylinders when set to the low, or 4,000 BTU setting. If we hook it up to a 20 lb propane tank, using an extension hose, we can run the heater over 24 hours on high, or up to 110 hours on low.

In our experience, during an extended power outage, having several 20 lb cylinders in reserve, along with an extension hose and adapter, is much easier to deal with than using 1 lb cylinders.

Brands of Emergency Propane Heaters

Aside from Mr. Heater, which is perhaps the most popular brand of emergency propane heater, there are similarly designed models available from FlameKing and GasLand, with similar BTU output ratings. When choosing any emergency propane heater, be sure to compare BTU output along with safety features.

Safety Considerations for Emergency Propane Heaters

You should always compare safety features when choosing an indoor propane heater. Look for models that feature a low-oxygen sensor, which shuts down the unit if indoor oxygen becomes low.

That being said, don't rely on just the heater's built-in oxygen sensor. Only use these heaters in spaces that are well ventilated and never in tightly closed rooms. Keep flammable objects far away, and use them only on hard surfaces, away from foot traffic.

Before using any propane heater, be sure to inspect all connections for leaks, by using a 50/50 mixture of dish soap and water on all connections. If you see bubbles forming, wipe off the mixture, re-tighten the connection and then test it again.

Never place a propane cylinder anywhere near the heater. Always locate an external tank as far away from the tank as the hose allows and never in front of it. Also, never attempt to warm a frozen propane cylinder using your heater.

Some indoor propane heaters are unable to operate safely above 4,500' elevation, so be sure to check the manufacturers specifications and determine your altitude first.

You'll also want to look for heaters with "tip-over" protection, which shuts the heater off if it gets knocked over. If you have pets or children, you'll want to take special precautions. Placing the emergency heater on a fireplace hearth, and behind a metal fireplace screen, can be a good strategy to help prevent accidental burns.

If you're looking for a safe way to heat your home during a power outage, emergency indoor propane heaters are an excellent choice for most people, if you use them responsibly and follow all of the manufacturer's safety directions.

During this past winter's extended power outage in Texas, we were really glad to have ours!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Nolen Hart

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