Every winter, power outages inevitably hit. When they do, hundreds or even thousands of people find themselves without a source of heat during the dead of winter.
Because of how frequent power outages are (including outages which last for 3+ days!), all homes should have an emergency heater.
A kerosene heater is one of the best options for most people.
Choosing a Kerosene Heater
There are two types of kerosene heaters. You must get the right type for your space or you can end up with problems like too much carbon monoxide being released.
Convective Kerosene Heaters:
These are usually cylindrical in shape. The fuel tank is on the bottom and the wick on the top. A grill around the heater is added for safety.
Convective heaters will distribute warmth upwards and outwards. They are designed for large areas or multiple rooms. You’ll have to move the entire unit outdoors to refuel.
Radiant Kerosene Heaters:
These are usually rectangular in shape. They have a reflector or even fan for directing heat in one direction.
Most of these heaters will have a removable fuel tank, so you won’t have to move the entire unit for refueling. Radiant heaters are only suitable for smaller spaces.
Safety should be your #1 concern when choosing a kerosene heater. Luckily, most modern kerosene heaters are designed for safety. You’ll still want to look for these features:
- Tested by agencies such as the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) or Factory Mutual (FM)
- Automatic shutoff if the heater falls over
- Fuel gauge to prevent overfilling
- Battery-operated lighting device to reduce need for matches
- Stable base and low center of gravity to prevent toppling
The BTU rating is the measure of energy produced by a unit. Do not make the mistake of buying a kerosene heater with a higher BTU rating than you need!
While it might seem logical to buy a high BTU heater “just in case,” a unit rated too high for a space can actually cause problems.
First off, there are issues of efficiency. A kerosene heater will only operate efficiently if it is run at its maximum BTU. Trying to reduce the heat level will just cause you to waste fuel. It can also cause incomplete burning and bad odors.
Another issue is that high BTU heaters will produce more carbon monoxide. When used in a small space, this can be dangerous.
Calculating BTU Requirements: As a general rule of thumb, take the square footage that needs to be heated and multiply by 28. So, a 360square foot room will need a 10,080 BTU kerosene heater. You can also use this BTU calculator.
Recommended Kerosene Heaters
This model of Dyno-Glo kerosene heater comes in different BTUs, from 50k to 220k. It really lives up to its “Deluxe” name. There are lots of controls and I particularly love that the fuel gauge shows how many hours of heating you have left.
With the 75k option, you can heat up to 1,750 square feet with the heater. And it will heat up the space FAST! Of course, that amount of strength means you’ll go through fuel pretty quickly.
The only downsides of this heater is that it is a bit loud when running (which is to be expected of powerful kerosene heaters). I also wish the settings would allow for smaller increments. It only allows you to adjust the heat in 10 degree increments.
Also note that this is a forced-air heater. It needs to be plugged in for the fan to work.
Best For: People who need a powerful heater for large spaces. For emergency heating, you'll want a generator to power the forced-air.
This kerosene heater is the convection type, which means it was designed to heat large rooms. It will heat a room up to 1,000 square feet. I like that the heat output is adjustable and the controls are very straight-forward.
As for efficiency, the heater is fairly good. On low settings, a single gallon can last hours. If it is really cold outside, then you’ll use a lot more fuel.
The only thing that I really don’t like about this kerosene heater is that it doesn’t automatically shut off when out of fuel. If you don’t pay attention to fuel level, you’ll start smelling some nasty fumes as it tries to run on empty!
Best For: Buy this heater if you need to supplement your home heating to reduce costs or you want to heat a garage. It will also work for emergencies, but it could be bit too powerful to be just for emergency heating.
For such a small heater, this Sengoku heats surprisingly well. The key is in its efficiency. The tank is only 1.2 gallons but can heat up to 380 square feet for over 12 hours.
Note, however, that some users report a tank will only last for 6 hours even on low setting. Run time can vary drastically depending on the quality of your kerosene.
Small heaters do come with their downsides though. It will take a while to heat up a room, and it isn’t going to do much for a large space.
You’ve also got to be very careful with the positioning of the wick. If it gets set too low you can expect some bad odors.
Best For: Great emergency heater, especially because of fuel efficiency. As a supplemental heater it is only suitable for small spaces.
At first glance, the fuel efficiency on this kerosene heater seems amazing. Yes, it can really run for 13 hours on one tank – but that’s because it isn’t as hot as some other heaters of equal rating.
That said, it is still a reliable heater that can heat up to 500 square feet. It is easy to use and has logical controls.
The only real issue with this Dyna-Glo heater is that the wick is hard to adjust. You don’t get much leeway in the length, which means you can get some bad odors.
Best For: Wonderful emergency heater for locations that don’t get insanely cold.
In a very cold climate, make sure you also have sleeping bags or wool blankets.
The fuel efficiency means it is also a good choice for supplemental heating.
How Do Kerosene Heaters Work?
Unlike most other fuel-based heaters, kerosene heaters require a wick. The wick absorbs the kerosene. When ignited, it carries the flame into the kerosene fuel to light it and produce heat through combustion.
The design of the heater ensures allows the amount of oxygen reaching the fuel to be regulated. The flame can also be regulated by increasing or decreasing the length of the wick.
Admittedly, kerosene heaters aren’t my first choice of emergency heater. I have a wood burning stove with a duct system that channels the heat throughout the entire home.
However, most people don’t have a reliable source of wood (I have a small woods on my property) nor do they want to chop lots of wood or install an expensive system “just in case.”
By comparison, kerosene heaters are fairly cheap to buy and don’t require any installation. You just take out the heater as needed during emergencies.
Is It Safe to Use Kerosene Heaters Indoors?
Yes it is very safe, but as with any type of combustion heater (including gas, propane, and wood), there are always some best practices to follow.
Kerosene and Carbon Monoxide (CO)
Kerosene heaters (along with oil, propane, gas, and wood heaters) burn oxygen in the air and release carbon monoxide. In addition to the CO, kerosene heaters can also release other pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
To reduce the risk of asphyxiation due to carbon monoxide poisoning, you must vent the room being heated!
This is as simple as leaving the door to an adjoining room open, or opening a window 1 inch.
I would also recommend that you install a carbon monoxide detector in your home.
As a general rule, you will need 1-4 square inches of fresh air ventilation for each 1000 BTU of heater capacity.
Toxic Fumes from Kerosene
Kerosene is a liquid, but it can evaporate into the air. When it evaporates, it can produce toxic fumes.
Generally, these fumes aren’t a big concern. People long used kerosene for killing head lice and cleaning (though health agencies advise against this now).
However, to play it safe, you should make sure that you aren’t exposed to any kerosene fumes. Always refuel your kerosene heater outdoors.
Kerosene heaters release a bit of an odor as they reach maximum heat (usually takes about 45-60 minutes), but the odor should NOT be strong or very bad smelling.
The odor should also stop after max heat has been reached. If you are getting a bad smell from your kerosene heater, it is a sign of a problem.
Usually, the bad odor occurs because of low-quality fuel. The fuel might not be Grade K-1, or it has been contaminated (such as if the fuel is old and wasn’t stored properly).
These fuels won’t burn completely, resulting in a bad smell.
Another cause of bad odors is incomplete burning, such as from too-low of a temperature or an incorrectly placed or sized wick.
Your kerosene heater should always be kept on high-heat, with the temperature only turned down enough to prevent soot from forming.
Kerosene Heater Safety Best Practices
Cleaning Up Spilled Kerosene
Spilled kerosene is potentially very dangerous, as it can catch on fire. Use a siphon to prevent spillage when refueling. If spilling does occur, follow this advice:
- Use rags to absorb as much of the spilled kerosene as possible. Large spills can be absorbed with kitty litter or sawdust.
- Don’t use water-based cleaners on kerosene. Water and kerosene don’t mix.
- Mix dish soap with warm water. Use it to wipe the area of the spill.
- If possible, use fans to speed up evaporation of the kerosene fumes. Make sure the space is well ventilated.
How to Add Fuel to Your Heater
The safest way to add fuel to a kerosene heater is with a siphon. If you do have to pour manually to refuel, make sure you are using a funnel and pouring very carefully! Clean up any spills immediately.
Only add fuel to a kerosene heater when it is turned off and cool. Always take the heater or fuel container outdoors for refueling.
How to Store Fuel
Compared to other types of fuel (such as storing gasoline), kerosene is very easy to store. It lasts a long time and won’t freeze or evaporate.
Make sure you have an approved container for storing the kerosene. It is important that you don’t use glass as it can absorb heat and cause the kerosene to ignite.
Most kerosene containers are plastic. If you want to store kerosene for longer periods though, metal is the best option.
Kerosene containers are blue in color. Some people say it is okay to use gasoline containers to store kerosene. However, this is a really bad idea.
Aside from the potential for mix-ups, kerosene doesn’t last as long in plastic containers.
- Use clean, sealed containers for storing kerosene
- If possible, use metal containers for kerosene
- Keep away from heat and light
- Only store kerosene outdoors
- Kerosene can be frozen, but this will make it thicker and harder to pour
How Long Can Kerosene Be Stored?
As a general guideline, kerosene lasts 1-3 months. To play it safe, you should discard and replace any kerosene not used by the end of the heating season.
However, many people report storing kerosene for years (even as much as 10+ years) without any problems. This old kerosene will still burn, but tainted kerosene could damage your heater or cause foul odors when burning.
Testing Kerosene Quality
If you aren’t sure whether your kerosene is still “good” or not, you can use this visual testing method.
- Put a small amount of kerosene in a clean glass jar.
- Let it sit for 1 hour.
- Quality kerosene will not have any debris or bubbles. It will be clear.
- Tainted kerosene will be yellow or cloudy, have bubbles, or visible contaminants.
When quality kerosene is burned, it won’t produce an odor after reaching ideal burn temperature.
If you see smoke or sense a bad smell, then the kerosene shouldn’t be used.
Care and Maintenance
The most important thing you need to know about kerosene heater maintenance is that the wick needs regular care. You can read instructions on how to care for a wick here.
You’ll have to check the manufacturer’s guidelines for care of your specific kerosene heater. Here are some general guidelines:
- Store the fuel tank separately from the rest of the heater
- Only use K-1 kerosene for cleaning the inside of the fuel tank
- Use a nonflammable cleaner (such as water with ammonia) for cleaning the outside of the heater.
- After every 2-3 refuelings, the wick should be “dry burned” and brushed.