Canned Heat: How to Make an Emergency Heater

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To make your emergency heater, you'll need:

  • A new, quart-sized paint can with a lid. These can be purchased at paint stores and home improvement stores like Home Depot for around $2-3.
  • A roll of unscented toilet paper (I say, the cheaper the better. I bought a package of the rough, store brand stuff for around a dollar. It wasn't hard to fit into the can -- others at the class had a difficult time because they were using their nice, multiple-ply stuff.)
  • A bottle of unscented, 70% isopropyl alcohol
  • A box of matches (I just learned that you can waterproof matches by dipping the heads in wax. Pretty cool.)
  • A quarter and some tape (I suggest packaging tape)

Making the heater couldn't be easier. Simply remove the cardboard tube from the center of the toilet paper (that's the hardest part) - don't unroll the toilet paper; just bend the cardboard tube, and pull out. Stuff the tube-free roll of toilet paper into the can. Fill with 2 cups of isopropyl alcohol, leaving 1/2 inch headspace (you want it to have room to expand and contract with temperature fluctuations). This may take a little time since you have to wait for the toilet paper to absorb the alcohol. The toilet paper and alcohol should be below the rim of the can. Seal tightly with lid.  Tape the box of matches and the quarter to the side of the can. That's it.  If you prefer, you can store all the components of the heater in a plastic bag and assemble the heater when you need it. Personally, I like having it ready to go.

When you want to use the heater, pop open the lid, using the quarter as leverage. Place the lit match or lighter carefully against the alcohol-soaked toilet paper.  A small flame will develop.  The flame only uses the alcohol as fuel -- the toilet paper shouldn't burn. If it does start to burn, that means you need more alcohol. To do this, replace the lid to extinguish the flame. Once out, add some more alcohol and light again. Once you've used this heater, the only thing that ever needs replacing is the alcohol since the TP doesn't burn. Assembling the heater is a one-time thing, really.

Important: if you're going to use this heater in a car, crack open the windows for ventilation. Even though the alcohol doesn't produce carbon monoxide, you still want fresh air in such an enclosed space.

The teacher of the class said that she burned her heater (to test it out) in her kitchen and it lasted for five hours. According to one site I checked, you can keep a car heated at 60-70 degrees for 24 hours with 4 pints of alcohol.  These heaters can get hot, so be careful how you handle them and be sure to keep them away from anything that could catch (obviously). Another site I read suggested sliding the passenger seat in the car as far back as it can go and placing the heater on the floor.

You can also use this heater in your home in the event of an emergency.  Since the area isn't as small as that of a car, the instructor of the class said that you should be fine without cracking the windows (if you're in a small room, it couldn't hurt to crack it a little). This small heater, of course, won't keep an entire room at 60-70 degrees, but it will keep the chill off enough.  These heaters are great for 72-hour kits.

For under five bucks, you can create a heat source for you and your family in the event of an emergency -- and five dollars is a small price to pay for a little extra peace of mind.


** Note from Chella, I had my husband drill a couple of holes on the side of the large paint can under the lid. He then measured and cut wire coat hangers to go across the top of the can and down into the holes, he bent the wires so they would fit in the can. It makes a little "Grill" so we can boil water on top of the heat so we can make soup, or hot cocoa, tea etc.  we care a full emergency car kit in our cars that has food water, extra toilet paper, extra alcohol, matches, and a small pan for cooking along with hot pads, portable "coffee cups with sleeves"**