Extreme weather events have been occurring more often in recent years, leading to temporary failure of the power grid. According to this Scientific American article the average duration of power outages doubled from 2013 to 2021, from 3.5 hours to 7 hours. Losing your electric power is inconvenient for a few hours, but it can also be quite dangerous if you lose your heating system in the winter months. So what can you do to prepare? You do have a few options, fortunately.
First, just to review, even if you have a gas furnace for your home heating, you will be vulnerable during an outage because the furnace fan uses electricity to distribute the hot air through the ducts, and your thermostat uses low-voltage electricity to tell when the furnace when to turn on. In your case, one simple way for you to heat your home during an outage is to install a backup power source.
That could be a portable generator or whole-house generator powered by gasoline, diesel, propane, or natural gas. You could also consider a battery system like a Tesla Powerwall or a smaller system like this one along with some help from an electrician to make sure it can power your furnace.
This approach is probably the easiest option in terms of cost and flexibility. Keeping one or two of these units on hand is much like your homeowner’s insurance—you hope to never need it but you have it just in case.
You have some options to consider, such as kerosene and propane. Both of these options require combustion of a fossil fuel inside your living space, which I would minimize as much as possible. But during a power outage in the winter, you will need to get some heat going.
Recently, the state of California has banned kerosene heaters, so there’s a clue for you about their potential danger. Propane heaters burn cleaner, meaning they emit fewer pollutants into your indoor air, but you should make sure you have a functioning carbon monoxide detector wherever there’s combustion in your home. You’ll always see recommendations to open a window for ventilation, too, when using this type of heater.
This propane heater will heat up to 1,400 square feet, making it suitable for larger homes. The product description specifically says “no electricity required” so you’ll definitely be ready during an outage. You’ll find several brands that are basically interchangeable. They make several different sizes and their units can be wall mounted or sit on the floor. And you can store the heater in a closet and then connect it to the gas line when needed. But you’ll need to have that gas line installed before the outage, unless you’re handy that way and can do it as needed.
This model can operate on propane or natural gas and is designed to mimic the look of a woodburner. Not bad, in my opinion.
Another option is what you might think of as portable camping or cabin heaters. With a couple of these units you could keep parts of your home warm for a few days. Right now the cost per 1 lb propane cylinder is around $5, which gets you about 5.5 hours of heat on the low setting. So for less than $50 in fuel, over a couple of days, you could have some heat and maybe keep the pipes from freezing. That seems like a pretty good low-cost emergency plan.
Burning denatured alcohol is a mixed bag, in my opinion. If you’re careful it can be fine. It’s cheap but only produces about half the heat of other fuels. The danger is that the flame tends to be invisible, so you could forget or not notice that there is a live flame right there, and that’s dangerous. You could catch your sleeve on fire and not even see the flame, but it’s there.
That said, one or two alcohol stoves could get you through a short-term emergency, and they can provide both heat and cooking capabilities. You won’t get that with one of the propane heaters. Canned heat, which is also known as Sterno and other brands of gel alcohol, are another way to use alcohol for heat and cooking. Camping folks have used these products for years, and they work well.
You can also use a basic camping stove to provide some heat in an emergency. Don’t expect much, as there’s only one burner on this type of stove, but they’re a cheap, easy, reliable device for heating and cooking. If you’re outdoorsy, you might have something like this already.
With this sort of addition to your home, you’re looking at a real investment. But you’re also adding a basic and reliable piece of equipment that will be there when you need it for decades with minimal attention. It will also add some fun ambiance to your home!
Installation will require some thought. Not only will you need to make a space for the unit itself, you’ll need a place for the chimney. Often that’s not a huge deal, as those can often run vertically for a short ways then horizontally out the wall. You do have to make sure that the surroundings are safe from the heat that the stove produces. That usually means a heat shield on the stove and possibly on the walls close by.
You’ll also have to secure wood to burn. Depending on where you live, that could be a bit challenging, but it’s definitely a bigger chore than a gas stove or a pellet stove.
The typical pellet stove is not an option if you don’t have electricity, as they normally have a hopper into which you dump the pellets. An electric auger moves the pellets from the hopper to the firebox, so that won’t be working during an outage.
A few models, though, are nonelectric, like this one that uses gravity to move the pellets from the hopper into the firebox. So that could be a way to keep the heat going all the time, as long as you remember to keep the stove loaded with pellets.
The Inflation Reduction Act includes a 30% tax credit, up to $2000 for 2023, for qualifying “biomass” stoves, which includes EPA-certified wood stoves and pellet stoves. Whole-house heating (and cooling) is better left to a heat pump, but burning wood or pellets as an emergency backup option could be good insurance, especially if you’re in a rural area.