Last night reached 5F ( -15C ). This drafty old house was definitely uncomfortable. I haven’t installed the pellet stove, so we have four kerosene space heaters, and three electric space heaters to keep the temperature bearable.
Now, you may think that kerosene space heaters are incredibly primitive technologically. Smelly, dangerous ( in several ways ), and, well, just a pain. That certainly was what I thought when I first discovered them two winters ago.
However, my opinion is now quite the opposite on all points. Well, except for them being a pain. They definitely require lots of futzing with, and such. However, there was no viable alternative in the condo when the power went out. The condo association basically outlawed any heaters that were not vented propane heaters ( such as Rinnai ). Rinnai heaters are wonderful. They work well, are quiet, and fairly efficient.
Alas, propane is extremely expensive for heat, and the heaters require electricity to run. Every single winter since we’ve been in New Hampshire, we’ve lost electricity in the winter time. Two years ago, the power was out for four days. Two years before that, we lost electricity for six days!
Generators are an option, but there are several problems with them. Keeping the pellet stove running on a generator is a separate pain. Plus, they’re expensive. A completely non-electric option seemed necessary.
First, let’s dispel the notion that kerosene is “primitive.” Yes, kerosene has been used for lighting, heating, and cooking since the last half of the 19th century. The greatest environmentalist of all time – John D. Rockefeller – single-handedly saved the whale species when he supplied kerosene to the US market starting around 1870. The price went down 80% in just a few years, and completely displaced the dominant whale-oil lantern that had been in use for a couple of centuries. ( it was cheaper )
In 1892, kerosene stoves appeared on the market. Many wood-burning stoves were retrofitted to use kerosene, which was much easier to maintain than wood, and safer and cleaner than coal.
In 1901, Rockefeller financed a new company to produce space heaters that ran on kerosene. The company was called “Perfection” and it was so efficient that entire swaths of forest were saved from being turned into firewood. Millions of Perfection heaters were sold in the US at a time when the population was a third of our current count.
Kerosene space heaters started to fade after WWII as a primary heat source after single-dwelling furnaces became viable for middle class america. Brief flirtations with various electric and gas central heat systems became standard for the fifty year construction boom after the war.
But, in Japan, kerosene grew to be a primary heat source for the small houses and apartments common to that country. With typical Japanese ingenuity they completely reworked them into an extremely sophisticated – and extremely safe – alternative for space heaters.
Among many other innovations, they created catalytic heaters for more efficient and less odorous heat. Their safety increased with the introduction of tip-over sensors that automatically shut down the heater if it was jarred or knocked over. They broadened the footprint to make them super-stable, and included fuel gauges to help fill them rapidly. In later models, they even had a system that required the user to NEVER pour kerosene – just take the tank to the local fuel station, and automatic machines would fill the tank itself. No smell, no fuss.
OK, enough history. Fast forward to a couple of years ago. I bought a Kero-Sun Omni 15 heater from a craigslist ad for $25. It’s a small heater – about 8,500 BTU. It came with a 5-gallon blue jug. I turned it on, and was rewarded a malodorous black cloud. The partially-combusted odor is, indeed, pretty nasty.
But, after about five minutes, no smell, and glorious dry heat wafted from the top. This particular heater can go 24 hours on 1.5 gallons of fuel. I was very happy, but needed something bigger for emergencies.
Then, I really lucked out – I bought what would turn out to be possibly the best kerosene heater ever designed – the Toyostove DC-100. This heater has both the catalytic element AND a radiant element. For $75, the guy thought he suckered me, but we both came out ahead.
Next, I scored a [basically] free Duraheat 2304. I bought it for $20 – and it came with two blue jugs – which normally cost $10 each. One jug had $20 worth of kerosene in it already.
Duraheat is available every winter from Home Depot ( and possibly Lowes ). It’s a Chinese knock-off of a Japanese original. You can tell it’s cheaply made – the safety shut-off doesn’t really work on mine, and changing its wick is a real trial. But, the price was right – and it does get hot. ( I’m in the Barnroom right now, and it’s toasty with the Duraheat ).
OK, you have way more info about kerosene than you’ve ever cared about, what does that have to do with the government and freezing to death?
I’ll tell you.
First, the government’s main purpose is to collect taxes, fees, and fines. That way, it has money to continue to collect taxes, fees, and fines. One such tax is on fuels that are used by trucks and cars on roads and highways.
You may know about “farm diesel” which is diesel that has red dye added to it. Otherwise, it’s supposed to be identical to truck diesel. Ostensibly, if somebody looks at your fuel, and can see any trace of red, then they know you haven’t paid your taxes on it, and they fine the bejesus out of you.
According to wikipedia, the road tax is 24.4 cents-per-gallon tax on diesel. States add more on top of that, so you can expect the total tax load to be 50-75 cents, per gallon. You can see why farmers prefer to use red diesel to run their equipment. You can also see why a trucker, who takes 200 gallons at a single stop, would like to save $100-$150 per tankful.
But, among other things diesel, well, isn’t exactly the same. There is more than one “grade” of diesel. Most of what is sold is #2. However, #2 has a bad habit of turning into jello when it gets cold. For a hundred years, truckers ( and refiners ) solved that problem by mixing it with diesel #1 ( which is also known as – “kerosene” ).
Theoretically, kerosene should be cheaper since it doesn’t have the taxes on it. In point of fact, kerosene is a more refined product, and costs more to produce. There isn’t a whole lot of savings per gallon. The ratio of #1 to #2 was something like 3:1. Proportionally, maybe 50 gallons of that trucker’s tank was kerosene, and only during the coldest part of the winter ( maybe two-three months ), and even then only in the northern regions.
The government saw that, and squealed like a stuck revenuer. No road taxes were being paid on ( perhaps ) 5% of the fuel going into trucks, and that simply would not do. So, Clinton signed a bill requiring that red dye be added to kerosene, too.
Now, I’m all for lower taxes and stuff. Getting kerosene for 75 cents a gallon less has an appeal. When I went to a pump for the first time, I was quite happy to get red-dye kerosene – even though it cost about 75 cents more per gallon than fully-taxed road diesel!
I put it into my Omni 15, my DC-100, and my Duraheat.
That’s when the problems started. The flames on the heaters diminished rapidly, and inside of two tankfuls, they were giving out 1/4 of their rated BTUs. They also began to smell. Kerosene heaters basically have one mode of operation: full blast. The heat of the flame is what fully combusts the carbon chains, and prevents odors. If the flame is not high enough – you get odors.
I won’t bore your already-tested patience with all the things I tried to get these heaters to work. These included wick changes, methanol additives, isopropyl ( 91% ) cleanings, burning wicks dry ( only on fiberglass wicks ), etc., etc.. It was a pain.
However, I noticed that if I purchased Kleen-Strip kerosene from Home Depot none of these problems occurred. That stuff is fantastic!
It’s also more than $8.00 per gallon! Waaay too expensive for mere mortals to afford. Also, the supply was iffy. Home Depot sold out of kerosene in early February, and did not restock it until December.
Using dyed kerosene, I had to replace the wicks too often, and the heat was less, and the odors more. Kerosene had become unviable except for emergencies.
The problem is that the dyed kero clogged the wicks of modern heaters. The DC-100 is the worst. It has a very tall flame – over six inches – and is very sensitive. Its wicks cost $15 a pop, and would last, perhaps, a week on the dyed stuff.
Nevertheless, when we moved here, I knew we needed all the help we could get. Previous visitors had remarked about how it was impossible to get warm in the place. I’d seen the hollow walls on the first floor, and there are drafts everywhere. Cold also seems to emanate from the floor.
I bought a bunch of wicks from milesstair.com ( awesome place! ), and resigned myself to futzing around with the heaters until I got the pellet stove going. On Mr.Stairs’ site, I noticed that the little Omni-15 could take both a modern fiberglass wick OR a ( cheaper ) all-cotton wick. On a lark, I bought one of each, and installed the all-cotton wick first.
The first firings of the three heaters, I used the fancy Klean-strip clear kerosene. They performed perfectly. Not surprising, actually.
But, I don’t have $8 / gallon to blow on that, so I refilled the Omni and the Duraheat with dyed kerosene, reserving the best stuff for the DC-100.
Imagine my surprise, when I noticed that the Omni-15 performed perfectly with the cotton wick! I mean, it was on, 24 hours / day for two weeks without changing the wick! I trimmed the wick ( about 1/8th inch ), and cleaned it twice, and it just chugged right along.
I asked Mr. Stair about that, and he told me that the Omni-15 was a different kind of heater. Basically, these are called “flame-spreader” style heaters, as opposed to the newer Japanese-style catalytic heaters. I investigated, and found out about the “Perfection” heater sold since 1901, and basically unchanged until they went out of business in the early 1980s.
After getting permission from she-who-must-be-obeyed to spend $$ on a FOURTH kerosene heater – I scored a Perfection model 735 on ebay. With shipping, a total of $150. Not cheap, but comparable to a brand-new Duraheat from Home Depot.
It is in beautiful condition, and I immediately filled it with clear kerosene, and fired it up. It worked perfectly.
Then, I filled it up with dyed kerosene. It worked perfectly. I refilled it. Again. Again. And again. NO difference in flame height. Cleaning the flame spreader, and a 1/8th inch wick trim, and the heater is performing at 100%! Holy crap, it eats dyed kerosene! And – it’s pretty attractive, too.
Dyed kerosene has killed the kerosene heater market in New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. Massachusetts outlawed kerosene space heaters ( some towns in NH have outlawed them, too – such as New London ). Home Depot is glad to sell the heaters – and the outrageously expensive $8 / gallon clear kerosene, and even the blue jugs for $11+ / each.
But, as soon as the average joe fills up with dyed kerosene, and their heater “dies,” he gives up, and tries to sell his mostly-worthless $150 heater on craigslist. I see dozens of ads every week for them. Remember – I got mine for free, when I took the jugs off his hands!
Final – notes.
I base this with a side-by-side comparison on my Omni-15. Last year, I started with a cotton wick, and replaced it with a fiberglass wick. At the time, I didn’t realize there was any difference.
I was dismayed at the performance problems – and charring problems. It was in direct contrast to my initial pleasurable experiences.
By replacing the fiberglass wick this year with the all-cotton wick, and resuming excellent performance, all other things being equal – the wick made the difference, obviously.
The Perfection heater, with its standard all-cotton wick was affirmation that the fiberglass is the problem with dyed kerosene. I realize that my sample size is incredibly small ( four heaters, two of each kind ).
Mr. Stairs is less convinced, and his experience is far vaster than my own. Take my observations with a grain of salt.
I also have developed tricks to keep the Duraheat going longer, too ( never burn dry, keep fuel topped-off, leave off for 12-24 hours with full tank, etc. ). However, the DC-100 is simply too finicky to abide by anything other than pure clear kerosene.
I now enjoy kerosene heat again. It’s effective, and at $4 / gallon, it’s cost-effective. Plus, it’s insurance against a power outage.
However, government’s insatiable appetite for money has destroyed a safe and cost-effective heat source for emergency use. Owners buy the heaters, get frustrated by their expense and unreliable performance, and look for alternatives – which simply do not exist.
Fireplaces are far more dangerous, and usually less effective. Try going outside to fetch wood after an ice-storm has covered the ground an inch thick. If you’re an elderly person, a fall may mean death in any number of ways.
A wood stove is effective, especially a modern model – but they cost a thousand dollars and up, and again, you have to fetch wood.
Unvented propane space heaters give off considerably more carbon-monoxide than kerosene. Primary heat from them are effective, but after you get your CO headache, you’re turned-off. And you absolutely DO NOT want to run one of those all night! Propane can leak and explode. Kerosene won’t catch fire even if you throw a match on it!
We all know that sitting in a car with the heater on is a bad idea, too.
I would submit that a kerosene heater is the only reasonable heater for those who do not have a working woodstove, and far safer and more effective than a fireplace.
If you live up north, and have winter power outages, then I suggest you pick up an old Perfection heater, and learn how to use it.
It could save your life – and your house.