Country Living Series

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Kerosene lamps

Yesterday's power outage brought to mind a small experiment we did last week. Just how long, we wondered, will a gallon of kerosene service an oil lamp? The answer has bearing on how much kerosene we should store for our non-electric lighting needs.

Kerosene lamps are our preferred non-electric lighting option. We have flashlights and rechargeable batteries, of course, but those aren't practical for working indoors around the house. We also have some mantle lanterns (Coleman and Aladdins), but for everyday usage, we figure we'll use kerosene lamps.

Some people are affected by the smell of kerosene, but the smell can be minimized if the lamp is lit and blown out while outside or in the garage. Nonetheless there is a detectable odor while a lamp is burning. It doesn't bother us at all, but it may bother others, so if that's the case, then pure lamp oil (though it's more expensive) might be the better option.

But how much kerosene should we store? How long would a gallon of kerosene last us, if we were using kerosene lamps on an exclusive basis? We didn't know.

So we decided to run a small test. We took an empty oil lamp with a standard 3/4" cotton wick...


...and filled it brim-full of kerosene.


Then we poured it back into measuring cups to measure how much this particular lamp holds. Answer: 2.5 cups.


Then we lit the lamp and just let it burn. Day...


...and night. The only time it was blown out was when we were in bed.


We marked down start and stopping times.


Finally the kerosene burned down low enough that I was concerned the wick would start to burn if I didn't blow it out.



The results of this admittedly unscientific experiment were as follows. 2.5 cups of kerosene gave us 33 hours' worth of light. This means there is 211.2 hours of light (for one lamp) per gallon of kerosene. If we keep a lamp lit for eight hours a day, this gives us 26.4 days of light per gallon of kerosene.

Now of course the amount of time lamps will be lit will vary. Needless to say if we're without power, we'll be timing our sleep cycles to the pattern of sunrise and sunset more than we do now. But nonetheless in winter, when we have fifteen hours of darkness at the winter solstice, we're going to need a light source for longer than in the short summer nights. Eight hours per day of lamp time during the winter is not unrealistic.

Keep in mind this is for ONE lamp. If you've ever read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, you'll know the family of six always gathered around the table to the light of ONE oil lamp. People didn't light three or four or five lamps -- it was considered wasteful and unnecessary. In pre-electric days, people didn't fight the darkness as we do now. They accepted it. They made do with ONE oil lamp.

Should the power grid ever go down for a prolonged period of time, people will have to re-adjust to a darker world. Based on the above calculations, if we wanted to keep four lamps running at the same time, one gallon of kerosene will only last us a bit over six days. But if we made do with just one lamp, a gallon will last just under a month (during winter months when the days are shorter). Twelve gallons will comfortably last a year (remember, this is for ONE lamp). Something to keep in mind while sonsidering your lighting needs.

Estimates for the shelf life of K1 kerosene vary, but the consensus seems to be anywhere from one to five years, depending on how well it's protected from moisture (apparently kerosene is prone to water condensation inside containers). However anecdotal evidence suggests that kerosene may store for over twenty years without compromising its usability.

This is where I should probably insert the obligatory safety warnings. Kerosene lamps are prone to getting knocked over by children, wagging dog tails, clumsy moments, and other mishaps. You need to plan accordingly. When we lived in Oregon and the girls were very young, Don installed little open-topped wall boxes at various places around the house into which an oil lamp could comfortably fit with no danger of anything knocking it over. A mirrored reflector behind the globe also amplifies the light. Should we ever need to resort to oil lamps full-time, we will probably do the same thing.

As I see it, kerosene is a multi-use fuel that's stable, relatively safe, and fairly inexpensive. Frankly I think it's perfect prepper fuel and would make an excellent trade item in addition to personal use.

Besides... lamps are pretty.

30 comments:

  1. Dietz Lanterns sold online at the Dietz website and at Lehman's are very economical kerosene/lamp oil lanterns with high illumination. I have several and one that has a little plate you can attach on top for heating a cup of water, tea, coffee, etc. Nice lanterns and heavy duty for inside or out. I love mine and use them now more than my antique lamps my grandmothers passed on to me mainly because they are so bright.

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  2. Thank you for this post Patrice. This is an area I needed to look into more. I do have one oil lamp I inherited from my grandmother. As you point out, in her day that one lamp would have been considered sufficient. I do not doubt I would sleep much better if left to the cycles of the sun instead of all the artificial light/screens we have now.

    My lamp has a wick, but I'll admit I've never even tried to light it (no oil in it anyways), much less service it in any way. I know I've seen you post about maintaining your lamps. I guess it's time to look through your archives for info on where to buy supplies and how to care for a lamp. And maybe I should also keep my eye open for another lamp (although I like your idea of making a mason jar into a lamp. Easy to replace if the vessel gets broken.

    Your photos of your kerosene lamps look so lovely and festive. Maybe I'll get some oil and try lighting my lamp on Christmas eve.

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  3. I have hurricane lamps like yours but I also have these solar powered ones. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004B924OG/ref=ox_sc_sfl_title_10?ie=UTF8&smid=A34HR5QZEAQRY7

    They are so incredibly bright and I just leave them in my front window so they are always charged. They are very light weight and don't have the hazard of fire. Certainly they have limitations but I think they are a nice addition to kerosene.

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  4. Why do you have 3 white candles on your advent wreath? is it a special tradition for your family or what you had on hand?

    Traditionally there is usually two violet candles for the first 2 weeks of advent (since advent is a penitential period like lent), one pink candle for the 3rd Sunday/week (which is gaudete or rejoice Sunday) and a violet candle for the 4th Sunday.

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    1. LOL -- because a couple years ago when we needed new Advent candles, our local stores had NOTHING in the right colors. And I mean nothing. (One of the disadvantages of a small town.) So we compromised and bought what looked, well, respectful, if you know what I mean. We just haven't gotten around to buying new candles.

      - Patrice

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  5. Thanks so much Patrice for the test results.
    There is a great product now called Pri-D ( google it) that will help prolong the life of both diesel and kerosene. The product claims it can even restore fuel that has turned to sludge. Haven't tried that, but we do treat stored fuels with both Pri D and Pri G ( for gas) as a general rule. Thanks again, the time you take to share your experiences is much appreciated.

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    1. Please beware that adding additives to fuel that gets burnt could turn a semi harmless fuel ino a deadly fuel(heavy metals, etc)Especially in an enclosed area.

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  6. I saw this lamp on engadet.
    It does away with the need for kerosine.
    Mayby something you can rig up yourself.

    http://www.engadget.com/2012/12/06/gravitylight-uses-weight-to-illuminate-without-batteries-or-fuel/

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    1. That is the coolest deal. My budget might not go for $50, but when the price comes down...

      brenda from ar

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  7. Thank you for mentioning at the end that oil lamps are beautiful. Although I completely understand the need for practicality, beauty feeds the human soul and I think sometimes we underestimate how much we'll appreciate a little beauty in times of challenge - be a week long power outage or a much longer ordeal. Little things really will make a difference. :)

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  8. I was going to post and say "a very LONG time" but you beat me to it.

    We don't use candles, though we have a few. With 2 cats and 2 dogs we don't feel they're safe to use except in utmost emergency. We've got 4 kerosene lamps, 2 battery powered lamps that light LEDs to look like a kerosene lamp (they use C batteries though, that was a pain, nothing else in the house uses Cs), and assorted selection of flashlights and other such gear.

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  9. I have a question... I have some oil lamps..and I have purchased and stored some oil lamp oil. my questions is... can I put kerosene in a lamp that has had oil in it? I would not have a problem storing kerosene at our shop building but if I could not put kerosene in an oil lamp that was almost empty I don't want to go that route.

    Rhonda

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    1. Absolutely. I wouldn't MIX the oil and kerosene, but if an oil lamp is empty, simply fill it with kerosene and it should work fine.

      - Patrice

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  10. Thanks for the good research, something I have thought about but never took the time to figure out.

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  11. Thanks Patrice that was a helpful informative post.

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  12. I thought you'd like to know I'm currently using 16 year old kerosene in my lamps. I've only about ten gallons left of this stash I salvaged from a home that was converted from a kerosene heater to an electrical heating system. The old kerosene burns quite well.

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  13. Your article is very interesting. I was wondering why you buy the kerosene by the gallon jug at around $10 instead of buying in bulk? In our area, the gas stations in our area sell it for between $4 and $5 per gallon. The average price is $4.37. I know that you aren't buying much, but every little bit that you save helps.

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    1. Years ago when we lived in Oregon, we had a kerosene heater for the shop, and bought kerosene in 50-gallong drums. It was certainly cheaper that way. However here, since we're concerned about the quality of the kerosene for long-term storage and kerosene is prone to condensation inside the containers, one-gallon jugs are less prone to water condensation since I'm only opening and using just one at a time. The rest of the jugs stay tightly capped and undisturbed.

      - Patrice

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  14. I have all of my Great Grandmothers kerosene (coal oil)lamps with the original printed globes. These are some where around a hundred years old or so. I got the when my Grandmother died in 1985. I keep 10 gallons of K1 in my shed. I also have extra wicks, & extra burners. When my next door neighbor died about four years ago his daughters asked me if I wanted anything in the garage. I took all the old kerosene lamps he had. I am sure the belonged to his or his wifes family. I have six or so lamps that I will give my Grandaughters when I die. True heirlooms! BK

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  15. I'm glad you shared this story, Bruce. Thank you.

    When I see an old lamp, and especially an old globe, I'm warmed by the thought of all the thoughtful care and tender washings it's received over the decades. I like to think about all the gentle, strong hands that handled this object with such care and respect that its fragility survives and serves to this day.

    You have there a real and very meaningful legacy to pass along to the kids, my friend.

    Beautiful.

    A. McSp

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  16. Patrice,

    Did you "trim" your lamps in the evening before you retired for the night, or did you leave them burning at the same rate for the entirety of the experiment?

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    1. We left it burning at the same rate. We blew it out before going to bed, of course, but in the morning we lit it again without making any changes (meaning, the wick was at the same level).

      - Patrice

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    2. Patrice You need to update your keywords for oil lamps on the left column.. it only showed 2 and I couldn't find this post until I did a Google search of your blog and found a few others missing. here is what to post in your web browser to find all the missing oil lamp posts: lamp site:http://www.rural-revolution.com/

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  17. Patrice,

    Did you "trim" your lamps in the evening before you retired for the night, or did you leave them burning at the same rate for the entirety of the experiment?

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  18. If your lamp starts smoking, the wick is too high and your wick burns up quicker. If your wick is really charred it may smoke a little so it is time to trim the wick, easily done with sharp scissors cut straight across. Adjust wick till you see it coming up
    through the lips of metal, turn it up a little more and light it.If it smokes turn it down to adjust. Best light comes from clean globe. Bernice

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  19. You might enjoy reading about this cool kerosene lamp invention. http://ibnlive.in.com/news/lanstove-a-lamp-thats-also-a-stove/143262-11.html

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  20. We have an oil/paraffin lamp and it used to smell beautiful when we entered the room. Enter the EU and we can no longer get the smell with the paraffin we buy; why is this and can we still get the original anywhere? We have had to resort to putting a candle where the wick was and no longer using the new, smelly stuff. Why the change?

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    1. I'm not sure what you mean by EU (unless it stands for European Union). Why the EU would change paraffin standards is something I can't answer. Sorry!

      - Patrice

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    2. You're right, it's the 'Union'; again. Everything has to be passed by them and they've altered the specs for how it's produced and how it smells. Atmosphere shot to hell. Thanks anyway

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