Emergency Kit: Heating, Cooking and Lighting Supplies

If you live where winters are cold, having some kind of backup generator option is probably the single most important item in your emergency kit.

| February/March 2004


Coleman's BlackCat Portable Catalytic Heater (about $55) provides 3,000 Btu for eight hours using a 1-pound propane canister.

Photo by Matthew Stallbaumer


If you live where winters are cold, having some kind of backup heating option is probably the single most important item in your emergency kit. If you lose electric power during a blizzard or ice storm, you probably will lose your heat. And without heat, you won't be able to stay at home very long, even if you have plenty of food and water on hand. Plus, if your pipes freeze and burst, you will have an expensive repair bill to pay, too.

A wood stove certainly can keep you comfy, if you have plenty of firewood on hand. Some furnaces that burn coal or wood will function at reduced levels, even without electricity to power the circulating blower and thermostat. If you have a furnace that won't work without electricity, you can install a backup generator (and keep plenty of fresh fuel on hand) to provide power to your existing central heating system as well as to other appliances.

If you don't have a generator, your least expensive option may be to heat just a room or two, and there are several ways to do this. Vented natural gas- or propane-fueled stoves, heaters and fireplaces as well as some kerosene heaters are all good choices. These heating appliances need to be connected to an appropriate chimney in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions and relevant fire codes. Because they are installed and vented permanently, these heaters are relatively safe. Be sure you have plenty of fuel on hand — if the power is out because of a blizzard or hurricane, you may not be able to get to the store. Even if you could, stores quickly run out of fuel during emergencies.


"Vent-free" gas heaters don't need a chimney or vent to operate. These heaters come in a wide variety of sizes and styles, are relatively inexpensive ($100 to $1,200) and, depending on their design, can be placed on a floor or mounted on a wall. Vent-free appliances, which do not exceed 40,000 British thermal units (Btu) per hour output, include certain types of space heaters, stoves, fireplace inserts and gas fireplaces (vent-free heaters should not be confused with portable propane heaters, which are discussed later).

Vent-free appliances are intended to supplement a primary source of heat, such as a furnace. These heaters are installed in a fixed location and connected to a natural gas line or an outside propane tank; a 100-pound tank that costs about $75 is the minimum recommended size. Virtually all of these units will work without electricity, making them a suitable choice for emergency heating.

One disadvantage of vent-free heaters is that they discharge the products of combustion — poisonous carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) directly into the room while simultaneously consuming oxygen. Tests conducted in 1996 by the American Gas Association indicated the levels of these byproducts are within nationally recognized safety parameters; nevertheless, persons with respiratory ailments may be sensitive to these discharges.

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