If you live in a cold climate, you probably know better than to take heat for granted. The difference between the temperature outside your home and inside can be staggering. In today’s world, we’ve largely come to rely on indoor heat. You may have spare blankets around your house to get through a short stretch without heat in the case of a temporary power outage. But what happens if a major winter storm knocks out power to your home for days or even weeks on end? In that case, it’s important to have a reliable emergency heat source that can operate without support from the electrical grid (see more tips on surviving a winter power outage).
In general, you have two options for emergency heaters: kerosene heaters and propane heaters. Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of these two portable heating systems to help you decide which is better for your home. Also be sure to check out the safety video below to keep things safe when running your heater!
Do You Need a Portable Heater?
You may be wondering whether a portable propane or kerosene heater is really a necessary part of your emergency preparedness kit. The short answer is probably yes.
If you live in an area of the country where you typically have the heat on throughout the winter, you’re definitely going to need some type of emergency heat in case of an extended power outage. Even a drop of just a handful of degrees can lead to hypothermia, and many northern states will see a much more significant temperature drop if the power goes out.
Unfortunately, even natural gas heating systems rely on electricity. If you have a large generator wired into your home’s electrical grid with a transfer switch, it may be possible to restart your natural gas heat. In that case, you don’t need a propane or kerosene heater. You may also be able to get away without a portable heater if your home has a wood-fired stove.
Otherwise, it’s a good idea to invest in a reliable emergency heating system.
Kerosene vs Propane
Propane and kerosene each have their advantages and disadvantages as fuel sources for heating. Let’s take a closer look at how they stack up so you can decide which is better for you.
Fuel Availability - Kerosene vs Propane
When it comes to finding fuel for your heater (before the power goes out, of course), neither propane nor kerosene is particularly difficult to acquire. That said, propane is definitely more available than kerosene.
Propane is virtually everywhere – you’ll find it at almost every gas station and grocery store. Keep in mind, though, that large propane tanks like the kind you’ll need to heat your house for days on end are less readily available. You may need to search around town for a gas supplier that can sell you a several hundred-pound propane tank and fill it.
Kerosene is a little less common than propane, especially if you’re looking for large volumes of it like you would need for emergency heating. Ideally, you can find a gas station that has a kerosene pump. You might have to do some searching online and calling around to gas stations, and it might be a long drive to the nearest pump.
Cost of Kerosene vs Propane
At first glance, propane is usually cheaper than kerosene. (Remember that prices for both fuels can vary over time and between states and vendors). Propane typically sells for around $2.70 per gallon, while kerosene costs upward of $3.30 per gallon.
But when calculating the real cost of fuel, it’s important to consider how much heat you’re actually getting per gallon. Kerosene is more energy-dense than propane. It offers 135,000 BTUs per gallon, compared to only 91,300 BTUs per gallon of propane.
That means that on a per-BTU rate, kerosene costs about $0.025 per thousand BTUs compared to about $0.030 per thousand BTUs for propane. That’s a big difference if you use your heater a lot.
But in reality, you’ll probably only run through tens of gallons of fuel even if you run your propane or kerosene heater at full blast for a couple days. So, the difference between using propane versus kerosene is probably only an extra $10 or $20 over the course of an extended power outage.
Long Term Fuel Storage
Both propane and kerosene keep for decades if stored properly, which is a huge advantage to using either of these fuels for your emergency heat. It means that you can stockpile kerosene or propane now, and never have to worry about replacing it until you use it.
That said, there are some important considerations about storage. Kerosene is relatively easy to store as long as you have an airtight container. A 50-gallon drum with a clamp seal, like you can find at your local hardware store, is a great option. Just make sure you have some sort of secondary containment to protect yourself against leaks.
Propane can be more expensive to store, depending on how much you need. If you live in a temperate climate where your emergency heating needs will likely be moderate, you might be able to get away with a couple cheap 20-pound propane tanks – the same kind that most gas stations and grocery stores sell.
But, if you live in a cold or remote area where you might need to power a propane heater for days or even weeks, you’ll need a large propane tank. These tanks, capable of storing several hundred gallons of propane, are designed to sit outside and are built to withstand any weather. Unfortunately, they’re not cheap – a 250-gallon tank can easily run $600 or more.
One other consideration that could push you towards propane rather than kerosene is if you already have, or are planning to buy, a propane-powered generator (or dual fuel generator). If so, it may make sense to only have to deal with a single fuel type for your emergency heat and emergency electricity. It also makes investing in a large outdoor propane tank more economical if you’ll use the fuel for two purposes.
Kerosene and Propane Safety
It should be noted, that whatever type of heater you choose as a backup - safety is number one! If you have your doors and windows closed when running this type of equipment, it WILL BE DANGEROUS and sometimes fatal! The constant burning will reduce the oxygen levels and increase carbon monoxide - see the test below.
Make Sure You Have a Backup!
Having a backup method to heat your home in the event of an extended power outage is extremely important. In the midst of a harsh winter, the possibility of a storm knocking out power – and most home heating systems – for days or even weeks is hardly out of the question.
Portable propane and kerosene heaters offer a relatively inexpensive and grid-independent way to keep your home at a reasonable temperature when the power goes out. While propane is more readily available than kerosene, kerosene is a slightly cheaper fuel on a per-BTU basis. Both fuels store almost indefinitely, although investing in a large propane tank can be expensive upfront.