Monday, October 4, 2021

The trials and tribulations of heater shopping

 

As part of preparing for the coming winter, and also dealing with the current supply chain problems that are (sometimes severely) restricting the availability of things we need, I've been considering our emergency heating requirements.

Last winter Texas suffered a major power outage, lasting weeks in some places, and there were several incidents of shorter outages (up to a day or two).  Even though we didn't lose power during that long cold spell, our house grew steadily colder, because our geothermal heating unit simply couldn't compensate for our poorly insulated walls (Texas houses not being built, generally speaking, to withstand prolonged freezing-level temperatures).  By the time the cold snap broke, our home's internal temperature had dropped into the 50's, far below the temperature at which we prefer to keep it.

I wanted to have two contingency backup plans in place.  First, I wanted a couple of small indoor-safe heaters that could warm up our studies (where Miss D. and I write, blog, etc.), and our bedroom at night, in case of a short-term power outage.  Second, I wanted an indoor-safe heater powerful enough to warm the whole house a few degrees in very cold weather, so that our geothermal unit could be supported and wouldn't have to carry the entire load itself in very cold weather.  (Of course, during a power outage, it'll help keep the whole house at a livable temperature.)  We already have a couple of camping stoves that can be used to prepare food during a power outage, so that need was covered.

I chose the Buddy indoor-safe propane unit from Mr. Heater for the first requirement.  They're rated to warm a room up to 225 square feet in size, and are fueled by the well-known 1lb. Coleman propane tanks, which are widely available.  (A larger model takes two of the Coleman tanks, and can warm up to 450 square feet.)



For the second requirement, I selected the Dyna-Glo indoor-safe kerosene convection heater, which is rated to warm up to 1,000 square feet.  (Yes, I also bought extra carbon monoxide alarms, to put in rooms where the heaters are in use;  and we'll crack a window in those rooms, to prevent difficulties.)



However, when it came time to actually buy them, I got quite a surprise.  Supply is very "iffy":  despite lots of stores listing them as available, they weren't, or were "delayed in shipment".  I guess many of them are sitting in containers at sea, waiting to get through the cargo handling backlog to land in the USA.  Also, prices were all over the place.  At the time of writing, the Dyna-Glo unit is $234.77 at Amazon, but only $148.00 at Walmart;  the Mr. Heater unit is $90.92 versus $77.00 at the same stores;  and the Coleman propane tanks are a mind-boggling $17.49 per single unit at Amazon, versus only $3.97 at Walmart!  (They're cheaper in bulk quantities, of course.)  I'm sure you can guess where I bought ours!  Other stores showed similar price variations, and they varied almost by the day - sometimes showing changes more than once a day.  Clearly, there's high demand for these units, but very limited supply.

I bought what we needed, after shopping around to find the best price for available stock, but the weird price variations (particularly on Coleman tanks) made me reconsider our fuel needs.  Instead of buying more Coleman tanks (we already have several), I bought two screw-on adapters that allow them to be refilled from regular 20lb. or 30lb. propane tanks.  The adapters are only about $7 apiece, and regular propane tanks can be refilled at present for about a dollar per pound of gas, or about $4 per gallon (there are 4 gallons in a 20lb. tank filled to 80% capacity, or 16lb., which is the norm).  It'll be much cheaper to refill our small Coleman tanks as we use them, rather than pay three times that much or more for new, filled tanks.  Mr. Heater claims a 3-hour run time at maximum heat setting, which translates to a fuel cost of about $0.34 per hour if we refill our small cylinders (less at lower heat settings, of course).

As for fuel for the Dyna-Glo unit, one can buy heater-grade kerosene in 1-, 2½- and 5-gallon containers from various places.  Again, prices vary widely, so shop around.  Since our need for the big heater is likely to be infrequent, I've bought enough to see us through a winter twice as bad as the last one, just in case.  If we don't use it all, that doesn't matter:  kerosene keeps indefinitely, so there's no problem with leftover fuel going bad, as there would be with gasoline.  Those in colder climes, or with a less reliable electricity supply, will need more fuel, of course.  (All our kerosene and propane will be stored outside our home, in a garden shed, for obvious fire-hazard reasons.)

One word of warning concerning both heaters:  there appear to be different model numbers assigned to identical units, for sale in different stores, so that each can claim that their model is "exclusive to [store name]".  Technically, they're right, thanks to the different number;  but it makes it very difficult to look up parts (e.g. wicks for the Dyna-Glo heater) online, when the model number a store is using is different to the generic one listed by the manufacturer of the wick.  It took me a couple of days to figure out the problem and find a spare wick that will fit our heater.  When you get your heater, look up the exact model number listed on its box or in the owner's manual, then search for wicks and other parts using that number, to avoid confusion.

With the way the economy's being driven into the ground by the Biden administration, and the supply chain problems that are crippling commerce and industry, I think we may face more power interruptions than usual this winter.  Power stations will find it difficult to get spare parts at short notice to repair breakdowns, and repair crews dealing with the aftermath of snow and ice storms will face the same problem.  I suggest it's no more than prudent forethought to prepare for such outages as best we can, while there are still indoor-safe alternative-fuel heaters to be had.

(Speaking of prudent forethought, I snagged the last two bottles of anti-freeze windshield washing fluid in our local Walmart during my shopping.  The manager of the auto section didn't know if and/or when they're getting more in.  Anti-freeze radiator fluid was also in short supply.  Might be a good idea to stock up on those, too, and related items for cold weather travel like snow and ice scrapers, etc.)

Peter


30 comments:

George said...

Kerosene heaters can give off odors when lighting or extinguishing. I solved this by carrying the heater to the garage to light or put out. You’ll want to move it out anyway to refill (spills happen!)

Veritas Publius said...

We are looking into possibly installing a pellet stove before winter really hits, they seem fairly straightforward and only need enough power to drive a small fan. I'm trying to see if that power could come from marine deep cycle batteries for an extended period of time because I can always throw a battery into a vehicle to recharge.

We had a power outage last year for a few hours while it was -40 (plus wind chill) and I am trying to get better prepared for that to happen again, for longer. Our local Menards has hundreds of bags of pellets in stock and it costs about 6 dollars in pellets to heat 1200 square feet for 24 hours.

lpdbw said...

Two things:

Consider adding a gas detector. I believe they make them in combo units with the CO detectors. Leaking propane cylinders can ruin your day. And it seems reasonable to me that the more you refill them, the more likely it is to develop a leak.

Buddy heaters use a catalyst which is very sensitive to dust, so make sure when you're not using it, you keep it well covered.

Ritchie said...

Since these units do not use an outside combustion air circuit, you might keep a sharp eye on oxygen depletion. Prime example is the candle under the jar. Industrial oxygen monitors exist. Best.

Sam said...

"Heater?" I thought at first you were looking for a 9mm Browing Hi-Point. The good ol' days.

We use wood for backup heating and cooking, so I'm not much help. On the Kerosene heaters, George is correct. Also, the last several years, Kerosene has been kind of hard to get, not like the days when every filling station had drums of it.

Having been gassed by propane and by clogged-up propane vents, take care.

Country said...

A deep cycle battery will work. We hooked the battery up to an inverter, plugged the pellet stove into it and it ran for the 23 hours we were without power in Northern MI a couple of winters ago.

Uncle Lar said...

On that windshield washer fluid, fill a gallon jug mostly with water, add 2-4 ounces of rubbing alcohol and a few drops of dish soap. For tradition throw in a couple drops of blue food coloring.

Rob said...

Be sure and crack a window open if you're going to burn in the house. I have the long hose so I can use a 20# bbq propane tank with the Buddy heater, works good.

Stan_qaz said...

Watch for CO and propane accumulation as suggested.

Also you will come up much lower in efficiency than you think due to the ventilation needed to keep down moisture accumulation. Don't fail to check cold spots, inside cabinets and the outside wall of closets for moisture accumulation. You'll have to vent enough water to keep the humidity below the condensation point.

We found the adapter/extender hose and a propane tank much cheaper over time than the small green bottles. Some folks suggest refilling the green ones but we found we had leaks after a few fills. Getting the fill level correct to allow for expansion and storing the refilled ones outside a pain.

Our end point was a ceramic brick heater with a pilot light and thermostat, fed from a 5 lb refillable tank, it wasn't cheap but we were much happier with it than the other units we tried.

Ruth said...

re pellet fuel stoves: wood pellets are a manufactured item, and most pellet stoves are not able to burn firewood. My work sells pellet fuel and we've seen shortages in NON screwed up years. If you're going to go with pellet fuel make sure you buy enough to get you through a REALLY bad year AND have it delivered and stored ahead of time!

ChrisJ said...

I I have nothing to add about the propane heaters as I don’t have one. I do, however, have the same kerosene heater that you’ve bought and have used it to heat my workshop for the last three winters. Look around at industrial lubricant and oil supplies or fueling stations. Many times you can get kerosene quite a bit cheaper if you bring your own container. DO Follow the heater’s manual on cleaning and maintaining the wick. It makes a big difference in the odors emitted by the heater.

Stuart said...

If you will fill your 20# propane tank at a distributor you will receive all 5 gallons. The "Tank Swap" locations cheat you out of that last gal. In addition you will get a far better price per gal. Tank swapping from those convenient cage locations is an absolute ripoff.

Rob said...

Stan_qaz, you mentioned "a ceramic brick heater with a pilot light and thermostat".

Do you recall the brand name? A thermostat is a generally a good thing.

Glenda T Goode said...

I own 3 big buddy heaters which I have in case my power goes out for an extended time here in central NY state. I use the big buddy because they have a fitting that attaches to a 20# (or larger) propane tank with a hose running to the tank which should be outside. You can buy extensions for the hose if need be. I use one of my heaters to provide a warm spot in my living room during the winter as it is unfortunately the coolest room in my house. On low (4500 btus) a tank can last over 80 hours. Usually a tank lasts me almost two weeks. On high a tank will last 20 hours.

If you use the 1 pound tanks you will go broke trying to keep warm and with a 9000 btu heater you will change the tank every 2 hours or so. Go for the bigger heater and get the hose adapter. Having the door cracked to allow the hose in provides needed oxygen and a vent path for the CO2 and CO.

Just my 2 cents worth from years of living in the cold in the winter.

Unknown said...

I would suspect the price difference Amazon vs Walmart is shipping.

$18 + free shipping, just means the hazard shipping fee is included in the price.

As opposed to going down to Walmart (or elsewhere) and picking it off the shelf.

The same backup heating has been on my list since early in the year, just needing the budget to implement.

Stan_qaz said...

Rob, there are a bunch of them, here is one example

https://smile.amazon.com/Dyna-Glo-IRSS18LPT-2P-Infrared-T-stat-Heater/dp/B075JKK4Q8/ref=sr_1_4?dchild=1&keywords=ceramic+brick+propane+thermostat&qid=1633368457&sr=8-4

Rob said...

Thanks!

William said...

Affirm this! Those small bottles go away FAST! Highly recommend an adaptor hose to run from a big bottle.

Rib said...

Thx for the timely reminder! I tried to find Buddy Heaters for months after the Feb freeze (We’re just N of you in Southern OK, although we didn’t lose power for long, it could have been much worse). I couldn’t find any as late as June. A little searching after reading your article, though, I found the Big Buddy in stock again at the Lawton Lowes (with the sometimes sought after fan) for $139. Amazon wanted $288 through outside vendors for that version. Thx again!

roadgeek said...

their model is "exclusive to [store name]".

In retail these are called "sheltered" models. Unique only to one store, they have some dinky feature that the standard model doesn't have. I used to sell major appliances, and almost every vendor of any size did this.

The Freeholder said...

Re your Mr. Buddy and large cylinders. I've read that there is a inline filter that you need when running the large cylinders. Apparently without it, you'll kill a heater in a pretty short time.

Rob said...

The filter was cheap, the way I heard it was the bulk propane was not as filtered as the one pound bottles. I ran mine without the filter for some time before I spent the $10 for one.

B said...

In a pinch, you can use Jet-A for the Kerosene heater....

Just sayin'. Likely the airport will have power or a fuel truck. Might take some convincing of the fueler, but with the right bakeesh all things are possible

JohnBlock@gmail.com said...

The Buddy heaters can be run off the 20 pound cylinders, wirh an adapter hose...we do so.

Candygram4mongo said...

Silicon grease (“divers’ grease) for the O-ring on your hose fitting and Teflon plumbers’ tape for threaded parts of the hose couplings. Spare hoses are important too. We ended up replacing hoses about once every three tank changes where we had a 20# tank tied to a Little Buddy. 2nd winter we swapped for a big buddy unit that had self-contained 20# storage.

Armoured said...

Surprised that none of these comments have addressed the real force multiplier: any chance you can improve your R-value by getting blown-in insulation? Or add continuous board under new siding? Could even be for just a portion of the house if doing the whole thing isn't feasible. Problem being that all the options listed here are short-term solutions and highly vulnerable to any long-term supply-chain instability. Better insulation won't solve that, but it will extend the utility of any supplies you are able to keep/source. Plus it's the only option that will also save you money outside of a shtf situation and might just add value to your house too.

Oh and I'll back up what the others have said: 1lb propane bottles are really only useful in a car camping situation. The refills all end up leaking before long and if the semi-portability isn't important, there's absolutely no reason not to use the cheaper and more reliable 20lb tanks.

Unknown said...

Non-vented propane heaters put a LOT of moisture into the air - approx 1 lb of water vapor for every lb of propane consumed.

Don in Oregon

Orvan Taurus said...

I have own of the Buddy Mr. Heater dual-tank units. While it can be run on only one, it should not be run "full blast" on just one - the gas expansion results in significant cooling of the cylinder. Something to consider adding is a small fan - there are piezo-powered units (meant to set atop a wood stove, for example) that will do fine without need for batteries/cells.

Orvan Taurus said...

Pardon, not piezo (oy) but thermo-electric.

Stephen said...

Tried ordering two buddy heaters from Wally online, disappeared got a refund. Purchased two off the bay, order was cancelled by the seller no reason. Found two additional sellers and bought them and am waiting for those to arrive. Small house only need two. Bought the inline filters for connecting large propane tanks instead of using the 1lb green bottles.

Definitely was on my mind over the summer after reading more about texas. We have natural gas for heat but a few years ago there was a problem in MA where it was out for several months. Figured it was a worthwhile investment. Now to get the well connected again and working...