September 15, 2012

For how long will the lights be out?

Even if you don’t live in a rural area prone to extended electrical outages from windstorms and drunk guys driving into power poles, this is a question most of us find ourselves asking each year, especially in winter. Autumn. That time of year that is almost upon us. Yes, you can pay for expensive battery-powered light gadgets (a few of which we endorse)…but then what, after the batteries run out because PG&E just can’t get it fixed? You can be better prepared using tried and true (mostly) old-time methods, for a lot less money, and you can even have a little fun doing it. Here are some ideas we use at the farm, some of which make for great craft projects with the kids. Not to mention, we hope these teach some skills which shouldn’t have been drowned out by “modern living.”

LED Camping Lantern: Have one or two. These are the brightest light sources, but also the biggest battery “dollar hogs”, usually using at least four costly “D” batteries each. For playing a family board game or reading a book, they work best, giving off even, very bright light. Store these with new batteries removed, so that there is no accidental corrosion of the battery chamber. If you feel you cannot make use of the more traditional items that use open flames we are about to discuss, have a bigger budget so you can have many more of these and the extra batteries to go with.

Working flashlights with batteries: In the age of cheap, super bright LED models, this is a no-brainer. Every person in the house capable of holding and using one should have TWO, as well as a spare set of batteries. Especially for households with younger children, I recommend something like this:  at $6 per, they won’t break the budget. They can clip on to clothing to prevent being misplaced. Why did I say “two per person”? Because during multi-day outages I guarantee someone if not everyone will put their flashlight down somewhere. And when the electricity comes back on or daylight arrives, their location might be easily forgotten. Not to mention, most children are flashlight junkies and will play with and possibly break them, no matter what you say. So it’s good to have spares. All flashlights and batteries should be stored in a known location. Like with the lanterns, store the flashlights with batteries removed. You know those plastic containers of salad or cherry tomatoes you’ve been recycling? Clean one…they are superb for storing just this kind of thing. But, batteries don’t last forever and sometimes it proves unnerving to have flashlight beams searing everyone’s eyeballs. And on the farm, we need to save our flashlights for something that really matters, like going outside for extended checks on our animals and infrastructure at night. That’s why you should also have….

Hurricane lamps: Yes, those things that cost about $10 at the hardware store and use the kerosene lamp oil. We have four of them, and we think you should have at least that many too. One for each bathroom in use, and, one for each corridor of movement through the house. These are your “night lights” to help everyone navigate the house safely. Don’t forget to buy 1-2 bottles of extra oil, because after you fill your new lamps, you’ll already be out. “But I have little kids, I can’t use those, they aren’t safe.” Well, for decades before electricity was harnessed adults and children alike used…..wait for it…..oil lamps. You and your kids can and should know how to use these safely. They are very safe, and only become unsafe when someone unfamiliar with them or lacking knowledge about proper safety precautions around open flames tries to make use of them. Everyone should know and understand that information!! If you don’t, here:

So if you find you can embrace the past, I am going to mention tips in this blog that aren’t often found elsewhere. Don’t just buy the lamp(s) and store it in the garage. Buy it, take it home, and have the whole family understand how it works. Children old enough to have some manual dexterity should participate. If your child can use scissors to cut a basic pattern out of a piece of paper without struggling, he or she should be able to use a lamp.

There are four main parts, top to bottom….chimney (glass top thingy), burner (the wick-raiser knob is on this part), collar (screws onto the glass/ceramic/metal thing that holds the oil), lamp body/ base (where the oil is). . Now that you can name your lamp’s parts, notice how the four prongs that hold the chimney should be bent inward enough so that the chimney is held on securely, and can’t wobble. Remove the chimney. Now try to replace the chimney. It helps to tilt the chimney, resting its lower edge against two of the prongs, then move the chimney upright so that the remaining prongs just catch the rest of the glass. The hand not holding the chimney may need to gently pull back on the two prongs so that the chimney can go into place. Adjust these prongs if necessary, so that everyone can put the chimney back on the unlit lamp somewhat quickly. Next, with the chimney removed, also remove the burner/collar assembly and fill the lamp body with the oil, up to an inch below the neck of the lamp body. The new wick will need to first be fully soaked in the lamp oil. To do this, feed the wick through the bottom of the (usually thin brass) burner while turning the wick-raising knob in the proper direction. Now submerge the long end of the wick in the lamp body holding the oil. and screw the burner/collar with wick onto lamp body. Give the wick a moment, the oil will absorb and travel up the wick. (This happens by something called “capillary action” and is a teachable moment for your kids!) Sometimes it takes longer to saturate the part of the wick protruding above the burner. If you can see that this section of the wick is dry, or if you are in a big hurry, raise the wick up through the lamp until you come to the saturated part. Then carefully fill the lamp oil bottle’s cap with oil. Allow the dry end of the wick to dip into the cap. The entire wick should be quickly saturated. Carefully return any unused oil to the lamp oil bottle and replace the cap. Then, adjust the wick so that it is just barely above the brass cap of the burner. At this point, if you spilled any lamp oil, wash your hands clean of any lamp oil and wipe up any spills with a paper towel.

Using a match or lighter, light the lamp by touching the flame to the top of the wick. It may take a moment to ignite. If it will not light, raise the wick up a little more and try again. Once the lamp is lit, columns of black sooty smoke will go up from the lamp unless you quickly lower the wick down below the brass cap of the burner. Have in mind ahead of time which way to turn the wick raising knob! You only want a tiny flame. Now replace the chimney, like you practiced doing earlier. With the chimney in place, the flame will become bigger. Reduce the flame again, so that the lamp is as bright as possible while generating no smoke. This is part of what is called “trimming” the lamp. [You can even make the flame have a particular shape if you wish…I won’t go into it here, but Google “how to trim an oil lamp”.] You now have a usable lamp. Everyone needs to know that in moments the chimney will become very HOT and should not be touched. It is best to light the lamp in the place it will be needed. Do not transport a lit lamp. Everyone should practice until they can properly light and trim the lamp without assistance. Let your children who are able perform these steps under your supervision. Emphasize the importance of understanding how the lamp works and being careful around it—no horseplay, no running, always moving slowly and deliberately. Think before you do, and NEVER light the lamp without an adult’s presence and permission—it is not a toy. If your learning session made the chimney sooty, clean it once it is cooled with dishsoap and water. A dirty lamp doesn’t give much light, and a lamp in use should be cleaned, oiled (adding more oil) and inspected daily. Now that you know how to use the lamp, and it is filled and ready, store it until needed. I place a clean, plastic produce bag upside down over our lamps to keep them dust-free and ready for use. When you need the lamp, where to put it? First and foremost, on a solid platform, large enough that knocking the lamp off accidentally would be difficult, out of the way of human and animal traffic, with nothing else capable of catching on fire nearby. And anywhere that is near a mirror is a bonus, since mirrors amplify light. So each bathroom countertop is choice #1. On top of your kitchen range (while not in use!!) is choice #2. Dining room tables and other uncluttered tabletops are #3. Other locations may be a possibility, and, the advantage of this kind of lamp is that it can still function well in the presence of some air movement. NEVER place the lamp where it has even a remote chance to fall and break…the fuel will go everywhere and most likely ignite, with very serious consequences. Use these lamps in the home only….do not use them in animal barns/pens or in locations where large amounts of flammable materials are stored, or anywhere else where an open flame might cause a fire. If you must have an outdoor oil lamp, look into obtaining a railroad-type oil lamp that is designed for such use. Do not forget to extinguish all lamps before retiring for the night, as an added safety measure…though if you must leave one open-flame item in use, a hurricane lamp is your safest bet. We don’t leave them on because we live with nine cats and feel it is too risky. Blow out the flame by puffing down the chimney. You can also turn the wick down to starve the flame of air, but can accidentally send the wick into the lamp body.

Small oil lamps: we have a few on hand that are made of glass, with only a wick that goes down into a base holding the oil. They can be held easily in the palm of one’s hand. While not giving as much light as a hurricane lamp, they can be placed on smaller surfaces. Again, use these ahead of time to make sure they work correctly. Make sure the wicks are adjusted so that no soot is produced. The opening for filling with oil on these lamps can be quite narrow. One trick to know: liquid will always track down a vertical surface. Place the wick down into the lamp body and SLOWLY pour the oil against the suspended wick. The oil will flow down into the lamp body along the wick, as long as you pour very slowly. Next thread the wick up through the small glass wick holder. Again, the wick must be saturated in oil to work. Once threaded, and with about 1/8” wick protruding, light the map with a match or lighter. Wait for the flame to settle down. If the flame jumps up and is more than 3/4” tall, extinguish the lamp at once (blow out the flame). Lift the wick holder, and gently pull a little more wick downward through the wick holder….just a tiny bit. Re-light and check the flame. You want a stable, non-sputtering or smoking flame that is at most 5/8” tall. Extinguish the lamp, and store your small lamp(s) in a safe place until needed.

Candles: There are many kinds of candles, from huge pillars to votives to tea lights. Candles also make effective aids against the darkness but require knowing some special tips. Candles require the greatest caution, as they are the most apt to cause an accidental fire if the user is careless. Some things to know: every candle, no matter how small, should be in or on secondary containment. We place large candles on special candle plates….but you don’t have to buy those at the candle store. Salad plates or shallow soup plates that have some kind of convexity work great. Thrift stores have many suitable pretty plates at rock bottom prices.

The plate should be some kind of glass or ceramic, ne

ver plastic or paper. Why do you need these? A candle that burns for a long time can suddenly “give way.” The side becomes too soft, and a large volume of scalding hot wax can pour out…and potentially take the flame with it. Always place a candle IN or ON something large enough to contain a spill of wax. This photo shows what I’m talking about; these candles were left burning after the guests departed from a summer evening patio party. Both the wick and half the wax was on fire…but the candle plate prevented a major mess or worse from happening.


Votives can go it votive holders or small mason jars or drinking glasses; same with tea light candles. Burning candles should always be checked regularly, but if you are using them in an outage, you might not be patrolling each room of your home every half hour. So use your correctly sized plates! What about tapered candles? I don’t recommend them for use because they lean and drip wax very easily…but they do have one special use. They are perfect for use as Walking Candles. Sometimes, a person had to go from point A to B with some illumination, and a device for a handheld candle really helped. You might like them too, after you consider a few things. First, do they work for you? Go outside tonight or to another dark place with any candle you own. Light it, and try to walk around by the candle’s light. What’s going on? Why can you barely see? The candle is blinding you at the same time it is lighting your way. Holding the candle with your arm outstretched helps, but that’s pretty tiring! Also, you have to be confident that the user has good safety knowledge and common sense….it would be tragic to catch hair or clothes on fire through a moment’s inattention. But if the user is capable, there is a fix for how to make your Walking Candle work beautifully.


On the blog I found this image:

This is a great idea for how to make a safe walking candleholder for a tapered candle. The peg to raise the candle as it burns is very clever, and would work great as long as wax was not allowed to drip down and glue the candle to the wire. I would modify the design to use heavier wire, as well as a broader base so that it was very stable when set down on a surface (use your plate!). If you don’t own a wire jig, wrap wire around a pipe or dowel a little larger in circumference than your tapered candle. The kids would have a lot of fun helping! But wait, isn’t the candle still going to blind you? Here’s where you need to add one more feature….the best old-time walking candleholders had a piece of metal that blocked the candle flame from the sight of the person holding it. There are two ways to add this in: elongate the wire handle and solder a piece of square or round metal to the area where the flame would be. Or, elongate the handle and bend two tight loops into the handle, such that the loops can hold a piece of metal to block the flame. I plan to make one of these out of copper, which is easy to form and solder. Once you apply your ingenuity, you can walk around with your candle all night!

Candles come in two main types: beeswax and petroleum-based. Beeswax candles cost much more but do not give off soot. All candles can cost more than you’d like to pay. For another thrifty project, buy some candle wick at a crafts store. Then comb secondhand stores for candles. You may find new ones, or used ones. Any candle can be re-melted and made into a new one as long as you have wick. We save candles that have “had it” for re-creation. Too messy to tackle? You don’t have to be afraid of wax spills on any surface. Wax on anything, even carpet, can be cleaned up with a paper towel and your clothes iron. Place the paper towel over the wax spill and heat the iron on the silk setting. Gently iron the paper towel. As the iron warms and melts the wax, the paper towel absorbs it. Done!

Storage: at the farm we are fortunate to have an unusually safe storage place for all these flammable items; an unused fireplace–we have a wood stove, so the fireplace that came with the house was just wasted space.  We used to keep them out on the hearlth as decorations, but tired of how icky and dusty the otherwise pretty lamps and candles would quickly become. So here is our assortment, neatly covered and stored for the next time we need them. If our house was different, and we had a large fireplace, it would be fun to have all these lit inside the fireplace for an attractive display on a winter evening!

Only you know the best location in your home, with some things to keep in mind…candles do poorly in hot areas, and oil lamps and bottles should not be stored in a very hot place or near open flames or a furnace….or above an oven or stove. Small candles and votives can fit nicely in a shoebox or plastic salad container as mentioned earlier. Make sure all family members know where they are kept. And don’t forget to have matches or a new lighter stored with your items! No one wants to go to all this effort, only to be stumbling around in the dark trying to find a way to light the lamps and candles! I hope we’ve helped make the next power failure a little more fun or romantic. “We get to get out the oil lamps!”