Burning The Midnight Oil

No literally, I’m writing this late at night, and wondering just how many people have really given thought to how they will see at night.  Whether you are preparing for a couple days of power outages due to an event such as an ice-storm, or some longer-term emergency, it’s not feasible to expect that you can run a generator 24/7 in order to still be able to flick the lights.

Ancient Oil Lamp
Ancient Oil Lamp

While our ancestors did keep better time with the sun, there was still a need for light outside of what the sun provided, and we all know you can’t store *enough* batteries for every need.  In this situation, many people will immediately fall back to the use of candles as a primary source of light.  While candles are useful, there is a better answer.  Candles tend to release a lot of smoke which will leave soot over time, they are an open flame, which is dangerous, and are very subject to drafts. The better answer for indoor lighting of course is the lamp, which from ancient time, in many cultures has provided simple, clean, and efficient lighting to humanity.


There are three main types of fuel delivery systems, which govern the fuels used in a given lamp.  They also make a very large difference in the usual light output for a given lamp.  The first delivery system is the one you would associate most with ancient lamps, such as the one pictured, or the usual image of the genie-in-the-lamp.  The lamp itself would be made out of a common material of the locality, such as terra-cotta, or bronze, and provide a container for holding the locally available fuel.  This fuel would then have some form of nozzle allowing a small amount of fuel to be available, and lit.  It was then dependent on the nozzle itself to regulate how much fuel was available, along with enough oxygen for the fuel to burn.  The flame would then provide the light necessary.  With this type of device there isn’t too much control over how much light is given, or controlling the burn rate.  However, these are simple to create, and can burn a large variety of simple oils as fuel.  Greeks often burned olive oil, while the Egyptians used Castor oil while the 19th century saw the increase in use of whale oil as a primary fuel. One of the great developments from the simple lamp was the development of the wick, basically a porous material that could be inserted into the fuel, and would deliver a rationed amount to be burned.  This rate could then be modified by changing the length of the wick, in order to provide more light, or increase the burn time.  This separation from the flame and the actual fuel reservoir also allowed more volatile forms of fuel to be used, such as Kerosene, and liquid paraffin. Beyond wick delivery, people developed ways to pressurize the fuel, which allows much greater control in fuel rates, as well as mixing it with air.  This leads to being able to use ever more explosive fuels safely, as well as much brighter light.

Today, most camping lanterns use Propane canisters, or White Gas (Coleman Fuel).  Some higher end white gas lanterns (and stoves) come in multi-fuel options, which in hard times allow you to burn other fuels such as unleaded gas.  That should be a last resort though, as they aren’t as clean, and can gunk up the internals.

Simple lanterns usually use kerosene, also called liquid paraffin.  This petroleum derivative is processed like gas, and creates a clear liquid that is highly flammable, and similar to diesel fuel.  When using in lamps, please make sure to only use the ultra-pure types, such a ‘K-1’ grade, and never use ‘dyed’ types.  The dyed varieties contain impurities that can damage better lamps, as well as release fouler smelling gasses in the air.

Lantern Types

Below is a list of a few of the indoor lamps that I have.


Think back to the days of yore, well actually to the 17 to 18 hundreds, your average Victorian household.  Or just think about some Amish households nowadays.  Up at night, walking around, what do they use to see?  Well, candles are a little more archaic than many use for a nice household.  Instead they have a very nice looking glass device, it has a wide bottom, with a narrow brass center, and a tall narrow glass top.  Well, a lot like some of the pictures I have up here.  It’s a classic design for a wick based oil-lamp. These are excellent ways to get some basic light around your house.  They are a tried-and true design, and you can find versions that will make any spouse happy they are there accenting the decor of your home.  You can find ultra-cheap models (I have some from wal-mart) as low as $4 or so, to very, very, nice ones for a couple hundred.  They all follow the same basic principles though.  The bottom reservoir holds its fuel source, and the central metal section (the stove) gives some basic gears that allow you to lower or raise the wick to control the flame.  The oxygen is brought in through holes in this section, and the flame is contained by the narrow globe.

This design provides far better light than a candle, in a much safer design, and it can be very economical with its fuel.  They can burn either Kerosene (high grade, k1) or Paraffin (standard pure grade), which with a good grade of fuel smells very good, and doesn’t create soot.  Do be warned, the chimney will get very hot, so don’t try to grab it when moving.  This does show another benefit of the lamps, in that they give a good amount of clean heat (though not a huge amount), and you can actually cook small things on them if careful.  A quick reading with my thermometer on mine maxed out at the 400° limit.

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The hurricane lantern is a sturdy design similar to the classic models, except for some specific reinforcements.  The globe is reinforced with some wiring, and there is a chimney top to prevent wind from blowing out the flame.  Many of these are built quite cheaply nowadays, such as my Wal-Mart special, providing basic light quite cheaply.  Nicer ones can be found, and they will be much stronger, and will just feel better.  They won’t provide much more light though.[amtap amazon:asin=B000GP1ICS]


And now my favorite indoor lamp.  I have heard the Aladdin called the Cadillac of the lamp world, and I would absolutely agree with that sentiment.

Aladdin Lamp
Aladdin Lamp

Aladdin makes a series of lanterns of extremely high quality, that use their own lighting method.  At he heart, they are basically a classic oil lamp, with  a reservoir bottom, a wick, and a tall chimney.  But there are several key differences that truly set them apart.

The wick of the aladdin is a tube of cloth, that wraps around part of its central nozzle.  Great thought has been put into controlling the correct airflow into the nozzle to maximize output, and it shows.  While classic lamps use the flame from the wick to provide the yellow light that you want, the aladdin limits the flame in order to concentrate it and ignite a mantle.  The mantle is a small mesh hood made of a rare-earth material (often thorium), and when heated, it glows incandescently.  And I mean it glows bright white.

Lighting one of these lamp is very simple.  The top detaches to expose the wick as with any other lamp, and is lit the same.

Aladdin mantle and view of burning wick
Aladdin mantle and view of burning wick

Just keep the flame low at first, and reattach the top, and slowly raise the wick as you begin to see the mantle glow.  When first lighting, the wick might take a few seconds to ‘generate’, as it warms up.  Within ten seconds or so, the glow will multiply, until the lamp is burning much like a 60-watt bulb!

The light that comes from this lamp is amazing, you can easily read with just one of these running nearby.  It’s also not a funny yellow color, but a true white light that spreads very well.  An added benefit of the lamp is the heat output, while the classic lamps do have a high temperature out of the chimney, this easily beats them.  My thermometer maxed out almost immediately when testing mine, and without asking my wife noted the temperature change in our living room when I took ours out.  Heat output seems to be rated at 2000 to 3500 BTU’s (depending on model, and wick settings), which outdoes my small propane heaters.

The downside of and Aladdin lamp is the cost, usually in the $150 range for a single lamp.  But if you can afford one, boy are they a comfort to have around, and great looking too.  The Aladdin company still makes them, and in a wide variety of styles, from wall-hanging, to decorative mantles.  These lamps are built to last, and I know mine was handed down in the family.

The costs do add up compared to classic lamps though, beyond the higher entry cost for the lamp itself, the aladdin’s need mantles, which are about $7 each.  Mantles are fragile, but with care they do last.  It would be wise to have some in store though, since they aren’t very good without it.  Also they do require the highest grade lamp oil, and with that expensive, precision of equipment, don’t try being cheap on the cheapest part of the machine.

Mantle lamps do use quite a bit more fuel than your standard oil lamp, though still meager compared to many lamps.  It runs approximately one gallon of fuel for 50 hours of run time.

Oil lamps
Oil lamps

Pressurized Gas and Propane

Most people that camp are used to these types of lamp.  Popularized by the ubiquitous Coleman lantern style, they are wickless mantle based lamps, using a pressurized delivery system to increase the burn temperature.  They do a great job of controlling the flow of fuel to maximize the light output, while still being relatively meager with fuel usage.  They do still use a lot more fuel than the non-pressurized aladdin system, but the multi-mantle versions are capable of putting out more light, and are quite a bit cheaper.  There are drawbacks however.  First, they aren’t nearly as nice looking, and second, with their burn rate and other fuels, they output higher amounts of carbon monoxide.  You should always have a carbon monoxide detector around with these just to be safe.

Gas Lamps
Gas Lamps

Propane based lamps are nice because they are dead simple to use.  The fuel is contained, generates immediately unless you are in extreme cold weather (below zero), and can come in smaller bottles, or you can get attachments for the larger containers, sharing fuel with stoves and other devices.

White gas models are a little more work, they require manual pressurization after you fill the tank.  It requires dealing with an open, liquid fuel.  And they take a little work to get to generate usually, getting the temperature up to the right level and output to give out their full capacity of light.  These lamps are very nice though, in that you dont’ have to worry about having extra propane bottles around, you can fill with inexpensive ‘Coleman’ fuel, unleaded gas, and more.

These lamps are very nice for mixed usage, especially with camping outdoors, often built for harder work.  Many will come with, or you can buy extra special containers to make travel easier.

There are pressurized oil-lamps as well, but they are often at least, and usually more expensive than the aladdins.  While I’d love to review one, what i read is that you can get the increased light output of the pressurized gas lantern, at the expense of having to pump, and use a lot more fuel.


All lit up
All lit up

Oil and gas based lamps should be a part of any families preparedness plans.  Especially in a modern home, they are a safe alternative to many other kinds of flame based lighting.  They can be decorative parts of the home when not in use, and it’s easy to find and store sufficient amounts of fuel for most any plans.  Light will give your family comfort in a time of need, and allow for any necessary activities.  Having a light source that is not dependant on the sun, on electricity, or having to manually run something can give you just a little more peace of mind, especially when that freak winter storm drops your power for a week in the middle of winter (or whatever disaster you are preparing for).  Armed with this little bit of knowledge, you could provide some light for a week for under $10, and without problem augment that capacity in time, or candlepower as you continue to prepare.

If you can, something like an aladdin lamp is worth having, it looks great, provides great light and heat, and is efficient.  But that’s a lot of money! Camping lanterns are great to have, especially if you plan on going outdoors.  Get one that uses the same fuel you use in a camping stove, and stock up.  If you get a white-gas lamp, pay the little extra and get the multi-fuel. And for those on a budget (who isn’t?) a couple of the cheapest classic lamps still work very well, and are so cheap to get started with, why wouldn’t you?  Wal-Mart tends to have the classic lamps near the candles, along with fuel bottles.  What a great, inexpensive gift for somebody you know.  The cheaply made versions of hurricane lamps they carry are sometimes with the others lamps, but also often in their camping section.
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Author: Jayce

I’m a Software Engineer that grew in the Pacific Northwest. I moved to Utah for a job in 98 and have stuck around ever since. I’ve always been preparedness-minded, since my family always had that as a focus. I love the great outdoors, enjoying the dichotomy of the split from regular gadget driven life to back country minimalist experiences. An avid scouter, and camper. No farm now, but grew up running an aviary, and logging to earn money.

5 thoughts on “Burning The Midnight Oil”

  1. Funny story, maybe.

    A few years ago we were canoeing. For whatever wacky reason we didn’t have a lantern. I think we had a flashlight, maybe. Anyways, we had beer. Lots of beer. We also had our food.

    We made oil lamps from the bottle caps. Fill cap with veggie oil, Stick in a little piece of paper as a wick. Light. Light. The only problem was having to refill the itsy bitsy little caps.

    Goes to show though that you can use any non-flammable container as an oil lamp.

  2. Funny story, maybe.

    A few years ago we were canoeing. For whatever wacky reason we didn’t have a lantern. I think we had a flashlight, maybe. Anyways, we had beer. Lots of beer. We also had our food.

    We made oil lamps from the bottle caps. Fill cap with veggie oil, Stick in a little piece of paper as a wick. Light. Light. The only problem was having to refill the itsy bitsy little caps.

    Goes to show though that you can use any non-flammable container as an oil lamp.

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