Power Outage When You Have Electric Heat

This is primarily for those who have electric heat in the home, as opposed to oil or gas heat. What happens when there’s a power outage during the cold winter? It gets cold mighty fast…

Given the winter season, for those of you who rely on electric heating systems, here’s a question… What would you do if the power went out for more than a few hours, and how would you stay warm?

Here’s the problem, and why you might want to give it some thought…

Home with electric heat may typically have ‘baseboards’ in every room. They contain electrical heating elements. And those electric heating elements require LOTS of electricity. In fact, so much so – that a typical portable home generator is not anywhere near powerful enough. They don’t output enough power that would be needed for the electric heating system in the house.

Many of these individual baseboard heater panels may typically draw 1,000 watts or 1,500 watts (each), or thereabouts. A typical room (equipped with electric heat) may have lots of these baseboard units. A home’s overall power demands for electric baseboard heat adds up very quickly. It is well beyond the capabilities of a typical home generator – not to mention the other demands which would be placed on the generator as well…

So, what is one to do during the winter if you are stuck with electric heat and wish to be better prepared for a power outage from a major winter storm (or whatever causes the power outage)?

There are several alternatives, some more expensive than others, which you might consider.

Gas Heater-Furnace

direct-vent-gas-wall-heater

You might consider augmenting your electric heat with some gas heat. You could approach this as a renovation. Orr you could consider installation of a single gas heater-furnace (e.g. wall mount). Or several (depending on the size of your home).

There are many varieties of gas heater wall units that are designed to attach to a wall. A logical option might be to select a heater that is designed to attach to (and through) an exterior wall in which the gas feeder line and the heater’s exhaust would be routed. These are called direct-vent natural gas heaters. If your street has a gas line running through it, you might consider the expense of tapping into it. However a less expensive approach might be to sign up with a bottled gas company whereby an appropriate size gas bottle would be set outside and would directly feed your heater(s).

Direct Vent Propane Wall Heaters
(amzn)

This project would cost some money for sure, but not terribly much (everything’s relative I suppose). It would potentially provide you with the BTU’s necessary to maintain a reasonably safe temperature in your home during a longer term winter power outage. Not only that, but by augmenting your electric heat, you will reduce your electric bill, while incurring a corresponding gas bill – which may cost less $$.

Portable Propane Heater

If you don’t want to spend the money to set yourself up with a permanent gas wall heater, then you might think about smaller portable gas heaters. However be sure that what you choose is safe for indoor operation (many are not). Though you should ALWAYS have a carbon monoxide detector in operation (common sense).

For example, you might choose to purchase one or more of a portable propane heater like this model,

Mr. Heater Buddy Indoor-Safe (4,000 , 9,000 and 18,000 BTU)
(amzn)

…which produces up to 18,000 Btu. Although my home is currently heated with LP propane gas heat, I also have this model (Mr. Heater) as a portable emergency solution (for whatever). If you go down this road, you will want to get yourself an extension hose which allows you to connect to a bottled gas tank such as the one for your BBQ grill. Otherwise you will be changing LOTS of those little 1-pound cylinders (which costs lots more too).

[ Read: Buddy Heater Run Time | 1-lb & 20-lb Tanks ]

[ Read: Carbon Monoxide Symptoms ]

There are other portable heater solutions too. Just do your research and settle on what works for you.

Wood or Pellet Stove

wood-stove-insert

Another obvious solution to your problem of reliance on electric heat during a power outage, is to utilize a wood stove or pellet stove. I also have a pellet stove. It heats half the house during winter.

If you currently have a fireplace, be aware that if you use it (as is) for heat, you will heat up the room nicely, but it will actually draw the heat out of other rooms. A fireplace insert is the best way to ensure a more efficient way to heat your home. A fireplace reflector will help a bit too.

[ Read: Fireplace Reflectors Improve Wood Burning Heat Efficiency ]

Ideally you would purchase an appropriate size wood stove insert for your fireplace. This would seal off the fireplace itself while accommodating the exhaust of the wood stove. As you know, a wood stove does not require electricity. Sounds like a win-win. You might be surprised how even a small size wood stove can heat up the place…

If you don’t already have a fireplace in your home, then you could choose to install a stand-alone wood stove or pellet stove. This would cost more due to the appropriate efforts to properly and safely exhaust the stove to the exterior of your home.

When all else fails when your electric heat is out…

Okay, lets say you don’t want to spend any money to augment your electric heat in case of power failure. At a minimum, at least consider this…

Example. You could potentially be stuck in your home (assuming the weather is bad and the region is out of power for awhile). Your home will quickly get c-c-cold. Be sure that you have appropriate winter-weather warm clothes. Insulated clothing. Warm blankets. A good winter weather sleeping bag. Thermals for under your clothes. A well-insulated coat, hat, gloves. It may be uncomfortable for awhile, but it sure will help!

If you have candles, the flame from a single candle can make a surprising difference in psychology during the emergency, and you will be able to warm your hands. Just be careful that you don’t burn your house down…

It’s all about HEAT in the winter (especially for those living in northern latitudes). If your home is heated solely by electric heat, then consider power outages. For example, what you would do in an emergency where an ice-storm strikes the region and topples countless trees onto power lines, bringing your section of the grid down. All while travel is impossible and your are stuck in your home for days or longer until the power is finally restored…

By the way, if you have an oil or gas heat furnace, they still require electricity to run ignitors, pumps and blowers. The temporary solution in that case is simply procuring a portable home generator which can easily feed the relatively small power demands for this. Electric heat though — you’re outta luck.

[ Read: Warmest Winter Blanket ]

24 Comments

  1. I’m in Central Oregon and it does get fairly cold. The coldest I’ve seen at my house was -2 . I have a heat pump but they lose efficiency right around 32 degrees. At least mine does. So, as long as the power is on I augment with a portable oil heater until the temps reach the mid 20’s then I get out my Buddy heater. I have several 20lb tanks and if the heater is run on the low setting it lasts for about 100 hours. It was one of the best investments that I ever bought. Mine is getting older but still works just fine. Been thinking of getting another one to put back for JIC. Filling a 20 lb tank is running about $11.50 this year.

    1. aka,
      the buddy heaters are great. during our ice storm last year they were a lot of help. we have two coleman camp stoves to cook with. we dressed warm in layers and did like the two old bears that we are and hibernated in the bed. five days and we did alright. hand warmers would have come in real handy but we didn’t have any then, we do now.
      Hint. put your clothes in the bed with you at night. it will help to keep you warmer and they won’t be as cold when you put them on the next morning. there is nothing like jumping out of a warm bed into some frozen britches!

    2. AKA, those Buddy heaters are great. We use it instead of both our central heating and fireplace, (both run on propane which is going for $5-$6/ gallon here in CA). Those 20 lb tanks are the way to go. Trying to think ahead, we bought an extra Buddy heater just in case, but all the new ones don’t have the fan feature, (which helps immensely with the heat circulation) any longer. The customers are letting the Buddy makers have it on the reviews as well. 20lb exchanges and fills are still around $18-$20 but are still worth it.

      1. Yes, mine does have the fan but I just turn on the ceiling fan which of course won’t work with a power outage. I have batteries for the fan if needed though. Hmm, I should check and see if they are still any good. Bi- Mart has them on sale, at least according to the add, don’t know if they actually any though. I do have a carbon monoxide detector also that sits fairly close by. Bought that from a recommendation here on MSB.

  2. My main winter heat is the outdoor boiler, no power=no water pumps moving the heat.
    There is the indoor wood burner but in the middle of winter that barely keeps the house decent
    but It works.
    The indoor burner is spring and fall heating.

    Lit the outdoor boiler a few hours ago, door handle broke, can’t open it now.
    If something can fail, it will.
    Have to attempt to fix that now.

  3. A free standing stove is the best bet for heating especially if you have an ECO fan to move the heat out farther in the rooms.Most wood burners have some cooking area.Fireplaces and flush mounted stoves are a poor alternative.They
    are nice to look at but that’s about it.
    Propane space heaters even with all of new safety features scare me.As Dan Bongino says(Don’t get dead)!!

  4. Nice thing about the direct vented through-the-wall heaters is that the combustion chamber is sealed. No chance of Carbon Monoxide build up in the home. I have specified and installed them in a number of houses, as high as 7000′ elevation. Make sure you buy them with the millivolt control system that does not require line voltage (120ac)! to run. Only issue I have had is in very windy weather, the internal pilot light may go out and you have to go through start up cycle again. This will very by model. DO NOT buy and install a “ventless” gas heater, regardless of what integrated safety shutoff they tout, especially for installs above 5000′ elevation ( where they do not get enough O2, and burn dirty making Carbon Monoxide).

  5. We have a wood stove with a 2-rack oven and a small fire box. We live about 90 miles north of the Gulf Coast, so the weather is not extremely cold, but it can drop into the teens. Last winter in our new house, we never turned on the central heat unit, except to check that it worked; instead, we used the wood stove. The whole house is comfortable (about 1500 square feet).

  6. My new house (a prefab home) has a (cracked) fireplace. I had planned to put a small portable wood burning stove in the existing fireplace and vent it through the existing chimney, but the stove turned out to be too big.

    I spoke to a repair guy this week and he said that it’s illegal to put an insert in a modular home fireplace. Research shows that this is because these fireplaces aren’t designed for those levels of heat, and tend to break down, overheat, explode, etc.

    I’m not sure what to do at this point. I know I need an additional heat source, but all standalone stoves and most inserts are too big for the existing space.

    1. Lauren
      Depending on where it is located, you may be able to have a fireplace build that extends out of the home where the other one sets presently. If that is a no, then possible another walled area to install one.
      P. Lewis, she and her hubby installed a cooking woodstove/oven in their manufactured home. Believe she prefers it over the propane unit in the wintertime. Something to think about as this would give you a way to cook and heat the home. There is also the piping that can be run from the stove into the hot water system so you would have hot water for dishes and showers.
      Yes, thinking outside the box again.

    2. Lauren, There are very small stoves made for tent camping. Might check out the dimensions on them. They might fit. Here’s an example: amazon.com/Vikiullf-Camping-Wood-Stove-Ice-fishing/dp/B09JV9R5T3/ref=mp_s_a_1_2_sspa?crid=1YGJ1UVCI3BL2

    3. Laren, u tube live simple live free mini cubic wood stove, also review of ecofan.

    4. Lauren, ditto on AC’s advice, first get a certified repairman, and when they spout can’t do this and can’t do that you need some other inputs. I have installed several fireplaces into modular homes and you need to spend a few extra dollars for double wall exhaust pipe and if you want add a boxed in chimney add on to the house to match the siding they are fairly cheap to put on. Also I like the 700 hundred dollar wood stoves at TSC (tractor supply) they will ship right to your home. Something to consider good luck

  7. For a cheap backup heater, consider the diesel cab heaters on eBay ($100 to 140). They require 12vdc, which could be supplied from your car, and diesel (or cut with motor oil, hydraulic oil, transmission fluid, kerosine, liquid paraffin, white gas). They require an exhaust and air supply port for the supplied exhaust (with muffler) and air supply tubes. The burn chamber is totally enclosed, and the heat is blown out a vent port through a vent hose to where it is needed. It burns about half a gallon of fuel per eight hours. There are lots of videos to review regarding this heater. It could provide a multi-fuel, cheap alternative heat when required.

  8. Yes have pondered this for several years, our house we bought about 3 years ago is all electric, and sine it’s out in the county I don’t know why the people didn’t put at least a fire place in but they did a. So I do have few tanks of propane, and Coleman black cat heater. I guess that will have to do

  9. A good blog post would be how to convert your pellet stove to a wood burning stove (safely) – I can’t find anything on this

  10. 007 do you have a spot in the house where you can/want to put a wood/pellet stove? You can get double or even triple wall stove pipe for a stove. My house also is all electric but, I have a brick fireplace already. A fireplace doesn’t give off much heat unless, you are standing in front of it. I was able to install a fireplace insert so, I can still heat and cook if I lose power. If you do decide to install a stove, just make sure that the floor will handle the weight.

  11. If you are going to buy a wood pellet stove, I would recommend getting a 12VDC to 120VAC inverter for the auger and fan. That way when the power is out, you can still run your pellet stove with the inverter hooked up to your car and an extension cord to your stove. You would have to idle the car every couple of hours to maintain your battery. If your stove doesn’t have glow plug fire starters, you should be able to get away with a 500-watt inverter. I would also recommend a true sine inverter just to make sure it works, and you don’t break anything. This inverter could be used singularly and alternately with the fridge or freezer.

    1. not so sure – If I may be so bold – you’ll smoke the donor-vehicle alternator very quickly that way. Right now you can get a 2+kw dual-fuel inverter generator for $400. It already comes with a pure sine wave board, it’s designed to support the load you outlined and it is incredibly efficient by throttling down to match load so it sips fuel. You can use gasoline or propane, it’s super-quiet and can be stashed in a closet when not needed. Newer units can even hook up to your house and use natural gas too.

  12. Pretty much everyone has a grill of some kind when you cook on it heat a pan , pot , or pail of rocks they’ll give off heat for hours . Heat wave no but it will keep you from freezing

  13. I have used the direct vent propane heater in a 24′ X 24′ cabin during a very cold winter and it worked great. Just whatever system you chose for emergency heat install it asap as it seems everything heat producing is getting harder to fix and to source. I had a friend wait six months for a heat pump part.

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  15. I am in a highrise (12 storey) condominium apartment and we have electric heat. Over the years the condo board has changed some of the common area electric heat systems to natural gas. We also have a diesel generator for one elevator (for medical entry), hallway lights, the kitchen in the party room which includes a fridge, stove, phone charging stations, lights, and the building entry system and garage door operation. The condo corporation and board are undergoing emergency preparedness initiatives. Meanwhile in my own unit, I have a lot of sherpa fleece jackets, winter clothes including snow pants, hats and mitts, plus fleece blankets. Also non-perishable food items that do not require cooking. None of my current medications need to be refrigerated. Soy and oat milk tetra packs will suffice for coffee, tea and cereal. I have eaten cold soup such as tomato and I actually enjoy it, especially in the warm months. I am on a very low floor and I can still use the stairs. The garbage chutes get locked when there is a power failure but people often carry bags of their trash to the garbage room for the superintendent to deal with. There are the 1800 junk removal companies in a pinch so that the trash from 200 units could be removed offsite if it cannot be compacted and is too much for our weekly (2 dumpsters full of regular trash, 2 of cardboard and paper recycling and 2 of cans and plastic recycling). The indoor pool and gym would be shut down in event of a power failure. The library would be popular for people to read books during daylight hours or with a flashlight at night.

    1. Condominium Lady,
      i really like the idea of a party (conference) room and library! the pool could be used as a source of water if needed. a few buckets and a way to purify it would come in real handy for that.
      how is security on the building? glass doors or metal?
      best of luck always.—

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