12 DIY Space Heaters for Home Emergencies - Backyard Boss
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12 DIY Space Heaters for Home Emergencies

The winter months are upon us. This time of year brings the beauty of freshly fallen snow, the magic of the holiday season, and (of course) the bitter cold temperatures! The low temperatures aren’t a huge concern when you’re curled up in your warm, heated home, but what if that heat was no longer available?

Whether you’re stuck in a power outage with no end in sight, waiting for a repair call to address a broken furnace, or faced with a major environmental emergency that has you stuck without the luxury of a typical central heating source, you may find yourself in need of a DIY space heater.

In this guide, we’re going to look at a variety of different solutions for heating your house, garage, or enclosed porch without the need for electricity.

Create a ‘Hot Room’ in Your Home

woman sleeping on mattress on floor
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Before you start putting together emergency heaters in your home, you should take a moment to consider what exactly you are trying to heat. A small DIY heater is not going to have enough power to heat an entire house, nor do you need it to. If you are in a situation where you must resort to a homemade heater, start by selecting a room in your home that can function as the ‘hot room’. This should be an insulated room in your home that is large enough to accommodate your family but isn’t unnecessarily large. Avoid rooms with overly high ceilings, if possible, as this would require heating unused space.

Cover any vents and close off any doorways to other areas of the house, leaving at least one window for ventilation as needed. Set up everything you are going to need for the time being in this space, including mattresses and ways to keep yourself occupied. By limiting the area that you are heating, you make it easier to bring the space to a safe and more comfortable temperature.

Purchase a Tent Heater or Other Indoor-Rated Heater

wood stove with a fire burning
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There are many heaters currently on the market for winter campers and ice fishermen that can be used in a pinch to heat your home. This includes indoor-rated kerosene heaters, propane tent heaters, or portable wood stoves designed for use in a hot tent. Each of these options is highly efficient, heating a small space quickly and even running the risk of overheating your ‘hot room’ if you’re not paying attention.

While these heaters have been created for use in an enclosed space, there is always a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning when burning fuels indoors. Before purchasing a heater, take some time to read into the safety features that it offers. Many portable fuel heaters include a built-in shut-off when it detects that the carbon monoxide levels around it have risen too high. Additionally, you can purchase a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector as an extra safety precaution.

Embrace the Candles

line of candles on a wood surface
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The first thing that comes to mind for most people when it comes to preparing for a power outage is to have candles close at hand. While we instantly associate candles with providing light, a valid concern in these situations, they can also be used as a source of heat. Before you go stocking up on candles, however, it should be mentioned that this is NOT a long-term viable solution. Candles provide very minimal heat, meaning that it will take quite a few to heat a room. Then, as those candles burn out, more will be needed to take their place, which can add up quickly! This is best suited as a short-term fix when the power first goes out and you’re simply looking to maintain the existing heat in a space.

Basic Clay Pot Heater

terra-cotta pots stacked on wooden shelves
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This simple DIY heater is one of the most popular and best-known options on this list, largely due to how simple it is to put together. Better still, the supplies are items that you already have around your home.

You will need:

  • 4 to 6 standard tea lights
  • A 4-inch terra-cotta pot
  • A 6-inch terra-cotta pot
  • Small tiles or bricks to support your terra cotta pots
  • A quarter
  • A fire-safe surface to build your heater on

With your smaller tiles or bricks, create two support piles that are far enough apart that there is space in between but close enough that the smallest pot can rest with the edges on each side supported. You want to provide airflow for the candles, but don’t build it too high or it won’t be as efficient. Place your tea lights in the center and light them. Taking the smaller of your two pots, turn it upside down and place it over the candles using your supports to hold it up. Using the quarter, cover the drain hole on the bottom of this pot. Then, take the larger pot, turn it upside down as well and place it over the smaller pot.

This will function as a hot air heater using convection technology between the pots, which you will be able to feel both on the sides of the larger pot as well as by holding your hand over the air coming through the top of the pot. To keep it running for an extended time, simply replace the tea lights when they burn out. Be careful, however, all of the elements of this heater will become extremely hot to the touch and could pose a burn risk.

Stack Bricks for a Radiant Heater

pile of red bricks
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If you don’t have any terra-cotta pots readily available at home, you can also create a heater using a simple pile of bricks. This is a simple solution that uses radiant heat to provide heat to your home. While we recommend the use of tea lights here, you can use any size of candles. Just keep in mind that you will need to adjust the size of your brick pile to accommodate larger candles.

You will need:

  • Tea lights
  • Several bricks
  • A fire-safe surface to build your heater on

Before building your heater, a quick note on the surface you select. This heating solution will involve significantly more weight than the basic clay pot heater that we shared. You should choose a surface that is not only able to handle the heat that is produced over time but also can support this weight safely.

Stack your bricks in a circle approximately 2 layers high to create the base of your heater. Leave enough room in the center for your candles. For your third layer, stack bricks on two sides of the circle leaving spaces for airflow in between them. Light your candles, placing them into the middle of the pile of bricks before placing a couple of bricks on top to finish your heating structure.

As the candles burn, they will heat the air within the heater, as well as heat the bricks around them. The bricks will continue to radiate heat long after the candles have burned out, extending the length of time that a single set of tea lights can provide heat in your space. This is also an important safety warning! The bricks will be extremely hot for an extended period after the candle has burned out and shouldn’t be handled until they have had time to cool down.

Ceramic Bowl Heater

row of ceramic bowls in different colors
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Another twist on the same concepts shared above, this heater uses the thermal heating capability of ceramic bowls, the same feature that makes them a great option for cooking your food and keeping it warm over time.

You will need:

  • A ceramic bowl or Stoneware
  • 3 or 4 tea lights
  • Bricks or tiles for the side support
  • A small battery-operated fan
  • A fire-safe surface to build your heater on

Just as you did with the basic clay pot heater, build up two supports using tiles or bricks providing for space for the tea lights as well as holding the ceramic bowl suspended above. Light your candles and place them between the supports. Turn your bowl upside down, placing it on the supports so that it sits over the candles. Finally, support your fan behind the heater so that it is aimed at the base of the bowl (the top of your heater). To do this, you might have to stack a couple of bricks to sit your fan on. This will disperse the heat from the bowl out into the room.

While we may sound like a broken record, we do want to note that the ceramic bowl is heating up considerably for this heater to work. This means that it could pose a burn risk if you try to handle the bowl before it has had an opportunity to cool down.

Small Aluminum Can Heater

top of an aluminum pop can
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This compact heater is a little more difficult to assemble than the other options on this list, however, it’s a great choice for those that don’t have the larger items mentioned above available including clay pots, bricks, or ceramic bowls. Alternatively, this can be used in place of the tea lights in a clay pot heater, speeding up the heating process and keeping it burning even longer.

You will need:

  • 3 clean aluminum soda cans
  • A bottle of 70% isopropyl alcohol
  • Fireproof insulation or pipe wrap insulation
  • A penny or small coin

Taking your first can, turn it upside down and hammer a nail into the bottom center of the can to create a hole. Surrounding this first large hole, make 4 smaller holes. This can be done with just the tip of the nail or by hammering a push pin into the aluminum. This will allow for a higher oxygen level when the heater is first lit. Next, make 16 evenly spaced small holes all the way around the outer ridge of the can. Turn the can the right way up and measure 2 inches from the bottom, making a mark. Cut your can at this point all the way around, leaving you with the bottom 2 inches of the can including the holes that you just created. Most standard kitchen shears can easily cut through the thin aluminum.

With your second aluminum can, once again measure 2 inches from the bottom and cut your can down. Using a pair of needle-nose pliers, carefully twist and crimp the can every half inch around to make the opening just a little smaller than its base. This will make assembly easier by allowing the two cans to fit together. Cut your insulation into a long strip the same height as the can base that you are working with, rolling it into a coil and placing it inside the crimped can.

Carefully place the first piece of the can that you had cut with the holes on top of the second piece with the insulation, pushing down so that they tightly join to create a single heating unit. Carefully pour the alcohol into the top holes and give it time for the alcohol to move around the can. You can lift the can up to get an idea of how much alcohol is in there at any point. Cut the base off the third can. This isn’t part of the heater but rather offers an easy solution to snuff out the flames by placing it on top of the can.

Place your heater on a flame-resistant tile base. The location is key for safe lighting of your heating can. Pour a little of the alcohol fuel around the base of the can and light it, as well as the top of the can. The fuel outside will help to heat up the can encouraging the evaporation necessary to keep it going. Watch for the holes around the perimeter of the can to flame through before tossing the penny on top, blocking the center holes.

One of the most important safety tips to keep in mind when using this style of heater is that you should wait for ALL flames to go out before adding any alcohol. Otherwise, this could cause serious burns. Look carefully for hard-to-see blue flames known as ‘phantom flames’, which can be harder to see.

Coffee Can Heater

coffee can full of coffee grounds next to cup of coffee
Image Credit: RightOne on Canva

Out of all the DIY non-electric heaters on this list, this is the option that is easiest to prepare for in advance. This is due to the fact that everything conveniently stores away inside your can when it’s not in use. You can collect all the supplies for a couple of these emergency heaters and stash them in your home where you can access them easily if needed.

You will need:

  • A metal coffee can
  • 3 or 4 metal-cup tea lights
  • A pack of wooden matches
  • A Ziploc bag
  • A fire-safe surface to place your heater

To prepare this heater in advance, simply place the matches in the Ziploc bag to keep them safe from water and store both the matches and the tea lights in your coffee can. Make sure that the coffee can you are using is an actual metal can, not a cardboard can with a metallic coating as some companies are now using.

When you are ready to set up this simple DIY radiant heat space heater, remove the lid from the can and set it aside (it’s only used for storage). Light each of your candles, place them in the bottom of the can and wait for the metal of the can to heat up from the flames. Make sure to keep your metal-cup tea lights in the provided metal base. This keeps them from melting all over the base of the can during use. When you’re finished with your heater, allow the can to fully cool down before placing everything back inside for storage.

Repurpose Your Fondue Set

stainless steel fondue pot
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While this may not actually be a heater in and of itself, it’s a solution that can be combined with many of the options listed here to create a simple alternate heat source in the event of an emergency. To create your heater using a fondue set, follow the instructions listed above for the ceramic bowl heater however, in place of the brick or tile support, you will use your fondue set to create structure. You can do this either with the fuel fondue burner or stick with the tea lights if you prefer.

Simple Paint Can Heater

paint can being opened
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Another heater that can be assembled and stored in advance, this simple paint can heater is a great alternative heat source in an emergency as it can produce quite a bit of heat. However, you want to be sure that your heater is set up somewhere where it won’t be knocked over as a spill can pose a serious fire risk.

You will need:

  • 1-quart metal paint can
  • 1 bottle of 70% isopropyl alcohol
  • A roll of toilet paper
  • A fire-safe surface to place your heater

Using a flathead screwdriver or butter knife, carefully remove the cardboard tube found in the center of your toilet paper roll. Gently squeeze the roll together so that it collapses inward on itself where the tube once was and insert the roll into your can, making sure that it’s below the rim of your can. Slowly pour the isopropyl alcohol over the toilet paper until it’s fully saturated.

Before lighting your tin can heater, place it on a fire-safe surface paying careful attention to any combustible items in the vicinity. This heater will produce a large, exposed flame, so you want to remove any potential fire hazards. Carefully light the alcohol at the top of the toilet paper roll.

When you’re finished with your heater, simply place the lid on top to extinguish the flames. Seal the lid and store your heater away with the other flammable materials in your home until you need it once again.

Hanging Terra-Cotta Pot Heater

terra-cotta pots with a base and a plant in the background
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Are you looking for a DIY space heater that can be kept out on display as a focal point in your space while still offering functionality when needed? If so, this hanging terra-cotta pot heater is a great option. You may even enjoy the look enough that you end up using it even when it’s not necessary.

You will need:

  • A 5-inch terra-cotta pot
  • A 6-inch terra-cotta pot with base
  • 4 Tea lights
  • 14 ½-inch nuts
  • 11 ½-inch flat washers
  • An 11 to 14-inch length of ½-inch threaded rod
  • A metal chain for hanging

Thread two nuts at one end of the road to keep everything in place while assembling your heater. Bring the ends of your chain together, sliding each end onto the rod before adding another nut to hold the chain firmly in place at the end of the rod. This will create a loop that can be used for hanging your heater when you’re finished.

Slide a nut onto the rod before inserting it into the drainage hole on the bottom of the 6-inch flowerpot starting from the bottom, so that it will hang upside down. Add a washer and another nut to hold the pot in place securely. Add another washer before adding the 5-inch flowerpot in the same way, adding a washer and then 2 more nuts to hold everything in place. Alternating between washers and nuts, slowly feed the rest onto the rod except for 1 of each. Take your flowerpot base and carefully make a hole large enough for the rod in the center. Feed it onto the rod so that it’s sitting upright beneath the opening of the 5’inch pot and secure it in place with the final washer and nut.

Before using your new heater, you will need to hang it from a shelf or stand, making sure that it’s stable and secure before introducing an open flame. Place your tea lights on the base and light them, allowing approximately 15 to 20 minutes for the heater to warm up and start radiating heat.

Use Soapstone to Direct Heat

block of soapstone
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A naturally occurring rock, soapstone isn’t a heater on its own but it’s a great addition to any heating unit to help you direct the heat to the areas where it’s needed most. When placed near a heating unit or on a sunny windowsill, the stone will soak up the heat. It can then be placed where needed, radiating heat, and helping to keep you comfortable. This is a great choice for keeping you warm at night since there is no risk from an open flame. Just be careful moving the stone, using appropriate equipment to avoid burning yourself.

Large Aluminum Can Solar Heater

6-pack of aluminum soda cans
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The largest of the heaters on this list, this particular heater isn’t going to be used as a short-term solution. Instead, it’s something that you can build and permanently install to be used as a low-cost, long-term heating option for your home. It is also the most involved heater on the list in terms of assembly. This is also a great choice for those looking to heat a small shed or garage space.

You will need:

  • 240 Aluminum soda cans
  • Heat-resistant black spray paint
  • Sheet of plywood measuring 4’ x 8’ x ½”
  • Sheet of Plexiglas measuring 4’ x 8’
  • Wood to build a 4’ x 8’ x 3.5” frame
  • High-temperature silicone
  • Plastic tubing
  • A solar-powered or rechargeable battery-powered air blower

Assemble your 4’ x 8’ x 3.5” wooden frame and secure it to the plywood backing. Dill a hole both at the top and bottom of the frame. This will eventually be used to direct the heated air into your home. One at a time, drill a hole in both the top and bottom of each of the cans except for 16 cans which will only have a hole drilled into the top. When you’re done, line your cans up in 16 columns of 15 cans in each, with the bottom can of each column being one of the cans with no hole in the bottom of the can. Using your high-temperature silicone, seal the cans along each row to those above and below them. Allow the silicone to fully dry, then spray paint the columns with heat-resistant black spray paint.

Line the columns up side by side in the wooden frame before covering them with the sheet of Plexiglas and securing it in place. Mount this frame on the side of your house, garage, or shed on an exterior wall that receives a lot of sun exposure throughout the day. Cut a hole into the room at the bottom of the wall just above floor level and another at the top. Using the plastic tubing, connect the holes at the top and bottom of the frame to these holes in the wall. Insulate them as much as you can to prevent the cold outside temperatures from cooling the air before it reaches indoors.

To promote airflow through the solar heater, install a solar-powered or rechargeable battery-powered air blower either at the top or bottom pipe. This works by pulling cool air from the bottom of your room (hot air rises), drawing it up through the frame where the painted aluminum cans warm it up. It’s then released back into your room at its new warmer temperature through the top pipe.

To see more about this can be used, check out this video showcasing Peter Rowan’s use of this system to heat his backyard studio:

Exercise Caution when Heating Your Home this Winter

If you are in a situation where you are using a DIY heating solution, exercise extreme caution in the decisions that you are making. While these options can be used as a short-term fix in the event of an emergency, there are people who have lost their lives from fires or carbon monoxide poisoning using a ‘quick fix’ option to stay warm.

There are some solutions that people will automatically consider, like the use of an outdoor BBQ, that aren’t safe to run indoors. Without the appropriate ventilation that outdoor use provides, the carbon monoxide fumes that they create can quickly turn deadly.

Even electric space heaters made for use indoors can pose a fire risk if they are used near combustible materials. These devices contain many more safety features than a DIY solution.

Whatever you choose to use this season, familiarize yourself with the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and always keep the necessary safety supplies close at hand. This includes a first aid kit for treating any burns as well as materials for fighting a fire such as a fire extinguisher, baking soda, water, or a heavy blanket. Safety should always be a top priority!

 

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