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Rubbing Alcohol Heater

I was scanning through some YouTube videos and came across someone that put together a rubbing alcohol heater. The purpose of this was to have a portable, ready-to-go device in case you need emergency heat in a situation such as a vehicle breakdown in the middle of winter. I really questioned how well this “rubbing alcohol heater” would work – as well as how safe it could be in a vehicle.

I decided to make one myself.

alcohol stove, emergency heat, survival heater, stove, winter survival

Components of alcohol heater

Step #1:Gather the needed components – 70% rubbing alcohol, small paint can, paint can opener.

 Step #2: Remove toilet paper from the roll and stuff it in the paint can. Continue to do this until the can is completely full.

Step #3:   Now – fill the can with the 70% rubbing alcohol a little at a time until the toilet paper is totally saturated.

Step #4: At this point the top can be put it place and the unit can be stored. The can opener with a lighter can be taped to the outside of the can. To trial the heater – I went to Step 5.

Getting ready to light

 Step #5: Light the top with a match or a lighter.

Heater has been lit......

As you can see – the heater has been lit. First problem I found was that it was very susceptible to wind. Using this outdoors could prove problematic with any decent wind present.

Protection from the wind is necessary.

Above I placed the heater inside my grill to protect it from the wind. The flame was much higher than it appears in the picture.

OK – so what was my impression?

First – I would not use it in a vehicle unless it was truly a do-or-die situation. There were little fumes – which is a benefit of using alcohol.

Second – I could feel minimal heat outside from it. Again – the premise of it was to be able to use it in a vehicle. In some form of enclosed space – possibly a small shed or lean to – the heat generated could prove beneficial.

Third – This is just flat out dangerous! With the original suggested purpose of usage in a car – this thing could easily tip over and spill. Would not make for a good day. Also – using this in a vehicle could certainly spell disaster to the roof.

Summary – It could save someones life if they were stranded on the side of the road in frigid temperatures.  Beyond a desperate emergency – I would look to other ways to provide heat. For alternatives – see here,  here and here.


PS – Due to my needing my vehicle – I never actually tried it inside a car.

Emergency Essentials/BePrepared

8 comments to Rubbing Alcohol Heater

  • This would be a great idea only if it were a life and death situation. I would make sure that if you needed to use this in a car that you had good ventilation due to a build up of carbon dioxide that would result from lighting this in the car. But if you were going to freeze to death it just might keep you alive. Good post Rourke.

  • Beprepared

    Looks like a cheaper version of a can of sterno to me, which would be safer IMO since sterno cans are smaller with a smaller flame. Not to mention the dangers of carbon monoxide as mentioned by voodoodaddy.

    I think some standard emergency candles might do well for you.

    I understand the cool DIY-ness of it, but this is an idea in need of a problem.

  • Matthew Wilson

    Very interesting article. I’d like to offer a suggestion, though. Denatured alcohol burns even cleaner than Isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) and it actually burns hotter, too. You’ve probably seen tons of articles and videos about “penny stoves” or backpacking stoves. I created a backpacking stove using the miniature coke cans (8 oz, I believe) that are available in stores and I bet using that stove inside the paint can would be even better. The paint can (or coffee can) would offer excellent wind protection.

    A bottle of HEET (gas line anti-freeze) costs less than $2 and would run for quite a while, maybe 10 minutes at a time and you could refill the stove about 6 times. It would definitely only work in small spaces like a car, or a small room. There would still be the issue of exhaust to consider so you would have to crack the windows to let some of the CO and CO2 escape, but it should work.

    The only other thing I would mention is that the can would probably get pretty hot…well over 200 degrees. I’ll see if I can’t do a little video this weekend and post it. I’m really curious at the practical use of such a device. I wonder how well it would work.

  • Ranger Rick

    Normally I really enjoy your stuff. But, ya know… I just got to say it… If your going to test something… please use it for what it was designed for. This heater was designed to provide warmth INSIDE a vehicle (or small space). I have tested it inside my truck. For that purpose it works great. I carry it in my pickup just of this purpose. And yes, flames can be dangerous. (duh) I’m not going to cook with it… Im’ not going to use it for light… I’m going to heat with it. I think you do a disservice to your readers with your “review.” This is a very cheap, easy to make item. And believe me… you would be very happy to have it if you ever needed it!

  • Peter

    Normally people suggest putting that inside a bigger can…

  • Jim

    This heater has been taught throughout the upper midwest for close to 40 years.

    It was specifically designed for use inside a snowbound vehicle where CO build-up was a concern. With the 70/30 isopropyl alcohol you have an acceptable flame-height with carbon DIoxide and water vapor the only output.

    You DO NOT set this down under your plastic dashboard.
    You DO NOT charge this with alcohol until needed.

    A 1lb. coffee can with a cheap roll of TP installed as you have done, +4 pints of 70/30 can maintain a survival temp (50/60F) for 24 hours.

    On the first use – it will accept all of the 1st pint of the alcohol. There should be no liquid on top. You light it and hold the can in your hand, bringing the vehicle temp up to that 50/60 range (not 70/80…which you may be tempted to do…)

    When you get the temp to that range – you blow out the can. WAIT a couple of minutes before replacing the plastic coffee can top – to preserve the alcohol vapor. You then enjoy that heat, and when the temp drops to an uncomfortable level, you remove the cap, relight, repeat.

    You will know it’s time to recharge the can with more alcohol when the top of the TP starts to ‘toast’. Blow it out and let it cool off again. Add more alcohol – remember – no puddles, this second charge will not take the full pint due to the TP becoming saturated.

    This lighting / blowing out / relighting sequence works and will keep you alive. It works in vehicles, small cabins – I don’t like it in synthetic fabric tents.

    DO NOT SUBSTITUTE higher alcohol mixes. There are 91% and 99% isopropyl alcohol versions available. The 91% gets you a flame height twice what you experienced.

    The 99% (aka ‘denatured’) has an almost invisible flame that can cause other problems.

    You do need ventilation in the vehicle – just crack a window on the downwind side. You need to compensate for the water vapor you are introducing in to the compartment.

    It’s cheap – it’s easy – and it’s safe when the above is followed….

  • CM

    In cold weather, I think the 12v plug in heater would drain your battery below the ability to start your car or truck in pretty short order.

    The ‘Mr. Heater’ may be OK for very short amounts of time, due to the limited volume of air in your vehicle. BUT, that being said, I would (and do) back a couple sleeping bags and a tent for the most adverse conditions – and there you could use the Mr. Heater, for a long as you have propane bottles to feed it.

    It would not be fun, but you would be warmer than inside the vehicle trying to heat up all the metal around you.

  • cloudwarmer

    Alcohol stoves are safe, if handled properly. Commercially made alcohol stoves have been used on boats for ages. The are so much safer than modern propane or gas and kerosene. The HUGE advantage to alcohol is that you can put the flame out, should it spill, with water.

    Another way to heat small spaces is with trawler lamps. Most do use kerosene or lamp oil, but are enclosed, so fairly safe. The burn a long time, and the flame is adjustable, meaning you don’t have to constantly be lighting and extinguishing it. They aren’t cheap, though, like the toilet paper and can.

    Having a properly equipped emergency kit that contains 0 degree sleeping bags will help even without the heat.

    Y’all take care. CloudWarmer