I Spy Doom: Tea Light Slow Cooking and Heating

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on December 20, 2015

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Over the last few months as I contemplated the possibility of my descent into Homelessness as a new CRIPPLE, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to negotiate life on a very limited budget with no fixed domicile to live in. 

Fortunately, this does not now seem so near on the horizon for me since my Bennies came through, but I know it is for others, so I want to share a few more strategies that I have come up with, beyond the SNAP Card Gourmet recipes for cheap eating without much in the way of a kitchen.  The recipes are tasty though regardless of your circumstances, so I recommend trying them out even if you are not on the cusp of Homelessness! 🙂

Insofar as Energy is concerned, beside the cooking you also have Heating requirements if you are in a cold climate (I live in Alaska), lighting and refrigeration.  These are the primary energy intensive needs you have to plan for once you fall off the economic cliff so far you cannot afford a fixed domicile anymore.  Hopefully, you still have at least a Stealth Van and a Storage Unit to live out of in this situation.  In this article, I am going to cover just the Cooking & Heating Energy needs, not lighting and refrigeration.  These will come in another article down the road a piece.

https://i0.wp.com/ll-us-i5.wal.co/dfw/dce07b8c-2726/k2-_02df1d66-387f-4f61-a787-6123d6292296.v1.jpg-88cf4f1e48f30aa6de47685475c31c5eb31b4386-optim-450x450.jpgNow, there are certainly many commercially available camping stoves and heaters on the market, the most popular these days being the ones run on propane cannisters which cost about $3 each.  You don't usually get much more than an hour or so of cooking time with them, and used for heating they also burn the the fuel quite rapidly.  It's convenient, but it's not very economical portable cooking and heating.  The stoves and heaters that use these cannisters also are fairly pricy, going anywhere from $30 to $200 or so depending how big you get with them.

Kerosene heaters and wick stoves are more economical than this, and besides that you can store a lot more fuel safely as kerosene than as propane.  A 5 gallon can of kerosene will last you probably 6 months just used for cooking, according to my podcast with Van Dweller,who relies mostly on kerosene.  So this is definitely superior to the propane systems, but it is still not as cheap as you can get if really in a pinch to provide some heat for yourself and ability to heat up some soup or cook some eggs to get some nice hot food into your stomach.  This isn't just important for the Homeless Person, even in your own McMansion if the heat goes out after an ice storm, how are you going to keep warm and do some cooking?

Tuna-Soup Can Rocket Stove

At the left of the page here you see my design for a "rocket stove" made from a can of Bumblebee tuna and a can of Progresso Soup.  These cans were chosen because they have the same diameter and are designed to "nest", so the bottom of one fits neatly into the top of the other one.  The top can of Hunt's pasta sauce is what holds the soup or whatever I am slow-cooking in it.  Alternatively, you can drop a small fry pan on top for frying an egg, although the frying goes rather slow and it comes out more like a poached egg than a fried one.

As you can see, both cans on the bottom are perforated with holes, done with a hand drill.  You can punch holes too with an awl, but this tends to bend up the cans and they don't nest so well once bent. (click the pic to see more detail)

The tuna can on the bottom allows air to flow in from the bottom, and it also keeps the fire in the upper can off the surface you are using to cook or heat on.  Further holes are punched into the bottom of the soup can to let the air flow up through the fire in the can, and then further holes are punched into the side of the soup can to let the CO2 exit the can while cooking or heating.  You need to ventilate it or the fire will extinguish itself quite rapidly.

What do you use for fuel in your Tuna/Soup Can Stove/Heater?  Well, the absolute cheapest is twigs and small branches you collect up (FREE! 🙂 ), but this is rather smoky to use indoors, so if you are using this as fuel you need to do the cooking and heating outside before transfering it into your Tent or Stealth Van.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESAlmost as cheap though and way more convenient and usable indoors is to use Tea Lights as your fuel source.  These come in packages of 100 for around $5, for 5¢ apiece.  They have exactly the correct diameter so that you can fit up to 3 in your Stove/Heater, though I find that 2 is enough for most purposes, and even one is usually enough.  You will notice in the pic at right that the currently burning tea lights are actually sitting on top of some old tea light shells.  Reason for this is to raise the heating element closer to what it is heating for less waste of heat.  You do need a couple of inches space at least though or it won't ventilate well.

For cooking, obviously your Tea Light stove will not heat up a can of soup as fast as a propane camping stove.  You can heat up a can of soup with that in 5-10 minutes.  Over a double tea light, the same can takes about 30-40 minutes to heat up to good eating temperature, depending on the ambient temperature.  Further insulating the soup can with a "sleeve" made from a space blanket will help conserve the heat while heating in very cold temperatures.  However, the temperature inside your Stealth Van or Tent should not be going below 10F or so no matter what.  Extended periods at such low temps no matter how good your clothing is an invitation to hypothermia and/or frostbite.  Every Alaskan Musher and Canadian Hoser knows this.  Even with really good cold weather gear it's just plain uncomfortable to have your living environment that cold, and I like it cold, I'm well aclimated to it.  32F is shirtsleeves weather to me. When the temps go down to 10F though, you just have to burn more tea lights or fire up your kerosene heater.

How long do the tea lights last?  Generally about 3 hours of continuous burn time.  You can use larger candles for longer burn times, but I just replace the tea lights when they burn out.  They tend to come in the cheapest, and 3 hours of burn time is plenty

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThat covers the cooking side of things, how do you use them as Heaters?  For this, instead of a can of soup heating up, you put a Rock or Brick on top of the heater, and let the tea light heat that up.  After about 10 minutes, the rock is radiating heat at about 120F with one tea light under it.  It becomes a miniature Radiator.  In a small tent, just one of these will take the chill out of the air and raise the internal temp of the tent about 5-10F, depending on external temps, how windy it is and how many people/dogs are in the tent. If you have one person and 4 dogs in a 3 man tent, forget the tea lights, you're going to be sweating just from the body heat if you don't ventilate.   In a larger space such as a Van on a cold night you would use 4 heaters, one in each corner of the Van.  3 hours of steady heat while you are awake and keyboarding at the laptop costs you about 20¢.

Why do you need the Rock or Brick?  Won't the tea light by itself heat the air?

Well yes it will somewhat, but heat capacity of air is very low, and it circulates around inside the space and is quickly dissipated into the environment.  By heating the rock up, it concentrates the heat into this location, and it stores and radiates it more efficiently.  The rock will continue radiating heat for quite a while after the flame goes out also, and you can pull tricks like taking a medium warm rock and throwing it inside your sleeping bag to warm it up before going to sleep.  DON'T DO THIS WITH A REALLY HOT ROCK THOUGH! You'll melt the nylon of the bag or start a fire!  You should be able to pick up the rock with your hand with no glove on and it should be warm/sightly hot to the touch, maybe 120F or so max.  Then wrap it in a hand towel and stuff it into the bottom of the bag.  It will keep your feet warm for hours.

Do you need to run the tea light heaters all night?  Well, you can but it is not really necessary if you have a good sleeping bag for most temperatures you would normally deal with, say 0F-50F where you might fire up a tea light heater.  If you are subject to temps lower than this, then you are going to need more than tea lights!  You'll want a kerosene heater for this eventuality, but even in the part of Alaska I live in (the Mat-Su Valley) there aren't too many sub-zero F days in the winter anymore.  Maybe a couple of weeks worth the most.  You can conserve your kerosene for nights like this and not waste it on more average cold temps.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESYou can further increase your heating efficiency by isolating the heat source to just where you are, and setting it up to mainly heat YOU, not the whole Tent or Stealth Van.  In this image, I have taken the Heater and placed it underneath my desk chair, which then also has a throw/blanket on it.  When I sit down on the chair, I take the blanket and throw it over my lap.  Now the heat being radiated by the rock is mostly trapped under the chair, and the Heater is right next to my feet, keeping them toasty warm.  Then the heat radiates upward to my butt, keeping my core body temperature up as well.  In a real pinch, this will keep you from freezing to death or losing your toes to frostbite.  If you have a bag of 100 tea lights in your SUV, a Tea Light Heater and a Space Blanket, you can set the heater down on the floorboard, sit in the passenger seat with the space blanket over you and keep warm while you wait for the Blizzard to die down without wasting gas running your engine.  If you use 10 tea lights/day, you have 10 days at least where you won't freeze to death stuck in a snow drift.  Start the car once a day for maybe 1/2 hour of run time to keep the battery charged without using up too much gas.  Cut that to every other day if you get below a quarter tank.  Have a supply of Oatmeal and Bear Creek Soups also in the SUV to heat up for food during this period.

Now, what about the situation where you can't GET tea lights?  The shelves at Walmart have been ransacked of them and your Dollars are worthless and won't buy any even if they were available.  Nobody who has Tea Lights in a cold climate will even trade them for GOLD!  What do you do then?

Answer: Make your own tea light!

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESIn this example, I took one of my old used up tea light shells, filled with some vegetable oil and made a wick out of a scrap of a paper towel.  On another occassion I filled it with some leftover Bacon Fat and made a Wick out of some Jute Twine.  The amount of fat was about half the amount left over after frying just one strip of bacon for my morning SNAP Card Gourmet breakfast!  Bacon and cooking oil aren't the only things you can use here for this, even motor oil for your car will work.  Pine Tar will work too, and so will a stick of butter or margarine.  However, I think Tea Lights will be available for a while longer, and you certainly can stock them in your preps, they never go bad far as I can tell.  I have about 5 bags of them, around 500 in the preps.  Great Barter Item too.

Stay Warm, Stay Well Fed with Hot Food with your Tea Light Tuna/Soup Can Stove!