University of Missouri Extension

GH5117, Reviewed October 1993

Preparing for an Emergency: Home Heating in an Emergency

Adapted by MU Extension specialists from material prepared by Cooperative Extension Service, University of New Hampshire, Durham.

At some time you may face a heating emergency — when your home heating system is inoperative for hours or days. At that critical time you must decide how to meet the emergency, either with an alternative source of heat or by seeking shelter elsewhere.


Safety is of prime importance in choosing an alternate form of heat. Consider all potential hazards and eliminate as many as possible, keeping in mind that your degree of protection is lower during a community emergency. Normal community services such as police and fire protection, doctors, hospitals and highway maintenance may be in great demand and unable to respond to your emergency immediately. Under emergency conditions, you may have to do certain things you wouldn't normally consider. Use extreme caution.

Defining the problem

The first step in making a plan is to determine the conditions your family might face if the heating system fails. Take your climate into consideration — how cold can it get? Because all members of the family would be affected, each should help with the planning. Discuss what you might do if the heating system went off for several days.

If your home is heated electrically, failure would obviously be caused by lack of power. But don't forget that most other systems depend on electricity, too. Oil burners usually have electrical fuel injectors and ignition. Hot-air systems rely on a fan for air circulation; hot-water systems with zone valves and circulator pumps; coal furnaces with motorized stokers also need electricity. Most thermostats require electricity.

Imagine that your area is experiencing an intense storm. It is cold and telephone service is disrupted. Then, with a pencil and pad handy, discuss how you would cope with the crisis. The family would have to determine what could be done to provide home heat, or at least how to keep warm. Discuss sources of alternate fuels available, how to get them and how to use them, what protective measures would be necessary such as keeping pipes from freezing and supplying water if the pump is not operating. As part of the discussion you probably will want to draw up a list of additional obstacles that might be encountered, the responsibilities of each family member and supplies available.

Your resources

First, consider the resources you now have in your home for meeting emergencies. Because no two homes are the same, homeowners should assess their own situation and prepare accordingly.

If your heating device and fuel can be matched, would they provide enough heat to warm at least one room in your home? Is there enough fuel for several days? Do you have a secondary source of emergency heat?

Decide now

If your regular heating system cannot be modified for an emergency, consider buying, building or adapting a device or system that will. The choice might be a space heater, cast iron or sheet-metal stove or a catalytic heater. A small generator may be able to keep your furnace in operation. Your supplier or your local MU Extension center can help you decide what capacity generator you need. Try to avoid depending on the same fuel for emergency heat as you have in your normal heating system.


Now that you have decided how to heat your home during an emergency, it is time to get busy making preparations. Good planning now will give your family confidence when an emergency arises.

You will probably have to make some changes in your home or in your heating system to accommodate another heating device. If you can't make them, call in someone who can. Any device that burns fuel must be vented outside the house — both to eliminate smoke and gas and to provide oxygen for combustion.

Altering regular heating systems

Minor alterations to regular heating systems might be considered:

Electrically operated valves in many steam or hot air systems can often be operated manually. Hot air systems, depending on installation, are capable of providing limited heat without a blower.

A coal-burning furnace can be fired the old fashioned way — with a shovel. Most small electrical generators supply only very limited power and are inadequate for heating a home.

Providing vents and flues

Chimney flues are designed to accommodate a single heating device at a time. Using more than one heating device at the same time on the same flue may result in smoke damage and improper burning of the fuel. If your auxiliary heating unit is to remain attached to the flue being used by the furnace, fireplace, or other burner, it should be fitted with a damper which will close off the device. Gas flues, which are usually smaller and lighter, cannot safely accommodate oil, coal or wood burners. Gas devices, however, can be hooked to oil, coal or wood flues.

Using other fuels

There is considerable heat in well water, which is usually at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit, in the northern states. Depending on the water depth, this may be an efficient source of heat. The heat pump removes heat from the water and transfers it to the home. In warmer areas heat can be removed from outside air. Your local heating or air conditioning contractor can help you decide if a heat pump is practical for your situation.

Generators for emergency power

An electric generator could power furnace blowers, oil burners and some other appliances in time of emergency. Just how many appliances you could operate depends on the output of the generator. Before buying a generator, the homeowner should add up the wattage required. Motor requirements should be figured at their starting rate (much higher than the running rate) to arrive at the total number of watts required at peak use. Generators are rated according to their kilowatt output (a kilowatt equals 1,000 watts).

Additional costs would be necessary to rewire the home service entrance, to install a transfer switch or to add an alarm device or other accessories as desired, and for regular maintenance of the standby system. Home generators are usually driven either by an attached gasoline or gas-powered engine or a portable power source such as a tractor. The best information on a generating system for your home can be obtained from a local supplier, your utility company, or your local Extension Center or civil preparedness representative.

Conserving heat

Remember, if all else fails (and you can't get to other shelter), bed is the warmest place to be with other family members and lots of covers.

How much of your house should you heat? When the heat goes off and you are going to have to rough it, the smaller the space you heat, the easier the job will be. What you do will be dictated by the amount of emergency heat you have available, the floor plan of your house, and the severity of the cold outside. If you will be utilizing your fireplace or a stove requiring a chimney flue, the choice of rooms has been made for you. If, however, you will be able to obtain some heat from your furnace, select an area near it to cut down on heat loss that occurs in long pipe or duct runs. If you plan to use a portable heating device or have a choice among several heating zones, select an area on the "warm" side of the house away from prevailing cold winds. This area should have good insulation, as few windows as possible to minimize heat loss and should be capable of being isolated from other unheated areas either by closing doors or blocking openings to prevent drafts and heat loss. You may want to hang blankets or heavy drapes over windows to further reduce heat loss.

If you will be using your furnace in an emergency, know in advance how to prevent it from sending heat to unnecessary areas. In addition to shutting off the thermostat, this may involve blocking hot air ducts or shutting off certain steam or hot water lines.

Storing emergency fuel

Obtain fuel for your alternate heating system and store enough to last several days. Store it in a safe, convenient place such as a garage, carport, or shed away from the house. Do not use your emergency fuel for any other purpose, and check the supply regularly.

What resources are available for emergency assistance in your community? There may be town, school or county plans for coping with emergencies. Your local Red Cross or civil preparedness authorities may have contingency plans and supplies. Find out.

Mobile homes

Mobile home owners should consider installing a prefabricated sheet metal chimney assembly through a wall or the roof. Mobile homes are particularly well-adapted for use of prefabricated chimneys. Owners might also wish to consider purchasing a prefabricated fireplace which is highly efficient in operation, light in weight, easily installed, attractive and lower in cost than masonry units. If a prefabricated chimney or fireplace is purchased, be sure it is Underwriters' Laboratories (UL) approved.

Remodeling, building or buying a home

Now would be a particularly appropriate time to think of emergency heating. Consider this feature in shopping for older houses and include it in construction or renovation plans. The extra cost of including a "second system" will be more than made up for in peace of mind later.

Related heat loss problems

Keeping your family warm obviously won't be the only problem you will face if an energy failure strikes your home. Consider the following:

Freezing pipes

Without heat for at least several hours and the temperature well below freezing, you will have to protect exposed plumbing. Drain all pipes, including hot water heating pipes, in rooms that will not receive emergency heat. Familiarize yourself with your home plumbing and heating layout in advance so you can do the job quickly and thoroughly to avoid repairs later.

It may be necessary to install additional valves to enable you to drain only portions of your system. Don't forget the sink, tub and shower traps; toilet tanks and bowls; your hot water heater; dish and clothes washers; water pumps; and your furnace boiler, if you have one.

Water for household use

If you rely on electricity to run your water pump, a power outage could restrict your water use. Save as much water as possible while draining your system and store it in closed or covered containers, preferably where it will not freeze. In addition to water in pipes, a sizable amount can be collected from your hot water heater and toilet storage tanks. Water from the heating system may be unfit for drinking or other household use.


Have a good supply of candles, matches and at least one kerosene or gas lantern with ample fuel. You should have a dependable flashlight with spare bulbs and batteries. If any of these materials are used when there is no emergency, they should be immediately replenished.

Sanitary facilities

If your water supply is shut off, sanitation will become a problem. Disconnect the chain or lever attached to the toilet handle to prevent accidental flushes and instruct users to put toilet paper in covered containers. Flush only often enough to prevent clogging. An alternative might be to purchase a portable camper's toilet.

Emergency cooking

During an emergency, providing hot meals for your family may be a problem. A camp stove can be used or, if necessary, cooking can be done in a fireplace. Keep a supply of meal-in-a-can foods such as stews, soups, canned meats, beans, or spaghetti to supplement dry stores like cereal, bread, dried meats and cheeses. Freeze-dried meals for campers and backpackers are often excellent foods that can be prepared with a minimum of heat.

Also, if you don't already have them, a good fire extinguisher and first aid kit are necessities. Review all your plans and preparations to ensure the safety of your family. Emergency actions are of little value if they lead to a new or bigger emergency.

GH5117 Preparing for an Emergency: Home Heating in an Emergency | University of Missouri Extension

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