Why Oil Lamps Are Perfect for Off-Grid Living
Throughout the early half of October, we were hit with some unexpectedly bad weather. For several days, the sky was overcast, it rained perpetually, and frigid gusts of misty wind made being outside intolerable. Uncertain how long this would last, we were feeling somewhat hopeless, as we had not yet installed our wood burning stove and we weren’t getting enough sunlight to power our generator; so we decided to go into town to purchase a butane camp stove and an oil lamp.
You might not hear oil lamps talked about very often, but they’ve been used for thousands of years and can still be found in many stores today – we actually found ours in a Walmart near the candle aisle. For some people, owning an oil lamp is like owning a typewriter or a record player: it’s something that’s neat to have for its historical relevance; but for others, an oil lamp is a practical tool that gets used frequently, and in some cases, is necessary for survival.
Oil Lamps vs. Candles
While it’s always a good idea to have some candles in the cupboard in case of an emergency, oil lamps are far superior in many ways. First and foremost, oil lamps are refillable and reusable. Even the wick and the chimney can be replaced, which means there’s really no limit to how many times an oil lamp can be used.
Secondly, oil lamps burn hotter, brighter, and longer than candles. One oil lamp can essentially do the same job as several ordinary candles. Lastly, most oil lamps are portable and can be easily carried around. Many even come with handles.
So as you can see, when it comes to oil lamps vs. candles, If you’re someone who goes through a lot of candles, what you really want is an oil lamp.
Oil Lamp Light Output
Oil lamps were the premiere source of lighting for millennia before other lamps, like kerosene and electric, were invented. The Argand lamp, invented in 1780, was the most common type used back then, and it had a light output of 6 to 10 candelas, which would roughly equal 100 lumens.
In our experience, an oil lamp is nowhere near as bright as an average lightbulb, but it is bright enough to sufficiently light a small room. We currently use ours as a light for our bathroom – pictured above – which is about 50 sq ft. Before that, we briefly used it to light our living room/kitchen area, which is close to 200 sq ft. By no means was it like, “Whoa, who turned out the lights in here!” But it was enough light to move around without bumping into things.
Oil Lamp Heat Output
The obvious function of an oil lamp is to produce light, but since it is an open flame, radiant heat is a side effect that serves as a secondary function on chilly evenings. While an oil lamp is certainly no replacement for a furnace or forced air heater, some models can actually produce as much as 2,000 to 3,500 BTUs, which rivals most small to medium space heaters. For example, an 800W space heater puts out about 2,700 BTUs.
Our little lamp definitely does not produce that much heat, but if you sit right by it, you can feel the warmth coming off of it. In other words, it’s certainly not going to heat the room up, but it can warm you up a little bit, sort of like a personal heater.
Oil Lamp Burning Time
It’s pretty easy to calculate the burning time of an oil lamp. As a general rule of thumb, you get about 2 hours of burning for every 1 ounce of oil. So, if your lamp can hold 6 ounces of oil, it will burn for about 12 hours.
Additional Oil Lamp Benefits
As if we haven’t mentioned enough benefits of owning an oil lamp, there are actually more…
Many oil lamps can burn more than just lamp oil. Most models can also burn kerosene (liquid paraffin). You can even burn ordinary cooking oil if you’re really in a pinch. Some people, like us, also add essential oils to the lamp oil to give it a fragrance.
Another benefit is that oil lamps are perfectly safe to use indoors. You could even argue that they’re safer than candles since they’re harder to tip over, they have a chimney, and unlike a candle, they can’t set fire to the base of whatever they’re sat upon by continuously burning down until the flame nears the surface.
Lastly, if you were really desperate, you could take the chimney off the lamp and cook over it; but we would definitely only recommend doing that outdoors.
We just mentioned how oil lamps are perfectly safe to use indoors, but we should also mention that they do give off a small amount of carbon monoxide. As long as you use your lamp properly and responsibly, there’s no way a single oil lamp is ever going to kill you from carbon monoxide poisoning. That said, burning 10 at once in a small, confined area probably wouldn’t be a good idea.
Important Tips for Using an Oil Lamp
Oil lamps are pretty self explanatory, but there are some best practices you should be aware of before you start using one.
- Keep the flame low. A low flame won’t produce any smoke. If your lamp is giving off a lot of smoke, your flame is too high and needs to be adjusted.
- Keep the lamp full. As a good general rule of thumb, you should refill your lamp whenever it gets below half empty. Doing this will ensure your wick stays saturated, so that the lamp is burning oil, not the wick itself.
- Trim your wick. As long as you’re operating your lamp correctly, your wick shouldn’t get very charred, but when it inevitably does, you should trim it down. It’s also recommended to trim your wick into the shape of an arrow.
- Never fall asleep or leave it unattended while it’s burning. An oil lamp is something that needs to be monitored. Even though they are safe and highly unlikely to burn your house down, leaving a burning lamp unattended is a bad idea.
- Only burn lamp oil when you can. Even though you can technically burn kerosene and other types of oils in your lamp if you really need to in a pinch, lamp oil is going to burn much cleaner than kerosene and other oils because it is much more refined.