Emergency lighting

Hi. I’m Ron Brown, author of “The Non-Electric Lighting Series” on Amazon. Emergency lighting is my area of expertise but I’m brand new to The Prepared. In this write-up, I’d like to share a few ideas on the topic of emergency lighting. I’m not here to sell anything. Or editorialize. I just want to share some ideas.

Let’s say you’re at home and the lights go out. Sure, you have a flashlight. But the batteries are dim and getting dimmer. You scrounge through the kids toys, the toothbrush, and the carving knife and find a few batteries. But they don’t fit your light. Or you need two and can only find one.

May I suggest a collection of cheap flashlights — $20 total for the whole bunch — that will run on any battery you can find. And let’s make that any battery SINGULAR.  One D. One AAA. Etc. Here’s a link to a YouTube article I wrote that specifies, by brand and part number, flashlights requiring just one battery. The listing starts at 2:18. It’s worth a look-see. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kv7Bx6usT-g&t=1s

Next topic. Vegetable-oil lamps. They produce a candle-size flame and have been around since biblical times. Call it proven technology. You can Google for them and get how-to information. Or search YouTube for them. Or read “Olive Oil Lamps &c.” by yours truly. It’s Book 2 in “The Non-Electric Lighting Series.” The beauty of vegetable-oil lamps is that they require ingredients you already have on hand. Good stuff to know if you’re away from home when the Big Blackout occurs.

Let me offer a few tips. First, the wick in a vegetable-oil lamp needs to be cotton (a natural fiber). Oil is fed to the flame by capillary action. Polyester is a man-made fiber. Polyester will melt in the heat of a flame. Melting kills the capillary action. That means no lamp. The fluff in the top of your vitamin bottle might be cotton or it might be polyester. Who knows? But you really can’t trust it to make a reliable wick. That much we do know.

Second, vegetable oil can be fiendishly difficult to light. But a drop of flammable liquid (cigarette lighter fluid or gasoline) will solve the problem. And how to get one drop with no eyedropper? Off the tip of a teaspoon. One drop of gasoline, BTW, is not going to explode and blow the windows out of your house.

Third, that same characteristic of being difficult to light makes vegetable-oil lamps very safe lamps. If you drop and spill a lit kerosene lamp, odds are you’ll start a house fire. But if you drop and spill a lit vegetable-oil lamp you will for sure make a heck of a mess but a fire is extremely unlikely.

Fourth, try to make one. Experiment. See what works for you. Don’t wait until the lights go out. It’s like sex. Reading about it and doing it are two different things. You need to know, ahead of time, what works.

Last topic for today, diesel fuel. This is info that’s really hard to come by. There are pressure lanterns with mantles that burn white gas (Coleman fuel). And others that burn kerosene. Pressure lanterns can produce a couple hundred watts-worth of light. But diesel? Are there any lanterns that burn diesel fuel?

Yes. Although they’re not sold or advertised for that. Most kerosene pressure lanterns will NOT burn diesel fuel. But a few will. IF you know what lantern model to use. And what lantern generator to use. And which cloth mantle to use. Book 6 of “The Non-Electric Lighting Series” is entitled “Kerosene Pressure Lanterns” and lists eight lantern models, originally designed for kerosene, that will burn diesel. I know they will because, in every case, I’ve done it.

And these lanterns are being sold on eBay as we speak. Can you picture a highway lined with abandoned tractor trailers, each one loaded with diesel fuel, and yourself (sitting in the dark) with no way to use it? IMHO, this is precious info. Info to tuck away against your time of need. This is prepping.


  • Comments (11)

    • 5


      The basic rule of NO flames for illumination is best.  Soldiers can work with fire.  Most of the citizenry, especially with children or infirm, cannot.

      Someone injured cannot plan on 1 drop of gasoline or napha leaving the spoon.

      In some dwellings, there WILL be an explosion. 

      • 5

        ‘Tis better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.

      • 5

        I have to agree with both of you. I would rather have some LED lanterns, headlamps, and flash lights, as you don’t have to worry about spilling, carbon monoxide, or anything else. But, having some good back up light sources like the vegetable oil lamp is an important prep to have. 

        I do recommend olive oil over your cheapo canola oil. I’ve made a little lantern using some cotton wick, a small dish, and oil before. The canola oil burned black and stunk bad! The olive oil burned much cleaner and didn’t smell that bad.

        Cooking oil is a very valuable prep. If SHTF, I think cooking oils will be one of the last things to come back, as they require quite a lot of infrastructure, energy, and resources to make. And most cooking oils start to go rancid after a year, so you can’t really store up 10 gallons of it, as I doubt you are using it that much to really rotate through that much every year.

        Coconut oil seems to be the longest shelf life oil that i’ve seen, and is pretty healthy too. Ron Brown – have you tried making a coconut oil lantern before? I bet that would smell good. 

         Butter and animal fat can also be a good cooking oil that can double as an emergency candle. (though I haven’t tried it) I wonder how ghee would work as a candle. Ghee is a shelf stable form of butter that has had the milk solids removed. I’ve made it before and had a jar of it in my cupboard for over a year, tasted wonderful.

      • 5

        Gideon, you pose four issues. First is the smell of canola oil versus olive oil. I grant you that rancid oil of whatever flavor smells bad while burning but, aside from that, all vegetable oils, including canola, have very little smell when burning. They all smolder and stink, however, when you blow them out. The way to stop the smoldering is to pour a spoonful of oil over the flame. It shuts off all oxygen and puts out the flame INSTANTLY.

        Second, have I tried coconut oil? Yes. It works very well. It’s similar to other cooking oils — corn oil, grape seed oil, olive oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, the oil that tuna fish comes packed in, etc. I’ve tried everything I could get my hands on. Coconut oil solidifies at 75°F so it really should be grouped with the semi-solid fats discussed next.

        Third, you say, “Butter and animal fat can also . . . double as an emergency candle (though I haven’t tried it).”

        I have tried it. Lamps that burn semi-solid fats are named fat lamps. They’re also called Betty lamps, Dutch lamps, stone lamps, grease lamps, slot lamps, and crusies. I’ve made fat lamps and used them to burn butter, margarine, lard, Crisco, bacon grease, and Vasoline. The only thing on that list that doesn’t work well is bacon grease. It sputters.

        And ghee? Yes, I have close friends that are Indian (from India). They cook with ghee and eat ghee every day. I’ve purchased ghee and made ghee and burned it in lamps. It works.

        Please know that my lighting books, from candles to pressure lanterns, are not armchair science. They are based on first-hand experimentation, up close and personal. The beauty of the scientific method is that you don’t have to take my word for anything. You can repeat what I did, see the results, and judge for yourself.

      • 4

        Thank you for the great response Ron Brown! I think you may be right about the canola oil I was trying was rancid and that is why it must have stunk.

        I’m going to have to make some more ghee! A shelf stable cooking oil, and also can double as an emergency candle. 

        Thanks for your input into all of these. I am learning a lot!

    • 6

      In the movies and tv shows that I’ve watched that are set in the 1800’s i’ve noticed that they have little candle reflectors behind their candle/lantern to double the output of light. Pretty smart idea.


      If I ever have to rely on candle power, I definitely am going to stick a small mirror behind my candle.

      • 10

        Alisa, thanks for your interest. What you’ve shown in the picture is a wick-fed kerosene lamp with a reflector behind it. These lamps give off light on par with a 7.5-watt light bulb. Vegetable-oil lamps give off less than that — a candle-sized flame. And so mirrors would be even more helpful. Another tip with a vegetable-oil lamp is to use a clear glass bowl (a Pyrex custard dish, for example) rather than an opaque tuna can. You want as much light as possible to escape the lamp and get out into the room. Then set a flat mirror under the lamp aimed upwards at the ceiling in addition to a reflector behind the lamp. No mirror? Use aluminum foil. Every little bit helps. Let’s hope we never have to do this, eh?

      • 8

        We recently endured a day long interruption of our electrical service,due to high winds and subsequent fire danger – completely unannounced.  What we used to great effect were solar lanterns, especially collapsible varieties, to great effect, supplemented with a variety of power banks, portable solar panels and of course flashlights and headlamps.  We were also able to keep our phones fully charged.

        As far as I am concerned, white gas lanterns, Coleman and their ilk, are obsolete.  I relied on them as a kid growing up fifty years ago, but they are not as suitable as present day solar technology which is quieter, more effective, significantly less hazardous, and just a better all around deal.  I chucked my last Coleman about six years ago.  The one advantage Colemans might have is that they are a significant source of head, as well as light, but we have a fireplace for that.  Solar rocks….

      • 4

        That’s an interesting story, hikermor. Personally, I doubt there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to the lighting issue. If you live in Dallas or Phoenix with the sun beating down on your car in the parking lot to the point you burn your hand on the seat-belt buckle, then, yes, solar energy represents free power. And a lot of it. But if you live where I do in the cloudy, overcast Northeast, where a solar charger will not charge a flashlight battery even after a week or two of setting in the front window, then solar power is something less than thrilling.

        If you are financially strapped, a vegetable-oil lamp with its candle-size flame costs less than a penny per hour to operate. And a single-cell D-cell flashlight also costs less than a penny per hour to operate. Tough to beat. For comparison, the run rate for a propane camping lantern is almost 50 cents an hour.

        It all depends on your circumstances. If you’re toiling in the back yard at midnight, splitting firewood or butchering a cow, then a Petromax lantern fueled by kerosene and outputting 400 watts-worth of light might be your lantern of choice.

    • 8

      Another idea for emergency lighting – I picked up a dozen solar LED sidewalk lights on Amazon for just over $20. They’re serving a purpose to light my walkways each night but, during a power outage, they can be popped off their stakes and brought inside for the evening. We had an outage a couple of months ago and only needed 6 of the lights to create enough ambient lighting in our living area that we didn’t even end up using any flashlights. They pretty much glow all night and you just pop them back onto their stakes the next day to recharge (and, since they’re charging daily, there’s no forgetting to top them off every few weeks/months).  For the price of a typical solar battery charger, I got 12 solar chargers and 24 rechargeable batteries – hard to beat.  I’m surprised it’s not a more common prepper recommendation.

      • 9

        This is a great suggestion! And yes, it isn’t talked about as much as it probably should be. 

        We did a blog post about it before that people should go check out. It has some pictures of how this all works and how bright these little solar lights can really get while on a table inside.