In any situation, small electricity outage, or large-scale grid-down disaster, a simple homemade alcohol stove and a Wonder Box slow cooker can simplify your life and add the comfort of cooking and warmth.
Alcohol is the one fuel that can be burned indoors without any chimney or any objectionable fumes. The only byproduct is water. [JWR Adds: Keep in mind that for safety, even with an alcohol stove, some ventilation is needed, sine the combustion will consume available oxygen.]
Isopropyl alcohol (70%) is cheap. A couple of quarts can be purchased for about $3.00 at Costco or Sam’s Club.
The small alcohol stove burns about a pint of alcohol in eight hours. It can be used to cook food. It can also bring the temperature of a small room up to reasonable levels without any fumes. In a larger room, you might want to use three of them.
How to make one?
You need a larger can, such as a clean empty steel one gallon paint can; and a smaller can, such as a clean empty quart paint can. These can be purchased clean and unused from a paint store, or a store like Home Depot, for $1.00 to $4.00 each. You also need a roll of cheap (not quality) toilet tissue and your alcohol. The reason you don’t want quality toilet tissue is that it won’t fit into the can. However, you can overcome that problem by just removing some of the tissue.
First, you remove the cardboard tube from the inside of the tissue with a knife. Then scrunch up the roll of tissue and stuff it into the smaller can. Then take the larger can and punch holes all over the side of the can, so that air can flow through it. You can do this with a hammer and nails. You can draw designs on the can with a dry-erase marker and pound holes along the lines, if you wish. If you fill it with water and freeze it before punching the holes in it, you won’t smash it while you are making the holes. If you need it “right now,” you can fill it with ice pieces and snow, tamped down, before pounding, or just find a way to make holes without smashing it.
Fill the smaller can with 1-1/2 cups of alcohol, so that you can see the alcohol at the top of the tissue. Put this can into the larger one, and light the alcohol. You can put a pan on the top of it to cook your food. I would be careful to put it somewhere where nobody will knock it over accidentally while it is cooking.
One pint of alcohol will burn about eight hours. However, if you extinguish the flame, before you can light it again, you have to pour in more alcohol to bring the level up to the top of the toilet tissue again before you light it.
You should not plan to store the alcohol stove with the alcohol in the can, since it could rust.
It isn’t an extremely hot flame. It may take a bit longer to cook your food. We took quite a while one day to cook pancakes for four hungry people using alcohol. But it is easy, cheap and safe. And it requires materials that you probably have on hand.
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The Wonder Box
Ideally, if you have an alcohol stove, you have a Wonder Box insulated slow cooker to go with it.
If you bring your stew to a boil over your alcohol stove and then put it into a Wonder Box and cover it carefully with its lid–six hours later, it will still be so hot that you will have to use hot pads to take it out. It has been cooking all of that time, and saving you fuel.
If the food has been hot and cooking all of that time, it did not need to be refrigerated. So you could cook your stew and eat it hot for lunch, then put it boiling hot, nestled down into the Wonder Box, and take it out still hot for dinner. No refrigerator needed.
The fabric must be 100% cotton to prevent it from melting from the heat of the pan. The pan must be one that has small handles on each side and it must have a lid. A pan with one long handle extending out from under the Wonder Box lid, will lose too much heat through the handle, and it will not work as well.
The Wonder Box is much like two small bean bag chairs, one being the lid for the other. You can get the pattern in a fabric store. The larger one is 24” in diameter and the smaller one about 16”. You make it in sections, like orange sections, just the peeling part, made out of 100% cotton. Denim is a good fabric. Even old jeans stitched together would work. You stitch it together, leaving an 8” hole for turning. Turn it right side out and fill with seven gallons of Styrofoam beads. Make the lid in the same way, using four gallons of beads. Don’t let the static electricity of the beads bother you. Pin your seam, then try nestling a pan down inside to see if you have enough or too many beads. Sew up the seams, and you have a Wonder Box.
The Styrofoam beads can be purchased at stores such as Smith’s grocery stores. They come in a four-foot long tube that holds enough for two Wonder Boxes, for about $15.00.
Nestle a covered pot of boiling food down into the Wonder Box bottom, and carefully cover with the insulating Wonder Box top. It is a good idea to put a layer of aluminum foil between the pan and the Wonder Box just to keep the Wonder Box clean. Let it sit for up to seven hours, and it will cook with no additional heat.
Whatever method you use to bring your food to a rolling boil before you put it into the Wonder Box, it can save valuable fuel in a time of no electricity or other services. * * * *
Variations on The Alcohol Stove:
What if you need an alcohol stove “right now,” and you don’t have clean empty paint cans?
Some people have used #10 cans like the ones that food storage wheat or rice or beans, etc. come in. They have also used a “church key” type can opener to make the holes in these cans, since they are lighter. I would prefer the gallon paint can if possible, because it is heavier and therefore more stable with a pot of boiling food on top of it. Also, it has a lid and a handle for carrying.
You can also use the #1 cans that come with the larger size canned peaches and hold about a quart, for the inside of the stove. The problem with these is that it is harder to extinguish the flame down inside the can, because you don’t have a lid to put on it. This can be overcome, of course. Just don’t singe your arm while doing it.
You could also use something like the “Pirouettes” cookie cans. The problem with these is that you have an extra inch of can. Not a terrible problem.
If you need more room heat, you could use three #303 cans like you get with canned vegetables, and put all three down inside one of those large $5.00 popcorn cans that you get at Christmas. Don’t forget to put the holes in the sides of the can. You would have to take off more toilet tissue from the roll, and you would have to use a sharp knife to slice off about 1/2 inch of the end of the roll of tissue, so that it would not extend past the top of the smaller can. But it can be done. You then have a nice little warming “furnace” with a lid on the top.
When terrible things happen, people need something simple, dependable and comforting. They need something easy to use and fast. After they have had time to adjust, they can get on with more complex tools and equipment. But for that first little while, an alcohol stove is easy, simple, lightweight and comforting, as well as safe, and it won’t make any harmful fumes.