Winter Storm Informaton

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Stalled... But Safe

Heating and Ventilation

There are several ways to keep warm when you are stalled in a vehicle during a winter storm. The basic one is to STAY WITH THE CAR; eliminating concern about the wind chill factor. Other ways are wrapping up in warm clothing, eating and exercising. Eating makes it possible for the body to produce more heat. That heat can then be captured with the use of warm clothing, sleeping bags, etc.

If additional warmth is needed, there are several possibilities with emergency heating devices. However, they must be used with extreme caution. Spilled fuel, a tipped over heater, and combustibles too close to heaters all present a severe fire danger. Your car is your only protection against the wind and cold, you don't want to lose it to a fire! The interior of most cars contains a lot of plastic which will burn amazingly fast.

Carbon monoxide is also an ever-present danger when you depend on combustion for heat. The danger of asphyxiation is a very important consideration when using these heaters in a very confined space such as the interior of a car.



Sources of emergency heat

  • A lighted candle provides very little heat in the car. Candles may produce up to 75 to 85 BTUs per hour to be used for melting snow to drink.
  • A multi-wick candle is claimed to keep the interior of a car comfortable for 24 hours. This product, which could be made at home, consists of a number of wicks in a paraffin/sawdust mixture poured into a shallow pan. It must be used with extreme care since several flames are burning at a time. The heat produced increases with the number of wicks burning.
  • A can of Sterno will burn for about an hour depending on the size of flame and the size of the can. The open flame requires that extreme care be given to its use.
  • Propane heaters will provide approximately 12,000 BTUs of heat. The open flame makes it a very dangerous heater with extreme risk in a very combustible environment such as a car`s interior. The size of the flame affects the burning time and the heat produced.
  • Catalytic heaters, used properly, are considered to be quite safe except for the carbon monoxide poisoning risk.
  • A roll of toilet paper can be put in a three-pound coffee can with a small amount of ethylene glycol antifreeze for fuel. The toilet paper acts as a wick and the antifreeze burns with a low, clean flame, that produces carbon monoxide!

All heaters that produce heat from combustion produce carbon monoxide, an odorless gas that kills. Carbon monoxide ties up the oxygen carrying capacity of your blood and asphyxiates you; it is a silent killer.

Since these heaters all use oxygen while they operate, always open a window slightly on both sides of the car to prevent asphyxiation and allow for moisture removal. Opening a window on each side of the car allows for fresh air to replace the fouled air from the oxygen-using heater.

Do not sleep with the heater operating. It could asphyxiate you, or tip over and start a fire.

A small, dry chemical fire extinguisher should also be kept with the emergency heater in the car. The extinguisher will be useful if the emergency heater should start a fire and it is caught right away.

Another source of heat is the car's heater. There are several problems with relying on this, however. Leaks in the exhaust system can cause carbon monoxide poisoning if ventilation of the car's interior is not safely managed. The wind can carry exhaust fumes up to the air intake of the heater, causing a build-up of carbon monoxide inside the car. Two other problems associated with using the car's engine and heater are managing the fuel supply and preventing the engine from icing up when it is periodically started, warmed up, and then shut off.

If possible, face the vehicle into the wind. The car and its heater are designed to operate safely in this position. Keep the exhaust clear of snow. If the car cannot be moved to face into the wind, open a window slightly on the upwind side, for ventilation. This will tend to pressurize the interior of the vehicle with clean air and keep exhaust fumes out. An open window on the downwind side may actually draw exhaust fumes into the car, causing a build-up of deadly carbon monoxide.

The fuel capacity of the vehicle may be another problem. The average eight cylinder engine, while running at idle, will consume about one gallon of gasoline per hour, while six and four cylinder engines burn less. It is not likely that you will have more than a day's supply of fuel for continuous running of the engine when you become stranded. For example, some will have been used already in attempts to get the vehicle free.

The coldest weather usually follows a blizzard, so you may want to conserve the fuel available for that time. But you will also be faced with the problem of keeping the engine warm enough that it will start when you do need heat. This leads to the suggestion that the engine should be used intermittently to keep you warm.

The frequent starting of the engine will put an extra hard strain on the battery when it is not at its best. Remember, batteries are weaker in cold temperatures. The intermittent starting and stopping of the engine will also allow time for snow to blow and drift into the engine compartment, melt, wetting the engine's electrical system and then freeze. This may make it virtually impossible to start the engine the next time.

Managing the use of the engine for heat can be very difficult at best. It is best to store the necessary clothing, sleeping bags, and food in order to be prepared for the time when the engine cannot be depended upon for heat. Remember, there are those who successfully enjoy winter camping and fare quite well without a lot of additional heat. However, they are definitely prepared for it. You can survive winter blizzards with adequate preparation and wise use of what you pack ahead of time.

Photo of supplemental heaters.

Supplemental Heaters - Roll of toilet paper saturated with antifreeze (ethylene glycol) in large coffee can, multi-wick candle unit, box of kitchen matches.  Use these items with extreme care.

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