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Hurricane Lanterns and Oil Lamps


Q: We just went through 8 long days without power, and the “charm” of candlelight soon wore off. What are the best oil lamps? Are they safe? — J.C., New Rochelle

A: The Amish, whose taboo on electricity means they know all about life off the grid, are said to favor classic Dietz Air Pilot hurricane lanterns. Bear in mind that the Amish don’t usually endorse products, so it’s the companies selling those lanterns that are making the claim. However, Dietz lanterns are widely available, inexpensive, simple to use, and come in several styles and colors, if you care about matching your decor. They have large capacity founts (the reservoir that holds the fuel), so they burn for long periods, and you can hang them to distribute more light. Dietz has been a reputable company since 1840. The lanterns are made in China these days, but beware cheap imitations from that country; they may not be safe.

There are three kinds of hurricane lanterns: dead flame, with vents below the burner to draw in air; hot blast and cold blast. The last two — often called tubular lanterns because of the tubes in their design — draw in air from above the globe. Cold blast types burn considerably brighter than hot blast ones. The latter, though, use less oil.

Many companies make reproductions of decorative table lamps, like those you see in Victorian parlors in movies. You can find the real thing — a quick search for “vintage oil lamps” on eBay reveals 4,155 choices as I write, some quite lovely, although “vintage” is a fuzzy term. In any case, beware old models that may have damaged parts, or require hard-to-find wicks. Simple, clear glass lamps from hardware or big box stores work well. Sturdy designs with a heavy base are less likely to be knocked over. Choose models with large founts so you won’t have to refill them often. Clear glass founts allow you to see how much oil is left, and if the wick is long enough to reach the fuel.

As for safety, flame and flammable fuel is a possible hazard, so use sensible precautions: place lit lamps on a solid surface, out of the reach of kids and pets, and away from curtains or anything that may ignite. 

One vitally important point: Use only lamp oil designed for indoor use. Fuels with a lower flash point are very dangerous, and can emit deadly fumes even if they don’t actually burst into flames. Avoid colored or scented oils, which clog the wick. Citronella oils are for outdoor use only.

It’s a good idea to practice using your oil lamps before the next emergency. Fill the reservoir about three quarters full, and allow the wick an hour or so to soak. Remove the glass chimney, raise the wick and light it with a match. The wick should burn evenly across its width. Replace the chimney and turn the wick down to adjust the flame. To extinguish the flame, turn the wick down below the burner, cup your hands and blow down the glass chimney. Remember — that chimney will be hot. Regularly trim the burnt part of the wick, straight across, for brighter light. A plus in cold weather is that oil lamps give off heat as well as light.

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