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Sunday, March 18, 2012

How to Light Up Your World, part 1: Oil Lamps

Original Article

using oil lamps after the end of the world
“Light” and “darkness” have been important features since the creation of the world.  The two opposites provide division of our days and help set the rhythm of our body clocks.  In addition to providing us the opportunity to see once the sun has gone down, light has always been important to people as a source of comfort.
We like to have candles to light when a storm knocks out the power.  We want to have a flashlight handy to determine the cause of the thump in the night.  If the electrical grid should fail for any length of time, how would you provide that precious light?
In this series, I want to cover some of the various possibilities you might consider for light sources.  I will focus on one or two per posting, discussing the pros and cons of that source, and list some choices in style or brand.  I’d love to hear your feedback and suggestions too.

Oil Lamps

The oil lamp has been around in one form or another for a LONG time.  One of my favorite passages in the Bible even mentions the wise young ladies who brought extra oil along for their lamps and those who ran out while they waited (Matthew 25) .
An oil lamp can be made at home with found materials-  as simple as a wick of some sort sticking up out of a jar of olive oil or even something fun and unusual.  There are also lots of reputable companies that make durable ones, too.  Lehman’s carries some.  Beyond the old-timey looking and lantern styles, there are some beautiful tabletop versions that look like porcelain or brass lamps even.

Benefits vs. Drawbacks

Some of the pros for choosing oil lamps for a light source include:
1.  you have a choice of oils to use-  kerosene, “lamp oil, and olive oil will all usually burn in the typical oil lamp.   It’s possible to even burn used cooking oil, but it will likely give off the smell of whatever you cooked in it
2.  they can be nearly odorless- kerosene is the exception hereoil lamp
3.  little to no smoke-  this will depend on what type of oil you choose, but they tend to produce less smoke than candles and some other fuels
4.  many can be hung or mounted on the walls to provide something like a sconce;  others are made to be portable
And the cons:
1.  kerosene is a non-renewable fossil fuel that produces an odor many find disagreeable, especially indoors
2.  it’s not advisable to put different kinds of fuel/oil in the same lamp.  Many advise replacing the wick if you have to empty the lamp and fill with a different oil
3.  lamps need occasional cleaning and filling
4.  lamps may contain breakable glass
I’d advise stocking oil and extra wicks.  If you run out of wicks, it is possible to fashion your own.  Note that the addition of salt to the wicking material will help make it stiff and slow down the rate of burn of the wick itself.
Important note:  In the U.S., “paraffin” oil is a liquid candle-like oil.  In the UK, “paraffin” means kerosene.  Be sure you know what you are buying and how it can safely be burned.  Kerosene is less viscous and draws up the wick more easily, often producing a brighter light.  It has a lower “flash point” than paraffin lamp oil.  Sometimes lamps or wicks work better with one fuel vs. the other.  Be sure you read the instructions that come with any lamp you purchase.  NEVER put an unapproved petroleum based oil in a lamp to burn- it may explode!
Got a favorite brand of lamp or oil?  Any tips to share?  Do you scent the oil?  Please share in the comments section below.

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  1. We keep several oil lamps in the house just for those occasions where mother nature decides you don't need electricity. The best ones we found were built back when that was the way of life and can still be bought in antique stores reasonable.

  2. You will have to keep the wicks trimmed properly or they will smoke up the globe. Not really hard to do, just keep the old burnt (black) wick trimmed off.

  3. The common LED garden or walkway lights can be a better choice. I really like the new ones that have an on/off switch. Off allows the batteries to charge without the light turning on. "On" turns on the light when the ambient light falls below a specific level. The spotlight style can be mounted in a simple bracket above a table or on a movable stand to provide the level of light needed to read or write. With very little effort these common affordable lights can be used to charge rechargeable batteries for other purposes like flashlights, night vision devices or cameras, etc. No smell, no fire hazard, no storing fuel, just good clean light.

  4. They also sell a "green" fuel for lamps that I've found burns cleaner than your regular oils.

  5. It is always wonderful to stick to the old fashion way of lighting as this preserves energy sources. This can be done through oil lamps since these are one of the old items that provided the earliest form of illumination.