Making Water Snakes for Kerosene Heaters

You know it’s a hillbilly’s house when there are kerosene wicks hanging on the clothesline to dry.

I heat my house with either of two models of kerosene heaters: the Heatmate HMHC-2230; or the Omniheat OR-77. The 77 model puts out half the BTU’s and has a longer run time on a single tank of fuel, so it’s handy on moderately cold days. I can warm the house quickly with the bigger heater, then shut it down and maintain the warmth with the smaller one. Until this year that system has worked very well for me. Gradually my old OR-77 acquired faults and I replaced it with a new one this fall, which immediately worked worse than the old one. I’ve taken the new heater apart at least a dozen times and am getting to know it pretty well. I found several mistakes in assembly, including a gasket that wasn’t properly seated; a wick that was set too low; and a wick holder that had few working teeth and wouldn’t hang onto the wick. Having fixed all those things, I am still having problems. I blame it on water in the kerosene.

The cheapest way to buy kerosene is from the K-1 pump at your local gas station (Speedway stations usually offer kerosene and this year the price is $3.79 a gallon). I’ve never had problems with water in the fuel until this year, so I am guessing that because of the mild winter last year the tank at the station summered over as partly full. Water will condense on the walls of a tank and contaminate the fuel. The big heater seems fine with it, and probably generates enough heat to rid itself of water as it rises in the wick. The small one, the Omniheat, isn’t doing so great. I use a tbsp of HEET water remover (isopropyl alcohol) every time I fill the tank and usually that has been more than enough to keep the stove running. This year, I’m lucky to keep it going for one day before the flame sputters and dies down to unpleasantly fuming levels. Extra alcohol seems to only accelerate the process. When enough water reaches the wick, the flow of fuel to the flame nearly stops.

Cotton clothesline has a synthetic core you’ll need to strip out.

Starting over with new fuel and a new wick did not change the situation, so I’ve been figuring out new solutions to this old problem. Pure K-1 in cans costs from $9 to $20 a gallon in stores such as Walmart and I don’t think heating with kerosene is practical at those prices. A wick for the OR-77 costs $15 so switching out the wick for a new dry one every couple of days won’t be economical either. Generally, when wicks get waterlogged, it’s time for a new one. I salvaged one from the old stove, bought another, and saved the new one that came with the stove. They’ve barely been used and I’m not throwing them out. I can hang them on the clothesline out back for a few sunny days and they work as well as when they came out of the package.

I’ve also experimented with carefully drying the wicks in an electric oven at 205 degrees F and that works too, but it does stink up the house a little and I won’t guarantee that it’s entirely safe. I kept the oven door slightly open to vent the vapors.

I’m going to actually warn anyone away from doing this. I got away with it without blowing my house up with a fuel air explosion, but what this does is create a little cloud of kerosene steam in your kitchen. I’m not sure how much it takes to set it off but a fuel air explosion is one of the worst, like the grain dust explosions in granaries that take out entire buildings. I won’t try this again.

Seems like the clothesline method works well enough, the water evaporates long before the kerosene does. This is a small success because I can recycle the wicks, but it doesn’t take the water out of the fuel.

Four watersnakes done, ready to slip into my storage tanks.

I had a glimmer of an idea of maybe putting something made from cotton in the fuel tank to absorb the water, because clearly the cotton part of the wick was doing a fine job of water collection. Online I verified that this is an approved tactic! but is used more often in large fuel tanks. A “water worm” is a cloth bag filled with an absorbent chemical. Dropped into the tank, it falls to the bottom, where the water pools because it’s heavier than the fuel. Now and then you switch out the water worm for a new one. I’m not sure what chemical goes into the bag but I would guess it’s silica gel.

I’m trying something simpler in my storage tanks and stoves. I had a roll of cotton-blend clothesline I wasn’t using, so I cut some six foot lengths and stripped out the poly core, which left me with 100 percent cotton cloth tubes. I braided three of these together and wound up with a water snake about a yard long that fits easily into my kerosene tanks. I plan to make a different type for the stoves but put one of the braided worms in them just for the experiment. In the heaters, the wicks sit in wells that connect to the fuel tank through an open slot in the side of the well. The water snake goes in the tank outside of the well, so if it collects water like the wick obviously does, the water stays in the snake. Seems like this can only help. All my storage tanks now have bellies full of water snake, so the snakes are cleaning up the fuel before it even gets into the heaters.

The other thing I’m trying is a water-removing gizmo called Mr. Funnel, which I got a good deal on through Amazon. This filters out dirt as well as water, so I can double up on fuel treatment. One way or another, I have to keep my heaters going. Outside the winter’s first snow is falling, and the forecast says this next week will be the coldest yet this season. It’s not a time for heaters that only halfway work.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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