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Comparing kerosene lamps.

So many choices ... Is there really a difference?

Our family lives on 13 acres in southeastern Indiana.

We live a pretty simple lifestyle. When we moved here the electric was in such a sorry state that an electrician friend told us the best thing we could do was cut the wires coming from the pole and start over. We wanted to get off of the grid anyway, so that is pretty much what we did. Obviously one of the first challenges was light. Two years later I don't know if I can tell you what works best, but I can definitely tell you what we have found works for us.

There are many different styles of non-electric lights but for our purposes I will divide them into three basic categories: flat wicks, mantle lamps (Aladdin) and pressurized lamps. We found they all have their place.

Flat wick lamps are the simplest in both design and operation. These lamps are also the easiest to find. You can pick up a decent flat wick lamp at almost any hardware or discount store for under $20. They are relatively safe and they give a yellowish light that is bright enough to do most chores in the house. They light quickly and most can be carried from room to room. Almost all flat wick lamps need modern lamp oil to burn the best. This is not to say they won't burn with kerosene, they just don't burn as efficiently. The reason for this is that they do not produce enough heat to properly ignite the kerosene. This is one reason they smoke and produce fumes when burning kerosene. An exception to this rule is the round wick lamps such as the old Rayo. These lamps have a flat wick but it is much wider than a standard flat wick and is formed by the burner into a circle. These lamps produce a light that is easily twice as bright as its flat wick cousin and generate enough heat to avoid the smoking and fumes. There is a French company that makes a similar lamp but the one we have has never worked right and it isn't even as bright as the $12.00 flat wick lamp we got at Wal-Mart. A real Rayo is a treasure. Rayo lamps are used in many Amish communities and I have seen them go for well over $100 at Amish sales. These lamps are no longer manufactured.

Lehman's sells a flat wick, hanging lamp they call a cottage lamp. It has a reflector and heat shield. This lamp is also available as a wall lamp with reflector. It is one of the brightest flat wick lamps I have seen. We have one hanging in the bathroom and two of the wall lamps in our bedroom; they are bright enough for reading. The lamp is made in Eastern Europe and is very affordable at under $30.

Aladdin lamps have a round flat wick much like the Rayo but they also have a flame spreader on top of this, and a mantle. The wick is lit and the flame spreader directs the flame to the mantle, the mantle glows white and produces a light about as bright as a 60 watt light bulb. A shade is needed to cut down on glare. These lamps burn kerosene as they get very hot, so much in fact that they can make a house very uncomfortable in the August heat. The main drawback we have found is that you have to turn them up very slowly or the mantle will char. This is because the mantle gets hotter after it burns for a while. You can forget lighting an Aladdin when you come in the door and going about your business -- you will fry the mantle. The mantle gets a black spot on it that, if not corrected, will grow until the whole mantle is covered in soot and ruined. Even if corrected, the mantle will probably be damaged and its life will be dramatically shortened. Mantles cost about $4 to $6 each and are somewhat difficult to find. Even with all of these drawbacks we still use Aladdins. They produce a bright, pleasant light and help warm things up on a cold evening. A very nice glass Aladdin with a white pleated shade will cost about $100. Lehman's (PO Box 41, Kidron, OH 44636, 330/857-1330) carries a nice selection, but you can save a little by shopping around.

The brightest lamp we have used is a pressurized gas lamp. The one we have is a Leacock but it is identical to the lamps made by Coleman. These lamps have a burner with a generator and two mantles just like a Coleman gas lantern. They burn naphtha (white gas). A handpump is used to pump air into the fuel tank and this gas/air mixture goes through a generator and the mantles are lit. The mantles glow a brilliant white. The light is equivalent to a 120-watt light bulb. These lamps make a "hissing" sound as they burn and give off a fair amount of heat. Like the Aladdin, these lamps need a shade to reduce glare. Pressurized lamps can be dangerous due to the nature of fuel under pressure and, like all lamps, should be kept out of any area where they could be knocked over. We use this lamp in the kitchen. These lamps are the brightest and most expensive of those I have listed. A lamp with shade and pump will run close to $300.

I would also like to comment on lanterns. The letter that sparked my interest referred to kerosene lanterns. We have a Dietz lantern. While it is the biggest they make, I have found that it is not bright enough for my barn chores. Our barn is a very large tobacco barn that is all open. The light from this lantern just gets lost in all that space. I suppose it would work much better if the barn was smaller and the walls were painted white to reflect the light. Pressurized gas lanterns work much better for me.

Lastly, no matter what kind of lamp you decide on, get a clear glass fuel reservoir. Brass is pretty but it gets to be a real pain guessing how much fuel you have.

As you can see, we have spent quite a bit on lamps. An Amish friend has joked that we have enough lamps for three families. Hindsight is 20/20, but like so many things on a homestead, you learn from your mistakes. If I had it all to do over again I would probably just buy a pressurized lamp and a few good flat wick lamps -- all with glass fuel reservoirs. For the barn, I would go with kerosene lanterns and cover smaller spaces with a good coat of bright white paint.

I hope this helps in making a choice in non-electric lighting.

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Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:May 1, 2000
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