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Can you really heat a room for 15 cents a day worth of tea lights?

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Flowerpot heater materialsThere’s a video making the rounds on social media about a “hack” for home heating that seems like it should be huge news to cheapskates the world over, especially given the hellacious polar vortex that’s covered much of the United States in snow and ice this winter.

In the video, which was actually published in fall of 2012, a British man named Dylan Winter, who runs a YouTube channel devoted largely to boating, demonstrates how he uses simple household materials — a bread tin, two flowerpots of varying sizes and some tea lights — to build a heater that cheaply keeps a small room warm. The video is really popular, with 5,349,262 views as of this writing.

I hail from the arctic tundra known as Minnesota, and, because we have had some record-breaking low temperatures this winter (when don’t we?), I thought it would be as good a time as any to give building my own flowerpot heater a whirl.

In Winter’s instructional video, he says that in a matter of seconds the flowerpot heater begins to “get a nice flow of air going” around his small office before it starts to really “churn out the heat.” I ultimately decided not to turn my own heat off for this experiment, but instead enclosed myself in a 36 square foot bathroom and opened the window to allow the room to adjust to the 5 degrees Fahrenheit outside.

Following Winter’s lead, I first lit four tea lamps inside the bread tin. I then placed the smaller of the two flowerpots centrally over the tin and covered the hole at the top with a piece of foil. Lastly, I placed the larger flowerpot over the other and waited for my convection heater to convect! Supposedly, the magic happens when the gas particles released by the candle flames are channeled through the flowerpot and then rise up toward the colder air. Winter says he uses this system to heat his boat in addition to his office.

Flowerpot heater finished

Field test results: Ineffective

I must say I’m glad I don’t have to depend on this method to heat my home. While the mechanism produced some heat, I would liken it more to a gentle hot breath than a churning ball of fire. I tried fiddling with the flowerpots for a better flow — as per Winter’s suggestion — but it seemed to make no difference. I also shuttered the window to prevent cold air from blowing away any heat that was being produced. I would venture the device produced less heat than just a tin of candles might.

What the experts say

It’s actually not surprising that Winter’s method failed, according to a couple of experts on the science of heating.

“I do not see any reason based on principles of thermodynamics and heat transfer that would cause this ‘heater’ to produce anything beyond the slightest heating effect,” says Sanford Klein, the Bascom Ouweneel professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the director of the Solar Energy Laboratory. “The energy provided for heating can only be due to the energy given off by the tea lights.”

There’s a principle in science called “conservation of energy.” Like matter, energy cannot be created nor destroyed, but only change form (to see an awesome and potentially deadly demonstration of this concept by Walter Lewin, a professor of physics at MIT, check out this video, via Wikimedia Commons). That means you can move the energy produced by the burning of those brave little tea lights around all you want via convection, but the actual amount of energy they release won’t increase. No matter how much we want it to, a flowerpot heater is just not producing enough energy in the aggregate to move the needle on your thermometer much.

“It seems to me improbable that a candle can produce enough heat to warm anything but a small area,” says Aaron Brown, a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver who runs the NASA Space Grant Program there. “The amount of BTUs has to be small (energy cannot be greater than the input).”

So if you’re going to give this a shot, I suggest having a backup plan; I would not rely on this method for survival. That probably goes for a lot of “hacks” flying around the Internet that are flawed, misleading or just plain wrong.

What do you think? Would you ever try something like this to heat a home? Do you have any tips to reduce your heating bills that have actually worked for you?

(Photo: Alissa Fleck)

(GIF: reddit)

{ 10 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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10 Responses to “Can you really heat a room for 15 cents a day worth of tea lights?”

  1. David S says:

    Notice in his video he also mentions that the computer is also giving out heat. That is what really is keeping him warm the 300-800 W heater.

  2. fabclimber says:

    Don’t let your insurance agent find out you are heating your home with candles. That is not considered a safe source of heat for your home.

    Also be sure you blow out any candles you have burning in a room if you leave for an extended period. Yes, they can be safely used, but they also cause some disasters every winter when something unexpectly goes wrong.

  3. Brandon Duncombe says:

    Piggy backing on David’s comment, I’ve known friends to heat rooms with computers and video game systems. The original Xbox 360 is a monster. Hell, it may qualify as a legit heating solution.

  4. paul sanford says:

    In the Northwest a survival kit includes a metal cup and a candle. Heat water over the candle, drink the water, and transfer the heat energy directly. It fights hypothermia.
    Another heating tip: It is easier for the body to stay warm than to get warm. Blood retreats to the central organs leaving the skin feeling chilly. Any device that tricks you into taking off your sweater and hat is counter-productive.

  5. Shirley says:

    An awful lot of your body heat escapes through your head. Silly as it may seem, wear a watch-cap or scarf that covers your ears.

  6. bloodbath says:

    I guess Dylan Winter is a tiny guy who can fit inside the flowerpot OR he’s one of those people who has natural body heat and sweats even if it’s 32 deg inside.

  7. JoeTaxpayer says:

    Let’s say it worked. One candle warming a room. When I visit a friend who is fond of candles and in the evening might have 12 or more lit in her living room, you’d expect that room to be not just warm, but hot. One warms the room, imagine what 12 would do! Nonsense. I had no impulse to try this experiment.

  8. Kristin Wong says:

    I love that his last name is Winter!

  9. Tat2 says:

    Try using a coffee can, a roll of toilet paper and a bottle of rubbing alcohol.
    Put the toilet paper in the can, pour the alcohol in it and light it…
    Keeps u nice and warm until the alcohol totally burns off and the
    toilet paper is still dry and good to use….

  10. @Tat2 Does that really work?

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