Paraffin heaters for heating homes
Oil heaters which burnt paraffin were extremely popular in the past. In fact my grandmother always called the ironmongers / hardware shop the 'oil shop' as oil was its most common sale. There were of course no retail parks of large shops, so people had to go to a range of different shops to buy everything they wanted.
Advantages of oil heaters
Oil heaters had obvious advantages: They were portable, and 'portable heaters' was an alternative name for them. Unlike coal fires and electric fires they didn't need a chimney or an electric socket. Also paraffin oil was relatively cheap.
The disadvantages were less immediately obvious but perhaps more significant, as explained in the next section.
Disadvantages of paraffin heaters
There were major disadvantages of oil heaters which unfortunately few ordinary people really understood.
- They could only supply background heat which, on cold days, was little better than useless. However, men's attitudes to their women-folk left alone in the house during daytime was all too often that they would be all right in the cold because they had a paraffin heater.
- They were a fire risk. They burnt with a naked flame and could easily be knocked over, spilling the burning paraffin over quite a large area. However, this problem tended to be brushed aside on the basis that the womenfolk - it was usually women because a rawing coal fire was lit before the men came home - would be careful.
They didn't have a chimney.So not only did the burning produce a great deal of condensation and bad smell, it used the oxygen in the room making it stuffy. Consequently people felt ill if they stayed for long in the environment of a oil heater.
A personal experience of the emissions from paraffin heaters
In our bathroom we had a paraffin heater which we would light for about 10 minutes before starting to run a bath, and it would stay lit - unvented - until the last bath of the household was finished. How we never succumbed to carbon-monoxide poisoning is a complete mystery to me in retrospect, but we didn't know it was dangerous back then!
Poisonous fumes from paraffin heaters?
Paraffin heaters are designed to emit no poisonous CO (carbon monoxide) but only CO2 (carbon dioxide) and water vapour. Their only hazard if anti-tilt features are present is that in a closed and non-ventilated room the oxygen in the air, needed for breathing, will be used up by combustion of the paraffin. This would normally cause sleepers to wake up, but sedated or intoxicated adults and infants, could then be at risk of smothering.
Oil heaters and smell
As a child my parents took me to visit a very old man who had no modern conveniences. All his lights were gas lamps and his heating was with oil heaters. The smell from the oil heaters permeated all over the house, even in summer.
Oil heaters in greenhouses
Oil heater were the obvious choice to keep the frost out of greenhouses in the depths of winter.
Later models of oil heaters
In the 1950s we had a paraffin heater in the shape of a radiator. At the time, I thought this most luxurious as the homes of ordinary people did not have central heating and our paraffin heater looked as if it was mimicking it.